It’s Well Worth Reading Beyond the Mayor’s Headlines

The Mayor of London published his draft Infrastructure Plan today, which projects London forward to 2050, and considers a context for London in which 11 million people live in the City.  The document itself, together with the accompanying presentation, is easy to read, thought provoking, and in many areas challenging.  

The Mayor launched the draft Plan at Barking Riverside, a fitting location for the type of development necessary to keep check on London’s spiralling demands on housing, particularly from the quiet middle; the aspiring home owner that can’t afford to spend £1m+ on a family property, and young professionals in search of decent rental accommodation.  

The headlines are a Tory General Electioneer’s dream: investment in roads, rail, tube, employment growth and a commitment to maintain London at the top of the international tree for competitiveness, whilst leaving the Green Belt unscathed, at least until 2025, whilst delivering 400,000 homes on brownfield land.   

However,  it’s well worth looking under the skin of the announcements, and the draft Plan itself.  For example, the Mayor claims that it is not feasible to adopt an ‘Abercrombie-style’ approach to planned growth, suggesting that “you have to go with the grain of how people live their lives”.  For those that don’t know Abercrombie, he wanted to disperse growth to outlying settlements, to try and share the wealth and opportunity inherent in London.  There’s no need to get into the detail of that – that’s a whole new blog entry – but it is worth considering the implications of the Mayor’s statement.  With no strategy to mitigate the relentless demand on London, is it really feasible to cater for the Capital’s housing requirements on brownfield land alone?

Notwithstanding the Mayor’s announcements, I don’t believe there’s anyone at City Hall – especially the Mayor – that really believes the Green Belt will survive unscathed – because the draft Plan pretty much says so.  There’s some very interesting maps that imply growth spreading out, like a spider’s web, to a variety of towns and conurbations well beyond London, which has a great big whiff of a latter-day Abercrombie.  Even if London doesn’t touch its Green Belt, the Mayor is effectively asking others to.  Equally, whilst the draft Plan does infer that the Green Belt in London will not be touched before 2025, the caveat is that the next comprehensive review of the London Plan will look afresh.  That’s scheduled for 2016, so safely after the General Election. 

There’s much to like about the document in taking a forward thinking approach to London’s aspirations and pressure points, but I can’t help but feeling that this is a further example of planning in isolation.  I love London, and am proud of its success, and I want it to stay the no.1 City in the World.  But how can the City be planned without thinking about either a south-east or national context?  How can infrastructure be planned if the only regard is the destination – London – and not the source? I really hope people read the draft Plan and make comment, but I also hope that the TCPA in particular put pressure on Government to think about the UK in 2050, and not simply London.

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We Don’t Need any More Ministers, Just Better Functioning Ones

The RIBA have issued a very worthy document entitled Building a Better Britain: A Vision for the Next Government.

Unlike one of their star members (see my last entry) RIBA endorse the need to review the Green Belt in order to aid housing delivery. They also advocate the introduction of a national framework strategy (something I have previously called for), a minister for architecture – and a national architecture policy – and amongst other things, further devolved power to local level to encourage communities to take the burden for delivering growth and infrastructure.

I like the RIBA. They have an opinion, and they express it – often in more frank and timely fashion than the RTPI do. I also don’t blame them for making a push for architecture at a national level. They are there to protect and promote their members after all. However, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to call for a minster for architecture. It would be a bit like the CIPHE (look it up) calling for a minster for plumbing. Not exactly a priority.

But they are right to call for a national framework. Wales have one, so why doesn’t England? Housing is not an isolated land use: it goes where the jobs are – or rather, people follow the jobs, and housing has to try and keep up. There’s not enough jobs in the north. There’s plenty of jobs in the south. You can buy a house in the north for not a lot of money. You need loads of money to buy anything in the south. It’s going to take years to reverse that trend, and it does require a national mandate.

However, I don’t think the RIBA is correct in assuming that local authorities will create patchwork of local policies that will feed into a national framework. Localism encourages people to look after themselves and their closest stakeholders. The duty to cooperate is a giant size failure of the NPPF. Council x is not communicating with council y, let alone on a sub-regional or regional basis. I am not suggesting that we need to wind the clock back ten years to regional assemblies, but we do need some form of mechanism to capture the benefits of growth and infrastructure across the country. Take HS2: if it does go ahead, it will have been an isolated decision from where homes and communities are to be located. A national plan (or framework) could have aligned jobs, homes and infrastructure. As it stands, it simply looks as though there will be parkway stations that will allow people to commute further to work in London.

The RIBA’s document is pitched square and centre at the next Government, and that is probably well advised. We have a Secretary of State that is unlikely to make a decision on anything this side of the General Election that leads to accusations in Tory heartlands of ‘concreting over the countryside’. The best planning minister we have had for generations has been quietly shipped off to straddle the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills and Education.

So what I would advocate is the next Secretary of State (of whichever party) making some quick and decisive decisions. Firstly, establish a working party to introduce a national framework by the end of the five year Government which would look at planning, infrastructure, taxation and other associated issues holistically. Secondly (and one for the lawyers), seek to align local elections to the same five year cycle so that all political decisions are condensed to the same window. Thirdly, abolish the right to Secretary of State decisions. There is no need for them. Let planning decisions be made on planning grounds. If they are wrong, the Courts will soon put them right. However, they are unlikely to have the whiff of party politics about them, and the relevant Secretary of State can’t be accused of intervention.

Such measures would provide real leadership, and would negate the need for further ministers to take responsibility, be that for architecture or anything else.

Ian

P.S. Before anyone says ‘too difficult’, think back to 1997. Four days after Labour won the General Election, Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England independence from political control. Just saying…

Look into my eyes, not around the eyes…

Richard Rogers is undoubtedly a fantastic architect, but I really don’t think his sentiments on greenfield sites is going to help the housing debate.

Rogers’ premis is that by building new towns/ eco towns/ garden villages (simply delete the terms that are not en vogue at present) we are damaging the vitality of our cities, and turning our back on the brownfield opportunity sites that are waiting to be regenerated.

I happen to think that is a load of rubbish. Let’s be frank, step one in solving the country’s housing crisis is to solve London’s housing crisis. Does anyone living and or working in London really believe that we are not already exploiting the brownfield opportunities that exist? Is Kings Cross or Battersea Power Station affected by plans for greenfield release proposals in Zone 6 locations? The reality is that we need both, but as I have said before, the redevelopment of brownfield sites tidies up under-utilised parts of the City, and makes for a better urban ladscae, but does precious little to alleviate price inflation or the sense that Londoners are being pushed out of the Capital. Greenfoeld locations on the fringe of London represents the best possible way in which to deliver relatively affordable housing (I say this against a backdrop of the average property in London having now hit the £500,000 mark). Not everyone wants to live in a micro-flat in the middle of the City.

And by the way, Stratford is only happening because we won the Olympics. If it wasn’t for that, we’d still be waiting for the land to be assembled, and there lies one of the problems of large-scale brownfield redevelopment; it takes two generations for anything to materialise.

The 2014/15 Guide to rounding up, exaggerations, and outright porkies…

It’s getting close to the time of year when Planning magazine runs its survey of planning consultancies. It’s the annual opportunity for all those multi-disciplinary environmental consultancies and agencies that have three planners left amongst them to pull the wool over the eyes of the editor and state with absolute confidence that they employ 300 planners, and expect to double their in-take for the next twelve months.

I really should rise above this farce, but the competitor in me struggles to do so. We’ve genuinely grown exponentially over the last four or five years. We’ve gone from nine people to over 50, and show no signs of slowing up. However, if you believe Planning, we’re the joint 423rd ‘biggest’ consultancy, sharing that honour with G-Plan (I think they’re a Guernsey based outfit, but I can’t be certain).

You can’t really blame some of the so-called big boys for gilding the lily. They’ve had a bad recession. They have shareholders to report to.

But it paints a completely disproportionate image of where the profession is, and where it’s going. Professionals are not working for, or joining, corporates in their droves. They are joining the likes of Iceni, setting up on their own, working across different platforms. Add up the number of planners that the companies responding to this year’s survey purport to employ; now compare that with the number of planners registered to the RTPI. Do the numbers tally? I think not. So how can a graduate, prospective candidate, local authority or client gain any sense of the fettle in which the company is in? How can a university looking at its intake for planning courses reconcile what he or she is seeing at the end of a four year course with what Planning is citing to be the case?

I don’t expect Planning magazine to be pushing the boundaries of Watergate, but a bit of investigative journalism wouldn’t go a miss. What do the recruitment consultants say about the companies issuing their untested information? Does it correlate with what candidates – and their own eyes – are telling them? What do local authorities and developers say about the consultants they are working with? Or solicitors? Or barristers? Are any of these groups really seeing the evidence of what the survey claims to be fact?

We will give honest answers again, so turn to page two of the survey to see where we feature…

Who will get their just deserts?…

My youngest son turned four on Monday. One of my friends, who’s a local authority planner, and shan’t be named, gave him a Biff, Chip and Kipper book entitled ‘Save Pudding Wood’. Basically, it recounts a nirvana where deer run free, wild flowers grow, and children frolic serenely without a care in the world. Then an anonymous bunch (we only ever see a heavy-set bald man and a woman on mobile phone at the Town Hall) decide they are going to build homes on Pudding Wood. The residents get together, make a few placards, hold a meeting in the village hall, and march on the Civic Centre.  Everything ends happily ever after, as the plans for development are ditched, and the community goes back about its business.  The end.

Or is it?  I’m now busily contemplating writing up a follow up. It will be a two-part thriller. Part one will deal with the fact that for political reasons, the Council in question has felt compelled to freeze council tax for the fifth year running, and so as a consequence, has got to make cost savings elsewhere. They’ve ditched the planning department, and have got EasyPlanning providing a basic service from a remote office in Telford. Nobody can remember whether the council has a parks and open space department, but the outsourced estates department (run from a building control off-shoot in Hull) has decided to sell Pudding Wood for ‘best value’ – i.e. as much money as they can get regardless of the social or environmental logic. (I’m thinking 1984 meets London Fields).

Part two is where it really gets tasty. A developer agrees to buy the site, and sets about due diligence. It transpires that Pudding Wood is actually a contaminated site, with evidence of a botched council landfill dating back from the 1960s. There’s poisonous ponds and contamination, and people really shouldn’t be anywhere near the place (it’s only because the council couldn’t afford to put up ‘keep out’ signs, and maintain the fence that the kids have been using it anyway). It then transpires that the developer never had any intention of building on the Wood itself, rather just the footprint of a former employment site. But of course, by this stage, The National trust have taken out a one page advert in the Times accusing the developer of building over the entirety of England’s green and pleasant land.  The Council has suggested waiting three years before submitting an application due to the local election cycle, which sees a third of the council up for re-election for all but every fourth year. Unfortunately, the fourth year coincides with the General Election, so that’s no good either. Whilst contemplating their next move, a group of kids get into trouble in one of the ponds, and the landowner is put on a corporate manslaughter charge. The problem is, the deal hasn’t completed, and so the developer advises that the council is still the owner.  As bad turns to worse, no one in Telford or Hull knows where the land registry details are. They think they got ‘microfiched’ to Milton Keynes, but the chap that did it got laid off, and he was only on a temporary contract anyway. (Irvine Welsh is going to be my inspiration for this bit).

The epilogue to the book sees Pudding Wood ten years on. The original developer has gone bust due to all the uncertainty and delay.  The Duchess of Cheesebury has bought the site, and turned the entire Wood into an eco-hamlet. The locals are delighted as despite original objections, their properties have doubled in value, and they get preferential rates in the local Duchy farm shop. The Chief Executive of the council (a job share with seven other local authorities) has received accolades for his successful interview in The Localist as part of their long-running ‘How we did it’ news item. The council quietly settled their corporate manslaughter case out of court, helped by the privatisation of the Land Registry, which resulted in an IT botch and the loss of all property details for the south east of England. (There’ll be high notes of Ben Elton running through these pages).

I’m taking advanced orders if anyone is interested.

Ian

Many thanks to Neil Crowther of Arun District Council who was my inspiration for this blog entry.

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