From Brexit to Devolution

  • So, Brexit? Whichever way you voted, there is no doubt that we are in a new world order. Whether that is a bigger or smaller one, safer or more fragile, only time will tell. But what is certain is that if we as a nation are to stand on our own two feet, we need to have a plan, and we need to get on with it.

    Quite understandably, what has largely been overlooked in the past week or so is the recent publication by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) of ‘Blueprint for a Great North Plan’; which as the name suggests, outlines ideas on how to make the most of devolved power in the North of England The report makes a number of recommendations, chief amongst them being the following:

  • It should be large-scale and long-term;
  • It shouldn’t be a statutory document, but it should have enough traction to secure buy-in from decision makers;
  • It should be ambitious, and look to at least 2050 (so that’s two long-term references in one series of recommendations);
  • It should be supported by clear, concrete steps over both the short and medium term;
  • It should be sufficiently dynamic to ride above short term changes at the national and local political level, and it should be collaborative;
  • It should be a document that secures ownership from a variety of stakeholders, and a document that people return to in a variety of different fields;
  • It must be inclusive, and speak for the differing, but complementary parts of the Northern Region, be it city dwellers or country workers; and
  • It should be driven by the relative importance of different places and different objectives, and not fall into the ‘political correctness’ trap of giving equal air time to all.

    Those of you that have read my blog before will know that Iceni called for the production of a National Plan prior to the last General Election. We did that in full knowledge of the fact that the Conservative Party has no appetite for even loosely stitched strategic planning, and of course, there is a tendency to wonder whether there is any value in making such suggestions when the status quo looks to play out regardless for the lifetime of a Parliamentary programme.

    Well, the status quo has well and truly changed. We presently have no established economic plan, and no timetable for our departure from Europe. We have a lame-duck Prime Minister, in-fighting within the Conservative Party, open revolt amongst the principal opposition party, fresh calls for Scottish independence, nervousness over the future of Northern Ireland, and perhaps most surprisingly, deep divisions between Londoners and its immediate south-eastern, western, and East Anglian neighbours. There is diminishing prospects of delivering any of the major infrastructure decisions this country needs for the next couple of years (minimum), be that airport expansion, the choice and location of energy projects, or a decision on the Lower Thames Crossing. Instead, we will spend our time speculating on when to trigger Article 50 and how best to avoid a heavy hand from our erstwhile European partners who face a backlash through the French and German elections if they are seen to treat the UK too meekly in our divorce proceedings.

    Part of Government clearly needs to focus on how we entangle ourselves from Europe. The jingoism of the past couple of months has already died away, and the sombre faces of even the Brexit heavyweights demonstrate how important it is to knuckle down, and to get the best outcome for the country. But we also need to work out how to bridge the deep divides that clearly exist across the UK.

    I fully concur with the blueprint for the North laid down by the IPPR and the RTPI; my only beef is that it doesn’t go far enough. We need a plan for the country as a whole. Can it be the case that Londoners have more in common with people from Dumfries than Reigate? Do we really mean we only want foreigners to work in our hospitals and universities, and if so, do we expect people from Hartlepool and Powys to come to London to clean our toilets, empty our bins and serve us our coffee? Or do we have a plan to keep them in full, worthwhile employment without migration (as opposed to immigration). How do we promote the virtues of large swathes of the country in a post-industrial landscape when we rely on a foot-loose foreign car industry to keep people busy, and where the immediate market place has just become less accessible to them? Is the height of our ambition to see people working in call centres on remediated steel production plants? Why put a call centre in the UK at all? Ireland speak English and are both in Europe and land-tied to the UK.

    To my mind, in order to have a Northern Plan, one needs a National Plan. The leaders of the North would communicate with the leaders of the South West, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the South East, Midlands, East Anglia, Wales and Greater London. We would work out what it means to be British. We would start to build bridges, and not just of the Lower Thames Crossing variety. We would deliver a blueprint for short, medium and long term action and goals across the Country.

    The blueprint for the North is a response to those promoting the virtues of a Northern Powerhouse, and the issues and opportunities that are presently emerging. The recommendations could just as equally work for a National Plan. My frustration lies in the lack of vision and ambition for the Country as a whole – not those promoting the virtues of the North. I sincerely hope that whoever becomes the next Prime Minister, and equally the Leader of the Opposition, will start to engage in these issues before the whiff of revolution that hangs in the air is replaced by stale despondency. As the last week has proven, change can happen, and quickly. Why not so with a National Plan?

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Why the devolution of business rates might not be brilliant news for housing delivery…

The Queen’s Speech contained details of the Government’s intention to devolve the full £26bn of local business rates income to councils, and on the face of it, this is a good thing.  Authorities with directly elected mayors will be able to use the revenue to fund infrastructure projects, and there’s the potential for local authorities to also plan more proactively for new forms of employment space.  It might even encourage some authorities to impose Article 4 directions to protect the existing stock of offices that continue to be viable, but under pressure to be released for residential conversions.

However, there could be a sting in the tail.  Cash-strapped authorities could face the dilemma of wanting to see under-utilised employment sites redeveloped for residential, but also looking to preserve their existing income stream.  And of course, business rates do not simply apply to the B class employment generating uses; a potentially fertile stock of future housing is locked up in 1980s retail parks that are reaching the end of their shelf life.  They are often situated in excellent locations for residential redevelopment, close to existing residential neighbourhoods and public transport, without carrying the policy stigma of ‘loss of employment’ associated with their B Class cousins higher up the employment hierarchy (which isn’t to be endorsed, but is a fact of life south of Peterborough).

Developers will need to be alive to the practical implications of this issue, and where possible, seek to make provision for the retention of some form of employment use when promoting redevelopment.  Whilst the retention of business rates is not in isolation a planning issue, it could nevertheless influence the thinking of decision makers when considering residential proposals on former ‘employment’ sites.