The last year seems to have been characterised by an endless critical onslaught towards town planners. David Cameron proudly told the Cabinet he was going to get Dyno Rod to unblock the planning system. George Osborne described planners as a chronic obstacle to growth.
Luckily, the situation here in the North East is different. There will (and should) be robust discussions and disagreements around particular sites but in general terms, our planners need to be applauded and congratulated for their recent bold decisions aimed at stimulating economic growth in tough times.
9 months ago, Middlesbrough planners advised their Planning Committee to back 4 unallocated greenfield housing schemes totalling over 1000 units. The aim being to both address 10 years of housing under provision and to release funds for regeneration and community facilities. The Council members bravely agreed despite fierce and hostile opposition from residents fearing the effects of the new housing in their local area. The issue then was the need to persuade the unelected Leeds-based Highways Agency to sign off the decisions of the elected Councillors. It took 9 months – so much for localism. Definitely felt more like centralism for those needing a house and those waiting to build. The good news is that the permissions can finally be issued this month.
This is but one of a spate of bold and visionary local planning decisions aimed squarely at creating jobs and giving hope to our collapsing construction sector. Let’s remember that in recent months we have lost a number of North East building companies, including the superb Dorin and Whelan. In Newcastle/Gateshead ambitious plans to develop over 31,000 family homes and deliver 20,000 jobs by 2030 have been published. Whilst it remains to be seen whether both Councils stick rigidly to the strategy in light of mobilised opposition, the ambition is clear and they should be applauded. Indeed the empirical technical evidence points to the need being much higher but that’s a debate for the Public Examination!
Planning permission was granted in Northumberland, for 250 houses at Northgate, Morpeth, despite the Local Plan still being under review. This much needed consent will help to address a shortfall of family homes and also help fund a new mental health unit and a facility for autism patients. Again the planning committee backed the planning officer’s advice. In Stockton the planners have published a revision to their planning strategy recognising the need to allocate more sites in better market locations in order to build sufficient houses for a growing population. This is despite the original Local Plan having only been adopted in March 2010. They also bravely released land recently for 850 houses at Eaglescliffe.
Such fleet-footed responsiveness to market change and community needs rarely gets the credit it deserves. In Hartlepool a draft policy aim to build more executive housing in order to attract more entrepreneurs into the borough was then backed up with a decision to grant permission for 200 homes at Wynyard Park. That development will release £1.2m of private sector money to help fund regeneration and affordable housing in central Hartlepool. Proper integrated spatial planning. Negotiations are now underway for much more development at Wynyard Park, with new housing development being able to fund the infrastructure to open up new land for economic development creating thousands of new jobs.
In South Tyneside, reflective of market conditions, planners are carrying forward a positive approach towards the delivery of new employment and housing development. In particular, new greenfield sites for jobs and investment are being identified in locations which reflect market demand. A review of the recent Core Strategy is already underway. Across the river, North Tyneside planners have bravely tried to identify and bring forward sites at Monkseaton, Whitehouse Farm and Holystone despite a difficult local political leadership with a Tory Mayor but Labour-led Council. The ambition for growth from the planning officers is clear. The political backing has been sadly lacking.
So why have we seen such a positive response from our Planners? Firstly it’s because the effects of the recession have been greatest here and according to Experian, our prospects for recovery are also the weakest. Necessity is always the mother of invention.
Secondly and importantly, the need to protect our fragile construction industry is now widely acknowledged. The sector provides 7.2% of all jobs in the region but its contribution to economic output has fallen by 23.4% since 2007. Without more planning permissions we have nothing to build. The slowdown is alarming and unyielding.
Thirdly, recent research has clearly shown that successful cites grow, they don’t stagnate. In the last 10 years, Newcastle has grown its population by only 0.3% compared to 1.2% in Bristol and 1.9% in Swindon. It has grown its urban area by 0.03% compared to 1.7% in Rotterdam, 1.5% in Marseille and 1.1% in Munich. Whilst the growth of Newcastle has been held back by a tight green belt and restrictive planning policies its competitors have grown 15-20 times as fast. The Council’s ambition to address this is much needed and long overdue.
Of course, in some areas of the North East pre-recession attitudes are proving harder to shift. Areas where developers feel like every application is like a battle to create the jobs and investment which the economy needs. As always, developers will gravitate to where they feel investment is most welcomed and this will undoubtedly be a feature of 2013.
Finally, and luckily, we have enough land resource in the region to develop more land without compromising its environmental quality – so long as it is in the right locations. 91% of our region is currently “non-urban”. No developer, let alone planner wants a free-for-all, but its great to see our planners doing what they can to release sustainable, suitable and available sites for jobs, and investment and economic growth. Now is the time for recognising the role of the region’s planners in trying to stimulate growth despite often vitriolic and personal attacks. Whilst space prevents me mentioning all our planning departments by name, one thing seems clear – joining the anti-planner bandwagon will do little to support recovery and progress. Recognition and support will be more effective.