Philip Barnes – Blog


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NLP: 20 YEARS IN NEWCASTLE

We recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of our Newcastle office opening with around 250 clients and friends. Sarah Green, Regional Director of the CBI kindly said some nice words about the business.

It then fell to me to express the appropriate thanks and reflect on 20 years of NLP helping to deliver development, regeneration and jobs in the North East.

As I thought about what to say one thing that really struck me was the laughs we have had along the way. Coming from Teesside and having previously worked in Glasgow, Manchester and the East Midlands I can honestly confirm the Geordie sense of humour is definitely not a myth. In my view it actually helps to drive business in the region. It’s so much easier to get stuff done with a smile on your face rather than the egos and posturing sometimes seen in other regions.

My other key reflection was the amazing clients I have worked for.

Undoubtedly the best was Chas Chandler. A giant of a man in every respect, he provided dozens of great memories. Our second ‘briefing’ meeting with him ended at 6am and enabled me to bring the milk in as I got home. Unfortunately for some unknown reason I dropped one of the bottles.

He also delivered the most delicious put down I have ever received. Our role was to help him build a series of music arenas across the UK so we diligently did some research on best practice examples in the US. After proudly describing in detail the acoustic performance of the Philadelphia Arena Chas simply said, “It’s OK Phil, I played there twice with The Animals”. Ouch.

Another great client was Jim Cookson of European Land. He was the man who came up with the idea for Newcastle Great Park. Unfortunately, as with Chas, he didn’t live to see his dreams fulfilled. For everyone who worries about a lack of ambition, Jim probably had your share.

During the early 90s his strategy was to send a team of us to virtually every city in the UK to identify where, how and why a major city expansion should take place. Thirty years on at least five of his ideas are being built.

He was a true visionary and like many developers he was a man very concerned about his image-introducing me to the concept of the ‘council car’. We used to go to meetings with council officers and members and I was always impressed that such a successful guy drove a humble Mondeo. Only later when I saw him turn up to meet his private sector pals in a spanking Bentley did I understand the game.

One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to see different cities and regions. Although one of my guys wasn’t saying that at Aberdeen airport a few years ago when immediately after take off he noticed that a plane engine was on fire. A croaky captain announced there was a technical fault as flames lapped at the window. Too right there was.

Nor was I too chuffed to be apprehended and grilled for an hour when my site visit in Fife strayed too close to an MOD base. Even more embarrassingly the client was The Scottish Office who were obviously nonplussed about having to confirm to MOD my role and lack of connections to Al Qaeda.

But overall, like any business activity, it’s all about the people. The ones we work with and for. Nearly always fun, stimulating and challenging. I really hope I will still be dabbling about in planning and development for another 20 years.


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EUREKA MOMENT ON LOCALISM

In the slow moving world of town planning you don’t often get a EUREKA moment but last Thursdays report on Localism in The Guardian was certainly one of them. At long last we got some accurate national media reporting of what is actually happening out there in the world of Localism. Namely that planning decisions are often being dominated by wealthier homeowners, aged over 60, usually men and often with an anti- young, anti- housing agenda.

The basis for the article is a report published by the Intergenerational Foundation (IF) entitled, “How the Localism Act Hands Power to Older Generations”. I.F. is a think tank set up to promote fairness between generations and follows similar principles to the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations set up in Stuttgart in 1997.

Their Localism report has a subtitle – “Your Village, Keeping Young People Locked Out” and concludes that younger people who may need housing are excluded from local decision making whilst those who do have influence are often hard wired into opposing new housing. The research looked at local authority, Parish and Town Councils across the country and identified some interesting findings:

1. The average age of Councillors is 60 compared to 46 in the rest of society
2. 32% of society is under 35 compared to 5% of Councillors. Only 1% of Councillors are under 25.
3. In the last 12 years the average of Councillors has risen by 4 years. (50% increase in Councillors over 65)
4. Councillor’s homes are 18% higher value than their electorate’s houses
5. The transfer of power to older people via Localism is adversely affecting the supply of housing for younger people
6. Only 8% of people aged 25-34 have objected to housing compared to 25% aged 55-64.

Some of the most significant conclusions are:

“real danger of local democratic institutions becoming a means for members of the older generation to strike down attempts to increase the supply of housing in order to defend the value of the properties they already have the privilege of owning”

“flawed assumption that decisions taken at the local level are inherently more democratic than those taken centrally”

“clear democratic deficit in in the failure of many local councils to represent young people”

The report identifies some clear barriers to attracting younger Councillors, including, inter alia, residency requirements, lack of time and evidence that young people are more likely to be turned off by the confrontational style of local politics. And, crucially, subconscious voter preferences. After all only 10% of 18 -25 year olds vote in local elections compared to 85% of the over 65s.

For us planners working hard to deliver housing right now the report provides no new information. Localism is making our job harder. Whether it is the constant stream of vexatious and time consuming Freedom of Information requests or the personal and vitriolic insults now routinely handed out by objectors. The internet makes it far easier to dig for mud to throw. For my part I am promoting a new mixed use scheme including a new sports centre in my own town. So far my house and car have been attacked with eggs twice.

We aren’t whinging here – it’s in our DNA as planners to recognise that planning is a confrontational process. We recognise this and our training teaches us that harms to private interests (flowing from new development) can sometimes be justified if the new development brings overriding public benefits. Usually those benefits are in the meeting of social, economic or environmental needs and/or in the delivery of adopted public policy. In every case the need or the policy will have been underpinned by evidence and scrutiny.

What seems to have changed is that localism has created a framework for older people promoting private interests to view themselves as now having a power to strike down new development. There is no blame attached to them – indeed it is to be expected that people will fight to protect their perceived financial interest. Rather my concern (as a planner) is with the nature of Localism itself. At the moment Localism is sometimes acting as a dictionary which translates “local private interests” into “power of veto”.

To me that cannot be right for a society desperately needing to address its housing crisis and economic difficulties.

We often get obsessed with reducing our carbon footprint in order to hand down a better world to the proceeding generation. I would argue for a greater focus on handing them down a house and a job.


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ADDRESSING THE HOUSING CRISIS – REGISTERED PROVIDER PERSPECTIVE

One of the issues surrounding both academic and practitioner perspectives on the housing crisis has been two separations. Firstly the separation between the planning and housing professions. Both wish to see more housing delivery but look at the issue from very different standpoints. And secondly the separation between private house builders and registered providers. Both build houses but are obviously driven by different motives.

This post gives a perspective from one of the most influential players in the social housing sector. Alison Thain OBE is the Group Chief Executive of the Fabrick Group a registered social landlord with over 15000 properties under management. She also holds a number of prominent non executive board positions including, inter alia, the Tees Valley LEP and the Darlington Building Society.

Alison’s views are below.

“Perhaps the key effect of the housing crisis on Fabrick has been the increase in demand for our product. With increasing market exclusion for lower paid working households the demand for our social rented product has shot up. Difficulties in securing mortgages plus increasing prices in the private rented sector has redirected people to our sector.

Another factor, often overlooked, in driving the increased demand has been the slowdown in new house building. Population growth but without the attendant house building has caused a lack a choice in the market, both qualitatively and quantitatively. As such the aspiration for good quality well managed homes, such as we provide, has mushroomed.

A key focus for us is therefore to build more houses to meet the increased need. Last year we built just short of 300, a figure comparable with our very best years. It probably makes us one of the largest providers of new housing in the North East irrespective of sector. We remain confident for next year but there is no doubt that the changing funding regimes are challenging. Our response to those challenges has been simple. Be more efficient, more cost effective, drive down costs and develop better relationships with those who can help us.

In respect of the latter HCA has been important. Whilst funding has reduced a more flexible and fleet footed attitude from HCA has helped us maintain output on difficult projects.

Our relationships with Local Authorities have, and always will, be crucial. A particularly successful recent scheme for us recently has been the Woodland View scheme in Darlington. A great relationship with the LA, starting with the land deal, through planning and then to implementation has been crucial. Another key success factor was the size of the site – 106 units enabling us to deliver economies of scale in procurement and construction.

Another key relationship for us is with private sector housebuilders. We often share sites and build homes pursuant to their Section 106 agreements. Here the relationships are more variable. Perhaps, candidly, due to the lack of real off line effort in developing and nurturing those relationships by both parties. Why is that? – Probably due to the differences in culture between the two sectors. Market drivers are after all very different from social drivers. I suspect more effort from each side to understand the potential value of better joint working could be fruitful in the future.

Aside from funding and market issues a key concern is the move away from a strategic spatial focus. The regional economic, housing and spatial strategies were useful in making some of the tough decisions on priorities and resources. After all not everywhere can be a housing growth or housing regeneration area. Making such tough decisions and then driving their implementation will be a tough challenge for local authorities in the years ahead. We at Fabrick are keen to play a key role in helping them where we can”

Many thanks to Alison for giving up her time to provide her thoughts. I must say I am struck more by the similarities between the private and social sectors rather than the differences. Perhaps more effort into getting the two sectors to work together better and more often could unlock housing delivery. If their marketing and housing management skills could be combined it would be a very powerful combination!!

As always, any comments welcome.


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ADDRESSING THE HOUSING CRISIS: LOCAL AUTHORITY CHIEF OFFICER PERSPECTIVE

So far my blogs relating to the issues and potential solutions surrounding the housing crisis have been private sector centric. This one aims to address that by presenting views from a local authority standpoint. Kevin Parkes is the Executive Director of Regeneration at Middlesbrough Borough Council. Regular readers of this blog will know how tough the regeneration challenges are in Middlesbrough and how highly the writer rates the Officer and Member approaches to those challenges.

Kevin is a planner but has a much wider ranging brief overseeing, inter alia, planning, housing, culture, leisure, regeneration, neighbourhood management and building control.
His views are set down below:-

“A key problem is the slow progress of development plans. The system has become too complex, bureaucratic and legalistic. Whist at Middlesbrough we pride ourselves on being one of the fastest LAs we still find the process too slow to keep up with changing external conditions.

The primacy of a plan led system is important but at present it is too cumbersome. As an example we released a range of off plan sites to address housing need last year. We would have preferred those decisions to be made within the plan framework but the system was too slow. The market changes overtook the development plan process.

The abandonment of Regional Spatial Strategies, whilst bringing many advantages to LAs, could be argued to be further slowing developing development plan production as the new plans now need to settle both the strategic and local spatial issues at play in the borough. Not an easy task under localism. Central Government has a key role in addressing the macro needs of our society.

Since I became a planner in the 1980s there has been a noticeable loss of confidence both towards and from planners. Who would actually want to be a planner these days given the political downgrading of the profession and the often personal and vitriolic abuse that emanates from localism? Planning, in some areas, seems to have moved from making big and strategic spatial decisions to a series of yes or no decisions simply leading to or preventing suburban creep.

We seem to be lacking the capability, in some areas, to take a holistic approach to infrastructure and community building. It’s clear that in Holland, Germany and Sweden planners still have that confidence and professional standing and it’s something we must work hard to rebuild.

Who can help in this process? Firstly the Government. The incessant attacks on planners and planning are demotivating for hard working planners who sometimes feel they are working within a bureaucratic straitjacket. Local authority planning is, after all, the child of Government yet it seems that many or most of the most talented planners are choosing other sectors or fields to develop their careers.

The RTPI, TCPA and others must play a role in to help planners hold their heads higher. The emphasis on delivering new strategic urban extensions is welcomed. Planners are trained to understand how new communities need to be planned to ensure they are vibrant, inclusive and car independent. It’s important they take those skills and apply them in practice where appropriate.

Planning is also about relationships. It is, and will remain, a confrontational process with planners as the arbiters between the pro and anti development lobby. Managing successful relationships in this process is becoming more difficult. The protectionist lobby is ever more sophisticated and hostile in its tactics – witness the number of petty Freedom of Information requests I have to deal with.

Similarly the recession seems to have the diminished the risk appetite of builders leading them to focus more on cost reductions to achieve margin rather than innovative land speculation. In such an environment their scope to use flair and creativity to create value appears to have been overtaken by a need to fight harder with LAs to achieve cost reduction on important matters like design and affordable housing. Perhaps no one is to blame here but the forces at play make it harder for planners to develop the important local relationships to make the best spatial decisions and achieve the best physical outcomes on the ground.

In conclusion, it seems clear that LAs are being given more freedoms and responsibilities to determine their own spatial futures. For those LAs wishing to take a strategic approach to housing delivery it could be exciting times ahead and that is certainly how we see it in Middlesbrough”’

Many thanks to Kevin for his time and, as always, any comments would be gratefully received.


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BIKE FOR BOBBY – A ‘PLANORAK’ PERSPECTIVE

Earlier in the week I posted a blog relating to my 7 days on the support team for the Bike for Bobby charity ride from Lisbon to Newcastle. That blog focused on the ups and downs for the two riders however this gives a ‘planorak’ perspective derived from driving slowly through 6 different European countries.

Lyon

I started in Lyon. A beautiful medieval city which, in common with some other major French cities has been subject to 2 or 3 strategic and well planned extensions since the middle ages. The old city lies west of the Rhone whilst a huge Victorian expansion (linked to the new railway) enabled it to cross the river. From there urban extensions along the flatter east bank and further east followed. The latest key urban move has been the Cite Internationale. A superb new linear commercial centre alongside the Rhone, built either side of a new pedestrian street and served by a dedicated busway. The scheme anchors are the world HQ of Interpol and a huge conference centre/indoor arena.

France and Switzerland

From Lyon we moved eastwards towards Switzerland. Rural France is clearly struggling in many places. Depopulation, new bypasses and huge supermarkets have drained the life out of many of the villages and small towns. We passed through dozens of villages where well over half the shops and commercial units were shut and many of the houses appeared abandoned.

Next observation was the clear wealth difference between France and Switzerland. Almost immediately after crossing the border one could sense it. Better roads, more construction activity, more spending on street management, and occupied shops were some of the more obvious signs. No obvious signs of recession as we passed through Geneva and Montreux! In Neuchatel a hospital visit was required – as expected it had superb modern, efficient facilities.

The effects of the ‘ski economy’ were also clear as we rose higher into the Alps. It seemed at least half the houses were second homes, not yet occupied in early November. Gorgeous buildings in pristine villages but the much of the area had had a ghost town or stage set feel awaiting the snow dumps and resultant activity.

Luxembourg

We continued north through France, touching on Germany with overnight stops in Strasbourg and Luxembourg. For Strasbourg read Lyon again. Perhaps not as wealthy but another gorgeous historic city with great infrastructure. It felt as though it has been preciously planned, controlled and carefully expanded over the last 200 years. I am sure there are some ropey suburbs but they seemed well hidden to us.

Luxembourg City, by contrast, looks as though it let the modernist architects rip in the 60s and 70s. Some of the results, particularly around the edges of the City Centre have not stood the test of time.

Belgium and Holland

Ploughing further north through Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland three things resonated as a planorak. Firstly it became so obvious we were entering the golden London – Paris – Frankfurt triangle. We could somehow tell we were entering the economic engine room of Europe. Better, newer cars, better architecture, expensive public realm and infrastructure projects, road improvements everywhere, high quality frequent buses etc etc.

The second, key impression, was the quality of new domestic architecture, especially in Belgium and Holland. We really have a lot to learn in the UK. Each town and village seemed to enjoy some really high quality new housing both one offs and new estates. Some modern, some traditional, some retro. Good design, high quality detailing and traditional materials seemed to ensure most of the new houses made a really positive townscape contribution, irrespective of style.

The third impression was the extensive recreational use of the landscape and countryside. Cycle lanes are everywhere and they often appeared to lead to countryside parks, often in forest environments, with a good range of recreation opportunities.

My stint on Bike for Bobby ended at Eindhoven where the amount of people cycling as a mode of transport was hugely uplifting. Everyone seemed to be on a bike, irrespective of age. Even hipster 20 something’s dolled up for a Saturday night were happy to travel from bar to bar by bike. Not sure of the legality but the vibe was fantastic.

So in summary it felt a bit like an upside down England with prosperity increasing from south to north. Also like England there seemed to be a widening economic gap between city and countryside. Bigger cities felt vibrant but the more remote market towns and villages often felt as though they were really struggling. Even in the less prosperous regions it was clear there were still economic powerhouse cities with plenty of life left in them. For Manchester read Lyon and Strasburg.


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REFLECTIONS ON BIKE FOR BOBBY

I must immediately warn readers that this blog is nothing to do with planning or housing. I recently spent 7 days as part of the Support Team for ‘Bike for Bobby’ bike ride. An epic 3500 mile ride for charity in honour of Sir Bobby Robson and being undertaken by 2 pals of mine, Phil Gray and ex NUFC full back, Robbie Elliot. I was asked to write a daily blog and the following paragraphs give my thoughts on 5 days of brutal riding.

DAY 13 SOMETHING IN THE WATER AT EVIANS:-

Day 13 from Evians les Bains started with the boys being interviewed by some senior guys from the Hilton Group. After a fantastic welcome the night before it was clear Hilton are the going the extra mile to help. Despite still looking green and unable to keep food down Robbie still got on the bike and both he and Phil pedalled hard from the off.

Although the temperatures hovered around zero a clear bright sun set off the stunning Alpine scenery and lifted morale. After riding around two sides of Lake Geneva the boys hit some brutal mountain climbing through the beautiful snow laden landscape before descending to Lake Neuchatel. Here the the exertions of the ride on top of 3 days illness with no food finally catch up with with Robbie and it was necessary to pop into the local hospital. The diagnosis was reassuring and again he shows iron resolve to get on with what needs to be done.

The day ends with most of the crew sleeping in a van after a much needed hearty meal.

DAY 14 THE BULLDOGS MEET THE ALSATIONS:-

Day 14 started with simple geography lesson. When you stay high up in the Alps in November its absolutely freezing at 6am. Despite sleeping in the van and having nothing more than a coffee and croissant Phil led the charge closely followed by Rob who still couldn’t face any food. Both were wrapped up like Michelin men to keep the biting cold out.

What followed was another brutal test of their resolve. Two and half hours of relentless climbing. Close to 1000 metres uphill in one sapping stint. And not once did the temperature get above freezing as the snow reached over a foot in depth.

After a much needed hot chocolate and some food it was back in the saddle. More climbing until the long awaited summit at 1300metres. Hair raising descents on icy roads tested the nerves until they re- entered France riding through some beautiful historic Alsation villages. Another food stop at Wittesheim lifted the boys spirits further knowing a long flat section through the Rhine valley lay ahead.

This was where the boys really put the hammer down. Averaging 22 miles per hour and doing the last hour in the pitch dark they demolished the last 50 miles thereby getting them back to Strasburg and back on target schedule for the first time since day 3. A great reward for a Herculean effort.

DAY 15 OH LORRAINE LORRAINE:-

So did the doctors magic wand work? In a word…No.

Day 16 started with Robbie still looking and feeling under the weather. And what little breakfast he could face was swiftly rejected. Phil was also looking beaten up as he arrived at breakfast at 6.50am. It was a national bank holiday in France for the ‘day of the dead’. Both were getting into the spirit by looking half dead themselves.

So probably best to have a rest day and regroup? No chance. After a swift check out the boys were rolling again just after 7.30. Three hours hard riding followed on terrain described by them as ‘rolling’. To others it just looked horribly hilly. A coffee and grub stop in the beautiful market down of Phalsbourg lifted the spirits.

Unfortunately it was short lived. As they swept through a series of historic Alsace/Lorraine villages the 80 kph wind and rain came. Being soaked and freezing dipped the mood and the fact that virtually every shop and cafe in France was closed didn’t help.

Finally an open pizza restaurant was spotted. Only problem was that the doctor has ordered that Robbie eats only natural food. Luckily a banana sandwich was rustled up whilst the team enjoyed French fries and hot chocolate. Proper team spirit!

The wind picked up even more in late afternoon adding to the frustrations caused by numerous annoying and time consuming road diversions. When you are following a route painstakingly plotted on a GPS system such diversions can cause huge problems.

As night fell the boys turned the pedals relentlessly before arriving to another great welcome at the Hilton Luxembourg. Even better Robbie managed to see a Doctor and got a cow sized intravenous drip which delivered immediate results.

Two monster days in the saddle encompassing 4 different countries has put them bang on schedule.

‘Chapeau’ ….. as they say in these parts.

DAY 16 LUX IS NOT FOR LUXURY:-

For Popeye it was spinach. For Robbie Elliot it is clearly saline, taken intravenously.

After being injected with nearly an ocean of the stuff last night all eyes were looking hopefully at the potential effects. Within an hour the answer was clear. Robbie is back to health.

Day 17 was down to be a rest day. Nothing could be further from the truth. After 15 minutes the rain came, after half an hour the 80 kph winds came and after an hour the mountains came. All of them stayed around until close of play – 7 hours later.

A monumental and incessant show of courage and guts followed. Despite one mountain constantly following another the determination to stay on schedule never waned. When god handed the balls out he gave these two more than their fair share.

Nothing much else to report – just head down backside up to tick the miles off and stave of the cold.

And the rider’s verdict at the end….

“That was awful – my legs have been totally numb for 3 hours” said Phil.

“Some fxxxing rest day” was Robbie’s considered view as he gave a great impersonation of a drowned rat.

Day 17 DUTCH COURAGE NEEDED:-

Day 17 provided a welcome refresh in that Team 3 arrived from England to join Team 2 for their last day. The extra pairs of hands proved extremely useful as the day progressed.

The whole day revolved around two words – rain and courage. November rain to be precise. The type that is freezing cold, torrential, incessant for hours and accompanied by 75 kph winds. Within 20 minutes both boys were sodden and frozen to the bones. They actually wanted steep hills in order to generate a modicum of body heat. In that regard they were lucky. The Ardennes mountains kept on giving – hill after hill.

Lunch didn’t happen. They both agreed that stopping would actually cause them to get colder so it was simply mars bars and hot chocolate eaten whilst riding.

Around 3ish the weather eased slightly and the worst of the climbing was completed. However there was surely no chance of completing the remaining 60 miles to get them to Eindhoven? Wrong. The hammers went down and mile after was ticked off at around 22kph average speed enabling them to be finished and showered by 8pm.

Then came the big treat. PSV Eindhoven were so impressed with the boys efforts they magnificently donated 17 match tickets for the game against Heracles to the whole of the crew. Watching the game in the superb Philips Stadion and remembering how much Sir Bobby had enjoyed his huge success there was the perfect end to a gruelling day.

Day 17 also marked the end of my involvement. An amazing experience, I will never forget.