Philip Barnes – Blog

ADDRESSING THE HOUSING CRISIS: LOCAL AUTHORITY CHIEF OFFICER PERSPECTIVE

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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.

Author: philipbarnesblog

Group Land and Planning Director for Barratt Developments PLC. FRTPI, FRICS

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