Philip Barnes – Blog

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2012 has been the year to bash the planners. Much of it has been unwelcome, unhelpful and insensitive to the issues being faced in planning departments everywhere.

Although working across the country, NLP Newcastle office’s work is focussed mostly in the North and North East. As we go into 2013 we feel it is worth looking back and celebrating the excellent work of North East planners this year. Not everything is perfect, but, by and large our perceptions are that planners in the region are working damn hard in difficult circumstances to prepare and implement their plans. Plans which are clearly focussed on making the region a better place in 30 years time.

One of the toughest issues has been the loss of high quality skills, experience and personalities over the year. A raft of senior planners have left public sector (or the profession) this year including, Ken Wilson, Keith Lowes, Paul Dillon, Peter Brown, John Bell, Stephanie Linnell, David Leader, Kel Bevan, Barry Luccock, Steve Landells, Steve France and Chris Clarke – All great planners and good to work with.

It feels churlish to pick out individuals and departments who appear, from a purely private sector perspective, to be doing great work. But similarly NLP feel it is wrong that the good work we are aware of goes unnoticed.

From our perspective, the recent restructuring in Northumberland is making a big difference. The arrival of Joanne Garrick to lead the policy function is a good appointment at a time when huge spatial issues need to be addressed. We certainly look forward to seeing Joanne and her team develop a growth plan for such a large and varied county. In Newcastle, Harvey Emms, supported by Kath Lawless, Nicola Woodward and Peter Cockbain are good to work with, and exactly the same is to be said of Paul Dowling, Anneleise Hutchinson and Andrew Hickie across the river in Gateshead. All 7 are supported by some really talented officers. Gateshead in particular appears to be the archetypal well run positive and efficient planning department. The North Tyneside planners are still battling valiantly against a difficult political backdrop (Tory Mayor/Labour Planning Committee) whilst in South Tyneside the speed of response in addressing the new spatial challenges – despite their full LDF package being adopted in April 2012 – typifies the efficiency evident since the introduction of the plan-led system in the early 1990’s. Andrea King and Ben Stubbs always bring great thinking and sound analysis to tough spatial issues.

In Sunderland, the scale of the cut’s has inevitably created uncertainty and difficulties but the change in culture since Colin Clarke took over has been transformational. The new openness and commitment to dialogue is fantastic driven by the likes of Neil Cole and Gary Clasper. Again the private sector look forward to being involved in driving forward a new, positive strategy for economic growth and housing.

In Durham the courageous leadership shown by George Garlick, Ian Thompson and Stuart Timmiss in identifying and delivering a really ambitious strategy needs applauding. Everyone -across all sectors and agencies – now need to help ensure the strategy is declared sound after public examination. Talented officers such as (inter-alia) Andrew Inch, Grant Foley and Carole Dillon are great to work with – tough but fair!

Regular readers know how highly NLP rates the planning teams in Tees Valley. In Middlesborough, the tough conditions have allowed talented planners to show their mettle. Kevin Parkes, Sharon Thomas, Paul Clarke and others work tirelessly making the spatial decisions to give the town a better future. Meanwhile Ernie Vickers must be the best DC Planner in history!! Exactly the same must be said for Greg Archer, Carole Straughan, Rosemary Young, Peter Shovlin and others in Stockton. Again, a tough but well run positive department and great to work with. Damian Wilson in Hartlepool, Richard Alty in Darlington and Phil Jones in Redcar all do great jobs aligning economic objectives with environmental objectives. The ‘hands on’ positive role from Damian in addressing the complex planning issues at Wynyard has been a breath of fresh air. Again – very tough but very fair!

It is crucially important to reiterate again the above comments have been limited by NLP’s experience last year. There is UNDOUBTEDLY many other great planners doing equally great work and we apologise for the inevitable omissions. Indeed it would be good if others feel able to either disagree or fill the gaps in response.

Finally, the nature of planning means there will always be skirmishes, disagreements and tough negotiations. However, with one or two exceptions, NLP sense the region’s planners (whether private, public or 3rd sector) all wish to work constructively in 2013 to make the right spatial decisions to improve the region for the next 30-50 years.

We should all raise a glass to ourselves – even if no-one else wants to!!

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One of the current concerns of Government is trying ensure its policies make things better today without harming the prospects of future generations. A theme picked up recently both by David Cameron in his speech to the CBI and Nick Clegg in his speech to the National Housebuilding Council.

Contrasts have been drawn with the period after the second world war when, despite the economic austerity, politicians were clearly focused on making country better for the next generation. The NHS was created, ailing industries were nationalised and the state funded a massive wave of new construction in infrastructure and housing.

By the 1980s and 90s it felt like longer term policy making had been overtaken by short termism and self interest. In response, The Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations was formed in 1997 and, more recently, The Intergenerational Foundation. Both follow the same principle – namely to stop politicians making policies which may please people now but are are clearly harmful to the next generation.

And so the term “generational theft” was coined. Firstly by John McCain in the US as a rallying cry against Government overspending which is going to land the next generation with massive debts to be repaid.

It is now common to hear accusations of generational theft by younger people against the baby boomers aged in their 50s and 60s. And they have a point. We boomers enjoyed short termist economic policies delivering easy credit and fuelling a massive house buying boom. Unfortunately we now know those policies simply inflated a bubble which then burst. With the boomers now paying off mortgages and collecting huge profits the “millenials” aged 20 – 35 are left with unaffordable house prices and no access to credit. The average first time buyer is now aged 37. I was 23.

One of the ways to fix the housing problems faced by the younger generation is to build more houses. Sadly whilst the need for this seems universally accepted the local politicians and community leaders with the influence and power to deliver are often hard wired into opposing new housing. So instead of a surge in house building to meet needs we have the lowest levels of building since the 1920s.

A recent report by the Intergenerational Foundation cast valuable light on the issue. It found that the average age of Councillors is over 60 and, whilst 32% of the population is under 35, only 5% of Councillors are. It also found that Councillors are usually male and on average 18% wealthier than their electorate. One of its key conclusions was that there is a, “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”

The current “Localism” policy is to give local people and community leaders far more power in determining whether new homes get built. There may be merits in this but we all need to recognise that it is causing house building to grind to a halt There is no criticism of Councillors here. Simply a recognition that many older people who already have a house will obviously wish to stop the construction of new houses which they feel may affect the value of their own home. If they are given the power to do so they will.

I worry that “Localism” has become a dictionary which translates “local private interests” into “power of veto”. Many in my world of planning and housing are obsessively focused on lowering carbon footprints to hand down a better world to the next generation. I would argue for a greater focus on handing them down a home and a job.

I used to laugh at Ronnie Corbett in “Sorry”. Aged 41 and living at home. I fear it will be the norm for my kids generation.

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Perhaps the most bizarre thing about UK planning is that it assumes that all of the UK green belts should be subject to exactly the same policies.

What is also bizarre is that whilst most of our major cities are “lucky” enough to have a green belt many conurbations and cities such as Teesside, Leicester, Plymouth and Hull mysteriously escaped. I know not why but shall come on to the effects later.

But are green belts actually the same? Well let’s have a look at the green belts in two of NLP’s office locations – namely London and Newcastle. Policy is identical in both locations but are the green belts themselves similar?

Let’s start with Tyne Bridge and Tower Bridge. Both iconic central landmarks. From Tyne Bridge to the green belt it’s 3.1 miles. The shortest trip from Tyne Bridge to the outer edge of the green belt is 4.2 miles. In London the distances are 10.2 miles and 22.1 miles. Going towards Gillingham it’s 42 miles from Tower Bridge to the green belt outer edge.

From Tyne Bridge the distance to the outer edge going north or south is usually about 5 – 7 miles.

Green belts clearly have a completely different scale and function in different places. It seems as though the green belt in Tyne and Wear acts as an extremely tight collar preventing the sustainable and much needed expansion of a small conurbation well served by high quality public transport. As such new development in recent decades has tended to be located further from the conurbation thereby clogging up the radial and orbital roads.

By contrast it’s obvious that the situation is completely different in London. There the green belt acts as a necessary control on the expansion of a global economic centre under huge development pressure across 32 boroughs.

Let’s compare what happens within and beyond the green belt. In London there are actually around 100 settlements above 5000 population within the green belt – all with their own expansion pressures. And within 2 or 3 miles of the outer edge lie, menacingly, many major towns including, Chelmsford, Gillingham, Crawley, Maidstone, Southend, Woking, Reading, Bracknell, Aylesbury, Slough, Milton Keynes and others.

In Newcastle the nearest major settlement to the north, is Edinburgh 120 miles away. To the west is Carlisle 60 miles away. In between are a few mining villages, rural market towns and many, many sheep. To the east is sea and to the south Durham City (with its own green belt) 15 miles away and Teesside about 30 miles away.

It seems faintly ridiculous to assume the Tyne and Wear conurbation (or its green belt) is in any way similar to the Metropolitan situation. Yet for 30 years the conurbation has not achieved its population or commercial objectives because new development proposals on the city edge have always hit the green belt buffer. Such development either doesn’t happen or is forced further out. Yet the conurbation is actually in desperate need of more population to sustain its infrastructure, its local economy and local services.

And what of those “unfortunate” areas without the green belt. If we are going to start with nearby conurbations let’s look at Teesside – Middlesborough to be precise. Here the effect of PPG3 and the recession was to make their brownfield-led local plan strategy unviable. This in turn led to huge housing undersupply. So earlier this year they chose to release 5 major greenfield housing sites to arrest the problem. A very tough and difficult decision but one which would have been inconceivable if they had “enjoyed” a green belt.

And what of those towns and villages beyond the green belt. Many, in the 80s and 90s were swamped by the “pig ugly” estates referred to by Mr Boles. Why – simply because they were easier targets for housebuilders given the lack of green belt. Yes some had no public transport links to the nearby city. Yes they were often more sensitive in landscape terms and yes they were often in locations unaffordable to lower income families. All that didn’t matter because they didn’t have a green belt. Whilst PPG3/PPS3 then put a stop to greenfield development this glance at recent history informs us of the potential future effects of implementing NPPF (in order to address the housing crisis) yet remaining inflexible on green belt.

The green belt debate seems to be hotter than ever. I say yes to strong green belt protection of London if that is seen as best. BUT we need a mature discussion now about a policy approach which is strangling some northern and midlands cities which are desperate for growth to create jobs and address the housing crisis. Nowhere else in Europe are regional cities routinely placed in a development strait jacket called green belt. Indeed the 2011 OECD Economic Survey of the UK concluded that green belts are a “major obstacle” to economic growth and should be replaced by “land use restrictions which better reflect environmental designations and free up land for housing whilst preserving the environment”

Bravo to those Councils who are addressing the issue. The big question over the next couple of years is whether they are addressing it fully enough. Especially when we remember that the extent of green belt in England increased from 0.7m hectares in 1979 to 1.65m hectares today.