Philip Barnes – Blog

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When it comes to the blame game over who is responsible for the housing crisis local politicians are often top of the list. “Pandering to locals” or “avoiding necessary decisions” are some of the common accusations.

The reality of course, is that in a localism world where the local electorate feels much more empowered, the politics of planning is hugely difficult. It is also the reality that when housing applications get recommended by Planning Officers for approval, they usually get granted. Councillors do a fantastic job, working long unsocial hours to help the communities they represent.

Nevertheless, it is clear that not everything is perfect in local politics and it is an area I am keen to cast light on. With this in mind many thanks must go to Greg Stone, a Lib Dem Councillor in Newcastle who agreed to give his personal perspective on some of the key planning issues facing local politicians involved in the planning process. In particular he addresses some of the key questions like:

a. do Councillors really look beyond the next election?

b. are they truly representative of all groups?

c. are they up to such an important role?

d. why do people become Councillors?

e. is planning regarded as important in local politics?

f. how can we change things for the better?

Greg’s views are presented in italics below:

“Undoubtedly a difficult issue for planning committee members is to have the courage to see beyond the next election. Housing proposals in particular, create potential difficulties because they often generate hundreds of objections. For a Councillor wishing to remain elected (in order to make a long term impact) this can be tricky. If more people get involved in promoting the benefits of new housing, this will undoubtedly make Councillors jobs easier.

Housing is generally not a problem for urban councillors where there is no greenfield land to build on. The issue is more for suburban or rural areas where the key concerns are always traffic and, to a lesser extent, perceived loss of views and open land. In the UK housing is closely attached to social status. Proposals which are perceived to adversely affect the existing value of homes or to bring in new/different types of people to an area do create alarm. Councillors respond to this.

It is clear that there is an issue in terms of the (rising) average age of Councillors. In urban areas there are more younger Councillors but in other areas the political dominance of the older, richer, white male is an issue. Most Councillors are acutely aware of the issue but, irrespective of age and status, Councillors are generally reluctant to vote for unpopular things – they sometimes play back community nervousness about change.

There are often three types of Councillors. Firstly the retired person looking to put something back. Secondly, “political types” who see local politics as a stepping stone, perhaps to a more senior local position or even a career in national politics. And finally, the driven individuals who are simply passionate about their area and have a huge appetite to secure positive changes there. Proportions of these vary from area to area. In urban areas the influence of party politics is obviously far greater.

Planning committee is never a “whipped” committee but it is inevitable that local party leaders will have influence. There are never formal or informal instructions. Similarly, politicians never exert influence over planning officers. That said it is only right and proper for any politician to make their views known, publicly or privately, on a proposal prior to determination. There will often be a pre-meeting between the Officers and the key members prior to an upcoming planning committee. This will help tease out issues and sensitivities.

Prior to Committee, members are instinctively nervous about talking to developers, even with the new rules enabling this. Whilst members undoubtedly feel that dialogue would be useful this is generally overridden by concerns about defending hostile accusations about having been “influenced” by the applicant.

At the committee itself, Members generally don’t seek to undermine Planning Officers. However, “close scrutiny” can often come across as hostility and there is sometimes an element of showboating.

Issues where members feel more emboldened to go against the Officer recommendation tend to be design, prematurity, traffic, tree loss, student housing and wind turbines. Areas where members may be less bold include proposals which are allocated in a plan, brownfield proposals, or where jobs are created or where there is clearly no 5-year land supply.

Councillors are much improving their understanding of viability issues. However, some still consider that once a site is allocated it should be capable of coming forward with the original affordable housing and eco-credentials intact. Most Members also place limited weight on the New Homes Bonus. In terms of improvements, 2 key things are recommended:

1. Set up “formal” pre-committee meetings with developer, officer and members to allow concerns to be aired.
2. Set up a small “working group” on key controversial applications comprising developer, ward member(s), community representative, planning officer and planning committee member.

Many thanks to Greg for his time, assistance and perspectives. As the quote goes “democracy is a crap system but it’s the best there is”.

As always, comments welcome.

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The 20th December was the day the world was supposed to end. It was also the last working day before Xmas and it sure felt like armageddon was looming as the office struggled to meet the various, “can we have it done by Xmas please” deadlines. So we slaved away completing work which wasn’t then looked at for at least two weeks. Thanks Santa.

More accurately I should say thanks Andrew Adonis because much of our recent work has involved presenting arguments to the Adonis North East Economic Review being undertaken for the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP). One key project involved working with the National Housing Federation and the Housebuilders Federation looking at the economic case for a much stronger focus on building more houses to deliver regeneration and growth. Some of the statistics which emerged were frankly, remarkable.

Together housebuilders and housing associations employ more than 10,800 people and train approximately 280 apprentices in Durham, Tyne/Wear and Northumberland. In 2012 the sector achieved turnover in excess of £1billion in the NELEP area. In 2012 alone 400 acres of brownfield land was remediated, 3500 new trees were planted and over £31million was invested in transport infrastructure and new community facilities. Its worth remembering that the NELEP area is only 7 local authorities.

Our report to Adonis urges NELEP to work with local authorities, developers, lenders and others to create a regional “Deposit Pot” which can be used to enable first time buyers to get onto the housing ladder thereby stimulating the market and our economy. The report also recommends a series of measures to improve our planning system.

We estimate that if NELEP follows our advice then, by 2018, over 5,000 extra jobs would be created on top of the 10,800 existing jobs in the sector. This new employment would, in turn, slash £74.5 million each year from the Jobseekers Allowance bill. £965m of extra money would be generated in the wider economy and the local councils in the NELEP area would receive an extra £22million each year from the Government in New Homes Bonus at a time when arts and libraries are being considered for closure. So masses of new jobs, more government money and more private sector spending into the area yet the Treasury saves money. Sounds compelling to me.

Part of the work has also involved dispelling inaccurate myths and misconceptions about housebuilding. Firstly that it is a low pay, low value sector in the NELEP area. In reality the average sector salary is £28,000 – way above the regional average. Secondly the myth that the area doesn’t need new homes because it is losing population and as an industry it doesn’t drive economic growth. Again the reality is that the population of the NELEP area is forecast to grow by around 7000 people per year or 137,000 new people by 2030. They all need a home.

In terms of driving economic growth, each volume housebuilder supports, on average, 140 supplier businesses whilst good quality new homes will actually attract new footloose entrepreneurs and wealth generators to the NELEP area. The recent Newcastle University case study of Wynyard comprehensively proves this.

Surely any realistic picture of economic success in 2030 must include a housing stock which is modern, high quality and fit for 21st century families. At present we have far too many outdated older terraces, flats and rented properties.

We have also recently been working with Developing Consensus (DC) in relation to the role which the property and construction sector can help drive inward investment. DC is a coalition of developers, property agents, architects and economists working together with the sole aim of making Greater Newcastle more attractive to inward investors. Again the work threw up some amazing figures. In 2012 alone, during deep recession, the sector employed approximately 10,000 people – 5,000 on site, with a further 5000 in support businesses such as architects and quantity surveyors. And we estimate that the new commercial buildings developed in 2012 will accommodate 12,000 employees across various economic sectors. Without those new modern buildings there is no guarantee those jobs would have been created.

The property sector’s “asks” of the Adonis Review are threefold. Firstly to direct funding and investment towards improving the connectivity of the region. A direct flight to the US and a high speed train link to London are the priorities. Secondly to prioritise the faster release and delivery of major new economic development sites at Newcastle Airport, The 2 Ports, Team Valley, Tyne Tunnel and the A1/A690 junction. And finally to support Lord Shipley’s call for a Combined Authority across the NELEP area with powers over transport, planning, housing and economic development.

All in all plenty of bedtime reading for Lord Adonis this January and February. It is perhaps timely for him to remember that housebuilding alone employs more people in the area than motor manufacturing and call centres combined. With the potential to easily grow new jobs by over 46% by 2018 the case is clearly strong.

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We all know the standard clichés about planning namely that ‘it is an art not a science’ and ‘it is essentially a political process’ and so on. For us planners, benefitting from a training which is part technical, part social science, part development economics and part environmental science it’s often a precarious path to tread between different agencies and opinions. The golden rule is, usually, to stay out of the politics – certainly a rule which I have followed throughout a career in local government and consultancy.

This blog post, for the first time, dips a toe (or perhaps just a toe nail) in the political pool.

At heart, planning is a social science – a public service profession. It took off after the Second World War in response to the economic and housing challenges faced by a nation rebuilding many of its major cities. Naturally, it perhaps attracted more left-of-centre students than, say, the law or economics courses. As an idealistic north easterner I certainly spent too much university time trying to protect the mining industry from Mrs Thatcher’s cuts. A focus on redistributing opportunities from rich to poor was always close to the surface.

Part of our redistributive zeal (and even more so the generation before us) was the desire to house the nation in good quality homes. Perhaps the Labour party adverts below summed up our mission. A key element of this redistributive agenda was to spread the availability of good modern homes and to stop good housing remaining a preserve of a middle-class, middle-aged generation. We wanted to see every family in a warm, safe home with a garden.


help them finisg thier jobs

OK – some of our urban regeneration ideas (and wacky new town proposals) were a bit naive but our endless field trips to Runcorn, Holland, Edinburgh, Cramlington, Welwyn etc, put the housing fire in our bellies.

Fast forward to today and given the way planning is presented, it sometimes seems as if we planners have been turned around 180 degrees. With the demise of Council housebuilding and the poor design of much new private housing There is a sense some of us planners see the provision of new homes as actually harmful. The unwelcome product of a largely right of centre exploitative (rather than redistributive) sector. I sometimes question whether the instinctive reaction to new homes proposals is to be sceptical and questioning rather than supportive.

That said, most of the planners I meet are plugged into the need to address the housing crisis. However the behaviour of some housebuilders, the rise of localism and the increasing concerns about environmental protection and urban sprawl have undoubtedly taken the gloss off the prospect of more housing. Especially in the minds of the politicians. To me there are perhaps 3 key responses for us planners going into 2013.

Firstly, to keep our eyes on the prize – a significant increase in new homes is necessary to address a clear crisis of affordability, homelessness and inter-generational unfairness.

Secondly, to recognise our role as balancers and mediators. Planning is complicated and the need to understand, accept and consider both anti-housing and pro-housing views is crucial. As always, good evidence will be the key in making the tough strategic and site specific decisions.

Thirdly, to increase our educational role on the need for more housing. Whilst everyone seems to accept (in ‘academic’ or ‘national’ terms) the need for more new homes there is often a huge disconnect between that high level position and the approach to decisions at a site specific level.

The need to engage positively with both politicians and the new wave of ‘neighbourhood planners’ will be crucial. As always aiming at consensus and co-operation will always be more productive than sniping.