Philip Barnes – Blog

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A lot of organisations get blamed for the housing crisis. Inter alia, housebuilders, planners, housing associations, landowners, land promoters, politicians etc. One group tends to emerge unscathed but, sometimes causes huge frustrations to housebuilders and local councils wanting to deliver new homes. Namely the privatised water companies.

But having said that I must immediately narrow the scope down to just 3 or 4 businesses who, in my opinion, can frustrate housing delivery and damage the reputation of the whole water industry sector.

As we all know water companies have a legal obligation, under the Water Act, to provide water and sewerage to the the population in their areas. Not just the current population but also the new residents as projected by ONS. The privatisation deal in 1989 was predicated on this civic responsibility being transferred, alongside the ability to make profits and pay shareholder dividends.

Adhering to this responsibility sometimes requires investment in system upgrades, especially in areas of lower capacity and higher population growth. Again the requirement to fund this ongoing investment was part of the privatisation deal. At privatisation all debts were written off and Government provided the sector with a £1.5bn dowry.

Unfortunately housebuilders often face difficulties in that water companies assert that there is no local capacity for extra homes and then request funding to prepare a ‘Network Analysis’  to identify whether a system upgrade is required. Housebuilders feel that the Water Company should be funding this having already made projections of local population growth and having already fed into the local plan process. It is not unusual to be faced with a bill to fund a Network Analysis at the pre-application stage with limited ability to go forward until it has been completed.

Even worse the Network Analysis sometimes then shows a need for sewage treatment work upgrades which the water company claim must be funded prior to the development being occupied. It is not unusual to be hit by Grampian Conditions preventing development or S106 requests (on top of CIL) for c£10k/dwelling in order to contribute to system upgrades.

All very frustrating if there is actually no commercial ability to provide the required payments due to other S106, CIL or affordable housing requirements. The poor LA then cannot bring forward an allocated site because of late demands from a private water company, which has previously been consulted on the feasibility of the local plan. Thus opening up the possibility of speculative off-plan smaller proposals which may fly under the water company radar nd hence secure consent.

Since privatisation housebuilders have given these private companies £2.6bn in infrastructure charges. How it is used is not audited and we housebuilders sometimes wonder what has actually happened to the money!

As an old time planner I would much welcome a return to a plan, predict and provide approach to water infrastructure provision rather the what feels, in places, more like a risk management approach to major housing schemes as and when they arise.

Final point is to repeat that most Water Companies are positive and great to deal with. But as in all sectors the actions of a few can sully the whole sector. Same with housebuilding I guess…..

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So what did a five wet winter days in Auckland say to a UK planner/housebuilder about planning and urban design? In particular the similarities and contrasts with the UK? I was asked by the UK branch of the New Zealand Planning Institute to provide some thoughts so here goes.

The first thing that hits you is the dominance of Auckland’s maritime setting. You are never far from a view of the harbour and and its influence on the character, economy and history of the city. The urban pattern is essentially a grid with Quay Street running parallel with the shoreline and a series of streets running southwards up the hill towards the lovely Albert Park and the University areas.

The second impression, linked to the above, is the fantastic and ongoing regeneration of the obsolete older docks at the western end of the harbour. The scale, grain and quality of new architecture, including the Maritime Museum, is good and even in winter the area throbs with people from morning to late evening. Albeit many of these were Lions fans there for the rugby. I can imagine it is even better on a summer weekend.

Hopes should be high for the the next 20 years as the regeneration moves further west into the ‘Wynyard Quarter’, a huge area of redundant tank farms. The development has been held up due to legal disputes relating to decontamination responsibilities but the masterplan aims to deliver a new park which will deliver a major new landscape and recreational resource for the city. Already some of the anchor buildings such as new ASB Waterfront Theatre are in place.

The third key impression is the Sky Tower, Auckland’s tallest and most striking landmark. Whilst design is subjective I thought it looked fantastic, providing a great example of how a modern building can become a true icon for a city. It is clearly well loved and used by locals and tourists for, inter alia, dining, bungee jumping and skywalking. A true emblem for Auckland.

Perhaps less impressive is the modern architecture along Quay Street and fronting the harbourside. Often boxy and ‘anywhere’ in style, and often with poor detailing. A world class setting and, in my opinion, a bit of a lost opportunity. Especially given the quality of the old Ferry Building on the opposite side of the street.

Similarly, some other modern buildings in the City Centre lacked quality, texture and detail and, perhaps unfairly, I saw little evidence of proactive conservation and heritage-led regeneration schemes.

Moving out into the suburbs I found the Edwardian and inter-war suburbs charming. Generally a mix of lovely older colonial style bungalows and two-storey houses. Virtually all detached and sitting on smallish plots to a grid street pattern. Older properties interspersed with newer modern homes, again of strong design and reflecting the suburban character. Each suburb seemed to be supported a local centre with a range of local and independent traders.

Maybe I was just in the ‘posher’ suburbs but the maintenance of both the public and private realm was of incessant high quality. Two elements stood out. Firstly the good quality enclosures defining the gardens; usually mature hedges, waist high walls or attractive low fences. And secondly the variation in design and materials. There is obviously a far greater emphasis on self-build and smaller builders, although again stressing I only visited 2 or 3 different suburbs.

Moving further out, the more modern suburbs appeared lower density but retaining the grid based street patterns, decent enclosures, low rise and variety in the street scene.

The buildings and urban grain felt different to the UK. However Auckland actually still felt fairly familiar to a Brit. Why? Mainly due to how familiar the landscape felt – presumably as a result of a similarish climate? Plus the street names of course! There are some superb parks and open spaces which all felt fairly familiar in design and texture to those in UK towns and cities. Albeit with a few more exotic species.

Final point is that the character of a city is as much about the people as the buildings and spaces. In this regard Auckland excels. Indeed I would challenge anyone to find a city with friendlier locals or higher quality levels of hospitality. It is culturally diverse and the atmosphere is of a city which (a) really celebrates and promotes its Maori heritage and culture whilst also (b), doesn’t seem to have a huge chip about its colonial background. All in all a city which just felt diverse and confident. We will be back…….

Comments welcome – worth stressing again that the experience was very limited and perhaps more focused on the evening economy than urban design.