Reflections on 2015 – what’s happening on the ground

Towards the end of 2015 I was asked to do a talk at a conference on ‘What’s happening on the ground? (our ‘ground’ being a local authority planning office.  I thought I’d reproduce my musings here, based on fluffy feelings and behaviours.

Acceptance…….by more and more officers and councillors that there is a housing need, and it is a big one; numbers are high, and they have to plan for it. Acceptance that plans won’t be sound, (and decision making on planning applications will be constrained) – if they don’t. There is acceptance that some difficult decisions need to be made – although not everywhere has moved this on to action yet. But it has been demonstrated recently by some councils working through the plan process to release GB for housing. Planning Resource reported last October that in 2014 11 English councils adopted plans de-designating 2,000 hectares of green belt, East Dorset and Christchurch, and Bath and North East Somerset amongst them.  Acceptance that housing growth can be good – I’ve been with a few local authorities lately where councillors are more pro-­‐growth than officers – leading to some frustrations amongst councillors that officers are being too ‘professionally precious” ‘ and not understanding corporate growth agenda.  And there is acceptance that the Duty to Co-­‐operate can’t be ignored or taken lightly. So new partnerships are emerging to manage strategic planning on an on-­‐going basis.
Bamboozlement (not sure that is a word)……. with all the changes and asks of planning.  Housing crisis? Planning is the problem and the solution. Ageing population? You got it. Private rented sector? Why not. Home ownership…here’s planning.  In some ways t’was ever this. Confused (exasperated?) by  seemingly conflicting asks eg starter homes at expense of housing need for affordable rented; CIL exemptions against need to provide infrastructure; a plan in p lace by early 2017 but need to get up to date housing policies in place (to plan for starter homes).  And whilst I’m talking about confusion, what does early 2017 mean, what does having a plan in place mean and most importantly, what would intervention look like?
Despair……about ability to do proper placemaking when so much seems to be driven by viability. But particularly over ability to provide affordable housing. Doesn’t mean that people disagree with the reforms but there is concern about the knock on impact on providing affordable housing. And provide infrastructure; everyone knows that the public are more amenable to new development if the right infrastructure to support it is provided. And in some places, despair about cuts and impact on ability to do the
job – but not everywhere.
Councils becoming builders again.  Looking again at property portfolios. Partnerships with developers.Using plan allocation powers – in an area of high demand and pressure, the council talking to landowners about infrastructure contributions and mitigating some of the development issues – creating a competitive tension between the landowners, and using that to work in the council’s – or community’s – favour. All of these initiatives need strong leadership from within councils and that can include being bold and taking some risks.

Some councils are being proactive in other ways, by managing risk and financial security. We’re getting quite a lot of requests for help with service improvements. Some borne out of looking over the cliff edge, but others not, just concerned about improvement and doing things better. Wolverhampton, Camden are two of the poster authorities for streamlining the way they work and focussing on the customer. Others are following -­‐ Halton, Cheshire West and Chester.
Southwark and Peterborough have both found ways of generating income that isn’t hiking up fees but by making the most of the skills of their staff.  Others share ‘expert’ services for eg Newcastle and Gateshead host a Tyneside wide conservation and araechological shared service. We’ve written about some of these.
Of course others are doing similar exercises driven by the need for cuts but that picture isn’t universal. There are places where planning is recognised as a core service to deliver the council’s corporate aspirations and haven’t been cut; might find it hard to fill posts but are recruiting and looking for skills focussing on delivery of schemes. One council chief exec said that spending money on getting a plan in place was money well spent. And if you work in one of these places, you can do good planning.  Another said that planning is so important to the council in terms of income generation and investment that they won’t be cut financially.
Finally, happiness…… this one was a struggle.  Is there any? There are glimmers. The West Berkshire and Reading high court challenge – and notwithstanding that the appeal against the ruling – which knocked out the affordable housing threshold of 10 and the vacant buildings credit – did make planners smile and restore some faith in the system.
And there is a new wave of younger planners – as the old guard, or even the not so old guard, has left. There is an appetite to crack on and get stuck in. Many many still practicing local authority planners appreciate that planning is a good profession and despite some of the challenges and difficulties, they still like their jobs. And long may that continue.

Happy, belated, 2016 to you all.

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