Thursday, August 25, 2011

In defence of the National Planning Policy Framework

Middle England is in revolt and the issue that is attracting their fury is planning.  Or more precisely, the Government’s proposed new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its presumption in favour of sustainable development. 

The Editor of Country Life, Clive Aslet, claims that “the object (of the NPPF) is to let development rip through those parts of Britain that aren’t formally protected as National Parks or part of the Green Belt. This is most of what us still regard as our green and pleasant land – ‘all fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes’, as George Eliot put it.”

Shaun Spiers from CPRE adds, that “the presumption in favour of development is clearly about development, not sustainability. The message for local authorities is ‘build, build, build.’”

Government Ministers appear to be at war with the countryside’s leading advocates.  The complaints from groups such as the National Trust and CPRE, hitherto seen as part of the true blue brigade, are dismissed by Ministers as “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups."

The Countryside Alliance’s Dylan Sharpe, says “It's time to call an armistice and for all parties to get back round the table.”

It’s funny, they weren’t calling for that when the Government ripped up the regional strategies and introduced localism.  Some 220,000 homes that were planned under the previous Government, have now been scrapped as a consequence of the abolition of the regional plans.

The reality is that no local authority that puts in place a local plan has anything to fear by the NPPF and the presumption in favour of sustainable development.  What the Government are trying to do is prevent a repeat of the 2004 Planning Act.  Between 2004 and 2010, despite requirements to do so, just 13% of councils put in place a local plan.  If you believe in localism and a plan led system, it requires a local authority to have a plan.  You can’t allow them to drag their heels in the hope that difficult decisions will go away.

Aslet is wrong when he says that “a carefully evolved system of checks and balances has been junked in favour of a presumption that big development will get its way.”  The NPPF is an attempt to ensure that a system of checks and balances remains in place under localism, and that councils face up to their new responsibilities. 

In opposition, the Conservatives always said they wanted more development and to build more homes.  They argued that the problem with the top-down regional strategies was that it built the wrong homes in the wrong places, where they were not wanted.  Their solution was localism.

There are legitimate debates to be had about whether we concrete over greenfields or whether we cram more people into our built up areas; whether we create sustainable new settlements or whether we disperse development over wider areas.  Under localism, it will be for local communities and their community leaders to grapple with these issues and policy dilemmas. 

This could result in a loss of greenfields in certain areas, but that is only because those communities have decided that is a more desirable outcome than cramming people into high rise, small boxes in our town centres.  

The rural countryside lobby is quite happy to take the bits of localism that empowers people to say no, but they don’t want councils to face up to the responsibility that goes along with having these new localist powers.  The NPPF does just that.

Ministers, stick to your guns.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Riots and regeneration

In July 1981, the streets of Toxteth erupted into violence and rioting.  The immediate political reaction, as this week, was one of condemnation.  But out of the riot came the regeneration policies that we today associate with Margaret Thatcher’s decade in office.

Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment, temporarily moved to Liverpool to see for himself what had gone wrong with that great City.  He concluded that much of the problem lay with squabbling local authorities and a municipal disdain for private enterprise.  What was needed was political leadership, better infrastructure and the freedom to allow the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish. 

The record of the policy initiatives that emerged - Urban Development Corporations, City Challenge, and the International Garden Festivals (to clean up derelict brownfield areas) - is mixed, but there is no doubt that they brought some remarkable successes with the regeneration of Liverpool’s Albert Dock and London’s Docklands standing out as the most iconic.  What’s more, the 1980’s marked a turning point for many of our provincial cities from post-industrial decline to one of urban renaissance - people wanted to live in our city centres again.

In the 1990’s and 2000s, the number of regeneration Quango’s proliferated, public funding was spread too wide and thinly and micro-management replaced big picture leadership.  Public money went on masterplans and marketing, with the public sector setting out its visions and targets regardless of the commercial realities on the ground, and developers increasingly expected to pick up the tab for the costs of the infrastructure.  The introduction of the Coalition Government’s localism agenda swept away much of this nonsense, but with it the original virtues of Heseltine’s targeted regeneration policies.

Of course there are differences between what happened in Toxteth and Brixton thirty years ago and the events of the past week.  The images of hooded youths emerging from department stores with flat screen TVs and Nike trainers suggests that these disturbances were motivated by opportunism and personal gain.  Yet, something has gone terribly wrong.

The Right blame family breakdown, a proliferation of drug use and lenient sentences; the Left poverty and inequality.  Both point to educational underachievement, which has contributed to there being a million unemployed 16-25 year olds.

The events of the past week present the first big challenge for the Government’s policy of localism.  Do our municipal leaders have the ingenuity to provide a coherent response or will we see a patchwork of ‘knee jerk’ reactions?  Mr Cameron is already discovering that at times of crisis people look to their national leaders, not their local ones, and opinion polls show that the people haven’t been impressed with those leaders. 

The question now is how the Coalition responds?  What policies will emerge out of the ashes of last week’s riots?  Regeneration must be an important part of the answer.  The Coalition could do no worse than to reinvigorate Heseltine’s triple fix of Political leadership, Infrastructure and Entrepreneurial spirit – or what we might call the PIE strategy.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The end of the suburban high street?

The traditional high street is as much a British institution as the Sunday roast.  Yet like its culinary counterpart, it is one that is in decline.

A lot has been made about the impact of out of town shopping and the growth of the big supermarkets.   In the early 1990s around three quarters of all retail spend took place on the high street; by 2010, this had dropped to under 50%.  With the convenience of internet shopping this is likely to drop further to just 40% by 2014.  Local councils haven’t helped either by restricting cars or increasing the cost of car parking.

Last week, the Labour Party published a four point plan to ‘save Britain’s high streets’.  It follows the Coalition Government’s appointment of celebrity retail queen, Mary Portas, to review the same issue.  We will have to wait for the Portas review, but Labour’s four point plan of more regulatory powers for councils and a temporary VAT cut won’t prevent the inevitable.

For what we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in personal lifestyles that is transforming the retail business environment.   The typical national retailer is cutting its standard number of stores from 220 plus to less that ninety with many moving from the high street to out of town.

And it’s not just retail.  Of the 130 commercial office locations in London identified by the GLA, virtually none outside the well-established locations of central London have experienced any new office investment in the past twenty years. 

Not only are we are all travelling to out of town centres to do our shopping; we are not working in our surburban centres either.  We are just commuting through them by train or car, possibly picking up a newspaper, coffee or a microwave meal on route.

We need to redefine our town centres and make them relevant again.  The standard design of the long high street where people wonder down one side and come back the other seems to belong to a bygone age.  We don’t have the time to do that anymore. 

It’s not all gloom.  Some centres have established themselves as niche places attracting people for their cultural or leisure offer.   Peckham library, for example, has become a focal point and a genuine community hub attracting a wider offer and there are examples elsewhere of innovative traders coming together to host farmers’ markets and other events.  

As BCSC president Richard Akers said last week, “The issue is that high streets have to become more relevant to consumers.  Politicians don’t really address that point.”  The question is will Mary Portas?

What are your thoughts?  Do you think that the traditional high street is in terminal decline or is its outlook more favourable?  Do we need policies to support the high street or its decline some sort of inevitability?  And who are the best people to reinvent it – the public policy makers or community entrepreneurs?

Wyn Evans is Founding Director of Forty Shillings.