Planning needs to be local led

The latest planning reforms from Government seek to make some of the biggest changes to the planning system for generations.

But do the changes go far enough? Well that was one of the questions posed during the latest roundtable on the subject by TheBusinessDesk.com in partnership with international law firm CMS.

At the event it was suggested power needs to be given back to the localities so they can shape their own future.

“I think it’s all about thinking local. The people who are best placed to understand what the local community wants and needs are local government” explained Ben Cross, development associate at General Projects which is delivering a 350,000 sq ft development at Pollard Street in Manchester.

Rebecca Roffe, partner at CMS, added that although planning decisions need to be made locally it’s important to have a regional input in some instances.

“There are two things that need a wider more regional level, that’s the planning of transportation and infrastructure,” she said. “However, this need to be more obvious collaboration, with agreement on housing numbers.”

She added that doing this would hopefully stop the deadlock experienced for “many years” as a result of authorities saying “I don’t want to build that many houses, you can build them on your side of the border”.

For Philip Cox, chief executive of Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, a “One North planning” concept wouldn’t work, but he encourages all local areas to talk to each other.

Nick Lee, managing director of NJL Consulting, said it was about giving the regions as much chance as possible to win national investment and about local partnerships to build communities.

Paul Whittingham, assistant director developments and regeneration at Bolton Council agreed. But he warned that while coming together is great he doesn’t believe any city region has yet got it right.

Talking of funding he said it sometimes fails to go to the right places, as groups can be blinded by big projects which appear to have “big benefits” and smaller districts end up having to get “the crumbs afterwards”.

He said he’d like to see a “levelling up within Greater Manchester” and to ensure policy is joined up. For instance, he suggested that rather than having individual digital hubs operating in isolation in each district, why not join them up?

One of the biggest changes currently taking place in the sector is in the focus of planning, according to James Blakely, planning director at PRS developer Moda.

He said: “The word ‘repurposing’ seems to be in the dialogue now”, adding that Moda is working with large metropolitan authorities as part of small-scale developer groups focused on “repurposing spaces within city centres and increasing the blend of uses”.

He said this means moving away from a traditional view of space being purely commercial or retail and instead blending those uses together to include residential and educational uses while creating city centres that are “inspirational and aspirational.”

Mark Jackson, director at Scarborough International Properties, added that it’s important that any changes in planning don’t happen in a silo. “The key is that planning really has to support economic development and support the private sector in delivering that, without losing the principles and benefits of planning,” he said.

He added that challenges brought about by 2020 are accelerators rather than transformers. Citing opinion after the World Trade Centre attacks on September 11 2001, he said: “I remember after 9/11, all the talk was nobody’s ever going be able to be in tall buildings again. And how long did that last? I was in Manchester the other day and there’s massive buildings everywhere.”

Mark Worcester, director of planning at Turley, added that any time there is a refocusing he believes it must be done in “a holistic fashion that looks at the creation of places and the new emphasis on the public realm.”

He said “Cities aren’t just about shiny buildings, they’re about the places that [those buildings] are in, and the way people move about as well as interact and come together.

“Cities have always driven economies and been places of collaboration and innovation, but how we get people in and out of a city centre is going to be crucial” he expressed.

Citing his own experience, he said: “I’ve been commuting in and out of Manchester for over 20 years and it was only in the last 12 months I actually saw some new trains.

“We can’t see that again, we can’t let the next 20 years be the same. But beyond that it’s about looking at the whole [city centre] realm and cycling infrastructure etc, making it more sustainable.”

Chris Bowes, a partner at CMS added that there needs to be caution when talking about the future with regards to infrastructure projects. He said a lot has been made of the Government’s commitment to give over £4bn to deliver big projects that would support its levelling up agenda.

Bowes said: “Northern cities ought to have a degree of scepticism about central government support.”
He added the idea that in 2021 there’d be “massive amounts of cash around” needs to be treated with caution as “headlines are full of how the country is going to have start paying back the cash that’s already been used [during the crisis]”.

He added that as a result, local authorities should perhaps focus on the “projects that we collectively in the North can deliver” without the big infrastructure or cash commitments from central government.

So, it’s clear that the planning sector is facing changes and that the role for local decision makers is crucial. However, in addition to further calls for more local power the panellists at this round table (and one held in Yorkshire), all agreed that local planning departments need to be properly resourced.

Jon Roebuck, from Vu:City, said: “Irrespective of policy and things like that we need to correctly resource planning departments.”

Lee added: “I totally sympathise with local authorities, we have to have much more resourcing into the planning system at local authority level to deal with matters.

“It is fundamental for local authorities to get the quality of resources in to be able to deal with everything going on in our planning world.”

Blakely agreed, stating: “The planners we come across, just want to make a key difference to their city or their area.”

He added that while the White Paper recognises planning has a vital role to play in zero carbon economics, provision of new homes and more, it contains no details about how local authorities are going to be resourced to meet this demand.

He added: “Resourcing needs to be sorted out, because there are really good people in local authorities”. He warned that without proper resourcing and perhaps devolution, trying to deliver what the white paper sets out is “naive”.

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