On Being a Councillor

I seem to have had quite a few comments and discussions recently about politicians and planners, and several people have asked me why I became a politician, what it was like on planning committee and what I think of politicians now. So I thought I’d have a go at writing a blog about it!

I was a Bristol City Councillor between 1994 and 2002, representing first Southville Ward and then Knowle Ward, at a time when Labour controlled the council (with a pretty big majority when I first got elected). It was also a time of constant change, as after my first year we transitioned to being a Unitary Council, with the abolition of Avon County Council, operating with the same tight city boundaries as before, but taking on massive new functions including Education and Social Services, with massive new budgets. We also took a decision to remove the post of Chief Executive and restructured the council on at least 3 occasions during my 8 years as a councillor. Just to add to all that, the government also inflicted upon us the Cabinet/Scrutiny system, moving away from a traditional committee system that had operated in local government for many years, to one which no one was familiar with and which many resisted. So a lot was packed into my 8 years, a lot of change and even more learning.

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Why we need Planning “Champions”

DSCN0268In the July edition of The Planner I wrote an opinion piece on why we need more planning champions, both locally and nationally (see article below). Part of the purpose of the comment piece was a response to the local election results, but actually when writing it I came to the view that these results were unlikely to have a major impact on planning  locally, at least not in the short term. What seemed more interesting as an issue was how local politicians deal with planning and what they know about planning before they are elected.

This is important because even in this world of cabinet and scrutiny, or mayoral systems, we still have planning committees where real decisions are taken by back bench councillors. Existing and newly elected councillors will undoubtedly pick up planning casework and some will sit on these planning committees, but how do we prepare them for this quasi-judicial role? There is a real need for ongoing training for councillors on the workings of the planning system, and I say ongoing quite deliberately, as things are always changing in the planning world. Even once a local plan is approved there is still plenty to be aware of as a councillor.

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Housing Crisis – Confusion Abounds!

DSCN0285Oh no, not another blog on the housing crisis! There seem to be so many at the moment and just as I think about writing one, someone gets there before me with many of the issues I was going to write about. So why am I bothering? Well over the last few weeks I’ve come across some interesting examples of good and bad policy and practice that impacts on housing and I’ve written about some of it briefly in different blogs or articles relating to different topics, but now seems like a good time to bring some of it together, as a contribution to this ongoing debate. So read on if you can bear to!

I’m certainly not suggesting I have the answers or solutions, but merely some thoughts on the type of issues that need addressing and some examples of just how much better they are addressed elsewhere. Also, my take on some of the solutions offered by others is that on their own they won’t work, but maybe together and combined with other things there are some answers out there that might just make a difference, we’re just not joining things up properly. And that’s about joining up locally as much as it is about joining up centrally at national policy level, not all the blame rests with central government, local councils can be just as much at fault for contributing to the problem.

What strikes me most about some of the debate is the serious lack of any strategic planning in the UK at the moment. Ever since the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Spatial Strategies we have been left with a void of strategic planning, reinforced by the Localism Act and its emphasis on local councils taking control of decisions about the supply of housing. So we have a government that says it wants to build more homes but which refuses to set targets for local councils to meet. Local councils when agreeing their plans listen to the voices that shout loudest, those that want to preserve and protect. In cities that means all those that want to keep derelict or green spaces close to their houses just as they are and in more rural areas that means those intent on protecting every blade of grass from any form of development. The outcome is fewer homes planned for in Local Development Frameworks and fewer sites allocated for development and fewer houses built (a slightly simplistic overview, but you get the point?).

Interestingly, a recent case in North Somerset may well be the catalyst to change some of this, although the final outcome is still awaited as the council have yet to respond in detail to the ruling (for more detail see an article I wrote for Bristol 24-7). Effectively, the council has just been told its plan is likely to be considered unsound and doesn’t comply with national policy because it doesn’t make enough provision for new homes, according to a Planning Inspectors report, brought about after a challenge from Bristol University. Previously, the councils immediate response to the removal of national targets was to take over 10,000 houses out of its plans. The council is now having to reconsider that approach and accept that their assessment of need doesn’t fit with that of the most recent planning inspectors view, which brings into question the whole underlying approach of ‘self-containment’ at the heart of their plan. It both baffles and bemuses me how a council that sits so close to Bristol and its boundary can draw up a plan that tries to ignore the relationship with the city, but that’s what they did!

The lesson to be drawn from this, in my view, is that some form of national target for house building is critical. The Regional Spatial Strategies were by no means perfect, were hated by many and perhaps weren’t in place long enough to judge quite whether or not they would have delivered, but something that takes an overall strategic view of growth and the need to plan for it over a longer period has got to be better than what we have at the moment. A proper process of negotiation and compromise to agree local targets to help meet national targets has got to be better than the current conflict based approach where councils do one thing, developers challenge and government inspectors then impose housing numbers and changes to plans that have already been agreed locally.

Another issue that struck me relates to this whole debate about taxing housing and/or land. This seems to be something that rears its head every now and then, and used to be something that changed with every change of government, post 1947 when the Planning Act was first introduced. For me the critical point is about land value increases secured as a result of planning permission, again something that has been long debated, and is pretty unlikely to hit the agenda under the current government. Now I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that landowners shouldn’t be able to benefit financially from securing planning permission on their land, but in my view there needs to be some control on this, to reduce speculative permissions and development and to enable more affordable developments to take place. Perhaps we could try something like the system used in Freiburg, where there are few if any volume house builders as land is bought up by the council and parcelled off in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self build, custom build and cooperative housing schemes, something we see very little of in the UK. Over there they have a system that freezes land prices, where the value of land pre and post planning permissions is set at a more sensible rate, so there is still profit to be had but not to the extent of the land market over here. Now surely that makes land for housing more affordable which in turn makes housing more affordable – doesn’t it?

Understanding cities and how they operate seems to me to be critical to this debate about housing, most of us now live in cities and urban areas and that trend looks set to continue. The notion that we can keep cramming our cities with higher and higher density housing, using up every last piece of green space, without thinking about the impact this has on the people living in those communities and neighbourhoods is just plain daft. But that seems to be what is happening, there are constant cries that there is plenty of brownfield land to be developed, we don’t need to expand our cities and encroach on that sacrosanct piece of land that is the great British greenbelt. Well, sorry, but I disagree. Many people don’t want to live in high density areas, they don’t want to live in apartments without gardens, and they don’t want to live in urban spaces with no greenery or green space to enjoy. So at some point, something has got to give and as a town planner myself, I would rather it gave in a planned and coordinated way than a speculative, unplanned manner that will only lead to development in all the wrong places. I think it is time to have a proper grown up debate about the green belt, about expanding our cities and their boundaries to encompass sustainable growth along transport corridors, where local facilities can be planned in to meet community needs, whilst at the same time preserving and protecting valuable green space within and outside cities and creating new ‘green belts’ where they are needed.

The problem with all this is it means some form of government intervention, which pretty much goes against the grain of recent and current thinking. The focus instead is on relaxing state intervention, particularly when it comes to our planning system, as there are constant calls for fewer regulations so developers can get on and build. Or intervention is focused on the individual, through schemes like Help to Buy, rather than on a collective need requiring wider intervention which might actually make a difference.

So the debate continues, as I am sure will the many housing blogs, as government, both local and national, fails to get to grips with the issues and fails to make the difference that is needed.

 

The Problem with Housing Policy

The problem with housing policy is we are all just too passive, we don’t take control. We know there is a problem, even if some deny it. We know volume house builders and housing associations seem incapable, unable or unwilling to solve the problem – that is they are not building enough homes each year to house all the people that desire a home at a price they can afford. Yet for some reason we just sit back passively waiting for someone else to sort it all out. Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from history?

In UK housing history there are some fantastic examples of people taking control for themselves, of claiming areas of land and building their own home. Perhaps the best example is that of the ‘plotlanders’ of South East England in the early 20th Century, where areas of disused agricultural land were sold off in small plots to people wanting to build their own holiday home or small holding, these were then gradually improved and extended into permanent homes. This was all pretty much unregulated (before the introduction of the 1947 Planning Act) and led to quite strange areas of ad hoc layouts and designs around the Essex coast. But whatever they looked like, these were fiercely independent communities, who had built their own homes, without help from those in power, they’d done it through self help and mutual aid – an interesting concept often mentioned by Colin Ward in his writings on housing and planning – borne out of anarchist philosophy where people come together in voluntary cooperation without the need for state intervention, authority and control. There are many examples of squatters and others who have reclaimed the land, taking over derelict or empty properties to turn these into much needed homes, or travellers who have purchased land and tried to settle on it.These examples in recent times are, however, all to infrequent and unsuccessful, often written off as the fringe activity of a radical few and stifled by regulation and enforcement action.

Given the large numbers of people who can no longer afford a decent home to live in you have to wonder why it is that more direct action or self help has not been the order of the day. What is that would generate this tipping point where people seek to take control for themselves? Or have we really become a nation of passive people happy to rely on the private market or state to provide for our basic needs? It’ll be interesting to see just how bad things have to get before we see real change in this area.

One of the things that does appear to be happening at the moment is a slight shift of attention away from mass build towards self build or custom build as an option for housing supply. In the UK this is but a tiny proportion of current build (7-10%) compared to other European Countries where the figure is more likely to be over 50%. Recent reports by Alex Morton of the Policy Exchange and the Self Build Government Industry Working Group both refer to the potential of  self build to make a much greater contribution to housing provision. Both also refer to the planning system as a major barrier to this happening at the moment, as well as land values, difficulties of financing schemes, mortgage lenders etc. So it seems there could be a solution, based on the idea of self help, that is gathering some interest at last.It remains to be seen whether or not anything will happen as a result of these various reports and to what extent the Lyons Housing Review recently set up by the Labour Party will even consider this as part of the solution, or whether it will focus instead on typical mass scale solutions like new towns and garden cities?

Alex Marsh in a recent blog on housing talks about the need to go back to first principles and suggests that 2014 could just be the year where we see the housing policy debate get serious – couldn’t agree more and let’s hope he is right. But to do that could involve some quite radical thinking and radical change in not just housing policy, but also planning policy and other areas too.

One things for sure, something needs to change or we might just reach that tipping point where people do begin to take control for themselves!