Archive for January, 2011

January 11, 2011

It’s the Planner’s JOB to Question the Status Quo and Look at the Big Picture

As a co-founder of the ‘250 New Towns Club’, I get involved in a lot of sparky discussions. A senior planner in a London borough emailed in with some common challenges, starting with a comment that planning ministers are from the world of business and will move onto other areas, so losing continuity and knowledge of planning at the highest level. My response was as follows.

“The background of the current batch of planning ministers is local government and policy think tanks. One of the problems is that ministers and MPs have not had sufficient life experience outside the world of parliamentary and local authority politics. This reflects the loss of meaning, purpose and direction in national and local politics.

The town and country planning act 1947, which was about the state appropriating the right to develop land and its associated betterment value, was one of a number of nationalisations,. It says something for the planning system that of all the denationalisations since the 1980s, only planning and the N H S have survived.

You say ‘as a whole, the Planning system is a good, robust and workable solution’

What is the problem that the planning system is a workable solution for, as suggested? The poor quality of development proposals and lack of neighbour consultation has been encouraged by reliance upon the mediation of planning officers and committees. By taking away the right of the freeholder to develop his or her land, the state has diminished the role of the landowner, treating him or her as incapable of bringing forward development that is positive and progressive. What did landowners do before the planning system? They treated other landowners and neighbours as equals in the world of development. Everyone else was excluded from consideration. Even now, if I build an extension to my house, I will consult my neighbours before I draw up proposals. However I am the exception, the planning system takes away the need for landowners to consult and collaborate with each other upon development of their land. Rather the consultation is mediated through planning officers and planning committees, and so the planning act entitled third parties to be involved in the development process. One of the complaints I hear from my planning colleagues is the fact that neighbours no longer seem to talk to each other, except through solicitors’ letters. The planning system has legalised what was previously an adult, informal relationship between landowners, or occupiers. This has changed the nature of the relationship, so what was stated directly and clearly is now couched in the language of the courts and, increasingly, the environmentalist.

It is the changed nature of the relationship between the state and landowners and between individual landowners that now requires the continuation of a process of legal mediation between interests that are seen as conflicting. This now forms the basis of the planning system in the UK and in many other parts of the world. The legal backbone to the system does make it robust. The loss of meaning purpose and direction, mentioned above, results in the state interfering more and more in the individual landowner’s development intentions and relations with neighbours and third parties. However, this increasing interference is of a technical and managerial nature, lacking, as it does, ideology and political determination to develop. This is why the good intentions of national politicians end up with unforeseen consequences and apparently chaotic results on the ground.

You say ‘problem is the people who administer it, and their reason for administering it’

We need definitely to plan and we need planners. If anything, there is a dearth of effective economic, social and physical planning. I am constantly amazed that, in my work in local authorities, even large ones like Croydon, I find that I am one of a very small number of officers or managers, who are thinking strategically in the long term, say more than five years. Every service, such as education, health, economic development, finance and social care have no one with a responsibility to plan further than three years. Even property professionals in local government and in the private sector, now think in the short term of one to 5 years. How can thousands of new homes and jobs be created, when national and local government employees are directed to think in the immediate future? It is as if, somehow, private industry and developers will create wealth, irrespective of how we plan.

I have yet to meet a town planner who has not got within them the kernel of desire for positive change and development. The problem of the planner is one of the mediator, caught between apparently mindless and greedy developers on the one side and extremely self interested householders on the other. No wonder that older development controllers become cynical and embittered, after years of demanding developers shouting at them and moaning householders complaining to them, day in day out. Also, not surprisingly many planners retreat and hide behind the skirts of the legal processes.

You say ‘get people to query what they’re doing, sit up and take notice and actually realise that as a Planner, it’s their JOB to question the status quo and look at the big picture’

I couldn’t agree more with this statement. This is the start of finding the solution to building 250 new towns, in whatever form they should come. What might be interesting is to make this the starting point of your thoughts and start to ask questions and paint what you see of the big picture. You might be surprised where this takes you, but it can only help develop your understanding, and perhaps, to challenge the 250 New Towns Club and others with even more searching questions.

January 2, 2011

Localism Bill

Word counts of the Localism Bill reveal a lot of the thinking behind it. Despite all of the rhetoric that preceded and accompanied its launch, ‘vision’, ‘freedom’, ‘growth’ and ‘deregulation’ are not mentioned at all.  If there is no room for principles, then there are nine mentions of ‘democracy’, but only in relation to repealing the duty on local authorities to promote democracy. There is one mention of ‘prosperity’, which is to abolish the LDA Prosperity Board.  There are, however,  six ‘penalties’ cited for local authorities to watch out for and over 360 ‘provisions’ (legal instructions) included. Let’s review some of the claims to see if there is real intent and not just rhetoric behind the Bill.

“Lifting the burden of bureaucracy”

We all need some bureaucracy to record changes, agreements and to plan. What most people sense as the ‘burden of bureaucracy’ is the interference of the state and unappointed third parties in their affairs and this includes development. However, proposals in the Bill extend the planning system, rather than dismantle it. Developers will be required to consult on significant schemes with further regulations on this requirement to come. We can expect developers to have to persuade up to 51% of residents in a local area to support a scheme before it is viable. In fact, the planning system will be strengthened by national planning statements, local plans and, in future, neighbourhood plans, all of which any development will need to comply with. In effect, landowners will have less and less control over the development of their land. The local authorities will still be able to apply levies on the land to pay for existing and new services and infrastructure. Neighbours and environmental groups will need paying off. No doubt, utility companies will continue to extract value where they can from any development. In addition, unappointed agencies, such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), will continue to demand “quality”, as defined by them. The Bill is over 180 pages in length and is complex in that it covers several local government functions, including property, planning and local tax raising, with many references to current legislation. Even planning lawyers have complained at its lack of clarity, pointing to one of the main beneficiaries of the Bill being the courts and solicitors. This will increase, not reduce, the legal burden upon and interference from third parties in development proposals.

“Empowering communities”

The Tory election manifesto referred to a new model for development as ‘open source planning’, using the analogy from IT software, where geeks share software creativity and their products with others in the hope of mutual and wider benefits. This populist image and message, written by policy wonks at the ‘Localis’ web site, is an interesting analogy. IT developments, including software, require only hardware and network capacity, that can be made available anywhere in the world. Anyone with the means to do so can buy the hardware off the shelf. New homes and infrastructure, however, differ significantly in that they require land, which is very much fixed by its location. Every parcel of land is unique, manifested by an array of geographical characteristics, both physical and human. It is also unique in its ownership, as it may, even if it is state owned in some form, have only one owner. Ownership interests can be changed, sold, split, shared and sub-divided in capitalism, but there is always only one set of owners. Until the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, the freehold interest in land had the freedom to develop it in a relatively unfettered manner. Post war planning legislation changed all that. Effectively, the right to develop your own land was appropriated by the state. The planning system was built to specify what development the state would permit. Although the scope of development permitted by the state has varied over the past 60 years or so, there has been no attempt to reverse the nationalisation of development rights. The Localism Bill presented the coalition government with the opportunity to dismantle the planning process, but they have opted instead to dilute further the control and ability of landowners to develop their land. In effect, the ‘community right to get involved’ with development is no more than interference, so as to extract a benefit from or share of the value that the landowner adds to his land when he develops.

Open source planning and empowering communities are populist attempts by the coalition government to reconnect with ordinary people. Many new government ministers and advisers have come through the local government system, either as elected Council members or as officers. They would have spent much of their time with environmental busybodies and disgruntled householders, whose house value has been negatively affected by new development nearby. The coalition government’s proposals in the localism bill to empower local people is a cynical move to provide short term political gain at the expense of increased provision of new homes and jobs. The specific regulations in the bill only add to the difficulties developers have in bringing forward schemes. Open source planning assumes that anyone can share in the development of land and buildings, so diminishing the role of the owner, who will be even less inclined to take the initiative in proposing schemes. Communities, however, progressive in their determination to build new homes, still require the land and co-operation of owners to do so, and all parties have to have some sort of plan they can trust will deliver some of what they want.

“Increased local control of public finance”

Several radical sounding phrases have been espoused by Ministers around devolving the state and enabling local people to finance the decisions they make locally. Austerity measures that significantly reduce resources for services and infrastructure at the local level have been masked by this rhetoric. So, what are the specifics? Well there is Tax Incremental Funding, which is a local tax raised on businesses and development in a defined area to pay for new infrastructure and current services. Then there is the Community Infrastructure Levy, another form of tax, but specific to particular development and its infrastructure. The Coalition Government have promised that  some of the funds will be able to be passed to neighbourhoods where the development has taken place, although these may not then get spent on infrastructure necessarily. Funds will be able to be spent on the ongoing costs of infrastructure, as well as the initial capital costs and the charges will be ‘independently examined’. In addition, councils may retain some of the Council Tax paid by occupants of new homes built in their area up to 2016, as an incentive to encourage new house building. Further regulations will also be brought in to establish a ‘Community right to buy’ of public assets.

Councils have long performed a role of owner of last resort to prop up local property markets, particularly in the period after the last war, but also to enable town centre redevelopments. One can envisage sharp division over such assets as inner city parks, where local communities will be split between those who want to receive benefits from taking over their ownership and development, and others who would want the park to remain for their use. The Bill offers no more than the prospect of protracted legal battles. Similarly, rural villages and urban ‘parishes’ could obtain the ability to grant themselves planning permission, if more than 50% of the electorate support it. This could be by one of two ways. A community right to build will be specified in further regulations and ‘eligible parishes’ (eligible to whom?) will be able to adopt neighbourhood plans, so long as they conform to the local authority and national development plans. These neighbourhood plans could include development orders that allow for certain schemes to be automatically permitted, for example all back extensions along a particular road. In fact, most of these ‘provisions’ exist in current legislation, so their continuity from the past to the present government is strong. One new area is  the rent hike for council and housing association tenants, who will have to pay 80% of market rent, causing many rents to double or treble in the near future. This is supposed to help fund the construction of new homes, but is unlikely to compensate for the removal of all social housing subsidies to councils that previously used to pay for the repairs and maintenance of crumbling housing stock. Council chief executives and finance directors are also looking longingly at the increased rents to help pay for other non-housing services (one of the ‘freedoms’ introduced in the Bill), so council tenants will help subsidise services enjoyed by their owner-occupying neighbours. So much for ‘fairness’ and ‘community cohesion’.

All of the financial changes proposed in the Bill are technical models of funding existing and some new infrastructure by deferred local taxation arrangements into the future. The net result is a massive increase in the tax burden on owners and developers and rental burden on tenants. The choice will be to increase local taxation, or stop services. Whose local control of public finance is this, apart from those ministers, civil servants, local authority members and senior officers aspiring to join the future elite in society?

“Ending public sector monopolies to increase opportunities”

As many councils are already considering the sale of their town halls, parks and libraries, in order to make budgets balance in the face of ‘austerity’, it is not surprising that the Bill points towards alternative forms and models of service provision. Staff buy-outs, along the John Lewis Partnership lines are said to be much in favour with ministers. Powerful, directly elected mayors in the 12 most significant provincial cities is also set out in the Bill.

Local people will be able to force referunda on local councils, although the Bill makes it clear that the council need only ‘consider’ the results and is not obliged to act upon them in any way.

Economic development and regeneration, traditionally the most innovative services in councils, are almost completely being dismantled, as a result of the cuts and focus on localism. These last remaining outward looking, research and investment part of many larger councils have been the first to be sacrificed in the retreat into parochialism and retrenchment of councils.

“Provide for more public scrutiny”

Making the salaries known of senior officers and councillors is hardly going to do more than demoralise those that are so scrutinised. Surely it is more important that they are judged by results, rather than what pay cut they are willing to accept. Chief executives and directors should be paid what it takes for them to deliver of their best, and not be reduced to mediocrity to justify lower pay. It is also the assumption that they must work without the protection and benefit given by personal privacy and contracts that is so galling, and which very soon will be applied to all who work in delivering public services. Hence every item of £500 expenditure is to be made public. Such transparency will do little more than drive indecision and inertia into all ranks of public services. Those so scrutinised will no longer be accountable to their elected bosses, but to third party scrutineers, with no democratic accountability.

“Strengthen accountability to local people”

The increased ‘rights’ to challenge services, scrutinise every action and demand referenda will make service delivery incredibly bureaucratic, lengthy and convoluted. It reflects the increasing distrust between ourselves as members of the same community/society that we are in danger of further changing the relationship of those individuals serving the state at the local level and those who they are supposed to serve. The Bill further reduces the authority of elected members, officers and service workers to deliver according to the political priorities of their electorate. The absence of clearly defined political programmes at both national and local levels has disenchanted the electorate into believing there is nothing, or no one worth voting for. The only way for our political leaders to distinguish themselves, therefore, is to hatch more ways to ‘shape places’ and ‘shape behaviour’, using the language and techniques of management sciences, such as economics, environment and psychology. It has long been the complaint of senior managers in most councils that their members concern themselves with the minutiae of management, but increasingly leave strategic choices to others, usually so-called experts. Now they will have to contend with external third parties also getting involved with day to day tactical and strategic decisions.
All of this adds up to national politicians abrogating political responsibilities to local representatives, increasingly unelected and self-appointed, and officers and front-line workers increasingly having to take the blame. Many parts of local government do need shaking up and there is great scope for efficiencies, but the Bill does the opposite. It reinforces the planning system, local taxation and local busybodies. There is no real political vision or story that can come out of it. Instead we will all need a friendly legal companion with us at all times to protect us from the indecision, inertia and impoverishment to come. What a way to serve the public and to receive what should be public services!

January 1, 2011

Bombay Railway

This TV documentary by production company 3di was screened on BBC two in December 2010.

Bombay is a city of 14 million people, 50% of whom live in slums. It will be the largest city on earth by 2020. The Bombay Railway carries 6.5 million passengers a day. It has grown over the years to meet the 10,000 a day migrants that move into the city, looking for their ‘city of dreams’.

Over 6900 people were killed by trains in Bombay in the last two years (2008 and 2009) and the numbers are rising. But the trains and stations provide life and livelihoods for millions everyday. The railway managers make every effort to keep the trains running to time. At peak times, a train will carry over 5000 passengers when it was designed for a capacity of 1500. In 2006, when 200 passengers were killed in a bomb attack, the railways were 100% back on time within 24 hours. In 2007, when a metre of rain fell in one day, it took only 48 hours for the trains to be up and running. This strong sense of purpose in overcoming huge pressures shone through this documentary.