David Mitchell on planning reforms…

pound shed closing down

You know planning reforms are definitely hitting the news when they come to the attention of  observational comedians. David Mitchell wrote an interesting article in yesterday’s Observer about the possible impact of a proposed relaxation of planning regulations primarily concerning changes of use on our town and city centres.

Is planning really to blame for the malaise on British High Streets and can it possibly provide a solution? Does planning protect our retail centres or does it merely play in to the hand of developers and create artificial ‘retail only’ environments in towns? Could a relaxation of planning regulations make town centres more flexible and more responsive to the needs of their communities?

Whatever your views, David Mitchell’s observations are well worth a read, find them online here.

(cartoon by David Foldari via The Observer)

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More community planning resources

“If you want to know how the shoe fits, asks the person who is wearing it, not the person who made it…” (communityplanning.net)

 

I’ve had some really interesting conversations about community planning this week. I believe it is very important that all communities are encouraged use the tools available to them, to reduce them being used solely for political posturing or just given lip service by developers and decision makers. I thought I would share a couple of very useful links:

CommunityPlanning.net   is a fantastic resource from, amongst others, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Royal Town Planning Institute (or RTPI, the chartered professional body of planners). Particularly useful pages are a good overview on policy and legislation on community planning in the UK (interesting the site also provides overviews for the Czech Republic, Italy and Slovakia). There is a rather detailed A-Z section on sources and mechanisms for funding for community-led neighbourhood projects. And I found the section on low carbon communities particularly interesting.

If you are in England (outside of London)   Planning Aid England   is run by the RTPI and can give you 15 minutes of  free advice from a chartered town planner and then assess if you are eligible for any further free assistance. Their site includes short guides to aspects of the planning system and a jargon busting section. But the section on Neighbourhood Planning is quite comprehensive (I found the list of where Neighbourhood Plans are currently being developed particularly interested, especially after my post written last year). There are also sites for Planning Aid London (a separate charity run organisation to Planning Aid England), Planning Aid for Scotland and Planning Aid Wales.

 

If you know of any other useful sites, please let me know and I’ll also add to this list as I find them.

The Folly

Originally posted on 3rd October 2012

As a rather proud (albeit ex-pat) Essex girl, with her heart firmly wedded to the Essex coast, I couldn’t resist reading more in to the reports that Grayson Perry has had planning permission granted for a holiday home in Wrabness, near Harwich. But this proposal appears to be no ordinary holiday home. it is proposed that the house will be an artistic interpretation of Essex culture, depicting the fictional life of one Essex woman called Julie, who eventually found contentment in her house by the coast.

In the most simplistic planning terms, it is important to point out that the proposed house is on the site of existing dilapidated farm house. Therefore it is a replacement dwelling, a normally uncontroversial planning consent, even in a rural location. It is also important to note that North Essex needs its cultural and tourist offer diversified in order to facilitate regeneration and has planning policies to support that. But this proposal seems a lot more romantic than just the standard planning considerations to me. The House of Essex revitalises the lost art of building follies.

A folly is defined, by the oracle known as Wikipedia, as

“a building constructed primarily for decoration, but either suggesting by its appearance some other purpose, or merely so extravagant that it transcends the normal range of garden ornaments or other class of building to which it belongs”. 

And Essex is full of follies and extravagant buildings, like Bateman’s Tower in Brightlingsea or Belchamp Hall Folly in Belchamp Walter. You could even include Layer Marney Tower near Colchester – which was originally built as merely the gatehouse for a dwelling that was meant to rival Hampton Court, but was never finished.

The Essex Coast is a beautiful and dynamic place. It is diverse and it is romantic. It stimulates and its remote location evokes a sense of adventure. People have travelled to the Essex Coast to find contentment for centuries, from the Chapel of St Peters in Bradwell to the Kursaal in Southend. The county of Essex is much maligned and underrated. The building of the House of Essex isn’t necessary, but in a county dominated by building solely to meet housing targets, it is refreshing to see a proposal that is just for its own sake. In my opinion, any opportunity to celebrate, diversity and create new heritage should be wholeheartedly embraced. Even if it is a folly.

All the planning documents for the House of Essex are available to be viewed through the very good (other Local Authorites, please take note) Tendring District Council website.

More on private public spaces

Last week I shared a link to The Guardian article about the increased incidence of private organisations owning and managing public space. Over the last couple of day I’ve been mullling over why this is a problem, if it is a problem at all?

Our public spaces, such as streets and parks, are typically managed by local authorities and, in a climate of reduced budgets, alternatives to this public management is naturally being sought. The management of public spaces by private organisations is not entirely new. For the last decade local authorities have increasingly used Section 106 (planning obligation) agreements to ensure that private developers are responsible for new public spaces in developments like new residential areas or business parks. The local authority is able to ensure the responsible management of these areas through a legal agreement. However, this is rarely used in perpetuity and responsibility often eventually falls to the local authority.

You also need to consider the quality of the publicly managed spaces around you. Are they really anymore accessible than the private public spaces mentioned in The Guardian? When thinking about publicly managed public spaces, I often think of concrete planters full of inhospitable spiky plants, low cost to maintain but also a deterrent to vandalism. I think of numerous ‘no ball game signs’ and the complete failure of post war developments to realise Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City. What is the problem with private organisations, with their increased capital, providing and managing these spaces instead?

The problems lies in the lack of accountability privately managed public realm has to its community. The Guardian article criticises the private approach as just providing spaces that will meet commercial interests, such as increased footfall to retail areas. The function of these spaces is of great importance. What may seem today like a perfect multifunctional space, suitable for providing a good retail experience or modern surrounding for an office, runs a great risk in not being future proof.

With these large areas of public realm remaining in private ownership, they also remain within the unequal system of land distribution and their private owners will undoubtedly, eventually, try to realise their optimum land value. There is no onus for the private landowner to permanently bequeath their space to the community and community interests are rarely effectively represented through market economics. Many towns are already populated with declining retail and office spaces awaiting private redevelopment or, increasingly rare, public intervention. There is no guarantee that the kind of developments mentioned in The Guardian will not eventually meet this fate.

Today’s modern, and often beautifully designed, pedestrianised spaces provide little opportunity to respond to the changing needs of the local community if it is not controlled by a body that is accountable to them. They will provide no opportunity for the community to use that space, no opportunity to use the space to build community resilience in challenging and changing economic times. The private public space will only evolve in response to its owners and not evolve to meet the needs of people, and that is the real risk with this approach.

What do today’s planning reforms mean for local communities?

Originally posted on 27th March 2012

The new National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF, was released today, accompanied with a great deal of fanfare about the removal of red tape and the empowerment of communities in the planning process. Promising unrestricted (and newly defined) sustainable development, relieving England from the bureaucratic forces holding it back from economic prosperity. The new NPPF supersedes all the previous topic specific national statements and guidance notes – replacing over 1300 pages of national planning guidance with a mere 50. The Government claim that this takes planning out of the hands of experts, simplifies it and makes it accessible to all

But what does this really mean for local communities? Firstly the framework is completely directed at interpretation at the local level. And, by local level, this means interpretation by the Local Planning Authority through the production of a Local Plan. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Local Authorities produced Local Plans – until they were replaced the Local Development Framework system in 2004.

The NPPF does not place any additional requirement for Local Authorities to engage with communities in the development of their Local Plans. It just states,

“early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area.”

What constitutes meaningful engagement or being proactively engaged is unclear and, presumably, also up to interpretation by each Local Authority.

The framework also introduces the option for Neighbourhood Plans. The Neighbourhood Plan has been introduced to allow communities to devise planning policies for their area and determine a certain scale of planning application. So does this give local communities carte blanche to direct development that meets their needs and, indeed, to refuse development in their local areas? Unfortunately not. The framework states,

“the ambition of the neighbourhood should be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area”.

Crucially it states that,

neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan”.

And even more significantly, any planning decision made by these new neighbourhood powers has to be subject to a local referendum. Huge onus is placed on Local Authorities to facilitate empowering all neighbourhoods and all members of the community to make these Neighbourhood Plans anything more than a lip service exercise, or a bastion of the privileged and vocal minority.

But what must be of primary concern, in terms of community involvement in the planning process, is the ambiguity that is left in the planning system in the immediate future. The NPPF is certainly brief compared to its predecessors, but it could also be criticised for being unclear. The instantaneous replacement of all the reams of national guidance with this short document, combined with only 12 months of local policies (adopted since 2004) continuing to be given their full weight when considering applications could result in a policy gulf. A gulf that may only be filled with applications being determined through appeal and possibly through the courts. Until there is clarity, the much maligned bureaucracy has been replaced with a void that can only be filled by legal processes. Whoever has the best planning lawyer will undoubtedly win. And that’s not a scenario that will empower many communities.

The National Planning Policy Framework was published today by the Department of Communities and Local Government and is available to read on the DCLG’s website