Create planning ‘champions’ to rebuild trust, urges NLA sounding board

Wednesday 10 July 2019

London’s development community needs to work harder to enshrine social value in procurement decisions, but the capital also needs to make planning more accessible, with recognisable champions helping to better communicate its benefits to the wider population.

Those were two of the key views to emerge at the latest meeting of NLA’s Sounding Board, held at the City Centre at the start of June.

Maximising social benefits is clearly a real challenge for what has become almost a ‘faux profession’, said Be First managing director Pat Hayes, especially over ‘how to hold these guys’ feet to the fire’ delivering benefits like apprenticeship places for example. Partly this is simply about building a relationship with the contractor, post-procurement decision. But the concept of social value is also confused, and local authorities and contractors perhaps have to change their mindsets and be less rigid, thinking about the economic benefits that might arise from public expenditure. ‘I’m not sure the new rules will help’, said Hayes, referring to a consultation document from the Cabinet Office on government procurement. ‘We have to get something that is more than a trickle-down of wealth’.

Sarah Cary, executive director place at LB Enfield said she had spent 10 years trying to build social value in at British Land, and is now working to test ideas of measurement on social impacts at Enfield. The authority has now implemented a rule so that it is forced to talk about how decisions support corporate objectives including housebuilding.  She also stressed that  building relationships with suppliers was more important than measurement in order to clear out some of the tick-box elements of procurement. 

When he was at the GLA, Richard Blakeway of BexleyCo said the authority focused on creating economic and social benefits, but flexibility is needed and you can only go so far with measurements – ultimately it is about mindsets, but also about what procurement methods you choose. At the GLA Blakeway was a strong proponent of the use of framework panels, but where they might be good in terms of speed, flexibility sometimes suffers. ‘The route you choose is probably as important as the way you measure it’.

One trend, said sounding board chair Robert Evans, is that towards investment. But it is enormously dependent on how far a government requires contractors to achieve whatever the government of the day thinks it wants, said LSE London director Tony Travers. Perhaps when it comes to modular construction, the government could place a requirement on contractors to require that ‘x per cent’ of staff are from local further education establishments, suggested Pocket CEO Marc Vlessing. ‘If you create a linkage between the modular factory, the developers and the local authorities, you’re making progress’, he said. However, again and again, the pragmatism of getting things done on time and budget oversails everything.

This area is symptomatic of so much of property, said the Bartlett Real Estate Institute’s Yolande Barnes, in that it is silo-ised, segmented and specialised. ‘Very few people have that end goal in sight’, she said, ‘but increasingly the investors do’, with an income stream that particularly captures social value. Perhaps the challenge is to think not about regulation and rules but about how the process of the industry works and how you bring procurement teams in to find ways of participating in long-term income streams. ‘That requires a much bigger revolution in real estate’, and would be much better than simply putting rules ‘at the edges’.

And yet there is innovation and ‘catalytic work happening’ in some areas, particularly in terms of diversity, said Publica director Lucy Musgrave, and in examples like the procurement team at the Barbican working with the City to get out and speak to different players. Occupiers really care about this stuff, said Robert Evans, because they want to keep the best people. ‘I think it’s on the rise’.

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The public’s trust in the planning and development system, however, is clearly moving in a different direction, with a growing breakdown and a wider belief that ‘taxes’ such as CIL do not benefit local areas and communities. How could we take people with us to reinstall a faith in the system?

Certainly, said Peter Eversden, Chair, London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies, a failure to build enough low-cost rented homes will not change rapidly, and good local plans are ‘essential’ to improve the sense that communities are participating in what happens and where. A lot of ‘behind closed doors negotiations’ are still going on between developers and local authorities, with the result that people feel that decisions have already been made. Mayoral call-ins of schemes are also problematic for communities, said Eversden – the process is not similar enough to that required by local authorities – perhaps they should have plans which have site allocations which describe exactly what will happen.

This sounded a little like an argument for a zoning system, felt LSE London director Tony Travers, who would be a proponent of trying such a method of ‘baking in’ rules. But on public trust, said GLA London Assembly member Tom Copley, it starts with the local plan and how involved communities feel. The TCPA is working on inclusive planning - getting some groups that aren’t usually involved in the planning process. But there has been a ‘chipping away of planning’ by the government, including over permitted development rights, again undermining public trust. These further confuse the public when authorities say they are powerless to prevent schemes with tiny flats – one in Croydon was built recently which was just 10m2 – and other schemes branded ‘hovels’ by Eversden were proving damaging to high streets in places like Walthamstow. Planning is also badly resourced because of the years of austerity, said Copley.

Another issue is the lack of proper, ‘charismatic’ role models out there for planning on TV or elsewhere to counter criticisms from people like Kevin McCloud or George Clarke, said Croydon’s director of planning and strategic transport Heather Cheesbrough. ‘It’s easy to kick planners…You need to have people to go into communities who inspire people and talk about the joy of planning’, she said. Communities tend to respond well to small matters like materials but fail to see the big, strategic level issues quite often, she added. ‘How can we really spread the message of planning because it affects everybody? We’re doing lots of good work but we’re still failing as a profession’.

One point Pocket CEO Marc Vlessing learnt from the late Peter Hall was that the thing that made the biggest difference in local accountability in neighbourhood planning in Holland was that the mayor insisted that all councillors had to stand for neighbourhood plans, which were then voted on.

‘The difficulty with the planning system’, said Tony Travers, ‘is it is almost impossible for any member of the public to understand all of this’. In a sense it has become a tax through the planning system to pay for things, and yet, with the site-by-site system, this means local people have to put up all the consequences such as ‘the bigger, the denser’. But we were also seeing the ‘gradual nationalisation of the planning system’ towards a model of overriding the system, with no choice. Perhaps, Travers went on, the only way of getting any clarity is for some effort to be made to ‘deconstruct’ the system so that planners and politicians can explain it as a whole and why it works in the ‘odd’ way it does. Communities should also be ‘rewarded’ for ‘taking development’ in a more effective way than CIL currently does.

Ballots on estate renewal have at least been positive, empowering local people to vote, said London Communications Agency’s Robert Gordon Clark.

But on the subject of better communication of planning, NLA has been listening to the difficulties expressed by neighbourhood forums and talking about trying to digest the London Plan and communicate it as successfully as was done with the Abercrombie plan in a 1945 Penguin book by EJ Carter and Erno Goldfinger, said Peter Murray.

It is always difficult reaching consensus on how you communicate with 8.5 million people on the London Plan, said Darren Richards, manager of OAPFs and Growth Strategies at the GLA. But he believes we have ‘lost what the public interest is’, compared to the relatively ‘single view’ in the 50s and 60s with the New Towns programme for example (there was just a three-day inquiry over the building of Milton Keynes). One way to empower more people and get them involved was via youth councils, suggested Musgrave, asking people who have never been engaged for their views. Or perhaps make planning part of the education system, said GL Hearn planning director Stuart Baillie. Maybe you could even install a quota on age representation in planning committees. ‘Making planning sexy is quite interesting but is a big challenge’, he said.

In the end, said Travers, it is about changing the nature of trust in politics, with Brexit having started a ‘cultural disconnect issue’ and people – real voters – feeling that they are having development done ‘to’ them. ‘It all comes down to the need for political leadership’, he said. ‘But in a world where political leadership is afraid of public pushback’.

By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly
@davidntaylor

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