Ensuring that growth and great places aren’t incompatible … reflections on the RTPI Convention

rtpi programme image

The 2016 RTPI Convention earlier this week was attended by over 400 people keen to discuss how the profession and the planning system can support the delivery of growth. Being held just a few days after the UK’s Brexit vote, there was a predictable inevitability when every speaker prefaced their talk with the caveat ‘of course everything is uncertain now’. A consistent message across the day however was that regardless of the political uncertainty, the key challenges of demographic change, enhanced mobility and a national housing shortage still need to be addressed. And planning is central to producing long-term, strategic responses to these issues.

While Idox were at the conference exhibition in order to highlight the success of the i-Apply combined online planning and building control submissions service, our Knowledge Exchange team were at the convention itself.

Planning great places

Although there was plenty of discussion during the day about the ongoing impact of planning reform – especially the current review of the planning system in Scotland, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the role of the National Infrastructure Commission – the most inspiring sessions focused on practical examples of collaboration and inclusion in strategic planning.

Paul Barnard, Assistant Director for Strategic Planning & Infrastructure at Plymouth City Council described the key ingredients of aspirational plan making. The council has twice won the RTPI’s Silver Jubilee Cup for their pioneering approach, firstly in 2006 and then again last year for their Plan for Homes. This city-wide planning framework addresses issues including land release, infrastructure and delivery. Incredibly, the overarching Plymouth Plan replaced over 138 different strategies.

Paul explained that the challenge for the team was to develop credible policy responses to the social challenges facing the area, and then win over hearts and minds to support these solutions. The benefits of having one integrated strategy is that it sets a vision for ‘place’ that all departments can mobilise behind. Paul argued that the profession has to “believe in proactive, positive planning” and make the case for that every day in their work.

Delivering housing growth

Throughout the conference, the need to deliver more housing was a recurrent theme. A number of speakers argued that direct intervention in the housing market, for example through local housing companies or councils buying sites, was becoming a necessity. Toby Lloyd, Head of Policy at Shelter, pointed out that central government interventions have been focused on the consumer end of the market (for example, Starter Homes) rather than on delivering development sites and land.

Discussions during the day highlighted the current disconnect between where new housing is being delivered and where there are employment growth opportunities. Yolande Barnes, Head of Savills World Research, also suggested that we need to stop planning in terms of ‘housing units’ – people live in neighbourhoods and communities, and we shouldn’t forget this.

The question of how we capture land value, and use this to fund infrastructure development, was also raised repeatedly. In many situations, we have fragmented development delivered by different developers and the question of responsibility for wider public benefits is difficult. Planning tools such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 have attempted to address this, but do not necessarily provide a timely or joined up approach to infrastructure delivery.

What if cities could change our world?

While recognising the challenges facing the profession, there was a strong emphasis during the day on the transformational potential of planning.

Alfonso Vegara, of Fundación Metropóli, describing the rejuvenation of Bilbao, suggested that successful planning needs to recognise the new scale of cities and economic development. The interconnections mean that growth corridors or city regions are only going to become more important. Successful economic growth will be dependent on retaining and attracting talent and skills in polycentric areas, and strategic planning needs to take this into account. The successful regeneration of Bilbao “was not a miracle, but the result of vision and leadership.”

This theme was also reflected in Ed Cox’s session on the RTPI’s work with IPPR on the need for an integrated, spatial approach to growing the economy in the North of England. Producing a vision for prosperity will depend on addressing key structural challenges. Maximising opportunities within an interconnected metropolitan region needs to recognise the importance of both cities and their hinterlands. It was also argued that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ ambition will fail if citizens aren’t helped to feel engaged economically, politically and socially.

A rallying cry for leadership

There has been a trend in recent years for the planning system to be portrayed as a barrier and a bureaucratic obstacle which is getting in the way of growth. One speaker quoted Joseph Konvitz saying “planning has been discredited in the public mind and starved by the public purse”. There was a strong sense during the conference of ‘enough is enough’. The consistent message was that planning and planners are not the problem, and are doing the best they can in a difficult context.

As a profession, planners are trained to take a holistic view. They operate at the junction between politics, finance and community. And they are perfectly placed to provide leadership, foresight and clarity. The skills to deliver great places, which people want to live in, are needed now, more than ever. And there is a need to “rekindle the idea of planning as a key democratic process”.

The challenge at the end of the Convention was “do it with passion, or not at all”. Planning is not a ‘numbers game’ – we need to consider quality of place and ambition, not just the drive for housing completions.


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Creating inclusive, prosperous places to live

by Heather Cameron

What does quality of life and ‘a good place to live’ mean? What are the key challenges to ensure quality of life in cities today? How can we create better places to live and who needs to be involved? These were just some of the questions explored at a seminar hosted by Policy Scotland, Glasgow University’s research and knowledge exchange hub, last month.

Running the event was Dr Georgiana Varna, Research Fellow at Glasgow University. Georgiana is a multidisciplinary scholar, specialising in urban regeneration and public space development.

Cities back on the agenda

A particular emphasis was placed on the importance of both place and people. Georgiana noted that cities are very much back on the policy agenda as we try to fix the mistakes of the 60s and 70s. She alluded to the New Urban Agenda, which embodies three guiding principles:

  • Leave no one behind
  • Achieve sustainable and inclusive urban prosperity
  • Foster ecological and resilient cities and human settlements

Following Georgiana’s introduction, several short presentations were given by a range of professionals and scholars.

Speaker: Michael Gray, Housing and Regeneration Services, Glasgow City Council

Michael Gray of Glasgow City Council delivered the first of the presentations, focusing on the Commonwealth Games Athlete’s Village in the East End of Glasgow. There was a clear pride in what they achieved with a belief that the result is a sustainable, cohesive community.

Michael did allude to some concerns that have been highlighted by GoWell East surveys regarding speeding vehicles, lack of buses and lack of local retail. But he also noted that lessons have been learned from the project, which was very complex in terms of procurement, design and construction, and that future development is addressing such concerns.

Speaker: Keith Kintrea, Glasgow University

Keith referred to Scotland’s standings in the PISA survey, showing that maths, reading and science achievement in Scotland sits in the middle and ahead of England, despite their efforts to improve. However, he noted that there is no room for complacency as those children in the most deprived areas were less likely to do well – nearly 70% of Glasgow pupils live in the most deprived areas.

Again, the importance of neighbourhood/place was emphasised, this time for local educational outcomes. It was noted that while Scottish schools are less segregated than the rest of the UK and more inclusive according to the OECD, (similar to countries such as Finland), this is not necessarily the case in cities. Keith concluded that we need to do much more about what places do in terms of educational outcomes.

Speaker: George Eckton, COSLA/SUSTRANS

George highlighted the importance of transport for delivering social, economic and environmental initiatives, and for growth in city-regions. Inequality in social mobility was put down to inadequate transport and it was noted that many people are disadvantaged in the labour market due to lack of mobility.

He stressed the need to increase the use of sustainable transport and argued that a collaborative approach will be essential to create inclusive growth for all.

Speaker: Andy Milne, Scotland’s Regeneration Network

Andy focused on community regeneration, arguing that the issue of centralisation and decentralisation is crucial. He stated that as a result of centralisation, urban areas – where most of the population live – are vastly under resourced.

Interestingly, he also noted that regeneration doesn’t work when not all areas are addressed. He argued that successful growth and inclusion will depend on economic policy decisions and not on all the small actions taken to address inequality.

Speaker: Richard Bellingham, University of Strathclyde

Richard’s focus was on smart cities. He noted that cities rely on critical systems – food production, waste/water handling, transportation, energy systems, health systems, social systems – and that if any one of them fails, the whole city fails.

The issue of rapid growth was emphasised as something cities need to respond to in a smart way. The recent 50-lane traffic jam experienced by Beijing suggests that there was a lack of smart thinking in its approach of building more roads for more people.

Richard suggested that greater collaboration is required for smart cities to succeed.

Speaker: David Allan, Scottish Community Development Centre & Community Health Exchange

The final presentation focused on community development. David highlighted the importance of community development approaches to build healthy and sustainable communities and referred to four building blocks of community empowerment:

  • Personal development
  • Positive action
  • Community organisation
  • Participation and involvement

Two examples of successful community-led initiatives were presented: Community Links (South Lanarkshire) and Getting better together (Shotts Healthy Living Centre).

Key elements of these initiatives were identified as: community-led, responsive to community need, fair and inclusive, and flexible and adaptive. Challenges were also identified: the level of understanding of ‘community’, community ‘stuff’ is often seen as nice but not essential and there is a lack of capacity and supply at the local level. David also noted that there is a danger that city-regions may exacerbate existing inequalities by concentrating resources in powerhouses.

He concluded by noting that future cities are unlikely to look like something from Back to the Future. Rather, they will probably look very much like today but the underlying systems need to change.

‘Smart successful cities – distinct, flexible and delightful (great places to be).’


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Rebuilding a community without bringing down the house: an alternative to demolishing ‘sink estates’

In January, the prime minister outlined plans for a £140m development programme in England that he said would improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged people living in social housing estates with high levels of deprivation.

“A new Advisory Panel will help galvanise our efforts and their first job will be to build a list of post-war estates across the country that are ripe for re-development, and work with up to 100,000 residents to put together regeneration plans. For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again. For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links.”

The proposal received a mixed response. Some commentators observed that demolishing the worst “sink estates” built during the 1960s and 1970s would free up much-needed land for new homes. Elsewhere, the head of the ResPublica think tank welcomed the chance to replace ugly estates with more attractive environments

Others criticised David Cameron’s idea as a form of “social cleansing”, claiming it raised the spectres of privatisation and gentrification. And Councillor Richard Lewis, executive member for regeneration, transport and planning on Leeds City Council challenged the prime minister’s view that the problem of ‘sink estates’ could be resolved by demolition.

“Through careful management of our housing funds and rental income we have managed to make significant investment in council housing. “I simply don’t recognise the language of ‘sink’ estates when it comes to Leeds and I don’t think we should write off entire areas and the people that live in them.”

After the storm, a dramatic turnaround

A recent New York Times report echoed the view that renovation of deteriorating housing estates can be more effective than demolition. The article reported on a 1970s housing estate on Long Island that had gone into decline after years of neglect. Crime, drugs and vermin were just some of the problems associated with the crumbling properties of the estate. Things got a great deal worse when Hurricane Sandy stormed into the estate in 2012, flooding many of the apartments and cutting off power and fresh water supplies.

The obvious next step would have been demolition. But instead of being torn down, the estate has undergone a remarkable transformation that astonished the newspaper’s reporter:

“The place is almost unrecognisable. Apartments are occupied once again. Hallways, kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems are refurbished; lobbies opened up with big windows; a floodwall installed; the landscaping upgraded, with a broad promenade to the beach; and leaky facades clad with new, waterproof, energy-efficient panels. Energy bills have dropped 30 percent.”

The turnaround is thanks to a partnership between developers, government and the local community. The new owners renovated the estate at a cost of $60m, but avoided having to raise the rents of longstanding tenants through subsidies from the federal government. The improvements raised property values, enabling the developers to rent out vacant apartments at market rates.

Lessons from Long Island

As in London, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in New York City. And – also as in London – subsidised public housing has largely given way to private developments for the super-rich. The New York Times reporter described the changes in his own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, and other parts of New York that were once home to low- and moderate-income residents:

“Now the Village is like a gated playground for runaway wealth. Subsidised apartments all across town are converting to market-rate rentals and condos faster than City Hall can build affordable units or preserve old ones. The city Housing Authority is broke. Its ageing properties face $17 billion in capital repairs.”

Some key factors played a part in the transformation of the Long Island estate:

  • Private development was made possible through tax incentives and other publicly financed programmes
  • The developers consulted a sceptical local community, earning its trust and building consensus
  • On-site management teams maintained oversight of the renovation project
  • Design features to save energy, improve the neighbourhood and enhance quality of life were built into the renovation process

Final thoughts

The $60m price tag for renovating a single estate in New York City suggests that the £140m earmarked for regenerating England’s 100 worst “sink estates” won’t be nearly enough, and may even have been downgraded. A month after the prime minister’s announcement, it emerged that the money set aside for the project will only be available in loan form to private sector developers.

And a warning of how badly off course the prime minister’s plan could go came from The Independent, which highlighted London’s Heygate Estate:

“Formerly one of the largest social housing projects in Europe it was home to thousands, a large number of whom disagreed with its nefarious depiction as problematic sink estate. Widely praised for its green spaces and innovative architectural design, many argued in favour of its refurbishment, but it was nevertheless ‘decanted’ and finally demolished last year to make way for largely private apartments.”

Perhaps addressing the needs of declining housing estates requires a more constructive approach than bringing in the wrecking ball.


Further reading from our blog on housing and regeneration

Learning from “Alcatraz” – the regeneration of the Gorbals
Empty homes…Britain’s wasted resource
Improving the built environment: how to tackle vacant and derelict buildings

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Going green together: regeneration through shared spaces

Allotment holders in the Wirral

Participants in the Green Together project in the Wirral. Copyright Riverside and used with permission.

by James Carson

Good housing isn’t just about good houses. Residents of all ages need local spaces that are safe, and accessible, for leisure, to socialise, or to enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits provided by the natural environment.

Well-designed local spaces promote social cohesion, bring communities together and reduce anti-social behaviour.  Housing associations already understand this: a 2011 good practice guide to green spaces from the National Housing Federation and Neighbourhoods Green (a partnership promoting  open spaces for residents of social housing) reported that £41.5m was invested annually by housing associations in England to improve shared spaces in neighbourhoods. At the launch of the guide, Nicola Wheeler, Neighbourhoods Green project coordinator, highlighted some of the other benefits of green spaces:

“Local open spaces provide volunteering and employment opportunities, facilitate civic action and mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Neighbourhoods Green has also been working on a project with social housing associations and other partners in the Midlands. The Birmingham Active Neighbourhoods initiative is exploring how increased participation in housing green space can contribute to improved health outcomes for local people.

Another ambitious shared spaces project has brought together three of the UK’s largest housing groups: the Riverside Group; Places for People; and Peabody. Supported by a £15.6 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund, Green Spaces for People has transformed poor quality open spaces into well-designed areas for local people to enjoy. Projects include the introduction of parks and community gardens, as well as the creation of sports facilities, play areas, wildlife habitats, sensory gardens and green social enterprises. The aim of the five-year project has been not only to physically transform over 70 neighbourhoods around England, but to improve the quality of life for their residents.

One of the Green Spaces for People projects was “Steps to Sustainability”, delivered by the Riverside Group and its Merseyside partner Lairdside Communities Together between 2008 and 2013. The project has been generating a number of environmental improvements in the Tranmere/Rock Ferry area, which is home to 10,500 people. Once a thriving shipbuilding community, it suffered a body blow in 2001 with the closure of the Cammel Laird shipyard, from which employment in the area has yet to recover.

The Green Together project aimed to redevelop the area and to rekindle the community’s sense of pride in its surroundings through a number of different strands:

  • Green Together Schools (eco gardens created at nine schools across the area as well as the launch of a junior neighbourhood warden initiative);
  • Green Together Neighbourhoods  (new green spaces, allotments brought back into use, and a range of youth engagement activities to improve the environment);
  • Green Together Food (a food co-op run by the community as well as a healthy eating initiative);
  • Green Together Services (focusing on the delivery of the overall project as well as exploring opportunities to create social enterprises where local people run their own environmental projects).

As with other successful regeneration projects, Green Together put local residents at the heart of the planning process. Volunteers living in the area helped to guide and monitor the project and to develop skills so that local people can continue to run the projects they have helped to create.

 


The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles, case studies and evaluations on community engagement and regeneration. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Edible estates: a good practice guide to food growing for social landlords

Space to grow (sustainable regeneration), IN Holyrood, No 322 7 Jul 2014, pp63-64

Summerfield Eco Village, Birmingham: a leading sustainable community (Cities in Action case study)

Tree testament, IN Horticulture Week, 13 Jul 2012, pp22-23

Gallowgate redux (sustainable urban form in Glasgow’s East End), IN Urban Design, No 122 Spring 2012, pp36-37

Catalyst for change (green spaces and social housing estates), IN Green Places, No 81 Feb 2012, pp36-39

Green investment (investment in green space by a housing association), IN Horticulture Week, 2 Sep 2011, pp18-19

Community gains (green space improvement), IN Horticulture Week, 18 Mar 2011, pp20-21

Weed ’em and reap (improving open spaces), IN Repairs and Maintenance (Inside Housing Supplement), Jan 2011, pp14-15,17

It’s Craigmillar time, IN Prospect, No 132 Autumn 2008, pp20-21,23

Urbanism (shared spaces), IN Prospect, No 128 Autumn 2007, pp59,61

N.B. Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service. For more information on the service, click here.

Recent research on poverty and deprivation

Boarded up houses in Kensington, Liverpool

by Alan Gillies

With over 300 current journal subscriptions, some weekly, some monthly, some quarterly, the Idox Information Service’s Research Officers review many journals and magazines every day, to identify the most useful and interesting articles for our members. Not all of our journals have relevant articles in every single issue, so a vital part of what we do involves separating the less relevant from the most useful, and highlighting the latter in our weekly bulletin or fortnightly topic updates. Continue reading