Planning with a capital P for People
One of the first issues I came across when I stood to be elected as a Councillor was the move of the University to the Waterside campus. A vision of beauty, a new vision for Northampton and an opportunity to bring further regeneration and vibrancy to the town. Unfortunately these were not the stories on the streets. It started off with a vision but ended in a nightmare with streets turned in to car parks.
The parking issues are now somewhat resolved after really hard work on the part of residents and a consultation with highways resulting in permits in Thomas Chapman Grove and double yellow lines in Malthouse Close. But they had to do that. A resident of Thomas Chapman Grove, when we discussed the results of the parking permits, told me that his feelings post the permits could be described as Heaven, Paradise, Happy – need he say more. Another resident who had dreaded every Sunday night as Monday morning was so difficult for their family, told me everyone they speak to loves the result and that quiet had somewhat returned. So why is this important – The same residents in November had shared huge frustration at the location of the university and the entrance and proximity of the halls. One resident when describing their response to an official telling them “you were consulted on this” shared something that has stuck with me. “If I had been consulted on my street and my driveway being turned in to a car park I am sure my response to the consultation would have been very different.” I do not believe that this was something we can suggest came with hindsight and something we couldn’t have foreseen.
My question is – Do you think the consultation and planning process was appropriate. Do you think the obvious results of the move were considered appropriately before granting planning permission? For me the Capital P in Planning should stand for PEOPLE and somehow amongst the desire for growth we lost the desire to ensure the direct community need was met. A result of the lack of planning, preparation and proactive action rather than reactionary measures, was that for months a whole area was living a nightmare. The benefits of the university totally lost on them and quite rightly so.
Student Halls literally on their doorstep – did anyone give thought to the long term feasibility and viability of these, situated so close to a residential development? It doesn’t look like they did as surely the result could not have been the same. We surely wouldn’t say “to hell with it, we are going to do it anyway, would we?”
Noise levels seem to have been totally overlooked. When I asked if consideration had been given to noise reduction by planting of trees and foliage, no-one was clear. I don’t know if this could have been a solution, but I know I was told it wasn’t considered and as part of the pre-planning process surely this should have been on the scope. It doesn’t seem to me that we had planning with a Capital P for people.
Developments are taking place all over the town, residential and commercial. The Local Plan 2 has just been out for consultation. Do those developments have a Capital P for people at the heart of their planning? The experiences I have had suggest not.
The planning process – I appreciate I am learning every day – leaves us with a system where the scales are balanced heavily in favour of the organisation/developer, particularly when it comes to larger developments. Once planning permission is granted even if development runs in to difficulties, doesn’t necessarily fulfil all criteria or plans to meet conditions differ hugely from the original plan, it seems no action can be taken other than to remind the developer of their obligations. I believe an experienced developer looking to provide a development of this kind should be well aware of their obligations and it should not be for the planning authority to have to constantly remind of these facts. I am regularly told that we cannot enforce potential breaches as they are not significant enough and it is not financially viable to do so, but the costs of dealing with completely avoidable complaints must well exceed this. People need to be at the forefront of the planning process and decision. The impact on the community must be the thing that tips the scales, not the developers whose primary goal (as private businesses) is to maximise profit, and not to meet genuine community need.
When communities experience all of these things they often feel trapped and quite distressed by the issues they face. Not planning with a Capital P for people as far as I can see? The sooner we meet people’s genuine needs and realise the impact on communities the better.
We need more homes, that is absolutely a given. True affordable housing and for me, true social housing with social rents. Often developers don’t want these projects because they are less profitable (note the word less, not NO profit is used). Often planning permission is granted behind what seems to be a promise of wonderful and affordable housing but actually the result is little more than a gimic to ensure the permission is granted and after permission developers will often say I can’t meet that criteria so I won’t be able to build – resulting in many cases with relaxation of the affordable housing criteria initially set. Not planning with a capital P for people as far as I can see? Whilst the viability loophole was closed in 2018 after much campaigning by organisations like Shelter there are still risks and smaller holes which can mean the original affordability criteria is relaxed. Exactly how many homes are NBC intending to build themselves over how long and at what cost? Does predetermined volumes of housing mean that predetermination takes place in planning?
The local plan talks about wildlife corridors, supporting and enhancing biodiversity. This must be for all developments not just those that are recognised sites. Wildlife sites can often be settled in unexpected areas and must be protected. When handled correctly by the developer it can actually make the development more desirable.
Given the protection of animals like Badgers is legislated for, it should be legislated for that planning departments can insist on action by the developers taking place as a condition of the development and failure to adhere to this should mean work stops.
The Local Plan talks about sustainable travel, cycle paths and encouraging people to walk. That needs to be all over the town and when money is supplied by a developer to improve an area the work that is done should be the best that it can be ensuring cycle paths are wide enough, grass verges separate pedestrians and the road side and if necessary improvement to substandard pathways are rectified at the same time. Look at the Bus Station, look at the bus route planned for Ransome Road, not planning for people with a capital P.
Improvements - What do we do with Section 106 money? Agreements reached between developers and planning authorities should mean that funds go back to the local community. The provision of a parish council doesn’t automatically mean this is the case. On occasions 106 money just does not seem to make it to the area where the development has an impact. In many circumstances agreements are signed and the money is not received for a considerable period of time, not reinvested due to outstanding legal arguments over land transfer which leaves lots of areas unadopted. Some section 106 agreements date back so far without monies being released 2004 for example. I think Councillors have a role in ensuring funds are invested back in to the community.
When we look at planning for the people and the community we have to look at supporting that community, local jobs, local services and ensuring that the procurement process has people at the heart of it. When we seek to develop contracts acquire supplies and services, we do so with thoughts like the TUC Great Jobs Agenda in place. We seek to ensure that those services we need and plan for, pay the best wage, meet appropriate standards and set a high bar for all other providers of services to meet. We can do that with the planning process – explaining to commercial developers, if you want to build and invest here, do with so with that agenda in place. Planning for an equal society, planning with people at the heart of it.
Are we getting our planning right for everyone? What about our elderly? Evidence has shown that good quality housing and wellplanned,
enabling local environments can have a substantial impact on the quality of life of someone living with dementia, helping them to live well for longer and of course, town planning has a key role to play if health and social care policies are to succeed. If you get an area right for people with dementia, you get it right for older people, for young disabled people, for families with small children, and ultimately for everyone. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in England recognises that the “planning system can play an important role in facilitating social interaction and creating healthy, inclusive communities” Yet local plans still have very little specific mention of dementia. In a 148 page document the word features once. That is a really important missing feature. When you plan for the right building and the right projects you deliver the right society.
All of this means people are at the heart of any planning or development. We have to deliver change and have to deliver the housing we desperately need but we must do so without damaging those in the existing communities, we must ensure our ageing community is considered alongside our young families.
Post unitary and local governance review we need to ensure we have a Town Council run with the whole town at the heart of its working practice. When you plan for people, people engage, they thrive. The only way Northampton thrives is with people at the heart of its plans.