Thursday, 1 February 2018

TV Review. The New Builds Are Coming.

It is not often that my wife and I watch television together, but last night two of our interests aligned (hers: fly-on-the-wall docu-soaps, mine: concreting over green fields) and so we watched The New Builds Are Coming.

(As an early aside, when planning was in the limelight previously the series was called The Planners Are Coming. I wonder why producers feel the need to associate the subject with an impending sense of doom?)

There was a discussion about it in the office yesterday morning and I simply expressed a hope that it would feature a plan-led proposal in the hope that this would show the planning system in a better light than a 5YHLS ‘smash and grab’. I also expressed a hope that it would be fair, in that it would portray each actor within the five act play that is the local plan process in the light that they deserve to be.

Of those actors, firstly, the developer, or promoter, and the landowner. Neither wanted to engage with the programme, we were told, which could be understandable if they, whoever they are, felt it was likely to be hatchet job, but what I find strange is that neither wanted to engage with the community either before or after the draft local plan had been published. Somebody had prepared an illustrative masterplan because the couple with the house in the middle of the proposed allocation had one, but there was no mention at all of any attempt by the backers of the project to engage with the community.

I have just had a quick google to try and find a website for the project that might have some details about it, but I can see nothing. Putting aside the need to demonstrate that the proposal is a deliverable one, which the promoters of non-preferred sites will be looking to exploit come the examination, the narrow interests of the project would surely be better served by it’s backers openly advocating it. It’s passage through the local plan process would also be smoothed if somebody took the time to identify possible supporters and draw the sting from potential objectors. The opaqueness around the project does neither it, or those who want to promote development projects properly, any favours.

Our second actor, the LPA. I do not know South Oxfordshire as well as I do some areas of the country and so am basing these observations on the programme alone, but if the promoters and owners of the project were not going to take the lead in preparing the ground locally for the draft local plan then the LPA should have done more to do so. It should not be the case that communities find out about development proposals ‘in the pub’ (which was the clip from The Archers featured in the programme and the implication here), but it is even more remarkable that the owners of land within draft allocations do not find out about it until the plan is published.

The vacuum where the right kind of information should be can be filled by misinformation and here we had the textbook ‘hastily organised public meeting’. I say ‘the right kind of information’ because, of course, the residents were provided with lots information, but what use is a Sustainability Appraisal and other ‘massive’ documents to a music teacher who has just found out that the Council is proposing 3500 homes half a mile away? Months later, after rumour and resentment were allowed to build, the Council Leader himself, not an officer, finally went to another public meeting and said that ‘we need to build 10,000 homes and they have to go somewhere’.

As I said I do not know South Oxfordshire, but land adjacent to a major commercial site and a railway station, and with what looked like the cooling towers of a power station within it’s visual envelope, looks like a fairly reasonable place to consider Green Belt release. The Leader of the Council actually said to the camera that the consultation is not a referendum on the local plan and that there are planning reasons for the decisions being made. That is the message that, delivered clearly, concisely and confidently, should have been better communicated to residents a lot earlier. It might have prevented the feeling that residents needed to ‘take on officers and developers at their own game’. ‘We had to become angry’ said the couple with the house in the middle of the proposed allocation. ‘We were worried that they were just going to bulldoze the house’.

Most objectors object, in my experience, because of the surprise factor: because they just did not know that something was going on. That anger can be amplified by a sense that what was going on is, in fact, going to happen anyway. The fait accompli. I thought then that ‘my heart goes out to you’ was a peculiar turn of phrase from the chairwoman of whichever committee had just endorsed the draft local plan.

Thirdly, and finally, the residents of Culham, which, it seemed to me, divide into the three categories.

The first is the silent majority because when you take the two dozen or so objectors in the residents group and the two people of whom more shortly from Culham’s population of 453 you get a number much higher than the people featured in the programme. They might like it a little or dislike it a little. We do not know.

We do know though that the second group, the two dozen objectors who attended the public meeting at the school (I could spot at least two metaphors when they squeezed themselves into the children’s chairs) very definitely do not like it. I wanted to be fair to them both at the start of the programme last night and when I started writing this piece by calling them objectors, but since the public meeting kicked off with the familiar refrain of ‘we hear about the need for houses, but we don’t need houses here’ I think that it is fair to call them what they are, which is NIMBYs.

I would probably not have likened their outlook to the instinct of chimpanzees to preserve their territory, as the husband and brother-in-law of two of the major landowners did, but I was tickled by two insights into NIMBY behaviour that came across in the programme. I liked the fact that the two dozen or so cared enough to arrange and attend a public meeting, but nobody cared enough to want to lead the group in plotting their resistance. I also liked it when Guy, the property developer (of course he was) who had ‘moved from London’ revealed without a hint of self-awareness at the end of the programme that ‘ultimately we are country people’.

The third category of resident is the two people interviewed in front of what looked like their post-war, former Council houses. They were for the proposed development. I liked them. One of them suggested that the objectors were ‘more concerned with house prices than they are ecology or heritage’. I liked him more.

(As a second, later, aside this reminded me of the residents group in the village where we used to live in. There was one occasion when very briefly and very accidentally the chairman let slip that the group was less about winning Village In Bloom awards and more about protecting house prices.)

The couple with the house in the middle of the proposed allocation were left pondering the price of their house for a different reason because an offer for it had finally been received from the mystery developers. Having revealed in the programme that £10k per acre of farmland might be worth £1m per acre with a planning permission, that offer is probably substantial. Would they trade their memories for cash? ‘Surely you would be doing the same if you owned this land?’ is a question I like to throw back at objectors who do not like the idea of their neighbours spending the rest of their lives somewhere hot. I would wager that the couple will sell. I would and I bet that you would too.

For me the programme was like seeing my working life on screen and, helpfully, my wife now has some idea about what I do all day. We learned that the planning system is ripe for a docu-soap because of the human drama involved and the producers are probably right with their doom-laden programme title.

(NB. I have adopted a slightly flippant tone, as is my want, but to see a single mother losing housing benefit because she had gone into full-time work was very distressing. That though speaks to another area of government policy and it is the planning system that is my interest).

I was struck by the almost contiguous references on one hand to the government allowing housing around major cities and on the other hand to Oxford not building enough houses. The politics of planning in Oxfordshire is amongst the most acute in the country, but what was not said is that South Oxfordshire and the other Councils are trying to solve unilaterally a County-wide issue.

As this image from Lichfields shows local plan progress is slowest around major cities, where there are often issues about exporting housing to neighbouring authorities and the need for Green Belt release. This is a hobby horse of mine obviously and you would have been surprised if I had not taken the opportunity to crowbar in a reference to strategic planning, but the debate about Culham would have been completely different if it was framed as a response to an Oxford or an Oxfordshire issue rather than a local, South Oxfordshire issue. 46% of people, remember, think decisions to site new towns and major housing projects should be taken at a regional level.

What the programme highlights to me is the need to take a serious look at how we engage with people. That’s we, ‘the Council’ and we ‘the developer’. What did the people of Culham think of planning and development at the start of that exercise and what did they think of planning and development at the end of that exercise. People heard second-hand that an amorphous organisation called the Council, given a face only when the Leader himself (who was re-elected during the course of the programme) got involved, wanted to build houses near to theirs from which some shadowy developers and some mysterious landowners would make a lot of money. After all of that brouhaha they probably still think that. The objectors probably thought that they had a greater chance of stopping the scheme from appearing in the next draft of the local plan than they did actually have and so are more disillusioned with the planning process as a result. They think that because people in other parts of the District believe that development at Culham is a good idea (better, certainly, than development near them) that the ‘figures were manipulated’. Despite that, or rather because of that, they are ‘determined to continue to fight’.
The local plan will probably be submitted alongside a Statement of Community Involvement, but those residents were not engaged with in any meaningful sense of the word and their reactions are perfectly natural and understandable. This is a real shame because the reactions of people in a village like Culham to a scheme on it’s fringe granted at appeal and the reactions to a scheme promoted through a local plan should be very different.
We saw the new (they are always new…) Housing & Planning Minster, Dominic Raab, on Good Morning Britain this morning talking about tackling NIMBYs by ‘taking the community with us’. I hope that he saw the programme last night because what was shown was a tutorial in how not to take a community with you.
As it turned out I think that the programme did portray each actor in the local plan process as they deserve to be. Nobody really emerged with much credit because, frankly, it is often the case that nobody does emerge with much credit from the local plan process.

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