Growth Points and the Regional Plan

Background Briefing – written Nov 2006

House price inflation has outstripped general inflation over a number of years, indicating a mismatch between housing supply and demand.  New house building had been at a relatively low level for a number of years, and this was seen as part of the problem.

Housing demand is particularly strong in the South East, and the Government sought to address this by investing in new ‘sustainable communities’ in areas like Thames Gateway, and Milton Keynes and South Midlands.  The Government required this development, imposing large amounts of additional housing on the areas with minimal consultation.

Meanwhile the Government commissioned a review into the national housing situation, overseen by Kate Barker, which reported in 2004.  This made a number of recommendations, some of which are being implemented by the Government.

The review recommended levels of house building necessary to reduce house price inflation.  As a result the Government sought to increase house-building.

Some years ago, Derby had identified an opportunity for redevelopment and investment in its city centre.  This was also acknowledged by the Government who supported the establishment of Derby’s urban regeneration company, Derby Cityscape, in 2003.  This has the task of encouraging investment money into Derby’s city centre for new housing, retail, business and other investment in a co-ordinated manner.  They commissioned work to identify opportunities and provide structure to the vision – now called the Derby Cityscape Masterplan.  Following an opportunity for public comment on this, it had been accepted by Derby City Council as a ‘material consideration’ in determining planning applications in 2005 – but is now being reviewed.

In late 2005 the Government asked councils to put forward proposals to become ‘Growth Points’.  These would be areas which would commit themselves to providing an increased level of house building at least 20% above that which was already indicated within their spatial plans – the Regional Spatial Strategies, Structure Plans and Local Plans used to determine appropriate land uses.  To facilitate this, and to help ensure that the housing would be supported by infrastructure like schools, shops, houses, businesses and public space, the Government offered a share of a £40 million fund for 2007-8, followed by possible further funding on a project by project basis.

In March 2006, the ‘three cities’, Derby, Leicester and Nottingham, their associated county councils and their three urban regeneration organisations submitted a joint ‘Growth Point’ bid to the Government.  This envisaged significant housing expansion over that included in the approved Regional Spatial Strategy, mostly built onto the existing three cities, but also some growth in nearby towns.  Derby’s part of the bid expects to see an increase in housing over the next 15 years of nearly 6000 homes above the 20,700 already planned.  At least a third of these properties would be expected to be ‘affordable’ mostly for rent from Housing Associations.

Meanwhile the Regional Assembly had been preparing its next 20 year spatial plan – the Regional Spatial Strategy or ‘Regional Plan’.  During the spring of 2006, it incorporated the Growth Point Bid proposals being made within the Region into its draft document.  This was formally approved and launched for consultation at the end of September 2006.

In late October 2006 the Three Cities Growth Point Bid was approved by the Government, and Derby was allocated £3million towards city centre public realm improvements on Cathedral Green.

Also, back in July, the Three Cities had bid for ‘Transport Innovation Funding’ to work up schemes for reducing traffic demand.  This would help to make space on the roads for traffic from the proposed housing growth.  At the beginning of November, £1.8million was approved.

This may all seem like a well thought out and co-ordinated process.  More housing needed, bids constructed, transport considered, planning process used to facilitate it.  But is it?

From a public perspective?

Perhaps the biggest omission is public involvement.  This is despite strong, aspirational words from the government on the neighbourhood and area agenda and empowering communities.

The Growth Point Bid was signed off by the leaders of the councils, without in most cases even being referred to their council cabinets, let alone full council.  Although it was endorsed by the cities’ urban regeneration companies, like Derby Cityscape, and seen by the local strategic partnerships, like Derby City Partnership, these are not democratic bodies.  The only public consultation on the Bid is happening as part of the consultation on the Regional Plan – such an exciting document that at first even the local evening paper did not want to cover it!

One of the greatest concerns of the public is that ‘they’ change things without asking people what they think.  Unfortunately it is often only when work starts on the ground that people really start asking what is happening, and that is almost always too late.  

When the result of the Three Cities Growth Point starts appearing on the ground, it will not have been a planning application that local people will have overlooked.  Nor will it have been a Supplementary Planning Document, which may typically have been consulted on over several months with public meetings and door to door leaflets to a few thousand homes.  Nor will it have been an Area Action Plan, similarly consulted upon as changes to the Local Plan.  It won’t have been the Local Plan, covering the whole of Derby.  Nor, in essence will it even be the Regional Plan, which at least is out for 12 weeks consultation and covered by a formal Inquiry process.  It will have been the result of a Bid made effectively behind closed doors, with no formal public consultation, at the whim of political and business leaders – encouraged by central government.

The government’s recent white paper on local government is interestingly trying to create a stronger role for local councillors to balance the role of the cabinet/executive.  But local councillors have had no part in this process.  The lack of involvement in, and therefore imposition of, development on local areas as a result of the bid process, shows how far the gap is at present between words and action in this area.  There is clear public support for at least local councillors to have greater involvement in processes that affect local people.  For example, the Together We Can survey 2006 also shows that local people want their councillors to set priorities (66%) not the government (9%).

But we are stuck with consultation via the Regional Plan…

A Super-Derby?

One of the great advantages of the Regional Plan is that it looks not two, three, or maybe five years ahead, but 20.  And, because this is land use planning, what we build over the next 20 years will, in many cases, still be there 20, 40 even 100 years later.  So what should be our priorities for the next 20 years and beyond?

Derby City currently has just over 100,000 homes, and there are several thousand homes on its borders in areas like Stenson Fields which function as ‘Derby’.  The proposed new housing would include redevelopment in areas like City Centre Eastern Fringes, the area between the DRI and the railway (for which an area action plan is being developed), and sites identified by Cityscape in the city centre proper.  Renewal of areas like this is part of healthy maintenance of the city.  There are also sites already allocated in our Local Plan (like land off Rykneld Road and Kingsway Hospital), which are generally ‘green’ and will mean real growth.  In addition, land will be needed beyond the city boundaries in South Derbyshire and Amber Valley. If this growth takes place, it would see Derby grow by about a fifth over 15 years.

This growth would need to see an increase in jobs, schools, leisure and shopping facilities and so on to ensure that Derby remains a good place to live.  There is already significant investment happening in city centre shopping, and local shops can be planned into developments, as can schools.  Leisure facilities have, historically, been a lot harder to get built at the same time, with residents in most suburbs not yet having a local sports centre.  Community centres are usually quite small compared to their populations and faith buildings are being paid for by subscription, although they are often key building blocks for community development and the facilities are used by the wider community.  Jobs however are another issue.

The East Midlands Development Agency has commissioned work on the growth of jobs in the East Midlands.  And its predictions see job growth running at a significantly lower level than the proposed housing growth.  There is also some evidence from work that the Regional Assembly commissioned that there is currently stronger job growth in rural areas than urban ones.

This would suggest that the target of a minimum of a third affordable, rented housing is going to be important to achieve.  But affordable housing is affordable because it is subsidised.  In many cases this is by the developer, but some is funded externally.  For greenfield development, this forces down the price paid for the land.  But for brownfield development, where there may already be extra costs associated with site preparation, external funding from bodies such as the Housing Corporation (using government funding) is often needed.  There are already warnings that there will not be enough Housing Corporation funding to provide the required level of affordable homes.

If there are unlikely to be lots of new jobs in Derby, people will be living here, but commuting to other places.  This will put more strain on the transport network.  The trunk road network is already struggling, with roads like the A38, A52 and M1 frequently running at capacity or beyond at peak periods.  So no wonder we are needing to widen the M1, and the proposals for flyovers for the A38 junctions past Derby will need to be dusted off.  Will £1.8million of preparation work tell us how road pricing or other measures will create space here or will growth on these intercity roads just result in more queues in and out of Derby?

Buses might be a solution, but unfortunately very few of the roads into Derby are wide enough to create bus lanes to speed the buses past the queues and so encourage people to leave their cars at home.  The Spondon Flyer and Red Arrow using the A52 show what can be done, but in other places even where roads are wide enough in part – like Uttoxeter New Road or Stenson Road – they are rarely wide enough for far.

And for longer distance travel, what about the trains?  Unfortunately here too, capacity is a problem with major investment needed in the rail network to significantly increase the number of trains that can be run up and down the line from London to Sheffield, or even to Nottingham and Birmingham.

There have already been voices raised against the Cityscape proposals for Cathedral Green.  But the bigger question is how this pump-priming money will help deliver the growth point vision – and achieve a good quality of life across the city.  Is a new bridge over the river going to help deliver affordable homes, or new leisure or community centres, or solve the transport problems for communities, especially those on the outskirts of the city?

Sustainable and Resilient UK

The government published its UK Sustainable Development Strategy “Securing the Future” in 2005.  This highlighted the need for us to live within resource limits and be more mindful, than society has often been, of the need for real sustainability.   The reality of climate change is frighteningly apparent and the time-frame for action to combat and accommodate for this is surprisingly similar to that of the Regional Plan.

–         What will climate change bring?  As well as less predictable weather in the UK, including more droughts and floods, it will affect other countries which we rely on too.  Currently two fifths of UK food is imported.  But many of the countries from which we import food will be harder hit by climate change than we are.  Food miles are a significant cause of climate change, so growing more of our food in the UK may be not only desirable but forced on us.  To increase farm outputs, will mean having more people working in agriculture.  That means rural job growth.  So where are the houses needed?  Interestingly many small communities in rural areas, like Lincolnshire, are clamouring to be allowed to build more homes…

–         In 2002, when the oil refineries were barricaded, supermarkets were less than a week from running out of food.  As the UK is now importing more and more of its oil, shortening food supply chains – living closer to the farms – sounds like a good idea too.

–         How big does a city need to be before it stops being a ‘more sustainable location’?  No one seems to have an answer.  But many people consider Derby to be big enough already.  Although back in the 1930s people walked from Mackworth to Spondon to work, few would do this now.  If an urban area has reached a size when motorised transport is necessary for a good quality of life, is it the sustainable community we need to minimise CO2 emissions and climate change?

–         Derby consists of many communities.  Some have been absorbed into the city over the years, like Spondon, Mickleover and Allestree.  Others have been built as new communities, like Sinfin, Oakwood and Heatherton.  At times the lack of space within and between communities creates tensions, especially between teenagers and younger adults, from different geographic or social communities.  This is not peculiar to Derby; larger urban areas across the country experience the same.  Will Derby growing bigger help this?

–         And in our cities there are also many lonely people.  Some are elderly people, for whom getting out of the house is physically difficult, but some are young and others are in between.   Poverty doesn’t help, and fear of the strangers living around us contributes to this isolation.  Are our communities too big?  How will building 1000s more homes in Derby help to rekindle living communities?

The alternative to growth?

Back in the 1990s, there was an acceptance that traffic demand must be curtailed.  We must look at alternatives to the private car.  The government set targets for curbing traffic growth.  They failed, and although building new roads has been shown again and again to generate more traffic, roads are again being widened and new being built.

The UK population is now only growing very slowly.  We also have an aging population.  By 2050, the UK population will probably be falling.  Houses are built to last 100 years or more, so perhaps we should be asking not only where should homes be built, but how many homes do we really need?

How can we make better use of the homes and buildings that already exist?  If we are serious in wanting to combat climate change by cutting CO2 emissions, then we should start by investing in our current housing stock as every new home requires resources to build, and uses resources when lived in. 

Indeed the Inspector who has reported on the East of England draft Regional Plan has said “…truly sustainable development will mean a marked change, indeed a reversal, of the habits and attitudes of the region and its people to, among other things, water use, energy consumption and waste.”

The Inspector goes on to say that the move to sustainable living envisaged in “Securing the Future” can not be achieved just by getting the Regional Plan right.  It needs to be part of a joined up vision for the future, with action taken by many areas of government.

The draft East Midlands Regional Plan, and the thinking behind it, proposes more of the same; twentieth century, growth-driven ideas.  We should be planning for the twenty-first century; for a sustainable society, reducing our demands on the environment.  ‘Securing the Future’ begins developing that vision.  We need to have the courage to take that vision forward in the East Midlands.

Cllr Lucy Care 15 November 2006

Tel 01332-721291

lucycare@hotmail.com

 References

www.barkerreview.org.uk

www.sustainable-development.gov.uk/publications/uk-strategy/index.htm

www.emra.gov.uk/regionalplan

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