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A Pied Piper Housing Policy

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In Part 2 Adrian Hart takes a second tour around our city’s approach to the housing crisis, this time examining how we can break the spell it casts and energise a new problem-solving public sphere.

Borrowing from The Emperor’s New Clothes I was going to choose ‘the emperor’s new housing policy’ but the tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin seemed to offer a slightly better analogy (I’ll leave you to judge).

The Five Year Housing Land Supply (5yrHLS) penalty looks likely to bed-in as a permanent feature. The policy beckons us down a steadily destructive path and to a future where two things could easily happen. First, the look of the city drowns and damage to the built environment becomes increasingly obvious. Perhaps future citizens will not notice. This leads to the second thing: the passport to come and live or stay living here will depend on financial means. Nearly half of all new homes go to people who live outside Brighton and Hove. As this proportion rises the prospect of housing for the sons and daughters of rooted communities diminishes.

In my mind the council’s pied-piper tune is irresistible because it is has accompanying lyrics like ‘let’s all solve the housing crisis’ and ‘this is the way to aff-or-dable how-zing’ (with a chorus of ‘yay, our council serves its people well’). We all follow the Piper and believe this message. Let’s face it, who has time to peel away its appearance and reveal the real story entailed by current policy? Did news headlines last February alert the city to the fact that once again, because we cannot satisfy Whitehall’s demand for a magic 5yHLS, Brighton – like so many cities – remains a magnet for wealthy global investors?

Did you notice the May 2019 election campaigns demanding action on this? (nor did I). Plenty talked about housing the homeless of course – and the need for ‘affordable housing’ (candidates with their ear especially close to the ground occasionally added the word ‘genuinely’ to that phrase).

Meanwhile, we all want our children to be housed when they grow up (rather than have prices force them out) so if the Piper says he’ll do that then…? And he seems to be handing out flutes to every political party eager to promote a whole range of fairy tale nostrums.

Dragged along behind us as we follow the councillors who follow the officers who follow the Piper is the look and feel of the City itself. Sure, not every aspect of the place we live will drown in Hamelin’s river and what’s left behind may even be the toast of city planners and favoured architects alike. But the human cost depends on how much we value Brighton and Hove’s built environment – and how comfortable we are with a city which, over time, ‘upgrades’ its working population to match the price-tag for its accommodation. Buyers of future ‘luxury’ homes squeezed inside the boil-in-a-bag architecture of gated developments better hope Hamelin’s ‘rat problem’ (metaphorical and otherwise) aren’t a feature of city life as they step out into their “public realm”.

the planning system is cracked

In fact, unless they got the top-floor penthouses, they better hope they don’t wake up one day wondering why the luxury of their slightly too small apartment (and the edgy urban lifestyles that came with the deal) has lost its appeal. The developers call it ‘placemaking’ – “the process by which an area in the public realm is given a unique and attractive character”. ‘You’ll know us by the places we make’ proclaim hoardings around Brighton’s Circus Street construction site. I’ll let you google the relevant Argus articles to find out how that’s going!

A digression:  Meanwhile, just a few minutes walk away, construction is due on the old Amex House site. Developers have already begun their ‘placemaking’ process after tendering for a giant artwork that will sprout from the west facing wall of one of Edward Street Quarter block F. The themes for artwork were (apparently) informed by the near-deserted public ‘workshops’ held at Tarner Afterschool Club not far from the site (a box ticking exercise to show ‘stakeholder and community engagement’?) Inventing an artifice of local authenticity and inner city lifestyle choice offers added value to luxury apartment sales; a folksy sense of place that neatly steps around the displacement of traditional communities as a new, smarter set move in. Developers say the successful artist – Cosmo Sarson (of Angel of Brighton notoriety) – will choose inspiration from selected local history including 17th Century “Fisher-folk” and the celebrated painter William Turner who, very briefly, spent time in the area as he painted sea views. Sarson’s challenge will be to create a desirable ‘placemaking’ image without over (or under) emphasising the wretched lives of impoverished fisher-folk. Despite being given a brief describing the conditions endured by the fisher-folk as “far removed from being a comfortable life-style choice” Cosmo might be best advised to play safe and choose William Turner. It’s thought that Turner (who was just passing through) may have stayed at nearby Egremont House having been invited to paint local scenes by his patron Lord Egremont (an 1820s version of placemaking for aristocratic guests who stayed at the house?)

Back to the housing issue…..A discussion on the new vogue for skyscrapers merits an article of its own (but do read the Brighton Society here https://www.brighton-society.org.uk/a-boutade-of-tall-buildings/,

and The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/29/skyscrapers-wrecks-cities-luxury-towers-ugly-greed).

Suffice to say that their allure to planners has nothing to do with housing need or achieving the pragmatic goal of housing density.

Simon Jenkins describes them as nest eggs for laundered cash, ‘so dumb is British planning that these are still classed as “meeting housing need”. Jenkins puts it well when he says ‘The virtue of skyscrapers to investors is precisely why they are so damaging to city vitality. They are locked, gated, anonymous and family-hostile. No one cares if they are empty or blight the surrounding communities.’

What is to be done?

Earlier this year, on behalf of Amex Area Neighbourhood Forum, I read out a deputation to the Tourism, Development & Culture Committee (TDC) included this:
“…can the council really argue that large scale luxury apartment proposals are approved without compromising scrutiny? If large scale planning is to be ushered through the planning process with only ‘token’ scrutiny [ ] then why insult citizens with a planning process at all? [ ]…be honest with us about the illusion of planning ‘scrutiny’ and the absurd theatre of planning hearings for proposals already decided.”

The message of our council’s Labour Party leadership couldn’t be less radical; it recalls Thatcher’s phrase – ‘TINA’, there is no alternative.

Nationally, Labour speaks excitedly about democratising planning and returning control to councils. At council level the attitude feels very different. In the official reply to the neighbourhood forum’s question Labour Party councillor and TDC Chair Alan Robins insisted that the lack of a 5yrHLS was not resulting in planning approval for bad schemes. The words he read out were carefully chosen for him. For the council, schemes worthy of rejection are only those with the kind of earth shattering “significant concerns” that might satisfy a government inspector when called in to pronounce on a developers court appeal. After admitting that the council is required to abide by government policy, Councillor Robins can, perhaps, be excused for the weasel words his written answer was required to use.

“You can be assured” said Councillor Robins, “that planning applications are scrutinised by planning officers and technical experts and that all major applications are carefully considered by the Planning Committee”. Can the council really argue that large scale luxury apartment proposals are approved without compromising scrutiny? Answer: Yes! But is scrutiny compromised? Buy any planning officer a few pints and odds-on they’ll say of course it is.

Around the same time, last spring, as Councillor Robins read out his words, a Labour Party commissioned report authored by a group of academics was in its final stages before publication. Released in June 2019 Land for the Many sought to influence party policy ahead of the September Brighton conference. Regardless of how you or I would rate the proposals put forward in Land for the Many, it’s a report worth noting for two reasons.

First is that it does not mince its words; local authorities cannot control development:
“Successive ministers have blamed planning delays and ‘red tape’ for a failure to deliver new housing, but the corresponding reforms have removed power from local areas. Ambitious targets for identifying land for housing have made it difficult for local authorities to reject inappropriate housing developments”.

By directly naming the problem (“local authorities are forced to adopt a presumption in favour of development where they have not met targets”) the report is truthful in a way our council leaders seem only prepared to recognise in off the record whispers.

The second noteworthy aspect of Land for the Many is that it references the current Labour slogan ‘for the many, not the few’ but does so in stark contrast to the reality of planning in Brighton. There is no better way for council leaders to distance and disinvolve ‘the many’ than by obfuscating policy. Whereas Land for the Many openly and honestly describes how target-missing local authorities become henceforth obliged “to bypass the wishes of communities expressed in local plans, and accept developments even where there is insufficient provision for housing standards or infrastructure”, by contrast, the likes of Councillor Robins are on hand to reassure us that all is well and officers and experts will not let our city come to any harm. Or put another way, we should trust them: the quality of our built environment won’t erode and our children (should they wish to live in the neighbourhoods they were born) won’t have leave the city in search of a home they can afford.

The Smart Many…..

If, like me, you are wary of the promises of (ironically) a few when they claim to know what’s best for the many, you could do worse than read The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few by James Surowiecki. The book deftly explores the assertion posed in its title. It’s part of council rhetoric to extol public engagement in local governance – to flatter us as ‘stakeholders’ – but few amongst the council’s party political or executive officer top tiers would view Surowiecki’s assertion as anything other than an existential threat. Nonetheless, tapping the aggregated expertise of a city population – its ‘combined wisdom’ so to speak – is not a million miles away from a raft of ideas and experimentation already in-play across Britain and elsewhere.

Recent townsfolk takeovers of entire councils where effective community focused independents replace ineffective party focused councillors are one example. Similar initiatives scoping how the localism act (and neighbourhood planning), sortition, citizen juries and digital participation can address a widening democratic deficit are surfacing with renewed vigour in 2019. In whatever form it takes let’s hope that our city’s local governance can reconnect with its people. It’s not just Surowiecki’s thinking that points the way; neighbourhoods that harness diversity of outlook are already demonstrating what can be accomplished when the stultifying effects of party political or ‘expert’ directed groupthink are removed from the equation.

As nebulous or sketchy as these ideas might sound, on housing policy a few straightforwardly actionable first steps come to mind. One is to reclaim the “our” in our ward councillors. If they are to play a role as forward lookouts for their neighbourhoods then identifying the next large scale development looming on the horizon should be key to how they serve us. Moreover, once identified and thereafter publicised as a potentially controversial project (things like drab architecture, negligible public green space, zero genuinely affordable housing) our councillors could initiate some form of public ideas-lab process that might conceivably send a design back to the drawing board long before the risk of a developer’s court appeal threat kicks-in. This format might exist in other cities around the world but certainly not here.

Despite the existence of an official council Statement of Community Involvement (SCI), in practice the process is dominated by planning officers liaising with their favoured developers behind closed doors. A developer may roll out a series of public consultation events at which they present an impression of their proposal but when the planning application is finally submitted local communities can be in for quite a surprise.

And so the other step we should demand of our ward councillors is that they agree on a motion to council which demands full transparency on housing policy and a concerted effort to come clean on what the 5yrHLS sanction means. If the city population knew that its council’s target-driven efforts at solving the housing crisis were in fact creating it then public debate would come alive. There’s no simple fix to solving a crisis of social need but how do the luxury apartment blocks help? Is it imagined that those apartment sales release the more affordable dwellings buyers vacate and layer by layer the crisis is solved that way? If chasing those government targets is as pointless as shooting an arrow at a target permanently receding into the distance then why isn’t Brighton and Hove at the forefront of a fierce local authority led campaign to overturn national policy?

Coinciding with these thoughts, Civic Voice has just published its latest manifesto.  It highlights research showing that the public has a significant distrust of the planning process, and makes radical proposals to move away from consultations and open the planning system up to ‘collaboration and participation’.  You can view the manifesto here: http://www.civicvoice.org.uk/uploads/files/Manifesto_FINAL_Screen_version.pdf

In a forthcoming article the Brighton Society will be looking at the how Civiv Voice’s proposals could affect local planning issues here in Brighton & Hove – if the council could be persuaded to look at these ideas in a constructive and creative way.

On all things ‘housing crisis’ the widest possible public conversation could be the answer. Why treat us like children? Indeed, as with parents determined to keep a secret from the kids, sometimes it’s the knowing kids who rebel. They demonstrate that honesty is better than a breakdown, in fact it usually points the way to a solution.

Hard facts focus minds. Let’s turn Brighton and Hove into a flagship for radical solutions. Trapped by sea and downs its limitations around housing land supply seem daunting. And yet opportunities await for bold, high density ‘city walls’ projects (moreover, the council owns a ring of farmland on the edge of the downs – there’d be a ring of red tape that comes with it but why not push for new communities to spring up here?)

We’re not children, we don’t live in Hamelin and this city is full of talented people, so starting with the honest truth about policy, let’s impress one thing on our elected representatives  : There Is Always An Alternative.

TIAAA to that.

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