Monday 22 May 2023

The housing crisis, the planning system, the environment and the NIMBY enablers - Environment Monday

Over the weekend, I fell foul on Twitter of the YIMBY movement (something I'd not heard of previously), who have decided, rather amusingly that I'm a NIMBY and that I was a little flower who could be crushed by brute force! Given that I've got the M1 and the Midland Mainline railway in my back yard, I'd say that the charge of NIMBYism is not an easy one to make stick (for a sane, rational person).

It soon became clear to me that the leader of the YIMBY pile in was not really a YIMBY, more a IAARAHDYDWM ("I am always right, how dare you disagree with me" character). I am rather grateful to him, as he inspired me to put together a blog I've been pondering for a while on the subject of planning. I end with why such people are in fact a hindrance to the more reasonable people who may agree with them.

So where to start.

15 minute cities.

I like Mill Hill for several reasons, but the biggest is the excellent public transport links. I can get a Thameslink train to central London and be there in 18 minutes, and pick up an Elizabeth line train there to Heathrow. I can also get a direct train to Luton airport and Gatwick is an easy change away, as is the seaside at Brighton. I can take a 384 bus to the nearest hospital in Barnet (and Hadley FC who I support), I can take a 114/251/302 bus to Burnt Oak if I need the Northern Line. There are ample shops, cafe's and restaurants at the bottom of the road, parks and open spaces where I can walk my dog. There's even a fantastic music rehearsal and recording studio within walking distance, where I work and where I can indulge my hobbies. In short, I live in a 15 minute neighbourhood and love it. The only time I've driven my car in the last week is to deliver a PA system for a gig I was doing sound for. 

To my mind, any new city based developments should deliver exactly what I mentioned above. If stuff is on the doorstep and there are good transport links, it means less cars and less pollution. 

There is a caveat though. It's not enough to just be near all of those services. They need to be fit for purpose. The Hospitals must not be overloaded to breaking point, the Bus and train services should not be so busy that they are unusable. Shops need to provide goods at reasonable prices, not the premium price that many local convenience stores seem to charge. There needs to be ample open spaces and good air quality. Where these issues are not addressed, putting people in huge tower blocks is, to my mind inhuman. 

The Housing Crisis.

Which brings us on to the housing crisis. Lets start with the beneficiaries.The only people who are really happy are people who have a house and see the price rising, often by thousands of pounds a month and may be seeking to downsize. Many voters in this position are staunch Conservatives and for them, the system works (until their children want to join them on the property ladder, when many find that the equity in their property is soon gobbled up). But I firmly believe that the huge profits many Conservative voters are making are a root cause of the inaction of the Government in resolving the crisis. Anything that cools the housing market, will make a big dent in the value of their core voters property assets. If you want to understand why anything is a mess, follow the money.

The way the UK build houses is a complete mess. Social housing waiting lists are so long that they are simply not an option for many. My parents, who were not badly off, lived in council housing from 1946-1960, when they were in a position to buy, My brother was given a council house in Burnt Oak when he married and had a child in 1972. Today, anyone in their position would have no chance at all.

My daughter is a teaching assistant, a key worker, who worked during the pandemic. She is in expensive private rented accomodation and for her, the only chance of owning her own home is if I fall under a bus. Her generation has been failed. She has a bedroom in a shared house. In the last decade, we've seen huge numbers of flats built in the Borough of Barnet, but none of these has impacted the availability of council housing for young families. Estate agent windows are full of what are called "Luxury" flats. In my opinion, Luxury simply means 'overpriced' and none of the building locally has addressed the issues of housing poverty in Barnet. We have imported a lot of rather well to do people from other parts of the country, but for the young, working population of Barnet, we've done nothing. 

Of course, we've seen a huge influx of refugee's in the last few years, drawn to the UK by wars and we have to address their needs. I have no problem at all with the concept that the people with most genuine need go to the front of the queue. I am not always sure that the assessment of what is genuine need is correct, and can be very subjective, but we need a huge number of new homes in the UK and we need them as soon as possible. But we cannot simply build properties without the infrastructure around them that delivers a decent living environment. Which brings us to.....

The Planning System.

The bottom line with all of this is that the whole planning system is dysfunctional. It is broken. It does not do what it is supposed to do, which is ensure that there is ample housing, a decent environment and it is affordable. In London, local councils have responsibility for planning, but can in various circumstances be overridden by the planning inspectorate, the Mayor and the Secretary of State. The council has no control over transport, which is run by TFL and healthcare, which is run by the NHS and the government. So when a large scale development is planned, it is almost impossible for a council to ensure that the infrastructure needed to support it is delivered. 

I've had dealings with the system in Barnet. Back in 2000, I needed more space for my family. I had a choice, I could move or put an extra room in my loft. I chose the latter. It is wholly appropriate for local councils to adjudicate in such cases. The approval process was quite time consuming and a relatively minor change had two iterations before approval. It made me realise the frustration of many. I had no local objections and my plans impacted no one, but I was still refused initially. 

Small changes, such as extensions, loft conversions, etc deliver extra living space in a time when there is pressure on housing, should be given a fair wind, unless there is an adverse impact on the locality. As it is, there are many arcane rules, drawn up in a different era. They are not fit for purpose today.

As for larger changes. When we are talking schemes that deliver hundreds, if not thousands of homes, such as the proposed scheme for Edgware, having a process where the local council manages the process does not work. Developers know that in the event of a rejection, the Mayor will probably approve on nod. All that happens is a year is added to the process and local concerns are ridden roughshod over. In Edgware, 5,000 new residents will add a large number of passengers to the Northern Line. It will add a new strain on already overcrowded A&E units at Edgware Hospital and Northwick Park. If it was the only development in Barnet, this might be manageable, but there are several huge schemes, including Brent Cross and Colindale. Barnet has seen approximately 50,000 new residents since 2011, with almost no improvements in transport infrastructure or hospital provision. 

A local planning system that is designed to deal with new sheds and a few houses being built on fields, is simply not fit for purpose when it is faced with the challenge of a site like Brent Cross, where there will be a new station, a new shopping centre and 29,000 new homes. Such sites should be holistically looked at as part of a London wide solution to the housing crisis. The Edgware development is on the border of the Borough with Harrow. Again, there will be iomplications for the Northern Line as well as Northwick Park A&E which is in Harrow. 

Any scheme that has cross borough and cross London impacts on healthcare, transport, school provision, the natural enviroment etc, needs a planning authority that is fit for purpose and one which can influence all of these. Although the Mayor of London may not be overly popular in Barnet right now, his office should assume responsibility for such large schemes. The government should be able to frame the rules in such a way that there is still accountability, but developments are properly planned. The system we have delivers huge profits for developers and huge hassle for affected residents. We need a system that redresses the balance, so that it is the local community that sees the benefits as well as the big developers. London needs new transport infrastructure, more hospital provision, fairer allocation of places in schools and utility networks such as water, sewers, electricty and gas networks that can cope. This needs to be designed in at the planning stage and if developers are making huge profits, some of this should be ploughed back into the schemes. Section 106 money seems simply to act as a sop to councils, rather than delivering much of use. In hard times, it helps the council coffers.

One other aspect that, as a nation, we should be addressing is regional inequality. Although it may not be fashionable in some circles to say it, the huge numbers of migrants that are driving the housing crisis in the UK do offer us scope to address this. Any policy that seeks to provide housing for refugees, should also try and ensure that the areas where they are housed are ones which have labour shortages and where an influx of people would benefit the local community.  I really do not like the idea of simply building huge tower blocks as storage facilities for refugees until we figure out what to do with them. I'd rather see people living where there is an oppportunity for them to work and contribute to the economy.

I am not against huge towers and skyscrapers. They have a place in solving the problem. As with any scheme, we should ensure that they are the most appropriate solution. In the case of the Edgware development, for me the problem is not high buildings. The problem is that the number of people would completetely overload the local infrastructure. In 2018, my wife broke her shoulder and had to wait 8 hours for treatment at Barnet General. She was in agony. Anything that makes such things worse, is to me dangerous. The situation has got worse, not better. The Conservative government needs to accept it has failed the NHS and do something.

I have no expectation that the Conservatives have the appetite for this. Hopefully, when Keir Starmer takes over, this will be top of his in tray. 

The Environment.

As far as I am concerned, the biggest challenge in fixing the housing crisis, is to not devastate the local environment as we do it. There is a huge movement to concrete over the green belt. I can see the attraction for developers. For them, this is an easy win. Most of those who propose this, have no interest in the natural environment, biodiversity and the plants, fish and animals affected. If there were genuinely not other solutions, then this would be something to possibly consider. However, in London we have approx 700,000 empty properties. On top of that, property developers have been banking land for years, to force up prices and enhance their profits. After the war, the then Labour government recognised the competing pressures and the Atlee govt  took appropriate action such as the New Towns Act 1946 & the Town & Country Planning Act 1947. The results were not perfect, but they delivered new homes and protected the natural environment. A balance was achieved.  What we need is a proper national audit of land, with a view to identifying brown field sites and areas of minimal impact. We need action where land has been banked. I believe that if those developers who have sat on land were faced with financial losses, then we'd see the crisis resolved far more quickly, without tearing up our green spaces.

The NIMBY enablers.

 What I've seen over the last few days was quite shocking. Local residents alarmed by aspects of the Edgware redevelopment scheme have started a petition to get aspects of the scheme changed. 

The petition does not call for the abandonment of the scheme, it calls for a scaling back. I don't think even the most optimistic of signatories will expect there suggestions to be fully implemented. I signed as I agree with the general idea that a scheme on this scale simply cannot be supported by the local infrastructure. I am also more than familiar with how developers operate. They come up with schemes that sound superficially appealing. They put the benefits to the local residents at the end of the development. These usually cost most and deliver the least profits. They then claim that they are "no longer economical" and things have changed. They are quietly dropped. This happened with the proposed doctors surgery in MillBrook Park. The petition notes that the shops, cinema, etc are scheduled to be delivered in the latter part of the scheme. To me, this does not pass the sniff test.

No one is saying leave the site as it is. The backers of the petition just want to ensure that the scheme is properly thought through and does not cause issues where none existed before, or even worse, make existing problems impossible. Until 1998, the Borough of Barnet had two A&E departments. One in Barnet and one in Edgware. One of the first acts of the Blair Government was to rubber stamp the closure of Edgware. Since that day, Barnet General and Northwick Park have seen a massive increase in waiting times. When people start bandying around the term NIMBY at people who have sat for hours on end in A&E departments, all they do is make people more determined to stand their ground. For me, what was shocking, was that a member of the Polar and Limehouse Labour party started questioning my knowledge of Barnet, calling me names, insinuating that I was in the pay of the Campaign for Rural England or some other body. I've been writing a blog for fifteen years and that is the first time I've ever had such a charge levelled. I genuinely think that no one in Barnet, even my arch nemesis Brian Coleman ever suggested that! 

This particular individual is a classic example of a bully. I'm used to it and I can give as good as I get, but such people use such behaviour as their modus oiperandi, hoping that people will be scared by such abuse and shut up. In fact, all they do is get blocked and make those that they call names operate out of their sight. The people they label NIMBY's don't go away, they just don't share their plans with such obnoxious people. Ultimately this makes the campaigns more effective. Twitter is by and large an echo chamber. You are followed by people who agree with you. When your world collides with a world you don't like you block. You are no longer party to what they are doing and what arguments they've raised.

I daresay I am now on all sorts of rather inaccurate lists, labelling me as "The Enemy". Why? Because I want the schemes that these self labelled "YIMBY"'s are keen on, to deliver decent housing, a good living environment, good transport and good services for the residents. There is no harm at all in having an intelligent debate, raising potential issues. My brother worked on the construction of the Grahame Park Estate in the 1970's. This won awards at the time. Much of it has been demolished since, as the accomodation was sub standard. It took decades to get a decent bus service to Mill Hill station, something that should have been part of the scheme from day one. Grahame Park was a scheme built by the GLC and is an example of what happens when you don't listen to communities and you go for shiny scheme's that are not well thought through.

There is an old maxim in business that your most difficult customers are your biggest friends. They tell you the truth. That is the only way you up your game.  Those who seek to stifle debate, call names and intimidate are in fact their own worst enemies. I'm well known in Barnet and when people saw that tweet, even those that don't like me would have realised it was ridiculous. Who did that help?

I've spent decades arguing with local Tories. All of the sensible ones, over the years, from Ex Mayor Hugh Rayner to current Mill Hill Councillors Elliot Simberg and Laithe Jajeh privately and candidly discuss local matter with me. They don't always agree, but they appreciate sensible feedback. The leader of Labour's Barnet administration, another sensible councillor Barry Rawlings spoke to me shortly after Labour took the council last year and asked me to continue to scrutinise them, as it makes for better decision making. By shouting at people with your fingers in your ear, you learn nothing and achive nothing. You end up enabling those you seek to stifle. You may think you are clever and when you get blocked, that you've won a victory. You've done nothing of the sort. You've just confirmed other people's prejudices and prevented a sensible dialogue.

It seems a shame that the chair of Poplar and Limehouse Labour does not take the same sensible approach as his colleagues in Barnet (some of who privately told me they know him and none too impressed). All I can say is that I am glad I am not a member of group with such a chair.

1 comment:

Ben said...

More parking does not sound to me like scaling back