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06/04/2017

It's good to talk: An interview with Gavin Barwell

Words: Martin Read
Gavin Barwell / Credit: Peter Searle

This is the first time in more than three years that a serving planning minister has agreed to an interview with The Planner. And whatever your political persuasion, it would be difficult to deny that Gavin Barwell is a man keen to engage. Martin Read reports

“I’m a man badly in need of allies to get the job done.” It’s with these words that Gavin Barwell, minister for housing, planning and London, opened each of his meetings during a recent tour of England to discuss the government’s recently published housing white paper (HWP).

It’s a frank call for engagement that fits with an image Barwell is keen to convey of a pragmatist and cross-party-lines communicator, his door open to anyone offering a considered perspective on how best to address the country’s housing shortfall – the RTPI, for one.

“I think the RTPI has played a great role over the years in promoting sensible changes to the planning system,” says Barwell. “The more you can work with people who‘ve spent all their life working in this field and understanding the detail – better than I’m ever going to do – the better. You should listen to the advice you get from those people.”

My meeting with Barwell comes two weeks after the HWP’s publication. Response has varied, but despite some notable omissions many have characterised its contents as a much-needed reframing of the housing debate that at last brings into discussion a broader mix of tenures and the growing demographic trends set to influence housing in the years ahead. But it’s also clear that much consultation remains ahead.

Working 'across the aisle'

“Look, the government can’t solve this problem on its own. All I can do is hopefully get the overall planning policy framework right. But if you want to get this country building more homes I’ve got to build alliances with local authorities of all political complexions, as well as with lenders and housing associations. It’s only going to be through building a broad coalition of people committed to doing this that we’re going to get the problem solved.”

“It’s a huge job that the prime minister has given me,” says Barwell of his housing brief. “It’s something the country has been failing at for 30 or 40 years that we’re trying to turn around.”

The minister’s tour in support of the HWP showed his desire to communicate and consult on its proposals – and highlighted to him just how much housing markets vary across the country.

“In London the dominant issue is what can be done to get schemes that have been consented built out, while in Gateshead, for example, the focus was on areas where the issue is getting rid of existing stock and replacing it with homes for which there would be greater demand. I also have a long list of specific issues that people want us to look at further or get clarification on. They were incredibly useful meetings.”

A question of resources

One welcome aspect of the white paper is its recognition, belatedly perhaps, of a lack of capacity in much-depleted planning departments. Is Barwell talking to the Treasury to secure any new resources? Implementing the HWP’s suggestions has to come first, he says.

“The 20 per cent increase in planning fees is on offer to everybody if they guarantee to spend every penny of additional resource on planning. And then there’s the offer of a further 20 per cent increase in planning fees for those that are delivering on the ground– and we’re going to be consulting shortly on how we’re going to define ‘delivering’. There’s also the capacity fund that we can now get on and allocate. So there’s a lot there, so before we go asking for further money let’s get all of that implemented and see if it has the effect we believe it will in terms of capacity.”

Another point on which the HWP was notably silent was Sajid Javid’s early 2017 deadline for local planning authorities to deliver their completed local plans. Is potential government intervention still on the table?

“Yes, definitely,” shoots back Barwell, “and the white paper talks about the criteria we would use to define that intervention. The first thing to do is consult on the new standard methodology for calculating housing need and then get the revised NPPF out as soon as we can. But from that moment on, absolutely it [intervention] is still on the cards.”

Barwell accepts that it’s one thing to agree on the principle of a standard methodology but “quite another to agree on what that methodology should be”.

Three ‘big picture’ questions need addressing, he says: “Some kind of projection of what likely growth is going to be, and then two issues; market signals, and the extent to which you might want to be building
more housing in those parts of the country where the market is telling you demand is strongly exceeding supply; and some focus on the government’s plan to rebalance our economy.”

International dimension

“I think we should learn lessons from other countries. The secretary of state went to both Holland and Germany to look at what they’re doing in terms of custom build and land assembly, and I think in terms of modern methods of construction we can learn a lot from how they’re building homes in other parts of Europe compared with the very traditional way we tend to do it here. I’m open to looking at examples from around the world and how we can learn from them.”

The standard methodology consultation paper, due imminently, will address these questions, says Barwell. But it’s clear that ‘early 2017’ is a deadline that’s going to be difficult to meet.

What about the need to constantly reinvent local plans? The HWP admits that, even where a plan is in place, ‘they may not be fulfilling their objective to recognise and plan for the homes that are needed’.

But isn’t there a danger that constrained resources will make LPAs’ task of maintaining and updating local plans on a five-yearly basis near impossible? Barwell recognises the time it takes to produce a plan every five years and points to measures in the HWP to simplify the plan-making process. But again, much consultation remains ahead.

“We’ve got to get the process a lot simpler and streamlined, and it is important that those plans are kept up to date.”

But, he adds: “If government is saying that we want everyone to have a plan and keep it up to date every five years, we’ve got to make it easier for people to do it. Standard methodology is a part of that, but there are lots of other ideas in the HWP about how we can make that process simpler; and if your readers have got further thoughts about things that could be done we’d be very keen about that.”

This idea of further consultation being welcomed continues when I ask about the absence in the HWP about a mechanism for capturing rising land values – an omission questioned by the RTPI and others.

Barwell points to the recent report by Liz Peace and the CIL Review team (‘A New Approach to developer contributions’).

“The RTPI is absolutely right that this is a crucial area. But what we said in the white paper is that rather than rushing to a view we’re going to make a decision on this on an Autumn Budget timescale. Everyone has a chance to read Liz’s review and I’d be happy to hear people’s views on it – but I absolutely accept that this is an integral part of the plan for how we get more housing built in this country. We’ve got to have a better mechanism for capturing that uplift in land value.”

 

Neighbourhood plans

“If you’re a neighbourhood planning group and your local authority doesn’t have a plan, there’s nothing to guide you. That’s what we’re trying to put right; to make sure that in those circumstances the standard methodology gives you a number that you’ve got to plan by. We want to give communities control but they’ve got to be meeting the level of need in their area.”

 

 

 

Barwell also wants more joined-up government thinking on infrastructure.

“The government’s got to get more savvy when it’s allocating other capital programmes. So when Highways England is thinking about the roads programme, Network Rail about the rail programme or the DfE about new schools, we need to be thinking about the extent to which that is unlocking potential new sites for housing.”

Local dimension

So marginal is Barwell’s Croydon Central constituency – a mere 165 votes separated him from his Labour challenger in 2015 – that he even wrote a book about his experience, How to Win A Marginal Seat. And as both the Minister for London and a London MP, he’s wary of focusing too much on the capital’s uniquely intense housing affordability issues.

“That’s one of the reasons I did the HWP tour, to get as much input as I could from different parts of the country.”

Has seeing Croydon’s built environment evolve first-hand influenced his role as planning minister?

“As someone who’s lived in Croydon all my life, I’ve seen the power of planning for good and for bad, if you like. You can see examples of great planning and really lousy planning as well.”

Barwell has learned much from his experiences in local and national politics. “If you ask people in Croydon politics who are not on the same side as me, they’ll probably say two things: that I’m not shy of having a robust political point where I happen to disagree with someone – but also that I’m very happy to work with people.”

Planning fees

Barwell is bullish about how the HWP’s 20 per cent rise in planning fees can boost local authority planning departments and he expects section 151 officers to ensure that the money reaches its destination.

“We want to make sure that this is additional money going into local authority planning departments. Permission to have these fee increases is conditional on them giving that guarantee.”

Barwell talks of one aspect of the local government lobby seeking 100 per cent cost recovery. “In other words, ‘if at the moment my planning department is costing me £100,000 a year and I’m getting £60,000 a year in planning fee income while I’m putting £40,000 in from council tax, I want to be able to increase my planning fees so I can take that £40,000 and put it somewhere else’.

“Now, that’s good if you’re a local government leader facing budget pressures – but it doesn’t get me one extra pound spent on planning. What I wanted was a model that actually increased the spend in planning departments, so that’s why we’ve done it the way we have.”

Open to discussion

A glance at Gavin Barwell’s social media accounts show that he’s unafraid to engage with his political adversaries online. But while he sees it as inevitable that shadow frontbenchers will criticise whatever the government propose, “I see a clear distinction between what they say and what I hear from Labour politicians running towns and cities across the country. On the HWP tour I’ve met a lot of local Labour leaders. They don’t agree with us on everything, but they’re keen to work with us to get the job done.”

Indeed, a final word on his relationship as London minister with mayor Sadiq Khan serves to highlight Barwell’s open-arms approach.

“There are things in our manifesto we can’t do without working with him, and things he’s not going to get done without working with us. But my view is that people expect us to sit down together and find a way to make it work. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

 


Career highlights: Gavin Barwell

 

Born:  Cuckfield, Sussex

Education: Trinity School of John Whitgift; Degree in Natural Sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge (1993)

 

Recent timeline:

1993: Conservative Central Office (various roles)

1998: Croydon councillor for the Woodcote and Coulsdon West ward

2006: Chief whip for the ruling Conservative group on Croydon Council

2010: MP for Croydon Central

2011: PPS to Greg Clark, Minister for Cities and Decentralisation

2012: Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education

2013: Assistant government whip

2014: Government whip, Lord Commissioner

2015: Re-elected MP for Croydon Central

2016: Minister of State for Housing, Planning and London


Image credit | Peter Searle

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