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Pickles' egg-sucking lectures are in the worst possible taste

Brownfields and Pickles by Oivind Hovland

The Communities Secretary's 'threatening' instruction to local authorities to prioritise housebuilding on brownfield land is simply telling planners to do something they've already been doing for decades, says Chris Shepley

Chris ShepleyThat thing about teaching Grandma to suck eggs. The World Wide Web seems unusually bereft of convincing explanations for it. I know various grandmas but none of them is educated, so far as I know, in such practices, though what happens in the privacy of their own homes is obviously none of my business.

But it is what is happening to us. And Mr Pickles’ lectures about the importance of brownfield land, delivered via the CLG consultation paper Building More Homes on Brownfield Land (pdf) in January 2015, take this year’s award.

Lots of other things have angered me recently. At random: the ignorance of strategic planning; the office-to-residential policy, which flies in the face of everything everyone sensible understands; the unwillingness to take a proper lead in tackling the housing problem; the general disdain for facts and evidence. Add your own gripe. But I hate being told to do something that you and I’ve been enthusiastically doing for years, and furthermore being told that otherwise some dreadful penalty will ensue.

Briefly, in my case, I worked in Greater Manchester, and while George Osborne was at Norland Place Independent School for boys aged 4-8, we produced a structure plan. We based the whole shooting match (like many others) on the idea of developing in the inner city and using brownfield land. We backed this up with a new green belt and various infrastructure interventions. This was not popular with everyone, but I think it was right; it remains an effective planning policy.

Then I went to Plymouth, where the use of brownfield land was severely hampered by the fact that the government owned most of it. We opened up some of the non-Ministry of Defence land by using government grants of various kinds, building bits of access road, and tidying the place up; and we even reclaimed some from the sea. The MoD behaved like a medieval king trying to hold on to Calais, but Michael Heseltine forced them to release a few fragments.

"In his latest 'what-was-localism-all-about?' initiative, Mr Pickles again plans to tell councils what to do"

We did this without having to be threatened. In those days ministers like Heseltine, and the very fine John Gummer, worked with the grain to implement brownfield policies, and planners were in the forefront of that. Of course we (and they) also understood some of the difficulties of land assembly, land value, remediation, valuable habitats, and so on; and to be fair the consultation paper does nod in that direction. Various vehicles were established to tackle these problems; and the private sector, having been sceptical initially, eventually followed the public sector investment with heavy investment of its own.

But in his latest “what-was-localism-all-about?” initiative, Mr Pickles again plans to tell councils what to do. Those who fail to plan for the development of brownfield will be put into ‘special measures’ unless permission is in place for housing (via LDOs) on more than 90 per cent of suitable brownfield land by 2020 (and 50 per cent by 2017). This is, of course, replete with the definitional problems customary in recent consultations. They are also required to produce, and annually update, a ‘standardised open data set’, listing all the relevant land. Useful, probably, but quite who is going to do that given the conspicuous absence of actual people in planning departments is not mentioned.

There’s barely a planner who doesn’t have more knowledge about this in his or her little finger than any minister. There’s barely a soul in our industry who does not want to see brownfield land developed. Would it not make a bit more sense for us to work together on it, rather than have to endure yet more aggression, suffer still more threats, and worry about yet more tasks that are likely to lie beyond the shrinking resources of local government?

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector



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