The second in a series of interviews, 'Creating Better Places', with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.
Paul Barnard - Assistant Director of Development and Regeneration, Planning Services, Plymouth City Council.
At a Housing Summit last year, the Plymouth cabinet member for planning said I know we have the best planning department in the country but Im still going to have to sack 25% of them! He was almost in tears.
The head of planning, Paul Barnard, has nonetheless managed to deliver 19 Local Development Framework (LDF) Documents (including the first major city Core Strategy in record time); get 6 Area Action Plans adopted (the most for any authority in the country), and introduced community engagement long before the phrase localism appeared. How has he done it?
His office wall is papered with press cuttings covering the 20 years he has been a planner at Plymouth so its clear that he understands the importance of communications. When I met him he had already completed 2 radio interviews that morning covering the complex subject of a waste from energy plant promoted by the local authorities.
There are 5 key elements to successful local planning. Firstly having visionary planners, of which I am extremely lucky to have many and we, through the Local Strategic Partnership, also employed the master planner for the Barcelona Olympic Village architect David Mackay, to lead the preparation of A New Vision for Plymouth. This was extraordinarily successful in lifting self esteem and aspiration in a city and the media coverage of planning within the city. The clear vision engaged the whole community especially business and showed how to address unfulfilled potential in a deliverable manner. The LDF became the delivery plan for the Mackay Vision.
We took a few risks. When the 2004 Act required LDFs, we were about to put the then new Local Plan on second deposit, but decided to abandon the process and change immediately to the new system. Of course, the Abercrombie Plan after the Second World War was arguably the first spatial plan. Plymouth has always demonstrated the benefit of council leadership, initiative and intervention and we were not prepared to simply let the market dictate answers in fact we would have seen it as an abdication of our responsibilities, not least because of the property we owned. You have to take a proactive stance and the collaborative planning approaches that have been developed, for example at the Collaborative Planning Academy in Sacramento, we like to think are being practiced, such that we are well placed to respond to the localism agenda.
"The vision also survived a change in political leadership from Conservative to Labour and back to Conservative. The cross-party consensus was vital in taking Plymouth forward from my point of view as an officer".
Secondly, we embraced the collaborative and spatial approach in the new system, using the plan making process in a proactive manner, drawing complex issues together to discover realisable solutions. It helped to have a Corporate Director and CEO who were previously planners (well a little bit!). It was essential for co-ordinated delivery to get corporate buy in. Our current approach has been central to a successful local plan process. In fact, we have created a separate Planning Delivery Team to make sure that the plan is implemented and that we use the Development Management (DM) process to maximum effect in delivering sustainable communities. There have been challenges such as the fact that the business planning process of utilities does not always tie up with the LDF programme or development viability and delivery issues; but the Local Strategic Partnership has been hugely helpful in supporting a meaningful plan.
Thirdly, we put significant resources into the process and although the numbers have been cut, we managed to retain skills that offered a balance between plan making and development management needs and reflect these in an LDF that we were confident would work.
As part of this new approach we committed to a major modernization programme for the service looking at all of our processes to create a high quality planning service. Although this measure of performance is not the only one relevant, our last national planning decision figures were: 77.1% of majors decided in 13 weeks, 81.55% of minors decided within 8 weeks and 88.36% of others determined within 8 weeks demonstrating Plymouths commitment to growth and development. We try to be a learning organisation and part of this is to undertake benchmarking. Our latest exchange with Coventry City Council resulted in them picking our brains on the LDF and we picked theirs on DM issues. We were both seen as the best in our respective areas."
Next, we spent a huge amount of time deciding what evidence we thought was essential and ensuring it was collected and presented to the community, business and development interests in a manner that was irrefutable for both the Core Strategy and Area Action Plans (AAPs). This helped enormously at the Public Examinations and since then we have been at pains to point out that the Plymouth Planning Services has consented £1.2bn of development in the last 2 years.
Finally, and not entirely with the Government Offices agreement, we included in the Core Strategy Area Visions that fitted into the planned strategic spatial strategy we had for Plymouth as a whole, providing the framework for future AAPs to deliver the strategic objectives of 32,000 homes and 42,000 jobs. To articulate the strategic vision, we felt it was essential to assimilate the Area Visions key areas of change - into the Core Strategy. We were fortunate we had a very enlightened Inspector, Doug Machin, who was persuaded by our arguments!
As an example, in Devonport, at one time the most deprived area in the country; we proposed the demolition of hundreds of council houses to change the mix to one that was more sustainable. The AAP Examination in Public lasted 20 minutes because the locals were in favour of what we proposed and wanted us to get on with it.
In the Housing Summit mentioned above one of the accolades that Plymouth received was for green infrastructure. This year Planning Services received the NICE Award for Health in Core Strategies, a subject close to my heart because of my involvement with the Healthy Urban Development Unit in London. It was very difficult to integrate health into the LDF. It required us and the PCT to think differently but again the Local Strategic Partnership provided the means for co-operation. As Plymouth has many deprived areas, introducing green infrastructure was a simple but effective means of improving health and well being. We see it to be as important as, say, road infrastructure."
Securing political buy in across parties was essential. We always work closely with our councillors especially at the ward and neighbourhood levels where they act as advocates. They all accepted that we had to do something about our economic underperformance; we were clearly punching below our weight. Also our area approach has and will continue to provide the basis for neighbourhood planning under the new Localism Bill. We have the arrangements, processes and above all local community confidence in working with us to mutual benefit.
Its clear that Paul is quick on his feet!
The Council have ring fenced the New Homes Bonus to invest in a Growth Fund. They have also, through a free and frank exchange of views persuaded government to transfer the Plymouth RDA assets to the Council and those are in the Growth Fund. They managed to attract £15.2m of Growth Point funding despite the cuts to government budgets. Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) is progressing at a pace (Plymouth has just been declared a CIL Frontrunner). Most significantly the Council reviews the LDF annually and consults, making sure that the evidence base is always up-to-date.
Whats the primary driver then Paul?
We see the role of the planning service as creating the conditions for growth by the private sector. Even with reduced public resources, the balanced and integrated approach we provide gives the private sector confidence that by working with us and the community, better market solutions will emerge. The LDF removes risk for investors. It provides the vision, certainty regarding public intentions (plans and political certainty) and investment (including public assets) and community ownership.
We also hold annual customer satisfaction surveys to make sure that we are not just providing the service that is wanted but that we are communicating our ideas and capturing community ownership of the plans. The community and their councillor representatives trust us.
Some of you will be aware that I have sought for some time to promote to Ministers the value of One Plan led by the statutory planning process. To my absolute delight, but not surprise, Plymouth is ahead of the game!
In our new Corporate Plan, we are seeking to streamline some 138 different strategies into one high level Plymouth Plan. In my view if you get your visioning right in such a plan you dont need the Sustainable Communities Strategy which added nothing to our LDF said Paul.
So It can be done!
As Steve Quartermain said at the 2011 RTPI Planning Convention, with the loud endorsement of Minister Greg Clarke the reason I came into planning was to permit development, of the right type, of course and in the right place.
Paul and his team seem to have realized this ambition in spades! They won the RTPI Jubilee Cup for the LDF in 2005, and have won numerous planning and other awards since, all proudly listed on their web site. They demonstrate the basic principles of bringing land and people together through positive, proactive planning.
Interview conducted by Martin Willey, June 2011