Wed 28 / 07 / 21
A call from the top: how can we help the council reach its construction and net zero targets?
Flo Powell of Midnight Communications writes about the discussion from our latest Construction Voice event: What solutions can the property sector offer Local Government?
By Flo Powell of Midnight Communications
I just got back to the office from the latest Construction Voice event with Brighton Chamber, held at the Malmaison at the Marina…in real life! It was such a joy to see everyone in person, having only seen each other on screen for the last 18 months. We were all so happy to be together, we could have stayed there all day. In fact, I think some people did.
It was a beautiful sunny day in Brighton with throngs of happy tourists spending money in our city which was a welcome sight.
The event was chaired once again by the fabulous Ed Allison-Wright and sponsored by McLaren Property.
The room of 40 property and construction professionals were excited to hear from Geoff Raw, Chief Executive of Brighton & Hove City Council. Geoff’s major rallying cry was for the Construction Voice group to help find a way to give advice to politicians – how can we help the council achieve its property and construction targets and unlock development sites that have stalled?
The Brighton & Hove City Council annual budget is £825m, with a spend of £2.25m per day. The council employs 4,500 people. Of the daily spend, £600,000 goes to schools. Of the remaining £1.65m, £600,000 goes to adult social care and children’s services. That’s over a 3rd of the budget on just 3% of the population.
The budget is reducing. Next year, the best-case scenario is a drop of £5.1m. The worst case is a reduction of £23.4m. Geoff appreciated that there was often a sense of frustration in working with the council but pointed to this challenge as to why that can often be.
The council therefore has a serious financial challenge on its hands. It has reduced headcount by 10% to reduce outgoings, is charging more for its services, has increased council tax and is diversifying its revenue streams.
It’s no secret that the council has a large property portfolio worth billions of pounds and Geoff is interested in receiving advice from the sector on how to make the most of this portfolio.
At a recent Chamber event, we heard from Liz Hobden, Head of Planning at BHCC regarding the challenges they are having in meeting its City Plan targets including new homes and affordable homes. There’s plenty to be celebrated, the seafront as an example was a “shocker” ten years ago and has massively improved. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Geoff admitted that he was sure the council’s planning system can sometimes feel like the bane of a developer’s life, but assured us that they have been trying to improve performance – they were almost in special measures but have turned that around.
With a background in planning himself, Geoff understands the culture amongst planning officers is often to feel as though they’re in post just to say ‘no’ to applications. However, Geoff stressed he was trying to change that into a resolve to make things happen in the city.
We are, however, a complex city to work in with a challenging political climate, a community that is highly engaged with local development and huge pressure on the council to unlock and unblock sites.
There’s also central government planning reform coming, which is going to be challenging for the city, enabling easy change of use from retail units to office space and residential homes.
Apparently, of all the planning consents granted, only circa 50% ever get built out. With this in mind, the planning team has been working for some years to change the culture to one of enabling good development and unlocking sites. Geoff admitted that although the role might not receive the biggest salary, there are several benefits to working at the council, including the pension, and welcomed assistance from the room in filling the position.
So how can our local authority, as a developer and landowner, help bring the resources and land, forward? How can we, as a collective, help the council achieve its long-term aims?
Ed asked Geoff about the council’s recent JV (joint venture) approach with The Hyde Group which had recently gathered momentum on two of its schemes.
Geoff explained that when he arrived at the council ten years ago, there was very little happening in terms of council house building. He therefore helped create the New Homes for Neighbourhoods programme and they quickly got to 300 homes. Politicians in the city are keen to build more but there’s a capacity issue so, when Hyde came to the council, they saw an opportunity.
The council is bound by its public procurement framework, so can’t work with just anyone without a formal tender process. However, if you bring a site to the table, a JV arrangement might be possible. Geoff warned, however, that JVs can be expensive and therefore it’s got to a financially worthwhile.
The council is particularly interested in projects which are innovative and focused on ‘business for good’, i.e., schemes which are an ethical investment.
Ed suggested that the Construction Voice group could help train council staff and councillors, and the person appointed in the new role, to create a course on viability and delivery of projects, to help them see the perspective of the developer. We could also set up workshops so the new Housing Development Manager could quickly find out the reasons behind some of the blockages on certain sites.
Geoff welcomed the idea, with the caveat that although he can’t make people take the training if offered, they could certainly be encouraged.
Brighton and Hove’s political climate is extremely challenging from a planning perspective. With each change to the administration, new leaders and members have to be trained and worked with to build up trust and confidence. However, everyone in a political position is joined in their passion for the city and wish to pull together and drive forward improvements. We also have some very loud voices from the community and it’s a common misperception that those voices reflect the common view – which they don’t always.
Dan Smyth from Savills asked what the council is doing in terms of climate change and building back better in a post Covid world.
In terms of building back better, Geoff called for information from the property sector regarding trends. The council workforce had requested a hybrid solution with two-three days in the office and the rest from home. This seems to be a common situation in the private sector too – it certainly is at Midnight Communications!
Geoff recognised the increasing popularity of co-working space and office providers talking about the need to create spaces for collaboration.
There are three key strands coming out of central government that local authorities are focused on:
1. Levelling up. Not something we’ll necessarily benefit from, being in the South East.
2. Innovation. What can we do that’s truly innovative?
3. Decarbonising the economy. How can we reach net zero?
Geoff reflected that talks of extreme weather were on his agenda 21 years ago and now it’s a reality. The council has a commitment of net zero carbon emissions within nine years. How can we help them deliver it? If you’re pitching a scheme to the council, it’s clear that sustainability and net zero innovations should be top of the agenda.
The council installed 200 electric vehicle charging points in the city last year, but that’s only really scratched the surface of the amount we’ll need when everyone switches to electric in the next few years. Gas boilers will all undoubtedly need replacing in the next 5-10 years. Again, Geoff called for our help – what solutions can we bring to the council?
Apparently, there’s a big summit coming on 28 October that Geoff will send more information on soon so watch this space.
So… lovely members of Brighton Chamber… how can we help advise politicians? What’s changing in the property sector coming out of Covid – how can we help manage the downsides and maximise the opportunities? How can we help actualise the net zero targets? What innovations are out there that could help?
Flo Powell is Joint Managing Director of Midnight Communications.
Midnight Communications works with businesses, professional service firms and brands alike, applying their commercial expertise to crack consumer briefs and approaching B2B campaigns with creative flair. Find out more about Midnight Communications here.
Read about our previous Construction Voice events, here.
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