Thu 02 / 11 / 23
Construction Voice: Arguments for, against and about construction and development in our city
Paula Seager from Natural PR writes after our latest Construction Voice panel event.
By Paula Seager of Natural PR Ltd
Kicking off, Ed Allison-Wright, chairing a packed Construction Voice event, defined the subject under discussion with some questions: What is it that elected members encourage and argue for in development? Why do developers argue in the way they do? And what do we object to and why?
James Blakey, Planning Director from Moda Living, who are regenerating the old Sackville Trading Estate in Hove, said that because Moda will manage the site as a new neighbourhood for rent over the long-term they have a vested interest as a community partner so consultation, engagement and empowerment are hugely important. James said that Section 106 monies should benefit local people, and too often these monies are lost and disappear without the local community understanding where they are spent.
Max Woodford, Assistant Director City Development & Regeneration at Brighton & Hove City Council, said that fundamentally it boils down to delivery of the local plan and homes for local people; trying to get that price down. Brighton & Hove is one of the most stressed housing markets in the country, and they are looking for anything that can help with affordability. Currently, with 2,500 units in build, the city is in a better position than in the past, but there is also the pressure of needing to deliver the economic strategy, considering what workspace we need in the city. He said that ‘place shaping ability’ is one of the Council’s few levers, creating areas of character, citing the new board walk on the eastern side of the city as a great example of a smallish investment that has made a lively place that local people enjoy. He said the challenge here is our lack of space – between the sea and downs – which genuinely means every space has to work hard.
Ed asked if the link between a development and how it has improved the local area was clear. Max replied that previously it hasn’t been, but the Council is now trying to do more on this and are improving the Council website to show this.
Flo Powell, Joint MD at Midnight Communications, said that from a PR perspective, property has a reputation problem, both nationally and locally. Locally, this is a city of opinions, with a community that is quick to protest loudly, and local press love talking about developments because they get the most interest. Everybody has an opinion, and you only get one chance to make a first impression.
It's not as simple as ‘house prices will go up in the end and the locals will get with the programme’, there’s an opportunity here to get it right. She mentioned the Edward Street Quarter, where a tide of negative feeling led to an opposition action forum being set up, but after two years, the man who set up the forum was talking in favour in public meetings. She said that investing in local PR is the first step.
A lot of developers have become desensitised to local opinion, but understanding, empathy and authenticity are crucial. People can sniff out green-washing – it’s important to understand what their concerns are and have some empathy. Their concerns remain the same; traffic, school places, doctor appointments. Go into it knowing what the opposition is going to be right from the off.
Kelvin MacDonald, chair of the Board of Trustees for BHT Sussex, held up a copy of the weighty Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - to become law this week - which demonstrates that the planning system is constantly changing, and this constant change is one of the difficulties. He said that planners and promoter funders have to be friends. We all want the same for our areas, and we know what is wanted because the Local Plan sets out a shared vision for the city: ‘A better Brighton & Hove for all’.
He said that sometimes it can be the planners who don’t live the vision. Planning is becoming risk averse, fearing judicial review. He said we need to regain the radical nature of planning, live the vision, have developers knocking on doors, saying, ‘How can I help you Brighton & Hove City Council achieve your vision?’
He commented on the current state of politics and the need for a strong display of leadership and how Kier Starmer’s bulldozer analogy at the Labour Party Conference could be seen by people as their views being bulldozed through, which is not helpful as people fear what’s going to happen. He said, ‘We need political leadership and councillors working closely with officers, saying we are not going to sell the city short. Best planning is a strong one, where people know exactly where they are. These are our policies and we’re going to stick with them!’
Helmut Lusser, from Hove Civic Society, said that we have to view all this in the context of a city ‘falling apart’ with a huge budget shortfall, asking ‘what can development do in that context?’
Max Woodford from Brighton & Hove City Council said that through the agreed Local Plan Part 2, they have increased allowable sites in the city, and that brings additional Council tax. He said that they have changed Section 106 to the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and as that builds up, the Council will see more opportunity to invest in local improvements.
James Blakey said that too many resources have been lost in planning departments across the country and this needs to be a focus. James said that millions of pounds of Section 106 and CIL monies are unspent as Councils don’t have the resources to spend this money. Empowerment and involving local people is key and enabling organisations like Moda to spend these monies directly in partnership with local communities is a much better way forward as benefits are much more tangible. James described CIL as a ‘disaster’ for the viability of affordable housing and that the lack of affordable homes is a societal issue.
Max Woodford came back saying that teams have been affected, but CIL creates a steady flow of money, making it much easier to plan for and spend on city infrastructure.
Kelvin said there were wider questions as we grow, with biodiversity net benefit coming in, Environmental Outcome Reports instead of Environmental Impact Assessments, etc. As valuable as all this is, it’s adding to the burden of developers regarding the planning system as a series of hurdles to jump over to get to a goal. There isn’t joined up policy making at national level, but we all know development value increases if we improve the environment surrounding a development.
Flo said we have to stop using jargon, and try to be more transparent. People don’t understand what Section 106 is. If we are more transparent and open about how it is spent, it will help improve the public perception of development. She mentioned public art and developments bringing benefits which improve the town, saying tourists and residents want the same thing.
Sarah Springford from Brighton Chamber raised the point that tourism is vital here, but there is a housing issue for those working in the sector. Having just returned from Venice, which was clean and efficient, she raised the question, ‘should we have a tourism tax to improve our surroundings for visitors and residents?’
A thought-provoking discussion, and as usual, one with no easy conclusion, but Councillor Samer Bagaeen raised a poignant question near the end, which was, ‘Who are we building for?’ He said that school closures are to be announced this week because the demand is significantly reduced, with a shortage of families in the city. This then begged the question, from Ed, of whether new developments are being built for people in Brighton & Hove?
Geri Silverstone, CEO and Founder of Silverstone Communications and sponsor of this event added: “The challenge that we have is not to think about being for and against development. Thinking like that creates winners and losers. Instead, we have a responsibility to find a common purpose that create solutions that benefits everyone”.
Paula Seager from Natural PR specialises in PR, public consultation and community engagement for developers. Find out more on their website.
With thanks to our event sponsor, Silverstone Communications.
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