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Friday, August 18, 2006
Save our Gardens!
OK. It really is silly season, despite the plethora of what should be important news stories (bomb plots, wars, etc). Because the Tories have seized the moment to launch a Five-Point Plan on suburban back gardens.

Yes, really, and it is Friday. Apparently, without King David to protect us, our back gardens will be taxed, or stolen from us to build 'pokey flats' on. And bless'em, they even want to help out the nation of DIY-lovers with this little tidbit: "Stop new taxes being levied on home improvements and gardens". Just in time for B&Q's summer sale.

Labour's hit back hard. claiming that 'Tory policy would make it harder for people to...build extensions." So no tasteless conservatories under the Notting Hill Tories, then.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Good ideas from somewhere else: Rain Gardens.
Kansas City has a great new idea to mix the need for sustainable urban drainage with citizen participation for minimal effort: 10,000 Rain Gardens. Basically, it aims to get residents to create 'rain gardens' that hold stormwater - as small as a few square metres - and help the massive problems of drainage that the city has.

Easy - and made even easier by the website which has easy how-to guides on making one, equipment suppliers if you want to install a rainwater butt or buy native plants, and a list of professionals who can make one for you if you don't have the time: alongside workshops, festivals, and a picture gallery of completed projects.

I bet the whole scheme costs nothing - the price of a few metres of municipal stormwater drain installation in a busy road. I'd like to see every city have a scheme like this.
Obligatory design statements: good or bad?
An interesting point has been raised in relation to the now-compulsory design and access statements for all planning applications. Brian Waters, joint editor of Planning in London, thinks that they will lead to even further 'dumbing-down' of planning staff within LAs.

He reckons that planners are losing the skills to evaluate design quality through a tick-box approach that codifies 'good' quality rather than relying on good judgement. Its a really universal problem: on the one hand 'good judgement' for one person is another person's stupid personal opinion; on the other hand, quality isn't just about ticking certain boxes: it isn't a quantifiable thing.

I have to admit that I thought the design statements were a good thing but clearly, as with all these statements (EIAs, anyone?) a clever person can write a convincing-sounding design statement for a poor scheme. Planners still need to exercise judgement, comparing the written statement with the actual design to see whether the supposed aspirations are evident in the detail. But I can still see his point - when planners are overloaded with case-work, the temptation will be to read the statement and skim over the drawings.
Thames Gateway news
Judith Armitt, current chief exec of Medway Council, has taken up the potentially poisoned chalice of becoming DCLG's Thames Gateway chief executive. She's meant to co-ordinate - well, pretty much everything in the nightmare of multiple agencies, crazy target-setting, floodplains and greenfields. Despite the six-figure salary I'm not sure how many people really wanted that job. Apparently she's one of CABE chief Richard Simmons' life mentors.

Meanwhile, DCLG is set to reveal the results of its recent decision to actually strategise for the area. A discussion document is currently circulating and a draft strategy will be unveiled for broader consultation next month, including a delivery strategy (hooray!) and an economic development strategy (what? haven't they already had one?).

And after three years of negotiations and public inquiry, DCLG has said that it will approve the massive development of Shellhaven, in Thurrock, as a deep water container port and business park that may create 16,500 jobs. Currently the site of a massive Shell oil refinery, this has been contentious, to say the least - given it's right next to (some might say on top of) the SSSI of Mucking Flats.
Monday, August 14, 2006
...and news from the rest of the Thames Gateway.
Last week the CPRE (who really seem to be rarely out of the news these days) published yet another report in which 'experts' voiced 'fears' over the amount of housing not being built on brownfield land. It is pretty clever, taking stats from official public sources and using them to prove that many TG boroughs are failing to meet governmetn targets for density and brownfield development.

But in so explicitly calling for 'density', they've found themselves up against an unlikely mix of major housebuilders and homelessness charities all calling for more family housing to address the real needs of the population. The fact is (as I always love to bore people with) if you measured density in habitable rooms rather than dwellings, this issue would immediately vanish as it would be remove the incentive for housebuilders to build one-bedroom flats.

Adam Sampson, director of Shelter, said: "Maximising brownfield development and high density building are crucial to reducing environmental impact. But this must be balanced with the need for homes that are well-designed and sustainable, with enough space for families.

"Only by maintaining this balance will we be able to create a thriving, mixed community which could offer the chance of a brighter future to some of the thousands of children trapped in bad housing and homelessness in London and the South East."

Meanwhile in yet another attempt to actually control what's going on on the marshes and mudflats, the Government is aiming to produce a costed business plan for the Thames Gateway detailing project by project how it intends to meet social, economic and environmental targets. I know, its scarcely believable that they've only just thought to do this.

According to a senior source at DCLG talking to a journo at Regen and Renewal, the business plan, which is earmarked for release in November 2007 following next year's Comprehensive Spending Review, is on top of previous commitments to publish a broader and less specific "strategic framework".

The source said costings within a specified range would be identified for each project, which will then be assessed as to how they meet economic, social, environmental and design criteria.
Olympics news
News from the Lower Lea:

Lorraine Baldry, the chair of the LTGDC, has been unveiled as also the chair of the new Olympic Planning Committee. The rest of the committee consists of a somewhat odd group of people - basically the portfolio holder councillors from the five boroughs, plus some other randoms (William Hodgson, a Hackney-based architect - anyone heard of him?!). Full list:
David Taylor, co-founder of Silvertown Quays Limited, in the role of deputy chairman (an ODA board member as well as Baldry)
Rofique Ahmed, councillor with Tower Hamlets Council
Conor McAuley, councillor with Newham Council
Geoff Taylor, councillor with Hackney Council
Terry Wheeler, councillor with Waltham Forest
Mike Appleton, director with regeneration company Cibitas
Celia Carrington, deputy chief executive of Swindon Council
William Hodgson, a Hackney-based architect
Janice Morphet, visiting professor of Planning at the Bartlett
Dru Vesty, board member of the LTGDC

And the ODA and L&CR have announced the developer shortlist for the non-retail part of Stratford City, which was taken back under direct LCR control after the unseemly scrap earlier this summer:
Bouygues, leading a consortium including Barratt Homes
Lend Lease, leading a consortium including East Thames Group, First Base and Crosby Homes
Royal Bank of Scotland, leading a consortium including Bellway Homes, Gladedale and Kier.

And impacting on both these pieces of news is the story that Newham is arguing with the ODA about who should determine planning applications for projects that impact on the legacy and areas outside the park: i.e. Stratford. Basically I reckon its a fight about who controls the s106 contributions.
Friday, August 11, 2006
The end of the Northern Way
Now the seaman from Hull is no longer at the helm at DCLG, it looks like the 'flagship' Northern Way programme is going to follow him into an unofficial retirement. Director of Implementation Vince Taylor has let on that he is working on the potential dismantlement of the programme after the end of this period of funding, in 2008. He also said that the Northern Way will not be receiveing any further funding after the spending review.

Basically it looks like the northern RDA's will take the initiative in-house, i.e. killing it off but trying to retain some of its priorities about cross-regional working.

The whole thing was launched just under two years ago as a "groundbreaking vision for economic renaissance" with £100m of funding. Hey ho, what has it achieved? From the annual report published this month:

"The Northern Way has made significant progress since its inception. Highlights include:
• Establishing the Northern Transport Compact to provide a unified voice on pan-northern transport priorities.
• Marketing the North as one to distant customers who have limited knowledge of the different northern regions, with successful campaigns for overseas investors in Australia and North America.
• Helping to fund centres of excellence benefiting the entire North in leadership, innovation and the skills for sustainable communities.
• The Department for Work and Pensions established nine Pathways to Work pilots in the North in response to the priority we accorded to worklessness in our strategy.
• The Department for Transport backed four of our ‘early win’ transport investments in a shortlist of 12 across England.

"However, significant challenges remain. During 2006/7 financial year we will:
• Produce a submission for the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review that contains compelling, evidence-based proposals for resources and policies that are tailored to the North’s requirements.
• Deliver the outcomes specified in our Business Plan through the successful deployment of the Growth Fund.
• Complete our strategic stocktake, developing the key priorities for The Northern Way beyond the three-year
Business Plan.
• Engage the strong support of all our stakeholders in our mission."

It's rather sad, really - and very symptomatic of the short-termism endemic in government funding. We all know that it takes many years and sometimes decades to produce results - yet a programme like this (however flawed some might say that it was from the start) gets axed before it's barely begun, and it does feel like a waste of that £100m.