Leading Leeds towards growth

Leeds City Council's planning chief is racing to complete the authority's core strategy and speed up major planning decisions against a background of cuts. But he remains confident, he tells John Geoghegan.

Phil Crabtree
Phil Crabtree

Running the planning department of Leeds City Council, England's second most populous local authority, would be challenging at the best of times. But during a period of depleted resources, and with the city council racing against time to ensure that its core strategy complies with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) before next March's deadline, it has become even tougher.

All things considered, Phil Crabtree, the authority's chief planning officer, is upbeat when we meet at Regeneration & Renewal's Northern Growth Summit in Leeds. Crabtree has been at the helm for five years, arriving just before the credit crunch hit.

Since then, his department's headcount - including both administrative and frontline planning staff - has fallen from 270 to 200. Crabtree says it has been a challenge ensuring that the department can still provide a comprehensive service. But he has managed to hold onto specialist teams covering ecology, urban design and conservation.

The challenges keep coming. Crabtree says his team is prioritising work on site allocations for the core strategy and on its emerging Community Infrastructure Levy, which will set fixed rates for developer contributions to infrastructure according to the type and scale of their schemes. But the team also has to deal with what he says is the fifth highest number of major applications of any council in England. Crabtree says that improving speed of decision-making in this area is also a priority.

In 2011/12, the city council had a 69 per cent success record on appeals. But between June 2010 and May 2011, Crabtree says it lost seven cases over housing land supply issues, including one that went to the High Court. Crabtree puts this down to the council's old local development plan having a more protective approach to releasing greenfield land, as well as its belief that the coalition government would support this stance.

But he says the council's approach towards housing schemes has changed, as illustrated in June 2011 when members agreed to release greenfield sites with room for about 1,900 homes for development. He describes the council's emerging core strategy, which is due to be examined next spring, as "very pro-growth" on housebuilding and job creation, proposing 80,000 new homes up to 2027.

Crabtree says Leeds has been doing its best to kick-start private investment in spite of a sluggish development sector. About a year ago, he explains, the local authority commissioned consultants to assess viability across the city and the council's general policy on affordable housing provision via section 106 planning gain agreements. As a result, the council lowered its affordable housing requirements across most of Leeds on an interim basis.

In certain cases, the authority also agreed to extra cuts in affordable housing obligations set out in individual section 106 deals over and above those agreed in the interim policy. Crabtree says that this move was "to try and stimulate housing development". But he also believes that the dark economic clouds might finally be starting to pass, claiming that developer interest in the city is stronger than for some time, with particular signs of life in the office sector.

Meanwhile, two eye-catching city centre redevelopment schemes - the Leeds Arena sports and entertainment venue and Land Securities' Trinity shopping centre - are both due to open next year. Crabtree also welcomes the government's July decision to provide £250 million for the city's long-awaited trolleybus scheme.

But the evolving legislative landscape is presenting difficulties. Crabtree has mixed feelings about two major pieces of planning reform introduced by the coalition government: the NPPF and the Localism Act. The NPPF, he believes, has created "more uncertainty in the system" by slashing detailed guidance. The need for councils to have a five-year supply of housing land plus an extra buffer of at least five per cent has caused big headaches for Leeds, he says.

The council has had to release greenfield sites on the urban edge, but, he explains, this fails to help the area with the greatest need for housing: the inner city. He says: "The long-term consequences are the loss of greenfield land and, more critically, social polarisation."

Crabtree argues that the NPPF's prioritisation of brownfield sites, which cost more to develop, "holds little sway at the moment because developers say it's unviable". Because of this, the council is trying to provide more sites for development by undertaking a selective review of its green belt through its core strategy, something he says will be "a sensitive process" of consultation with communities and members.

But Crabtree says that Leeds is embracing the neighbourhood element of the Localism Act. He says that almost 30 communities have shown an interest in becoming neighbourhood forums to take on planning powers, with 12 having formally applied. Crabtree describes neighbourhood planning as an opportunity for authorities to bring developers and communities together, and says that Leeds has a team of planning officers supporting that process. As well as trying to improve relationships with local communities, Crabtree's other priorities include efforts to develop a "more positive and pro-active relationship with developers and investors".

A couple of private sector consultants tell me that relations with the council's planning team have sometimes been strained, something Crabtree accepts. "I think there have been tensions all round," he says. "It led to both sides taking rather entrenched positions." He says that progress has been made, but that there is still work to be done.

Having barely digested the impact of the NPPF and the Localism Act, planning teams across the country are now getting to grips with the further reforms outlined in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Crabtree describes proposals to speed up the planning system by extending permitted development rights for homeowners as "a pretty draconian measure to achieve relatively little". He expects the workload for local authorities, including enforcement action, to increase, with much of it reaping no application fee income.

Crabtree is also keen to defend the planning system from outspoken attacks by senior ministers, which he says fail to show regard for the "unseen and unheralded" work of planning authorities. "Leeds is pretty buoyant compared with some other cities at the moment," he says. "It's a tribute to the long-term planning stance that has held this city together and secured the right form and quality of development in the right places."

CV highlights

1975: Graduates with a degree in town planning from Newcastle University

1975: Joins Sedgefield District Council's local planning team as a planning assistant (local plans)

1984: Moves to Birmingham City Council as senior economist/planner, later becoming assistant director of planning control

2007: Joins Leeds City Council as chief planning officer.

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