Pains of Growth

Real dialogue with existing residents in designated growth points is the only way to alleviate the public's natural suspicion and keep development plans on track, argues Kelly Edwards.

Six strategic development areas have been proposed in the South East in recent months. They comprise two major development areas in Milton Keynes of up to 4,000 buildings each along with growth at Fareham and Hedge End in south Hampshire, Oxford and Reading.

All were put forward in the public examination panel report on the regional spatial strategy for the South East. At first glance, this should be good news for developers. But beneath the numerous government headlines on its efforts to promote growth, the reality on the ground is altogether different.

The prospect raises three main challenges. The first is a lack of information and understanding about growth points among the public and sometimes even their elected representatives. We are currently working on a growth area that will increase the local population by about a third. Despite this, most people in the town were unaware of it when we started work on the project.

In a way, this is unsurprising. There was large-scale local media coverage of the scheme when the council received growth point status. There were then a few letters and follow-up articles in the local press. But the focus was not on the long-term plans. Local people were confused. They did not know how big a growth point is supposed to be. Even though the local paper has a large circulation, most of the residents did not appear to read it in any detail.

For all the initial talk of growth areas, when large applications are submitted there is a real risk of surprise that leads to concern and opposition from the public. A senior politician has suggested that while some councillors are not as informed on growth areas as they should be, this should be tackled by greater efforts at local government level to get the information to them in a readily available and easily accessible form.

This leads to the second challenge - concern among residents about large-scale growth projects that lack sufficient facilities. It is a common complaint that communities lack infrastructure. This problem often arises because schemes were approved when the requirements for supporting facilities were less stringent than now.

The public believes that the next round of development will suffer the same deficiencies. On one growth point project where a huge rise in population is planned, we needed to counter this public view by scheduling a programme of public exhibitions to explain that the proposals included a major new road, schools and thousands of jobs.

The scale of growth areas means that they cover many councils and parishes. Politicians representing each of the main parties hold control at some level and follow their own agenda. Once it comes to submitting planning applications and promoting developments, we often have to remind local people and their elected representatives what living in a growth area means.

I stood in the 2005 general election and seemed to be the only candidate in my area supporting the housing growth figures. Leaflets with anti-development headlines struck a chord with the electorate and my opponents knew it. As one senior politician told me: "I am not in the business of implementing Labour's housing policy."

The third challenge is the onus on planners and developers. Too often consultation is left until the last minute. Some professionals regard consultation as a way of slowing the development process, fearing that it will mean mass changes to a project. But this is another urban myth.

We recently managed a large consultation in the East Midlands for a development of more than 1,000 homes and 4ha of employment land. The main outcome from the workshops that we ran was not a desire to cut housing numbers or density. It was more to do with requests to move a community centre from one end of the site to the other to benefit both existing and future residents. With that change agreed, the proposal has much wider support and is progressing through the planning timetable.

When the Barker review outlined the need to increase house building rates to ease pressures on first-time buyers and meet the growing needs of the nation, the government saw new growth points as the way to deal with these issues. Growth points provide opportunities, but because they are often misunderstood by the public and are not devised by those who make a final decision on planning committees, implementing growth can be difficult.

Plans are needed in each strategic development area to remind people about growth point status. Residents and politicians must be briefed and consulted prior to planning applications being submitted. A thorough programme of information across the communities involved, highlighting the development to take place including appropriate infrastructure, is necessary to make growth areas work well.

Kelly Edwards is operations director at Green Issues Communications.

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