“When Britain built something big” is the sub-title to Dave Hill’s book Olympic Park, which tells the story of how an Olympic park was created in London’s Lower Lea Valley in time for London 2012. It is a detailed factual account, not just of the politics, planning, infrastructure engineering and deal-making that led up to that event, but of its implications in terms of urban regeneration and legacy.
I’m interviewing Dave about the book and its themes at 6 pm on Tuesday 30 August 2022 on the audio social-media app Clubhouse, and you’re welcome to listen in here and indeed we’d love to here your own accounts.
A number of things are striking to me, looking back.
The first is that huge things can be achieved if individuals and institutions collectively grasp a vision and secure the necessary buy-in. At a time when this country had perhaps lost its self-belief in being able to deliver a project successfully and on time, here we were setting ourselves up to fail – but we didn’t. By luck there was a new system of London regional government in place to facilitate London’s bid for the games (Ken Livingstone as mayor, not a sports fan at all but persuaded as to the regeneration potential of a London Games) with the full support (not easily secured by the indefatigable Tessa Jowell) of the Blair government, and with the individual host boroughs, with capable leaders, willing to come together as a Joint Planning Applications Team to determine massively complex planning applications within tight timescales.
The second is that there are inevitable trade-offs if a project such as the transformation of this huge area of east London was to be achieved by what was an immovable deadline. When London secured the Games, the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 gave significant powers to unelected bodies, which has continued with the creation of the London Legacy Development Corporation in 2012. Many people’s homes and businesses were the subject of a compulsory purchase order, which was confirmed after a 41 day inquiry and which survived at least three legal challenges in the High Court. Should we have done it? Or should we have let community politics take their course?
The third is that whilst it is important to have the necessary statutory processes and a strategy, so much comes down to problem-solving, creativity and negotiation. Whilst the right calls may have been made in the negotiations necessary with the Stratford City development partners (at times a fragile partnership due to the takeover of Chelsfield during the process), was money wasted in deciding to proceed with a stadium design that did not easily allow for West Ham’s subsequent use – and just how good was West Ham’s eventual deal?
The fourth is that engineering constraints and their lead-in periods can cause headaches – for example the huge commercial, logistical and regulatory challenge of undergrounding electricity lines and removing pylons – achievements which we then utterly take for granted.
The fifth is the need for cross-party consensus – long-term projects can’t be the punchbag of short-term party politics. So there was the unholy alliance between Livingstone, expelled from the Labour party, and the New Labour government, both then replaced before the Games themselves by Johnson and the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition and now the approach to various legacy aspects being the domain of Sadiq Khan.
The sixth is that surely we need to learn from what went well and what perhaps didn’t, and to apply it to the immediate challenges around us: climate change, including renewables and making existing buildings more energy-efficient; and indeed the challenge of delivering a new generation of affordable homes. What more broadly should we learn about how our planning system needs to adapt?
There is so much more to talk about. Do join us, or read the book, or both.
Then do join us again a couple of weeks later for another book club special! At 6 pm on Monday 12 September 2022, we have barrister and broadcaster Hashi Mohamed, to talk about his book, A home of one’s own – his very personal take on the housing crisis, its causes and some possible solutions. Invitation here.
You can RSVP for the events on the clubhouse app via the links so as to be reminded when the event is starting, or just log in when the time comes
Nothing is new. Least of all the idea that economic activity may be generated by way of a state identifying a zone, whether in its borders or elsewhere, within which more advantageous rules apply for those doing business, for instance in terms of customs, taxes and constraints over development, and within which zone the state gives an organisation (which may be in part or wholly privately owned) a degree of regulatory autonomy.
The idea is topical. I referred in my 16 July 2022 blog post Neutrality to the “charter cities” idea that has been gaining traction in right wing circles and to Liz Truss’ espousal of “low planning zones: new investment zones around key parts of the United Kingdom with much clearer planning rules so people can get on with building straight away to generate those jobs and opportunities.”
If you look at what Romer is saying – or dip into the Charter Cities Institute’s website https://chartercitiesinstitute.org/ (the cheer-leading group for the concept) – it could be said to be rather simplistic (not to say colonial), pointing for instance to the success first of Hong Kong and then of the special economic zones established by China along its coastline, and suggesting that an equivalent model could allow first world countries to establish charter cities within developing countries, to mutual benefit and to the benefit of the population of the host country, who would have the “choice” as to whether to move to and subject themselves to the more economically-efficient (my summary) rules of the charter city.
Of course the usual questions arise: to what extent does such an arrangement impoverish or strip resources from those outside the charter city? How are human rights protected? How is the host country to ensure a fair deal is struck, given the likely inequality of bargaining positions? What of the right to self-determination for those in the area? In the fight against climate change, will this help, or hinder?
Madagascar and Honduras have indeed both explored but not implemented the idea. You may also recall a couple of years ago the media coverage around apparent discussions “between property developer Ivan Ko and the government of Ireland, with the former proposing the construction of a safe haven in the form of a semi-autonomous city in Ireland—one which would allow for the emigration of thousands of Hong Kong residents” (Charter cities: can they solve the world’s problems? (Thomson Reuters, 31 July 2020)).
Of course it’s not much of a step down from charter cities to freeports – it is all down to the detail of the regulatory arrangements and legal protections, as well as a question of scale.
Again topically, on 29 July 2022 DLUHC updated its guidance on Freeports although with no new substantive changes of note that I could see anyway.
From the guidance:
“Freeports are special areas within the UK’s borders where different economic regulations apply. Freeports in England are centred around one or more air, rail, or seaport, but can extend up to 45km beyond the port(s).”
“Our Freeports model will include a comprehensive package of measures, comprising tax reliefs, customs, business rates retention, planning, regeneration, innovation and trade and investment support.
Eligible businesses in Freeports will enjoy a range of tax incentives, such as enhanced capital allowances, relief from stamp duty and employer national insurance contributions for additional employees. These tax reliefs are designed to encourage the maximum number of businesses to open, expand and invest in our Freeports which in turn will boost employment.
Freeports will benefit from a range of customs measures, allowing imports to enter the Freeport custom sites with simplified customs documentation and delay paying tariffs. This means that businesses operating inside designated areas in and around the port may manufacture goods using these imports, before exporting them again without paying the tariff.
Freeports will provide a supportive planning environment for the development of tax and customs sites through locally led measures such as Local Development Orders or permitted development right development.”
The Government’s “Freeport model has 3 objectives:
a) establish Freeports as national hubs for global trade and investment by focusing on delivering a diverse number of investment projects within the Freeport regions, make trade processes more efficient, maximise developments in production and acquire specialist expertise to secure Freeports position within supply chains.
b) create hotbeds for innovation by focusing on private and public sector investment in research and development; by being dynamic environments that bring innovators together to collaborate in new ways; and by offering spaces to develop and trial new ideas and technologies. This will create new markets for UK products and services and drive productivity improvements, bringing jobs and investment to Freeport regions.
c) promote regeneration through the creation of high-skilled jobs in ports linked to the areas around them, ensuring sustainable economic growth and regeneration for communities that need it most. Local economies will grow as tax measures drive private investment, carefully considered planning reforms facilitate construction and infrastructure is upgraded in Freeports”
People of course point to the fact that it was Sunak who as Chancellor in 2021 announced the establishment of the latest round of eight English freeports:
East Midlands Airport
Felixstowe & Harwich including the Port of Felixstowe and Harwich International Port
Humber including parts of Port of Immingham
Liverpool City Region including the Port of Liverpool
Plymouth & South Devon including the Port of Plymouth
Solent including the ports of Southampton, Portsmouth and Portsmouth International Port
Thames including the ports at London Gateway and Tilbury
Teesside including Teesside International Airport, the Port of Middlesbrough and the Port of Hartlepool
How the planning system will operate within them is still uncertain and no doubt will be a patchwork quilt of differing arrangements. The Government’s Freeports bidding prospectus (November 2020) said this on the subject:
Bidders will be able to take advantage of the planning reforms set out in the Consultation Response related to permitted development rights and simpler, area-based planning – in particular Local Development Orders (LDOs).
The government recognises the advantages that wider planning reform can bring to Freeports development. Therefore, as part of a longer-term programme of reform to England’s planning system, the government is exploring the potential to go further in these areas, as well as the potential to test ambitious planning proposals in Freeports, taking advantage of the controlled spaces that they offer.
In addition to the measures set out in the Freeports Consultation, the government is actively exploring a new, simpler framework for environmental assessment, as well as intending to review the National Policy Statement for Ports in 2021.”
(Dear reader, you will have noticed that 2021 has since come and gone).
I mentioned that this is the latest round of freeports. I’m sure we can expect the incoming prime minister to expand the initiative. But let’s not forget that freeports are nothing new and (aside from some nuanced detail around state aid) they are not really a dividend from our old friend in the corner, Brexit. Seven freeports operated in the UK at various points between 1984 and 2012.
Another great theme of the current prime ministerial tussle has been both candidates’ attempts to emulate their professed idol Margaret Thatcher. As a milk drinker I may be biased – as education minister in 1971 she took away free milk from the over sevens. I was seven. (Rishi and Liz weren’t born).
Shortly after she came to power in 1979, the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 was enacted (“lug plaa” as we all called it) which paved the way for the creation of a new type of urban development corporations, including most notably the London Docklands Development Corporation, which was given wide planning and compulsory land acquisition powers, with the area also given enterprise status under the Act. Here is the rather quaint 26 April 1982 press release.
“In order to provide substantial inducements for firms to move into Docklands, the Government, with effect from April 1982, designated much of the area centring around the West India and Millwall Docks as an Enterprise Zone, as provided for under the 1980 Local Government, Planning and Land Act, with the intention of encouraging and speeding up development. The boundary was carefully drawn to exclude those sites which had already been, or were in course of being, developed, such as Billingsgate Market (see plan C). (fn. 5) The chief financial concessions were: freedom from local rates for a ten-year period until 1992, no development land tax, and 100-percent capital allowance for new commercial and industrial buildings, to be set against corporation and income taxes. In December 1986 the Financial Times, in announcing the proposed relocation of its printing works to Docklands, calculated that the £20,850,000 cost of the site and building would be reduced to £15,400,000 by the tax concessions offered in the Enterprise Zone. (fn. 6)
In addition, there were simplified planning procedures: the zone was set up with an overall planning scheme, and any proposed development that conformed to that scheme was deemed to have been given planning consent, unless it was considered a particularly sensitive site and therefore specifically excluded from the general planning provision. (fn. 7) Similarly, development within the zone was normally free of ‘use class’ planning controls, so that a structure originally intended to be a factory or warehouse could be converted to office use during the course of construction, without requiring further permission.”
The House of Commons Library, research briefing Enterprise Zones (21 January 2020) is a useful summary of where we now are with enterprise zones. 38 Enterprise Zones were designated between 1981 and 1996. When the coalition government came to power in 2010 Chancellor George Osborne announced the creation of further EZs. As at 2020 there were, I think, 44 in England, in Scotland, 7 in Wales and 1 in Northern Ireland.
Again, no doubt additional EZs may be in prospect.
What of any of this in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – and is it going to be given a Sunakian/Trussian polish in September? The Bill does already provide for locally-led urban development corporations, away from the previous 1980 Act centralised model (how truly local is local depends of course on the carrots and sticks deployed by the centre) but are we going to see any more ambitious/radical ideas come into play?
This has been an only-scratching-the-surface and leaving-you-to-join-the-dots sort of blog post. Even getting this far has taken me, on-screen at least, all around the world. I don’t have all the answers. Be wary of those, on all sides, who pretend that they do!
The accompanying statement indicates that the Government’s ambition for the Arc is expressed in cautiously generic language:
“There is an opportunity, recognised by government and local partners, to build a better economic, social and environmental future for the area. With high-quality, well-connected and sustainable communities making the Arc an even more beautiful place to live, work and visit.”
“To achieve this ambition, the government alongside local partners, is going to:
• Develop a Spatial Framework for the Arc; a long-term regional plan to help coordinate the infrastructure, environment and new developments in the area. We are committed to working with local communities throughout so we can create beautiful and sustainable places for residents and workers to enjoy.
• Explore the creation of an Arc Growth Body; that would be a clear economic leadership voice for the Arc, championing its talent and assets internationally, supporting businesses, and fostering innovation.”
The documents say this about the likely nature and governance of the Arc Growth Body and of its likely delivery structure:
“ To realise the full opportunities – and overcome the challenges – will require coordination of planning functions across the region. Local councils cannot do this on their own because of the level of coordination needed across the area, and because they do not have all the levers needed to develop a genuinely integrated plan. Government needs to play a supporting role to bring together a strategic approach at the Arc level to support better planning and ultimately better outcomes for the economy, environment and communities.”
“Over the next two and a half years, a specialist team in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will work with communities and local partners to develop a robust, evidence-based Spatial Framework. “
“The nature and content of the Spatial Framework will be subject to the outcome of both detailed consultation and sustainability appraisal.”
“We will seek to implement the Spatial Framework as spatially specific national planning policy. Local planning authorities preparing local development documents (including local plans) will have to have regard to the Spatial Framework, as they do with other national policies and guidance.”
“We have […] made a commitment to examine the case for development corporations, linked to the new transport hubs around East West Rail stations.”
“Specifically, the Spatial Framework will:
• provide an assessment of existing employment land, planned growth and anticipated future need
• set policies to support local planning authorities in allocating these as Strategic Business Zones or Strategic Industrial Locations, as appropriate
• set policies to support different land uses for different sectors and sizes of business”
“The Spatial Framework will also outline policies to enable sustainable, transport-led development. This will include policies to enable:
• new settlements to come forward at the scale and speed needed
• new development to support habitat recovery, delivery of Local Nature Recovery Strategies, and provision of good-quality green spacewithin schemes
• brownfield redevelopment and densification, and expansion of existing settlements, in sustainable locations or locations that can be made more sustainable by enhanced access to sustainable transport modes
• housing needs to be met in full, including delivery of much-needed affordable housing”
2.128 The government has designated the corridor of land connecting Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambridge (the OxCam Arc) as a key economic priority. Earlier this year, the government announced the East West Rail Company’s preferred route for the new line between Bedford and Cambridge. The government will also, subject to planning consents, build a new rail station at Cambridge South, improving connectivity to the world-leading research facilities of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus – the largest cluster of medical and life sciences research in Europe.
2.129 The Budget announces plans to develop, with local partners, a long-term Spatial Framework to support strategic planning in the OxCam Arc. This will support the area’s future economic success and the delivery of the new homes required by this growth up to 2050 and beyond. The government is also going to examine and develop the case for up to four new Development Corporations in the OxCam Arc at Bedford, St Neots/Sandy, Cambourne and Cambridge, which includes plans to explore the case for a New Town at Cambridge, to accelerate new housing and infrastructure development.”
Indeed, earlier this month, MHCLG started a tender process for a “planning/engagement specialist to support the Government in developing an approach to engaging local audiences (both stakeholder groups and the public) throughout the process of developing up to four new or expanded settlements in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (OxCam Arc) aligned with new stations along the East West Rail (EWR) Central Section. The specific locations under consideration are Bedford, St Neots/Tempsford, Cambourne and Cambridge.”
“3.5 The objectives of this commission are […] to:
3.5.1 develop an evidence-based engagement strategy for the programme that sets out the phases and methods of activity until delivery vehicles have been established at the chosen locations (~mid 2022);
3.5.2 clearly set out a route for the programme to meet any statutory requirements for consultation across the area and specifically each of the four potential development sites Bedford, St Neots/Tempsford, Cambourne and Cambridge; and
3.5.3 secure local buy-in for the strategy by working with local partners to build on established channels of engagement and recommending methods to engage hard to reach groups.”
There are so many interesting elements to what is proposed:
⁃ The Government, through the Arc Growth Body, is going to prepare the framework itself and take it through to adoption. Who is going to lead the body and what will be its make-up?
⁃ It will have equivalent status to the NPPF in relation to plan making and decision making.
⁃ The Government has accepted that there will be stages of consultation and the sustainability appraisal (opening itself up to the rigours of the legal requirements in relation both to consultation and strategic environmental assessment) but it appears that there will be no independent examination of the draft framework.
⁃ Success is inevitably going to be dependent on securing a sufficient level of support or acceptance from local politicians and communities, meaning that it is important that the 2019 joint declaration holds firm, “entered into between the Government, local authorities across the Oxford to Cambridge Arc, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, the Arc’s four local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), and England’s Economic Heartland.”
⁃ We can expect to see up to four development corporations.
⁃ the document references the Government’s Planning For The Future proposals and I am sure we will see the process used in part as a showcase as to its proposed approach to plan making, for instance:
“3.12 First, we will use data and digital technology to support our policy-making. We intend to support development of an open source, digital platform for data and evidence to support collaboration between government, businesses, local councils and communities in decision-making. We will work with local partners to create an accessible digital platform for economic, planning and environmental data, and easy-to-use tools so that people – including the public and businesses – can engage meaningfully in the process.
3.13 Second, it means using digital engagement processes to make it easy for people to raise their views about proposals in the spatial framework, including on smartphones.
3.14 Third, it means the spatial framework will be visual and map-based, standardised, and based on the latest digital technology, so that it is easy to access and understand.”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse once released a terrific, if noisy album: Arc-Weld. Civil servants’ welding skills will certainly be needed to build the structure so far outlined, at the pace identified.