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Planning matters

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If we want a better future, we need to plan for … infrastructure, housing, the environment and the needs of businesses and universities at the same time…. Local councils cannot do this on their own …. 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. A mere 12 months ago, Government could not have been clearer on why it was so important for Government to have a role in a Spatial Framework for the OxCam Arc. This was founded on years of evidence gathering, research, reports and policy recommendations from organisations including the National Infrastructure Commission and culminated in the publication of a draft Spatial Framework in summer last year; the first of three. It was abundantly clear that any strategy to maximise the Arc’s potential as a world-leading knowledge cluster needed to be driven by a long-term and co-ordinated strategy, which supported the infrastructure, economic and housing that the Arc needs. The Government’s first Spatial Framework consultation had faced some criticism; there were concerns expressed that important topics, including housing and the environment, had not been given proper consideration. But similar criticisms can be made of most policy consultations and most people expected Government to continue with a proposal it had already invested so much in. The warning signs first came when the OxCam Arc was omitted from the Levelling Up White Paper[1] published in February 2022 (all 332 pages of it), including specific profiles on the East and South East regions. Later in February, a report to elected Members of South Cambridgeshire District Council[2] concluded that: it became clear that the government does not wish to see the Ox Cam Arc as a project driven by central government…. discussions with DLUCH officials have indicated that ministers believe that while they support the continuation of the project, it should be locally led, focusing on things that local leaders believe are priorities. Although a formal Government response to the first Spatial Framework is awaited, the future of a spatial framework for the Arc is clearly uncertain. The Financial Times referred to the OxCam Arc as having been “shelved”[3]     So what? It is no secret that the Arc’s disconnected infrastructure and lack of affordable housing undermine its economic growth potential; without being able to attract and retain the right labour force, and without labour and businesses being able to move freely across the Arc, the area will not truly rival Silcon Valley as a globally-renowned hub of innovation. It may also lead to exacerbated problems of congestion and pollution as people are forced to live more distant from their jobs, with a whole host of knock-on economic and environmental impacts. But the current nature of planning means that jobs, infrastructure and housing are generally planned for at a local level, either by authorities on their own or, in a few cases, in joint working with their neighbours. Economic work prepared for the National Infrastructure Commission in 2016 by SQW and Cambridge Econometrics[4] made exactly these observations when it looked at case studies of other economic clusters in the UK and around the world (including Hong Kong and Europe) and concluded that: Scale and connectivity are important in developing specialist labour markets which support the growth of knowledge-intensive companies; The scale and quality of research and business activity in the OxCam Arc is ‘huge’ but the area is currently very disjointed compared with international comparators; Governance is critical in relation to the scale and pattern of growth; and "It would be folly to assume that long term economic growth can only be incremental (and therefore reasonably predictable) in both geography and composition." But the absence of a joined-up strategy has real, quantifiable impacts too. The SQW economic work assessed three scenarios for the Arc, forecasting economic growth to 2050 under baseline, incremental and transformational growth scenarios. The latter scenario assumed “The study area moves towards the vision of becoming a functional economic corridor and a globally competitive knowledge cluster”; similar to the Government’s vision for the Arc to be “one of the most prosperous, innovative and sustainable economic areas in the world”, as set out in its Spatial Framework consultation. Under a transformation scenario, the Arc was forecast to see nearly 3m jobs in 2050; depending on whether the region sees baseline[5] growth or incremental[6] growth this could mean around 385,000-769,000 jobs could be foregone due to the lack of a joined-up strategy. For economic output (GVA) the amount potentially ‘lost’ could be between £38bn and £78bn. Figure 1: Employment and GVA in the Arc in 2050 Source: Based on early definition of the ‘CaMKOx corridor’ which is slightly different to the current defined geography if the OxCam Arc. The lack of an OxCam Arc strategy is also likely to have implications for housing delivery – and especially affordable housing delivery. Analysis by Lichfields shows that, if current planned levels of housing continue, the Arc will see around 630,000 homes (of which an estimated 189,000 would be affordable) delivered by 2050. But to support incremental growth however the Arc will need 830,000 homes, and to support transformational growth it will need 1.15m. The difference amounts to around 60,000-156,000 affordable homes and 200,000-520,000 homes overall. As it stands, there can be little confidence that the current local planning system will embrace the strategic, Arc-wide, perspective necessary to ensure economic potential is properly planned for, or that the homes necessary are incorporated within emerging and future local plans.   Figure 2: Estimated difference in housing delivery under current plans and future economic scenarios Source: Lichfields analysis based on SQW/Cambridge Econometrics Interestingly, the major urban centres of the OxCam Arc all fall outside the 20 largest urban centres that are subject to the 35% ‘urban centres uplift’ in the Standard Method for local housing need, and, as we showed, are (with the exception of Peterborough) projected to lose ground in population terms compared to other urban areas.   What next? In the era of localism, a Government-led spatial framework for the region was never going to be straightforward, but the fundamental rational for having a strategy remains stronger than ever. Leaving it for individual Councils to take forward raises real doubts over how that could be achieved. Councils lack resources and some of the powers necessary to address genuinely strategic matters[7]. Voluntary strategic planning initiatives (such as those in Essex, Hertfordshire, and South Hampshire) have so far failed to deliver tangible strategies after several years. The duty to cooperate, with all its well-known limitations, is a mechanism more geared to addressing issues with immediate neighbours rather than a regional-scale growth corridor. An official response from Government is awaited, with the FT reporting it as saying that it would provide more information on last year’s consultation “in due course”. But there is clearly a lot at stake for the Arc and – given its global significance – for the economic success of the whole country.     [1] Available here[2] Available here. The OxCam Arc Update is Agenda Item 12 pp 301-302[3] Financial Times article is here (£)[4] Available here[5] Where current housing delivery continues and current transport projects are implemented, but no further strategic scale infrastructure is realised[6] Where housing delivery increases above current levels and some further transport and infrastructure investments are made beyond current commitments[7] The FT quotes the leader of South Cambridgeshire Council as saying: “The implication from Gove is that they want us local council leaders to take it forward — but we have no money or power”


Distribution to data: A story of planning prejudice
James Fennell’s sabre rattling blog ‘Finking about Future Opportunities’ pointed towards exciting times ahead, as the planning sector responds to an array of new challenges in a rapidly changing market-place. As part of Lichfields’ 60th anniversary celebrations, he prefaced a series of blogs to follow on from his crystal balling, that examine prospects in different parts of the property market. As leader of Lichfields’ infrastructure offer, the blog baton has quickly passed to me.   You might think an infrastructure-themed blog would naturally focus on planes, trains…. and energy, perhaps showcasing Lichfields’ myriad of work in these pub-profile projects. But ‘infrastructure’ as a sector extends further than those schemes that get a minute on the 10 o’clock news just before the funnies. A sector that is central to the successful operation of UK plc, underpinning pretty much all economic activity is worthy of inclusion within the increasingly fashionable infrastructure sector. I’m talking about logistics: the facilitator of economic growth; the protector of our cost of living; and a key to the UK’s economic competitiveness.   The status of the HGV driver in public perception has never been higher. Critical workers certainly, and whilst perhaps the highest-profiled evidence of their important role incorrectly focusses on toilet rolls (a shortage brought about by panic buying rather than any collapse of the distribution chain), Government has stepped in to ensure our planning friends correctly give weight to driver’s needs. The warehouse buildings which they serve also deserve a higher profile in planning decisions. I recall that one of my first inquiries was focussed on a local authority’s attempt to secure delivery of a ‘sustainable business park’, which in policy terms translated to a simple ban on warehouse and logistics development. That warehousing could actually positively contributing towards a sustainable way of living was at the time a nuance completely ignored, and we were faced with the familiar task of justifying (ultimately successfully) that the job creation ratio for B8 development was still sufficient to justify the development.    Disappointedly, this prejudice against B8 in the planning system, despite the helpful additions to the NPPF (paragraph 83), continues today in some parts of the country. Only last year, I witnessed an authority happily reject the principle of B8 allocations in its Local Plan, despite an evidenced and unchallenged need for more space, on the grounds that there was ‘not enough room to accommodate it’. Instead we see a penchant for ego-massaging glass-clad business parks, offering promises of high job ratios, global HQs and national recognition. All this is marvellous, but tends to rely on such allocations being successfully built out and occupied by the blue chips they are designed to attract. Plus this rather ignores the attractive job creation characteristics of the distribution sector and the range of opportunities available therein, often well-suited to local social economic demographics. It also ignores the acute need for more strategic warehousing. Much is made of the ‘perfect storm’ in logistics, referencing how we are all now shopping; the desire of business to increase on-shore stock v’s just in time demand, and the combined impacts of Brexit, Covid and the Ever Given at Suez. Whilst the relative importance of each of these factors is open for debate, the combined implication is less so –there is strong demand for new warehouse space across the UK. Thankfully, we are seeing a growing recognition within planning decisions that a failure to provide for this demand will have significant economic implications - not just toilet rolls, but on the Country’s ability to function sustainably and efficiently. Each planning appeal decision, of course, is subject to its own unique set of circumstances but the increased weight given to meeting demand for B8 floorspace is very welcomed. Hopefully the days of dismissing B8 as the ‘inferior’ and unwanted employment use have passed.   History does have a tendency to repeat itself. Working on a new data centre proposal, I overheard Members discussing the relative merits of the new 100MW facility, noting support for every aspect of the scheme, other than the fact it was a data centre. A familiar land use prejudice and perhaps understandable when presented with simple job creation characteristics of this new type of infrastructure proposal. The wider role of data centre development in the efficient and successful operation of UK plc is a challenging story to relay, not helped by an ignorance of what they actually are, and how we all benefit from their provision. Challenging colleagues to give me an appreciation of what a data centre actually is rarely elicits a response beyond “buildings that store data”. In truth, they have an increasingly important role in supporting pretty much everything we do online.  Data centres are responsible for data backup and recovery, as well as networking, hosting websites, managing e-mails and instant messaging services. They support cloud storage applications and e-commerce transactions. Even the apparent insatiable appetite for online gaming (witnessed first-hand in my household) relies on the presence of data centres. They are essential for the individual, for business, for Government; for cities and for countries. How this critical economic role can be accurately quantified to appropriately influence planning decisions is what is (almost) keeping me up at night. As a starting point, it would be helpful to see some specific policy guidance on the need to support data centre development. We enjoy the positive recognition provided to high technology industries in the NPPF (para 83) noting that as above, this same paragraph gives a ‘leg up’ to the distribution sector, but alas such is the scope of this description, it remains of questionable value and often limited weight to data centre promoters.  We need to get to a position where there is recognition in policy that data centres are good things, playing an essential role in supporting the economy. Until this is in place, we will struggle against those who focus an assessment of a scheme’s virtues with reference to simple job numbers.  We have been there before and as a consequence, we are faced with an a shortage of strategic distribution development opportunities. We really can’t afford to let the data centre become the next shed, dismissed as someone else’s problem, pushed aside for traditional employment uses that promise more locally, but deliver far less to a successfully operating economy. Image credit: Brett Sayles via Pexels