19th May 2022

Sort it! Poor city planning is the biggest brake on our city’s success.

Sort it! Poor city planning is the biggest brake on our city’s success.

This week I made a deputation at Portsmouth City Council. This is only the second deputation I have made to the council in all the years I have been working for the city. I only do such things as a last resort.

I wanted all Cllrs you all to focus on the biggest barrier to the continued regeneration of our city: the capacity of the council’s planning department.

We have huge opportunities in the coming months and years to vastly improve the quality of life and opportunity for our citizens:

  • Major developments at several sites across Portsmouth
  • Opportunity to build much-needed homes
  • Resolve transport challenges
  • Levelling up funding for north Portsmouth
  • The restoration of key heritage assets

The quality and ability of planning will be fundamental to our success or otherwise.

I recognise the additional challenges the department has had to deal with, COVID and nitrates being two, but even allowing for that we have been in a dire situation with major backlogs and poor service to the public for some time.

Efforts made by me and others to ensure the St James site could have a master plan and a neighbourhood plan have been squandered, with key documents lost and with the Council failing to respond to Homes England.

Portsmouth is two years adrift from having a local plan – the most basic and vital tool to ensure decent development and legal clout.

There has been a failure to grip and shape housing numbers. It is very clear what the council needs to do here and what the process with the Planning inspectorate is. Yet excuses are made as to the lack of progress and engagement. ‘We don’t have a local plan’, ‘we aren’t sure of the process, ‘we are confused as to the policy’, ‘we have to wait for new legislation.

Is the Council really arguing you intend to wait until 2024 until you ask our housing numbers are revised down? All these bogus excuses have been trotted out over the last 12 months to residents. Most disappointingly inaccurate information has been given out in consultation with the public on proposed development. This has given the public a false impression of the legitimate choices they have in shaping their community.

After much pushing the council has developed an HMO policy, which is ineffective because it does not also possess the tools to enact it.

While we have spent money from central Government on flood mitigation measures – with huge success over recent years, the council has allowed development which is clearly creating flooding issues elsewhere – buildings but also schemes such as the astroturfing of playing fields.

And when a key council service has to close its doors to the public to catch up on its in-tray, as planning did a few weeks ago, something is seriously wrong.

These are the basics, but to do well we need Planning to do more than the basics. We need some creativity and drive to tackle the tough stuff.

How do we bring derelict buildings – left to rot by their owners- back into use?

How do we harness the efforts of the fantastic Neighbourhood Planning Forum at Milton, and set up more around the city? I brought in Planning Aid to provide the training which led to Milton’s formation. Could the council not provide such opportunities in the future to build capacity in our communities.

How do we create viable development at Tipner, building on the vision the Wildlife Trust has set out? Currently, the council are oscillating between two plans neither of which are practically possible.

How do we maximise the regeneration of Hilsea? And what does really good engagement with stakeholders look like? For years I have been writing to the City Council to say it has a massive problem. Some action to change culture and build capacity has been taken but it is not enough. A bit better or a bit less dire should not get in the way of excellent- our citizens, deserve nothing less.

What I’m saying should be no surprise to the council CEO- or planning I have raised all these matters with them. Nor it is a reflection on individual officers in that department who I am sure have done their best and I thank them for it.

But unless this is recognised and these issues gripped, we will not deliver for our citizens.

Our City Council should:

  1. Make building capacity and capability in planning a priority. This includes investment and developing good practice. It needs to rebuild credibility with the public, developers and the construction sector. It needs to provide a decent local plan and get on with forming local housing numbers. It needs to build homes and get on with developing the city.
  2. Create performance measures on basic planning services and KPIs on policies such as HMOs. These should be published and tracked.
  3. That external oversight and challenge is sought to raise standards and change culture.
  4. That Members of Parliament and other stakeholders are sent planning information about major developments- such as Cosham – as a matter of course.
  5. That specific asks and considerations from Southern Water regarding flooding are adhered to in making planning decisions.
  6. The council take up an offer from the Chief planning officer of England to clarify its confusion over its ability to devise appropriate housing numbers and address poor development performance.
  7. That the full Council is kept fulling informed on progress and will consider this at a future meeting in six months’ time.

I hope councillors will agree with me this needs to happen, and that we can all pull together to make it so. Our City needs us to.