Like many of us, I’ve watched in a mix of strange fascination and mounting horror the political pantomime than unfolds before us in the news on a daily basis. The unseemly scrabbling of some politicians to manoeuvre themselves into position, the outlandish off the cuff public statements and the inability to put aside party politics for the sake of the bigger issues.
Yes I could be talking about Brexit. Unfortunately I am talking about local politics, particularly when it comes to planning decisions.
Derby is having a ‘difficult’ time when it comes to any kind of cohesive policy over significant planning applications. Just a couple of weeks ago in this column, John Forkin of Marketing Derby correctly said that “the great British high-street is dead”. I agree with him totally. We are less than 6 weeks into 2019 and Derby has already seen the very sad demise not only of Bennetts, but also Derby Restaurant of the Year Le Bistro Terroir and The Post House.
These businesses are disappearing from our streets at the same time that business like my own, BB&J Commercial and Marketing Derby are trying to convince people that Derby is a great place to come and invest.
For those that don’t know Marketing Derby is an inward investment agency offering support to those businesses looking to come to or invest in Derby and Derbyshire. They spread the word nationally and internationally via meetings, conferences and marketing that Derby is a great place to invest and come and do business. It is supported and financed entirely by its bondholders, which now number over 300 businesses such as my own.
For many Bondholders there may be no direct business to be gained from this, yet we spend the money because we all share a common vision that we want to support our city and see it grow. Led by John Forkin Marketing Derby are a small team who all work tirelessly to promote our city. And they have considerable success: over the last decade they have helped attract over £4billion of investment to the city. To name but a few examples Marketing Derby have played a large part in successfully attracted businesses to the city such as Intu, Prosperity Capital, Ted Baker, Compendium Living, Knights PLC, BLOM construction and Godwin Developments.
You may be aware that some of the above are property developers, looking to invest millions of pounds in terms of new urban living schemes. They have the choice to invest in opportunities throughout the UK. So when Marketing Derby has successfully put all the hard work in to attract them here, what kind of welcome do they get?
Those of you who have been following the trials and tribulations of various planning applications for new development schemes may see where this is going.
A property development company come to Derby. They are faced with a City Council that has no clear or cohesive planning policy on what is or is not likely to be accepted and some members of the Planning Committee who appear to vehemently anti-development. A recent application for a multi-storey development was subject to off the cuff comments made during the committee meeting such as “where’s the proof of demand”…it’s not a nice way to live. Tower blocks? High rise living? Grenfell? No thank you.”
To be clear, these comments were made by the Chair of Derby City Council Planning Committee.
In terms of a welcome, it’s not the greatest.
It goes without saying that planning applications need to be scrutinised, particularly those that are sensitive or significant. However there is an unfortunate history of Derby appearing hostile to new development. A proposed block of student accommodation on Agard Street was rejected due to concerns over air pollution, light and the proximity to Friar Gate Conservation Area. Where is the consistency for this scheme to be rejected when a larger development for students a short distance down the same street adjacent the so called ‘Copper Building’ at Friar Gate Square was granted permission and is now complete?
As is usual with most of the opposition to such development, it is highly organised and the wave of objections coming from several sources (often from outside of Derby such as Heritage England and the Victorian Society) cannot be matched in terms of the number of organisations who write in with support which is usually provided by Marketing Derby. Because the objecting groups are more numerous however, their voice is disproportionately loud, and therefore can be seen to outweigh support in terms of balancing up the arguments for and against . In simple terms, there is an organised minority who try to prevent new development in Derby.
Another interesting point is the grounds used for objection. Certain planning phrases and words can be used to tick the boxes for having valid grounds for objection, and as such are used repeatedly.
The usual ones are “height scale and mass” as rolled out by Historic England in respect of the Agard Street scheme (amazingly rejected because it was near Friar Gate Conservation Area, not even in the Conservation Area); “the scale and mass are wrong” (The Landmark), and “scale and massing” (Bio House). I wonder if those that use these phrases would be able to explain them if asked.
I appreciate that members of the planning committee hold positions where they will always be upsetting a proportion of the public, because there will always be those who disagree with their decisions. That is not the issue. The issue is the seeming inability of some individuals to put aside their desire to shape Derby according to their own personal vision and instead recognise the value to the city that new development schemes will bring. Will those members of the committee admit their culpability if they continue to vote against development and the city stagnates, with a lack of development leading to falling investment, a flattening economy and unsustainable businesses? Because as recent high street closures indicate, that is where we are heading.
As Marketing Derby’s John Forkin argued in January’s Planning Committee meeting “money leaves Derby”. This has to stop. Planning decisions are not just about the particular scheme in question. There is a greater responsibility that planners have to consider the wider economic, social and regenerative effects that a scheme may have. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have my own reservations about aspects of some schemes that have been and are being developed. But I recognise the benefits of such schemes far outweigh such reservations. Planning is about bigger things. It is about acknowledging these are important decisions and part of a bigger picture that affects the future of our city, and acting accordingly.
Now more than ever Derby needs to take a look at itself and recognise the possibilities and threats for its future. We need a clear planning policy that will help encourage and provide a framework for development to sit alongside the efforts of all of those who work hard to bring investment to the city. Derby has a great opportunity, and all sides need to recognise that and work together for a common cause. I hope the City Council and all interested parties can rise above any entrenched views and work together for the common good, because they have a responsibility to all of us.