The reality of localism

The struggle by Brighton & Hove's Green administration to develop a truly local (and sustainable) city plan in the face of government's 'growth at all costs' obsession. Originally published in Green World 86

Geoffrey Bowden

Over the past two years, the Brighton & Hove Green administration has been reviewing and rewriting Brighton & Hove's 'City Plan', updating the previous Conservative administration's local planning document, to set out what kind development we want to see and where it should be located.

The context is daunting. Brighton & Hove is geographically constrained by the sea to the south and a national park to the north. Combined with our close proximity to London, land is at a premium. We have a severe shortage of suitable sites for housing with 18,000 households on the waiting list. A huge amount of housing stock within the city is owned by private landlords renting out properties, some in appalling standards, at very high rent levels. Meanwhile, many small and medium sized businesses, the lifeblood of our economy, are struggling to find start-up spaces, as government encourages available spaces to be converted into housing.

At the same time, we want to see the principles of our ambitious 'One Planet Living' programme - including zero waste, sustainable transport, and supporting biodiversity - embedded in all new developments.

Our draft city plan aimed to take all of these competing demands into account. We set out ambitious plans for a major new 'One Planet' level development, 97 per cent of new housing being put on brownfield sites, and proposals for all new buildings to meet national sustainability targets ahead of the government's timetable.

However, the government's new rules require all local plans to fit in with its controversial National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in order to be rubber-stamped. This undemocratically dictates what local communities must accept - increasingly prioritising developers' profits above community value. Developers' biggest margins are on poorly- built residential properties squeezed onto greenfield land and let out at high rents - precisely what Greens don't want.

But a local plan that the government won't sign off on isn't just worthless, as, in its absence, new applications are dealt with under the government's laissez-faire NPPF instead. Every month we continue without a local plan, development continues largely unfettered thanks to the government's carte blanche for developers.

So, we've reluctantly reduced some aspirations to try and make our plan acceptable to the planning inspector, who earlier this year asked us to look again. One of the inspector's demands is causing much soul-searching: to be convinced that we're seriously trying to meet the need for housing, we must show we've looked at all available land - including the remaining pockets of urban fringe along the borders with the South Downs National Park. Much of this is privately owned, with no guarantee that anything could be built there. However, by including it in the plan, we are able to stipulate very high standards for any future developments and we must show that we've considered it, otherwise all protections and requirements disappear citywide.

Where land is council-owned, we're exploring the option of a Community Land Trust, which will hold the land in perpetuity, to provide affordable housing for the people of the city. Importantly, this will put it beyond the reach of the Tory and Labour right-to-buy policy, which has stripped low-income families of roofs over their heads.

So before us is a Hobson's choice: if our city plan doesn't sufficiently meet government requirements, it will be thrown out in its entirety, allowing low-quality development on sensitive sites to go ahead. It will be a developers' free-for-all if we cannot get cross-party agreement for the amended draft plan this autumn.

Let us not forget how we came to be here - Eric Pickles's pursuit of development at all costs. However, we have a chance to fight back against the lowest common denominator, and fight for affordable housing, balanced development, protected and accessible green space, and low-carbon buildings. For that, we need the protections and ambitions of an agreed city plan.


Cllr Geoffrey Bowden Chairs the Economic Development & Culture Committee on Brighton & Hove City Council