UPDATE: Speaking in today’s Echo, Councillor Nick Small (the one who loved the first Lime Street plans: you know, the shit ones) has admitted that Liverpool’s glut of student flats could cost the city £9million – or more – in lost Council Tax revenues. Why? Because the city has 8,697 student homes, as of last October. And they don’t pay us a penny. Instead, the Government gives the city a hand out, which is set to stop in four years. Now, tell us, does this sound like a city whose mindset is ‘handouts from Whitehall’, or ‘build for sustainable growth’ to you? No wonder Joe moans so much about slashed budgets – our rationale is based more on municipal cash, rather than inward investment. Of short term gain over creating a sense of place – for families to set up home in the city. Liverpool’s percentage of student stock, in the city centre, amounts to 4%. The highest in England, outside of Nottingham and Exeter.
Last week was another one of those Liverpool weeks. While Lime Street was finally approved (which, taking everything into account, we’re happy with), the developers behind the new Chinatown scheme were being talked of in court, in the same breath as the phrase ‘drugs money laundering’. We’ve no idea what the truth is, but what is true is that, in this city, property developers given favoured treatment by the Council have either been barred from being directors for eight years, have been jailed for fraud, have set fire to castles or have been accused of helping with drugs smuggling. It’s all eyebrow raising stuff.
But what checks can we put in place to ensure the keys to our development are in the right hands?
Time and time again, we’re told that nothing can stand in the way of the planning officer. That the planning committee, more or less, is the gatekeeper to our city’s future. If they recommend a crappy student flat development, it’s game over. It’s a convenient narrative – especially when the council want (as the council is wont) to wash their hands, absolve themselves from any responsibility, when a totally inappropriate development is fast tracked, some tacky hotel besmirches the grace of a landmark building, or some dodgy developer needs to offload some ill-gotten riches, quickly.
But how true is it?
Actually, it’s not very true at all.
This is how it works. Planning officers have to recommend whether a planning application should be rejected, accepted with conditions or accepted without conditions. That’s the start, and the end, of their duty.
And, while it’s true that Councillors who reject a planning application risk being overturned on appeal, with costs awarded against the council if no good reasons for the decision have been given, the fact remains: the planning officer isn’t playing God here. He or she merely advises.
And occasionally, the council shows its real hand, as it did last week. When the Strategic Investment Framework was released a couple of years ago, they’d clearly stated: Marybone was to be student flat central. “The future of Marybone is therefore largely dependent on the projected accommodation plans of LJMU (around Great Crosshall Street and Byrom Street)” it said.
Then, last week, when good, salt-of-the-earth Joe voters kicked off in Marybone, the council turned down an application to build student flats. The first time they’ve ever done so. Residents, and Councillor Nick Small, cheered on the Town Hall steps. Residents from the little estate off Great Crosshall Street fought a good fight, but what about residents in beleaguered flats of Cheapside, where students regularly run over their cars, pelt eggs at their windows, or piss in their doorways? The Council’s less interested in them. They’ve been told they live in a designated student area. They’ve been told to check the small print on the SIF. Same area. Different voting patterns. Funny that.
So, when you see a Hope Street student flat, or a Heaps Mill, a London Road Gateway, a Lime Street Student Tower, a Grand Central or any number of crass, lowest-common-denominator developments, it’s disingenuous at best, reckless and irresponsible at worst, for our Council to throw its hands up in the air (as it often does) and say ‘there was nothing we could do. It was recommended for approval by planning, and if we rejected it, we’d lose in court, and spunk away your hard earned money.’ When, in fact, what they’re doing is rolling over and playing dead. When, at times like these (with the fabric of our city’s future at stake) we want them to stand up, listen to us, and say ‘we deserve better. We don’t want a shite car park on the waterfront. A ho-hum hotel, an anodyne student favela or a money-laundring apartment sink estate’ No, we’re Liverpool. And we can do better.
We should always remember this: councillors are responsible to the electorate, officers are responsible to the council. Officers merely advise. It’s our councillors who have to make the call. That’s where the buck should always stop.
And it’s not just us saying so.
The Nolan Committee, reporting on standards in public life, concluded “it should be firmly stated that there is nothing intrinsically wrong if planning committees do not invariably follow the advice of officers. Planning officers exist to advise planning committees, which are entitled to reach their own decisions by attaching different weight to the various planning criteria.”
They go further: “In our view, if planning decisions by local authorities were to be regarded as legal decisions, there would be no point in involving councillors in such decisions. They might as well be taken by planning officers.”
In other words – they’re clearly saying ‘don’t pass the buck. Step up to the plate. Grow some.”
Because, sometimes, it’s worth the fight. Sometimes, we don’t want to replace homes with investment units. Yes, if the planning committee makes a decision contrary to the officers‘ recommendation, they’re gonna have to defend themselves. And they’re going to have to do some work. But that’s what we pay ’em for, isn’t it?
There is a caveat. And it’s called Section 106. Something of a ‘you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours’, it’s an agreement Councils and developers strike up, to soften the blow of an inappropriate project: the developer promising a cut of their profits to a cash-strapped council. But is this a long-term solution, or merely papering over the cracks?
So, in summary, the next time a shitty development gets the green light, what we’d really like is for our Council to fess up and say, yeah, this is the city that we built.
Then, at least, when it comes to election time, we’ll know who to blame.
Look around you. A scattering of glorious new builds do indeed exist. But there is far too much dross. For every warm, clever Everyman there is a plethora of Commutation Rows, The Reach, Pier Head Ferry Terminal, Marybone…
“Councillors sometimes feel that officers are pressuring them to accept applications they would like to reject, through fears of being overturned on appeal,” says Christopher Barclay, from the House of Commons Library. “Under the Labour Government, Councillors had little scope for intervention in planning,” he says, “but this is all changing under the current Government. [Planning officers] now have to rely more upon their own judgements. That might make councillors more willing to reject the recommendations.”
So when Head of planning at the city council, David Hughes says he’s “just not convinced that brownfield first will work” for new developments, and that we should start churning up our precious few green spaces, when, in Manchester 87% of new developments can and do rise from brownfield land, you have to wonder: what’s the real story here? And which developer is pushing them to trample over, say, the greens of Sefton Park Meadows, or Woolton Golf Club – and for what amount of sweetener?
“I’ve always said you should never trust a bank with property, or a property developer with money,” said Peter Rees, the former chief planner of the City of London. Look what happened when we turned a blind eye to the banks.
They say investor confidence in Liverpool is high. That’s great. But what’s the reason? If it’s that we’re sending signals that substandard developments are looked upon kindly here, that’s nothing to celebrate. They say devolution would allow Councils to think more strategically about how they develop. A return to the good old days of proper town planning, rather than the ‘build whatever you like, where you like’ culture we’re used to. But Liverpool’s not seeing any sign of that – and what strategy we have released we seem happy to renege on when it suits our leaders.
The plea is is simple: Councillors – don’t get into bed with property developers who don’t have the city’s best interests at heart. If you do, we’ll all be living with the consequences for a very long time.