Sean Anstee CBE is a former Leader of Trafford Council (2014-2018) and has held senior public positions within the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Local Government Association. He is now responsible for Advisory, Public Affairs & PR at Cratus Communications.
What are your thoughts on the reforms proposed in the planning reforms?
It is a step in the right direction, and it is good to see faster decision making in determination. We are often consumed by a conversation about whether the planning system will ever be good enough for our ambitions, but we should focus more on the discourse around planning. The reforms are only going to be successful if they convince people to engage with them.
The planning reforms advocate for democratising the planning system, but the only way for this to succeed is if communities have confidence in our institutions and decision-making systems. We should focus more energy on building that trust and building pragmatism into the conversations that we have with communities about planning and development.
What role do you think planning will play in our economic recovery?
Planning has always been about judgement. Local authorities have a choice around whether they are pro-growth, pro-sustainability or pro-conservation, and the weight they give to each. The pandemic has reshaped how we travel, how we work; it has changed how we live, the places that we live and what we expect from our homes. This debate will need to be brought into the planning system as we may now rethink the future development we want and need.
Competition for investment in growth and infrastructure will increase as the economy heads through turbulent times. I believe those local authorities that are pro-growth and more willing to work with the private sector will get ahead, and those that are more restrictive in planning will fall behind. Local authorities now face that choice as we start recovery.
Planners play an important role in thinking through how to plan for change. Do you think local government planners are resourced enough to deliver this?
Ten years of reduced expenditure makes things challenging. Planning is a statutory requirement for local authorities, at Trafford Council we made a conscious political decision to invest in economic growth including planning services despite budget pressure. We felt that we needed to invest because it was an opportunity to engage with our communities to build trust, but building new homes and attracting investment was also a way beyond austerity.
Local authorities will always need to fulfil statutory obligations, but if they are going to create new places and generate growth, they need to be prepared to get out and find resource to build collaborative – not adversarial – relationships with applicants, developers and agents.
How might the planning reforms improve engagement and the accessibility of planning?
The digital first approach set out in the planning reforms is welcome, but I think there is significantly more work to do. The system is still burdensome, and applicants need to jump through lots of hoops. In many other sectors digital innovation would have already fixed this.
If the planning reforms proceed, the plan making process is going to be where design standards will be developed and where land designations will be agreed. Democratically, community dialogue and scrutiny will now focus on plan making rather than determinations.
If communities cannot engage and provide ideas at the planmaking stage, nor visualise what developments might look like, then the frustrations that we currently experience when determining individual schemes will be replicated in the planmaking process across entire local areas.
What is your view on devolution and levelling up the country?
We are one of the most centralised nations in Europe, especially around fiscal powers. Our devolution deals give responsibility for greater levels of funding, but there is still a central bidding process into Whitehall. This suggests that fiscal devolution hasn’t happened. Until we have a serious conversation about fiscal devolution, we are making local authorities responsible for a decision, but not giving them all the tools to make the right decision.
Levelling up is quite catchy. But my challenge is: level up to what? Is it on GDP? Is it on the affordability of housing? I hope there is an opportunity for places to think about what they want levelling up to mean for them and then to help to determine this for themselves. It certainly should not be about insisting that parts of the North should be more like the South. In fact it is as relevant for communities in London as it is elsewhere in the UK.
How embedded is net zero at a local government level, and what gaps need to be filled?
The vast majority of local authorities have declared climate emergencies. They can take action on their own estate and operations. But they have a leadership role in their respective areas to balance the competing needs of employment, industry, future of work and climate.
It is consciously known in local authorities that action on the climate emergency needs to be taken. There is more work to be done and therefore the intelligence skills and intelligence of the private sector would be very welcome in the public sector.
Sean is responsible for Advisory, Public Affairs & PR business at Cratus Communications. You can find out more about Sean and Cratus here.