Place-making sounds woolly – but it’s the key to fixing a divided Britain

Liverpool's Albert Docks: a place, that someone made. Image: Getty.

The Royal Town Planning Institute on why we need more, well, planning.

The Brexit vote confirmed how far we are from being one nation. A recent survey revealed that Leave voters were more likely to live in areas with very low levels of migration, indicating that locals were experiencing other, much deeper-seated social and economic difficulties.

Could the referendum result in fact be the outcome of our collective failure to invest in the proper planning of places that benefit people and create prosperity in the long term? We'd argue that it's so.

Lack of housing, public services, jobs, social cohesion, and a sense in these communities that they and their voices don’t matter, are the real problems facing Britain today.

Place-making might sound woolly. But our long-running failure to consciously design and invest in communities in ways that build on their potential and promote people's health, happiness, and well being has produced results that are far from abstract: poverty, inequality, disease and disillusionment.

So why have we lost the ability to make places?

In large part it's because we’ve pushed planning into a smaller and smaller box, the result of a desire - to quote the former prime minister – to “[get] the planners off our backs”.

Ground down by almost continual changes to planning policy and regulations, severely underfunded and under-supported, relentlessly characterised as the problem’, some planners have inevitably become what they have been caricatured as: followers of process, rather than purposeful public servants.

In a new report publised today, the Royal Town Planning Institute finds that in England in particular, these changes are producing a planning system that is more complicated and more uncertain. It's a system that produces 
less decision making, consultation and accountability; a reduced ability to ensure that development is well planned and connected; and a narrower range of affordable housing to rent or buy (irrespective of local need) - all without addressing the significant under-resourcing of local planning authorities.

Not only are these changes not solving the housing crisis: they are having the detrimental effect of creating disjointed communities, poorly served by transport and other facilities with no easy access to jobs and economic opportunities. 

This does not have to be the case. In some developments – Norwich, Birmingham and Northampton local planners are performing a leading and strategic role in making places work, striking creative partnerships with developers, designers and architects.

But we need many more of them.

Some commentators bemoan that local authorities already have the powers they need to promote more and better development, and that they are largely to blame for the housing crisis. This ignores that 30 years of deregulatory planning changes have undeniably stripped local authorities of their powers to plan.

Such commentators also compare the UK unfavourably with some continental European countries. They rarely realise that European local authorities often take the leading role in acquiring and assembling sites and making them viable for development -- including through developing sites themselves.

There is now an emerging consensus that councils should again build and own homes themselves, in the belated recognition that private development won’t meet demand. This makes place-making through sensitive high-quality design, master-planning and regeneration an even more urgent and important core local competence.

Moreover, now is the time where more active local authorities could inject confidence and certainty into a nervous private development market. This means using local authorities’ combined local planning, economic development and devolved powers to guide private sector investment and keep up the momentum for building.

We’ll see over the next few months whether Theresa May’s government adopts a broader approach to resolving the housing crisis, more akin to the one proposed by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s recent report.

If it does, public sector-led place-making needs to be at its centre, and act as the foundation stone of a truly one nation housing policy. And for planners to take centre stage to lead and operate strategically, they should be properly supported and valued.

Dr Michael Harris is deputy director of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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