Council planners ‘need to change mindset’

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THE key to boosting growth in Yorkshire is for council planners to have a better understanding of the needs of businesses, according to a leading figure behind the Trinity Leeds development.

Gerald Jennings, Land Securities’ portfolio manager for the north and Scotland, was one of five development professionals on the panel at a conference in Leeds organised by the British Property Federation.

He said only if planners accepted that the world had changed and that a new approach was required could the property industry begin to recover and help to drive growth in the regions.

“Everyone says the right thing – ‘We welcome the investment and the jobs, but it’s policy’. There seems to be this mindset which hasn’t yet changed within this profession. They don’t quite get that we live in a different world.

“Unless we have public officials who really understand the sentiment behind that, we’re never going to move forward,” he said.

However, James Stephenson, a senior development manager at Wakefield Council, who was also on the panel, disagreed with Mr Jennings’s view that the problem laid entirely with planners. “We’ve got four years of housing development land ready to go,” he said. “Planning isn’t the root of the issue. It may be in the south-east, but it’s not here.”

Mr Jennings also argued that most developers would focus on the major cities, so any regional regeneration would be reliant on how much investment the cities could attract. “When we look at our business and how we invest in the region, we will only invest in the big cities,” he said.

“I think it goes for lots of businesses that regional regeneration has to focus on the big cities. If Leeds doesn’t get it right, I don’t think the region will get it right. When we talk to retailers, they tell us they’re only interested in the top 50, perhaps top 100, cities in the UK.”

The £350m Trinity Leeds retail and leisure development is due to open next spring, while work is due to begin the following year on the nearby Eastgate Quarters development, which is to be anchored by a John Lewis store. Meanwhile, developer Hammerson, who is behind the Eastgate scheme, recently bought Leeds’ Victoria Quarter in a £136m deal.

Industry professionals at the conference in Leeds argued that private sector investment was the only way forward and relying on public sector funding was a thing of the past. John Till, founding director of Thinkingplace, said: “The tide is out in public sector funding and it’s not coming back. The better local authorities recognise that and are working to form new relationships with the private sector. Local authorities can’t do it all any more.”

Although the panel said Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) were now offering some support after being set up in 2010, their first two years had seen some confusion over their role compared to that of local authorities. Mr Till added: “I don’t think LEPs know what they are yet.”

Some of those at the conference said the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, was on the right lines with his proposals to make the planning process easier, including plans to allow homeowners to extend their houses without needing planning consent and a reduction in the demands placed upon developers to provide affordable housing in their schemes.

Mr Jennings said he had been at an event with some local planners where Mr Pickles’s proposals had been brought up.

“Every single planner in the room was full of derision for it, which to me just emphasised some of the difficulties we have,” he said.