The future of Kent’s built environment post election
Following May’s local elections in Kent, our very own George Kup saw an opportunity to explore the new political landscape with senior and newly elected councillors, to discuss what changes this will bring to the built environment.
Last week’s webinar, “The Future of Kent’s Built Environment Post-Election”, saw a politically diverse panel of speakers with Lib Dem Cllr Clive English (Maidstone Borough Council), Conservative Cllr Michael Horwood with 33 year-political experience with Sevenoaks District Council and Labour Cllr Lauren Edwards, newly elected with Medway Council, who turned Labour again after a quarter of a century!
Planning is frequently the battleground of local elections; it can make or break the fortune of political candidates, as it can tip the balance in favour of one party over another or inflict considerable losses – as has happened in Maidstone, now under no overall control.
Revising the greenbelt?
Cllr Edwards (Labour) mentioned the pledge to revise the greenbelt policy to meet National housing targets as the topic that most resonated with residents during her 18-month doorstep canvassing.
Although, different local areas can have conflicting views of the same argument, especially a well-known, intrinsically controversial one as planning. The same Cllr Edwards recognised she may have faced a different result if she’d stood in the peninsula, where most voted independent councillors to protect their green spaces.
Cllr Howard – a long-standing Cllr of Conservative stronghold Sevenoaks DC – mentioned the need to balance people’s desire for new homes and that of protecting the extensive green fields Kent is well-known for.
Voices going unheard
Cllr English (Lib Dem) explained the Conservatives’ loss of seats in Maidstone BC as a result of voters’ unhappiness with National politics and the unpopular KCC local planning.
Listening and engaging are core to a democratic exercise of power, essential at all levels of the planning system, with local authorities increasingly asking central government to trust them more, enabling them to exercise more autonomy when drafting their local plans.
As the political authority closest to the citizens, local councillors are at the frontline of their communities and are better placed to address residents’ housing needs.
Better housing for all though, relies not only on better collaboration between different tiers of government but also on effective public-private sectors partnership.
George Kup asked the question: Is the Planning system democratic enough? And how can the public and private sectors work together to deliver for the communities they serve?
Cllr Howard – who recently worked with MP on a successful application to bring forward new care homes on a brownfield site – mentioned the pressure on local infrastructure as a theme that prompts objections from residents and councillors. He suggested pre-application engagement with the community and local councillors (NB., not Council planning officers!) as an excellent way for developers to gain valuable feedback. Bringing forward mitigations to address local issues that arise from those engagement activities can help developers win more support around their new proposals.
Cllr English also agreed that early engagement and consistent communication could soothe residents’ concerns as they are brought on the planning journey from start to finish. People want their concerns heard and their views considered. When developers cannot meet residents’ views, Cllr English suggested they could try to explain why that was the case. Engaging in two-way communication and keeping channels open throughout the planning process could deliver better outcomes and improve developers’ reputations.
Another theme for discussion was the constant increase in housing prices. Broadly plaguing London and the South East, the rental sector is the most affected, as private landlords struggle with skyrocketing interest rates and find themselves needing to pass some of these costs on.
Cllr Laureen says Medway Council has conducted a feasibility study to increase the number of social housing through the built-to-rent sector. Cllr English didn’t share the new enthusiasm for the sector, preferring local authorities to focus on partnering with housing associations to address the problem of affordable homes.
Where all speakers agreed on was the definition of good development. Good housing should centre around affordability, good design and sustainability.
Affordable homes enable young people to stay in the community where they are born and contribute towards the local economy.
According to Cllr English and Cllr Horwood, good design is one of the most felt themes of discussion across residents, with people giving high prominence to good-quality, well-designed new homes, even in high-density areas like town centres.
The ball is now in the Local Authorities’ court, as they will play an essential role in delivering net zero in a number of policy areas, especially across the built environment.
Speakers agreed that sustainability needs to be implemented with energy-efficient buildings and by providing more active travel routes and greener public spaces.
All these themes together eventually contribute towards creating stronger, healthier communities with a profound sense of pride in their local area. That explained the speakers’ responses to the question about what opportunities they foresee for Kent’s built environment.
All speakers see tremendous opportunities brought forward by the regeneration of their town centres. These schemes widely benefit the local economy, offering better employment opportunities to young people who can stay in the community they’ve been raised in, thus building up a community-shared sense of pride and belonging.