Agenda item

Questions from Councillors - to a member of Executive Board, the Chair of a Committee and the Chair of any other City Council body


Land and Planning Policies Document – resident’s parking


Councillor Andrew Rule asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Planning and Housing:


Will the Portfolio Holder ensure, that in the event that the Land and Planning Policies Document is found to be sound and replaces the current local plan, that measures are put in place to ensure that appropriate provision is made for resident’s parking in those areas identified for residential development that are situated in close proximity to existing residential areas; as this will then avoid additional pressure being placed on roads serving existing residential areas?


Councillor Jane Urquhart responded as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor, and thank you Councillor Rule for the question.  Of course, at the beginning of the answer I should say that the only way in which our Land and Planning Policies document is likely to be found sound is if it’s found to be in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework issued by the Tory government.  I’ll come to that a little more in due course.  I see that of course, even though I’m no longer the Portfolio Holder for Transport, it seems that questions about residents’ parking should come to me.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be a Full Council without me answering a question of that nature.


Anyway, I’m interested that you feel our planning policies should be so very locally prescriptive, because of course that puts you at odds with the Tory government’s changes to planning, which have taken away local discretion at every turn, and left local authorities very much in the hands of developers, unable any longer to resist schemes because the government has removed our powers.


Perhaps you were unaware of that; a few examples might help?  The removal of the need for planning consent to turn offices into residential – that’s come through.  Nothing in that about what should happen to new residents of those office conversions who have cars and need to park - nothing from the government in that, and no power for us to intervene there.


Of course, more proposals coming along - a new assumed consent, so a number of those sites that you refer to in your question; those sites on brownfield land that are identified for residential development, if our plan is found sound, it is highly likely that there will be an assumed consent on those sites.  If we have said in our Land and Planning Policies Document that we think it is suitable for residential the assumption will be that that is what will happen, without us making a local decision.  Nothing about parking in there, just the government saying that permission will be granted without a local decision being made.  And the National Planning Policy Framework itself – perhaps that is where we will find the help that Councillor Rule is seeking, and against which of course, our own plan of course will be judged in terms of soundness.  Perhaps it gives us that scope in the National Planning and Policy Framework, but of course, no, it’s woefully thin on parking, it merits but six lines within the National Planning and Policy Framework and it asks the Local Authority to consider the accessibility of the development, the type mix and use of the development, the availability and the opportunities for public transport, levels of local car ownership and an overall need to reduce the use of high-emission vehicles.  That is what the National Planning and Policy Framework asked us to consider and of course, our policies are in conformity with that.


I’m sure Councillor Rule and his colleagues are as concerned as me about the need to reduce the use of high emission vehicles, and are well aware of local car ownership levels across the City, which, many of my colleagues are aware are much lower than national averages – significantly lower in some places, which is why of course the availability and opportunity for public transport access is really, really important.


But then, if Councillor Rule and his colleagues think that the government’s planning framework has gone too far away from local definition and discretion, perhaps he would like to join me in our regular correspondence with ministers on the subject where we have sought to champion the idea that Nottingham should be able to decide what is best for Nottingham’s future in terms of planning, rather than simply having to be reliant on government for those kinds of decisions.


Locally, the Land and Planning Policies Document has reached a critical stage.  It is subject to its final round of representations; the deadline looms large.  Of course, it contains policies to guide planning decisions, and specific land allocations.  Hopefully, those 85 proposed allocations will support our drive to meet the City’s needs both for new housing, for employment, retail and other uses over the life of the Plan.  Our document does indeed contain much more detail than the government provides in the National Planning and Policy Framework.  If Councillor Rule would like to have a look, it’s on Appendix 1 Page 277.


So, I can clearly say that if our Plan is found sound, we will, where government gives us the discretion to do so, judge developments against those standards in that appendix, and the Planning Committee will be advised accordingly.  So each site allocation, and we have heard in a petition about one already, is accompanied by a map.  There are some development principles giving an idea of key issues relating to each site, but those cannot be comprehensive.  It would not be until an actual planning application is received that detailed issues, for example which would include design, layout, and parking could be given their full consideration.  So, when planning applications are considered applicants will be expected to demonstrate the adequacy of their parking provision in their schemes, in accordance with our policy document, and the National Planning and Policy Framework. 


Colleagues on Planning Committee will of course be the ones making the decision.  It’s not for me of course to predetermine any individual application, so no, I can’t make provision for it, because I’m not the person who will determine each planning decision – the Planning Committee will do that.  It’s nice that you think I have all those powers, but that’s not the way the system works.  What I can make sure of is that our planning policies continue, wherever possible, to seek to support our City, to support sustainable development and the provision of the homes that our residents need.


Expansion of Fernwood Primary School – Traffic Conditions


Councillor Jim Armstrong asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Jobs, Growth and Transport:


Could the Portfolio Holder for Jobs, Growth and Transport confirm the results of the consultation regarding the expansion of Fernwood Primary School and whether the already hazardous traffic conditions along Arleston Drive are to be addressed and what are the proposals to improve the traffic flow for the safety of residents, school children and the other road users?


Councillor Nick McDonald responded as follows:


The theme of late seems to be a casework issue communicated through the medium of Full Council, but let me try and address the issue.


Fernwood schools are set to expand, as Councillor Armstrong knows, and the reason for that is to accommodate the need for primary phase places in the Wollaton West area. As part of the consultation for the expansion 71 people made reference to traffic issues. There have been a number of meetings at the school with relevant stakeholders and Traffic & Safety Officers which were organised by Councillor Battlemuch. Indeed the proactivity of Councillor Battlemuch over these sorts of issues is something I’ve noticed a lot over the last year.


Arleston Drive has had an effective traffic calming scheme which has been in place for many years. And I’m aware that again, Councillor Battlemuch has requested further speed and vehicle flow surveys to be conducted prior to the expansion to assess potential impacts and that in my view is a very sensible request for a proactive local Councillor to make. The results of these surveys have not highlighted any issues with traffic speed on Arleston Drive and traffic flow peaks around 08:00 in the morning and at 17:00 in line with local people travelling to and from work in other areas of the City. This suggests that the highway layout will cope with the expansion of the schools providing an acceptable balance between access and safety of all road users.


The Council runs a coordinated school enforcement programme incorporating all schools for regular visits, and that of course includes Fernwood Schools – the expanded school will be part of that regime.  As part of the planning process a full traffic and transport assessment will be conducted by the developer and the School will update their travel plan accordingly.


What I will also say is this; firstly, I think that we all recognise in this Chamber that there is a responsibility on this Council to ensure enough school places in the City, and I distinctly recall outraged questions in this Chamber about whether we are providing sufficient numbers of school places.  So let’s remember that we have that legal duty, let’s remember that Governors and senior leadership teams within the school support this expansion, and that this is an outstanding Local Authority maintained primary school, and on the basis of that I’m sure we would all agree that the expansion of Fernwood School is the right thing for this City, and as always with these sorts of expansions we take very careful approaches to making sure that traffic in the area is managed.  We have done that on this occasion; we have done that very much with the support of the proactive Councillor for Wollaton West, Councillor Battlemuch and I’m very confident that we can make it work.


Housing Estate Regeneration


Councillor Gul Khan asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Planning and Housing:


Could the Portfolio Holder for Planning & Housing please tell the chamber how the £140 million set aside by the Government for housing estate regeneration would in practice work?


Councillor Jane Urquhart responded as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor - thank you Councillor Khan for your question.

I’m not sure I will be able to tell you in great detail how it would work, but that’s because the government haven’t really told us in great detail.  I will tell you what I do know.  We’ve had an announcement of money from the government trumpeting cash for cities to support housing regeneration.  Sounds good doesn’t it – we like that don’t we?  Investing money, investing public money it would seem in regeneration, that’s the kind of thing you would usually expect on our side of the Chamber.  It’s not quite as it sounds of course.  It refers to the announcement by government that a fund of £140 million has been set aside to achieve estate regeneration throughout the country.  So, it’s supposed to deal with about 100 estates; I’m sure we can all do the maths on that - £1.4 million per scheme so already,it’s not that much money.  And since the fund has originally been announced, it turns out it’s not actually money that the government will give us, it’s going to be a loan.  So they will loan it to us, so it’s not going to be that transformational then!  It seems, as with many of the government’s housing policies that it’s aimed at London and the South East’s markets and issues that are happening down there.  In such areas where land prices are high, it is entirely feasible that the costs of decommissioning and demolition of Council stock could be absorbed with the help of a loan from the government, could help with the development costs of building what the government think should replace the decommissioned stock.


And of course, is that social housing?  Is it for regeneration with a new type of social housing?  Well no.  It’s got to be mixed tenure, with private sector housing as well.  So, it’s a loan, not a grant, and actually the government aren’t even going to give it to us at all.  It can only be applied for by private sector bodies, or joint ventures.  So not really money for Nottingham, but money for a private developer.  The resulting development would have to be a mixed tenure scheme, and the guidance stipulates that it would need to involve a net increase in housing supply.  So schemes could typically involve the decommissioning and demolition of older affordable social housing estates, and its replacement with higher density, new housing of sufficient volume and sales potential to meet those clearance costs.  So again, that doesn’t fit our viability models here – might work in London and the South East.


Of course, the government have changed their definition of affordable housing recently as well.  Instead of socially rentable homes being called affordable housing, now the government defines affordable housing as a starter home that can sell for up to £250,000.  That’s not something that’s affordable for the majority of Nottingham people.


The guidance for the loan funding does make some reference to the importance of making arrangements for existing residents, so that they may have the right to remain on the redeveloped estate.  But that’s going to be hard work isn’t it, if it’s actually not going to be social housing, and what those residents want, quite rightly, and they are quite entitled to want that, is to live in a socially rented house?  Again, might be possible in the context of lower density estates, in high land value areas in the South East, but this model simply isn’t workable for us in Nottingham, nor actually for the majority of the UK.  So it seems to be aimed, as with much government housing policy, at reducing social housing and replacing it with private dwellings for sale, using a definition of affordability that’s way beyond most people in Nottingham.


So you come to the question of whether we need this kind of help in Nottingham.  We have been extremely proactive already in getting rid of some of the poorly designed and problematic housing that we have had, and replacing it with homes that people want to live in.  I can think of older examples of the Hyson Green Flats, Balloon Woods, Basford Flats, and more recently Kingsthorpe Close stands out, and of course, we have got flagship developments on site at the moment in Lenton, and completed in Radford, all of which replaced poorer quality high rise blocks with new family houses as well as new independent living schemes for older people.  Social housing that Nottingham people want of a high quality and those that are now being lived in by Nottingham people, very much welcomed by those people.


In the Meadows, poorly designed Q-blocks and crosswall flats are being replaced by a high quality mixed-tenure scheme; energy efficient homes transforming the character of these estates in a positive way.


So, would these schemes that we have successfully delivered in Nottingham be eligible for the government’s funding?  Well no, because they were led by the public sector, and because they haven’t increased the housing density in those areas.  We focused instead on the need to create great places to live; good quality homes where people want to live.  So in Nottingham, we are clear.  We will make sure that Nottingham builds 2,500 homes that Nottingham people can afford to rent or buy, and that is a pledge that we are making good progress on at the moment, despite the challenges to it from a government that doesn’t seem to understand the housing market outside London, and cannot see the value of the social rented sector.


So, due to the relatively small loan funding that seems to be on offer, it’s possible there might be some small scale opportunities to utilise these loans that we might be able to consider with support from the private sector.  However, even that may be dependent on the ability of the expert advisory panel that has been set up by the government to guide the allocation of this funding, to see if we can influence the terms of the funding.  Graham Allen, MP for Nottingham North asked to join this panel, and he is keen to examine ways in which it could be made more applicable to housing market areas outside London, but, without success by Graham Allen in changing the focus of this fund, it’s hard to see how this announcement offers any opportunity for Nottingham.  So I guess the moral is, if someone appears on your doorstep offering you money, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.  £140 million windfall is no such thing; it is a loan of £1.4 million at best to demolish and sell homes that are ours, but belong collectively to all of us, and to give the profits for that sale to private developers.  That doesn’t sound good for Nottingham to me.


School Place Provision


Councillor Josh Cook asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Schools:


Does the Portfolio Holder agree with me that Government policy on school place provision is contradictory?  Isn’t it nonsensical to give Councils the legal duty to provide adequate school places whilst at the same time banning them from opening new schools?


Councillor Sam Webster responded as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor.  I’m grateful that Councillor Cook has so concisely captured both the contradiction and nonsense at the heart of the Government’s policy on the provision of school places. Councillor Cook is correct in identifying that the council retains a legal duty to ensure there are sufficient school places. And as Council is well aware, we have been very successfully delivering a programme of school expansion to meet the needs of our growing population since 2010.


By 2017 we will have added 4,000 additional primary school places at a cost of £33m. This is the equivalent of creating 10 new primary schools. But we have done this by a mixture of expanding existing school buildings, recommissioning and regenerating old buildings and building new school premises.


We have worked with schools to ensure that the disruption to existing pupils is minimised and that works are timed to avoid any unnecessary additional closure days. The Department for Education’s school place scorecard shows that Nottingham has delivered all of this at a cost that is 5% below that of the national average. We have also delivered outstanding learning environments that enhance the educational experience of pupils and staff. Furthermore we been able to respond to our equalities commitments and fund the expansion of two of the city’s special schools, to respond to the growing demand for places for children and young people with disabilities and special educational needs.


Under the previous coalition government, the ability of local authorities to respond to local school place needs was squeezed by a combination of austerity funding and legislative red tape. But by a combination of creativity, determination to deliver our own solutions, and financial underwriting by the Council, we were able to deliver the primary programme.


It is true to say that this Council has an excellent track record of school place planning, and delivering high quality school building projects on budget, and on time.  Sadly the current Conservative Government has now made much clearer their hostility to Local Authorities meeting the needs of their own communities;  by insisting that  any new school is a Free School. In doing this they have removed the power and are withholding the financial resources to Councils to plan and deliver the solutions they need.  A totally nonsensical situation, as Councillor Cook rightly highlights in his question, driven completely by ideology, ignoring evidence, ignoring local accountability, and, let’s be honest, ignoring basic common sense. And at what point do they introduce this nonsensical Free Schools only policy? Exactly at the time when we need to plan to expand secondary schools to accommodate the much larger numbers of pupils who will need secondary school places. We only need to look to the recent history of Free School developments in the city to see cause for concern if this is our only option.


There have been three applications made to open mainstream Free Schools in the City. But only one has ever opened.  Of the two other proposed schools due to open, one was pulled by the Secretary of State 6 months before they hoped to admit pupils (and following 18 months of planning).  And the other only 4 months before it was due to open and after places had been offered to pupils; leaving the City Council Admissions team to find new places at short notice for disappointed pupils and parents.


If Free Schools are the only solution available it causes me great concern that I hold the responsibility to deliver sufficient places but without the powers needed to ensure that it happens. I have always held the view that the government’s Free Schools policy is wasteful.  As with so many of this government’s policies, it fails to meet local needs; it allocates funds for new schools in areas where there isn’t demand for extra school places.  To put ideology before the interests of children’s education really is shocking.  No-one could deny that local Councils are best placed to meet local needs.  So absurd is the Free Schools Only policy, even Conservatives in local government are opposed to them.


I draw the Council’s attention to the recent words of Councillor Roy Perry, Tory Leader of Hampshire County Council. Councillor Perry is also Chair of the LGA Children and Young Peoples Board. Last week, on the eve of the National Secondary School Offer day, Councillor Perry said:


“Councils find themselves in the difficult position of not being able to ensure schools, including academies, expand. Finding suitable sponsors with the capacity to take on the running of a successful new school is also proving a challenge”


"Creating an extra 300,000 primary places is a demonstrable record that councils will do everything they can to rise to the challenge of ensuring no child goes without a place, but all schools must play their part too. If academies are not willing to expand, then the powers to create new schools should be returned to local authorities.”


In our Council Plan we have made clear our commitment to increase the choice and ability of parents to access local, good and outstanding school places – as we know this is what really matters to Nottingham people.  However, across the political spectrum, at a local level, there is clear agreement that it is a ludicrous situation that councils are being denied the power to meet the needs of providing school places for their local communities.  Needs that they clearly understand better than politicians and civil servants in Whitehall; and needs that have previously proven they are well able to meet given the freedom and resources to do so.


I call on the Nottingham City Conservative group to sign with me a joint letter to the Secretary of State requesting that the ability to open new schools is returned to us, as local representatives in the interests of Nottingham children.  Thank you.


Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall Capital Development


Councillor Steve Young asked the following question of the Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Culture:


Would the Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Culture explain how the Theatre Royal and the Royal Concert Hall are able to finance a capital development, their Royal Transformation project, out of revenue surpluses on their trading activities? How will this work in practice and what is the benefit to the council tax payers in Nottingham?


Councillor Dave Trimble responded as follows:


Thank you Lord Mayor, and can I thank Councillor Young for his question.  In recent years, the Royal Centre has consistently improved its trading performance by continually reducing its operating costs as well as substantially increasing its income.  This has been achieved by offering a very wide range of popular shows and events, from the ever popular pantomime (my favourite!) to major London musicals, top quality drama, rock shows, and concerts.


It is now attracting almost 600,000 people a year, from right across the Midlands to Nottingham.  The Theatre Royal and the Royal Concert Hall is now one of the most successful venues in the country.  It is consistently exceeding its targets year on year, and through our commercialisation agenda, the Royal Centre will pay back its £1.8 million contribution to capital costs within six years or less.  This will be match funded by a £1.5 million grant from the Arts Council England.


The £3.3 million royal transformation improvements include: transforming the façade and streetscape of South Sherwood Street, with a striking two-storey outdoor canopy; remodelling the Box-Office and the Royal Concert Hall entrance to provide a better service to customers; improving the Concert Hall’s meeting rooms and function suites; expanding the venue’s community and education programme by creating new accessible rehearsal space; refurbishing the Concert Hall foyer bars, and it’s kiosk; improving the Theatre Royal’s cafe bar and roof terraces; and creating a new outdoor seating area, undercover of the new canopy on South Sherwood Street, as well as improving disability access, including backstage, which is currently not very accessible at all.


It will be able to operate from breakfast ‘til midnight, and it will greatly improve its catering and conferencing facilities, as well as offering rehearsal and meeting spaces for local people and arts groups to use at minimal cost.  It is a very fitting 150th birthday present for the Theatre Royal and 30th birthday present for the Royal Concert Hall, paid for by the Arts Council England, and people from across the region who use the venues; not solely by local Council Tax payers, which is what would have happened in the past.


So the answer to Councillor Young’s question is, of course it is of very considerable benefit to Council Tax payers in Nottingham.  The management team led by Robert Sanderson have done a fantastic job in transforming the Royal Centre’s financial viability as well as developing this visionary project for the future.  We want our commercialisation agenda and these considerable improvements to put the Theatre Royal and the Royal Concert Hall in a very good position to meet the next thirty years and hopefully beyond.  All of this, at a time when many other venues all around the country are suffering from significant cuts and are facing very uncertain futures, according to an article on the front page of the Stage magazine this very week. Lord Mayor, we are also very grateful to Arts Council England for their support.  Thank you.


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