Ok, so planning’s not sexy. But it is important and I frequently bore on about it: lately the focus has been dodgy Cardiff Council planning decisions (again) and its Deposit Local Development Plan.
The BBC has taken on a big task to make these subjects fit for human consumption with a 30 minutes long Week in Week Out on Tuesday 23th March (10.35pm BBC One Wales only). Judging from the length of time it has been in preparation, and the care involved (a view based on the endless requests for documentary proof and evidence that have come my way daily for the past two months) I suspect it’ll be a pretty robust analysis.
I’ve had no preview, of course, but I can make some pretty shrewd guesses about the areas that are likely to cause acute embarrassment to Cardiff Council. The program’s title “Starbucks and stadiums” gives a bit of a clue: might the programme question the city’s relentless drive for more city centre shopping “experiences”, mega-sports-stadiums, and high-rise flats for the (until the recession) upwardly mobile? And does it have a robust and delivable plan for Cardiff’s housing, employment, transport etc in the future? If it addresses these issues, it will have plenty of ammunition: from politicians who decry the destruction of local communities like Butetown, to academics who question the wisdom of a continued growth thrust in these economically constrained and ecologically threatening times. The programme blurb asks the question: ”who’s benefitted from it all?”
Our council leadership argues that international sporting events are vital to the city’s economic well-being. They are prepared to sacrifice huge sums of taxpayers money and held-in-trust resources like its heritage parks, for kudos and at best, arguable economic benefit. The most recent example concerns Cardiff City Football Club: given land to enable it to build a new stadium, it blithely flogs it off to pay overdue VAT and national insurance. What possible public gain is that – taking ratepayers money to give to HMCR to bail out poor management? It’s a very poor way of developing long-term employment except for a few rich footballers and their board members.
Employment is one area where the council has been under serious criticism from WAG’s planning inspectorate over the Deposit LDP. This document is supposed to set out the plans to support the longterm vision for the city. Cardiff Civic Society (interest declaration, I’m its Chair) warned the council more than a year ago that its approach was flawed and didn’t follow the guidelines. Last year we further contended that it was “unsound” in six areas, housing and employment among them. I know that even more expert, and you would have thought influential, voices were saying the same thing. The council chose to ignore all the warnings and deposited a complete nonsense of a plan that has been forensically dissected by WAG.
I expect on the tv that council leader, Rodney Berman, will trot out his already rehearsed defences: I’m guessing the words, of course, “the LDP idea is flawed” (how come all councils in Wales helped to develop it then?); “WAG is forcing us to build on greenfield sites” (no, it’s saying you have no evidence that you can avoid building on greenfield sites – the whole point of the plan!); “it’s an affront to democracy” (this from the council that consulted 123 citizens over the plan asking them questions no one could reasonably answer); “the Inspectorate won’t tell us what to do with the plan” (oh, they have and you’re very aware of the alternatives, all of them embarrassing and shameful in terms of the cost that has been wasted).
Two days after the tv programme the full council meets to decide what to do with the LDP. Frankly, all and any option is bad for Cardiff. To go back to the drawing board means a planning hiatus, massive embarrassment for politicians, a huge waste of money, and serious questions about council officers’ and members’ competence. To trudge through public hearings where the council attempts to shore up a totally flawed structure with ‘new evidence’ will simply expose even further its paucity of robust, creative solutions for Cardiff’s’ many problems. And it seems that at some point the inspectors’ patience might expire and they declare it unsound anyway.
Strangely, it may turn out to be good for Cardiff in the end. What the programme might demonstrate is how, for so long, the city has depended on a self-generated aura of ‘capital city-ness’ and that big, brash, often violent planning solutions will succeed. The “we’re not afraid to make difficult decisions” mindset of minor dictators.
Like many people, I think Cardiff needs to take a long, hard, painful look at itself. It needs to question the quality of its decision making, the ease with which it has accepted assertions (like long-term benefit from sporting events) as though they were inviolate facts that would survive recession and global warming. It needs to engage with its civic society (and maybe even its Civic Society!) in a meaningful way so that communities in Butetown, Whitchurch, and Ely and elsewhere might once again be connected.
A local development plan might seem boring, but it’s actually, when used with skill, imagination and vigour, potentially a way of mapping a better future for us all – not just a few.
Now if next week’s half hour on BBC Wales manages to make some of that sound interesting then it will be worth this year’s licence fee.