Welcome if you have come here from seeing a letter concerning the Salisbury City Council Neighbourhood Development Plan (SCCNDP) in the Salisbury Journal (Let citizens have the say (sic) 4 August 2022). The letter expressed disappointment that the Council has decided not to use a Citizens’ Assembly to help prepare such plan. We have tried on several occasions to interest them in this process but so far without success. So what is it all about? It’s how do you go about devising a plan such as the SCCNDP and come up with something which is meaningful, grounded in some evidence, achievable and faces up to the situation Salisbury finds itself in. We believe that the best way to deal with complex issues such as this in the public realm is by using a Citizens’ Assembly.
A lot of work has gone into the plan and there are elements discussing shopfront designs, a strategic environment assessment, a Churchfields master plan (you can’t say they aren’t brave), housing analysis, and a community survey report among others. SCC has to be commended for this work that has gone into this. There are lots of charts, and coloured diagrams. But having ploughed through report after report, chart after chart and photo after photo several omissions are evident:
- There is no kind of analysis of where Salisbury sits in terms of other competing commercial centres. Are we doing better than them or worse? Our level of voids is slightly above the national average which, for a prosperous southern city, should surely be a bit of a worry. The City does not exist in isolation and people are free to travel for their shopping or entertainment to other centres. What does the City have to do to attract visitors? Things like the range and quality of restaurants is not mentioned for example.
- A huge amount of effort has gone into environmental and design issues which one could hardly argue with. But what are they designed to do? What is the purpose of the proposals? A researcher with the Institute of Government says “quick wins on making town centres look nicer are not a long-term fix”. Having nice shopfronts is desirable of course but is it sufficient to enable Salisbury to compete with other centres? I could not find any such argument to support the plan.
- They have also spent money – quite a lot of it by the length of the report – on a Community Survey Report by Community First in Devizes. Astonishingly, the report almost fails from page 8 where it notes that over half the respondents were over 60! It then claims that it is ‘broadly evenly split in terms of gender’ before telling us that 57% were female and 42% were male. A new meaning to ‘evenly split’ I feel. The highest proportion was in the ’69-69′ age group apparently (sic). You cannot claim such an unbalanced set of people can give you anything much meaningful in terms of policy especially in terms of the needs of young people. No conclusions are drawn, there is no executive summary and there are no recommendations.
- A lot of time has been spent in asking people what they want and needless to say you get responses which are extremely aspirational. Of course people want to protect the environment, who doesn’t? But will they give up their 4x4s to achieve any of this wish list?
- More money has been spent with an American consulting firm AECOM who have spent a lot of time analysing a range of sites in Salisbury from the point of view of how they might be developed sustainably. Again, all very fine but isn’t it putting the cart before the horse?
- I could find no mention of Brexit. Whether you are a Remainer or a Brexiter, the effects of leaving the EU cannot be denied either way. Yet there is no analysis of its negative effects or any opportunities there might be.
All in all, a great deal of time and quite a lot of money has been spent on producing suggested plan after suggested plan without much in the way of cogent analysis of what the City needs to survive. Take the Profile report. Largely descriptive with some history thrown in, it is a kind of ramble around the city educational establishments and infrastructure with the odd random suggestion thrown in such as we need ‘to find means of encouraging innovation’ and we need a ‘well-connected and reliable transport system’ and other such bromides. Since the lack of any such integration has been around for decades, what chance is there achieving anything now or in the immediate future? What powers does the City Council have to achieve any such integration, desirable though it no doubt is? It ends with a collection of foreign town centre photos.
Having identified ‘finding means of encouraging innovation’ as a goal, one such area is science and technology and links to universities. A page or two later there is this paragraph: ‘Salisbury does not possess a university and given its population size and its proximity to four universities within 25 miles it is unlikely to however the science based industries located in or around the city may make it attractive to universities wishing to locate departments or faculties’. Perhaps it is intended at a later date to encourage a university to locate such a facility here.
The Housing Needs Assessment identifies the imbalance in Salisbury’s housing stock and the need for more social/affordable housing and calculates that there is a need for 1,512 such units over the plan period. It discusses the difficulty of achieving this with developers unwilling to provide them and planning inspectors unlikely to support more forceful planning policies. Powerful developers can bring in expensive surveyors and get affordable housing provision removed or reduced which LPAs are largely powerless to defend. But the key element of the report, and something which will have a profound effect on the plan policy as a whole, is the analysis of the city’s aging population. In short it refers to a ‘dramatic shift in demographics expected in the future: an 85.6% increase in those aged 65 and above‘ and that ‘the elderly population will be 14 times the size of Salisbury’s younger population by 2036‘. The recommendations in the report are bland and of limited utility.
This is dramatic stuff. Such an imbalance will have significant consequences for the economy. Tarting up shopfronts and planting more trees will not matter if the population becomes more and more elderly. Trying to attract a university faculty to set up will be made much more difficult if there aren’t the young people and limited places for them to live. It will affect spending patterns, the ‘night time economy’ and more and more care homes will be needed. There will be economic impacts with reduced spending, increasing pressure on infrastructure, and what experts term ‘increased dependency’. It is probably true to say this fact alone will be the dominant consideration in the next few years. Yet this potentially explosive fact is hidden somewhat in one of the reports.
Would an assembly have produced a better result? We would say ‘yes’ of course so we need to say why. Firstly, as we have noted above, if you produce a community report based on an unbalanced and mainly elderly pool of people, you’re going to get an unbalanced result. A CA would properly select a group of people demographically and socially balanced. There is an organisation which would do this for us.
Secondly, the discussions would be informed by experts. Such experts might suggest for example, what are the important factors in developing a city economically beyond something of an obsession with the environment. Consideration might have been given to looking at Salisbury’s relationships with competing centres of retail and leisure in the vicinity – what are we good at, what needs to improve. Participants would have an opportunity to debate and discuss in detail the elements of a plan not asked to read a collection of unconnected documents. Finally, one would also hope that the process would lead towards the elements of a strategy: where to start and where spend needs to be focused to achieve a realistic outcome. This must be better than expecting people to plough through pages of unconnected reports.
Policy options from promised legislation also seemed to have been overlooked. The current issue of The Planner* (pp 24 – 27) suggests various policy changes which could be of use in this exercise. For example the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) may introduce rental auctions to enable local authorities to lease a shop which has been empty for at least 366 days. Since Salisbury has slightly above the national average of empty shops, this would be of great value. Easier Compulsory Purchase Orders may also be introduced. These and other proposals may become law in the plan period and are worth considering now.
Of course, we wish SCC well with this exercise while lamenting a missed opportunity for a more in-depth approach. Most of the responses they have received so far are either ‘satisfied’ or ‘happy’ however, although few who have responded to the detailed reports. The results will go to WC as the LPA thence to an inspector and finally, maybe, a referendum.
*Street and Level, Journal of the Royal Town Planning Institute, August 2022