Levelling up: ‘It’s about people, not shiny new buildings’

“..lessons from previous efforts are not being learnt, claim critics. And the focus should be on people rather than “shiny new buildings”, says the former head of a flagship scheme in Newcastle.”

BBC News www.bbc.co.uk /news/uk-60154310

Collection of images from Rhyl

This week the government published its eagerly awaited White Paper, setting out plans to reduce regional inequality. Levelling up aims to revitalise communities in places like Rhyl, where BBC News has been tracking progress of this key policy.

But lessons from previous efforts are not being learnt, claim critics. And the focus should be on people rather than “shiny new buildings”, says the former head of a flagship scheme in Newcastle.

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Florist Carol Parr clips the ends of flower stems on a bouquet as she explains the dilemma she faced. “I had a little battle with myself. Do I stay? Do I commit to Rhyl?” she says. “Not many people say good things about Rhyl, which I can understand based on crime, there’s a lot of trouble.”

Despite that, Carol opted to move into a larger shop on the high street three years ago. “I’m very optimistic and over the last two or three years I have seen a change in Rhyl. I think it’s an up-and-coming town again.”

Such optimism is not always evident in the seaside town, which was struggling long before its economy was pounded by the pandemic. But Carol’s act of faith may be repaid.

The local MP and the county council want to transform the town centre and recently prepared a £10m bid from the UK government’s levelling up fund.

Money from the £4.8bn fund aims to narrow the gap between richer and poorer parts of the UK. It will allow overlooked and undervalued communities to take back control of their destiny, the levelling up minister, Michael Gove, told parliament on Wednesday. But there are concerns that vital lessons from the past are being ignored.

Lessons from Newcastle

A generation ago, West Newcastle was undergoing a radical plan for change. It was one of 39 English communities that received funds under Labour’s New Deal for Communities (NDC). Within a few years levels of deprivation fell.

Graeme Williams ran the scheme and on a freezing cold January afternoon he gives us a tour of the area. We walk in shadows cast by the tower blocks of Cruddas Park, not far from the city centre. Twenty years ago “they looked awful”, says Mr Williams. “They were awful.”

Some of the blocks were refurbished, others demolished as part of the £55m spent in West Newcastle during a decade of regeneration. But most of the money didn’t go on capital projects, such as buildings.

His team appointed eight people who knew the area well to work with residents to prioritise what changes were needed. Decisions were taken by a management board made up mostly of residents.

The emphasis was “around training, education and supporting people to move into employment”, says Mr Williams. “People recognised they had agency where they could actually generate change.” It gave them hope.

An independent assessment of the New Deal for Communities by academics at Sheffield Hallam University concluded “in many respects these neighbourhoods have been transformed”. It said: “The biggest improvements were for indicators of people’s feelings about their neighbourhoods.”

Mr Williams still works in the city. He is now a director of the Centre West charity. And while proud of some of his achievements, he says a lot of work was “undone by austerity” which “hammered areas like the west end of Newcastle”.

Collection of images from Newcastle

“It’s massively disheartening and incredibly frustrating because we seem to take two steps forward and then two or three steps back as far as urban regeneration is concerned,” he says. “There’s an awful lot of really good evaluation work that’s been done to identify what works and how we can do things better and it’s not being used. “

Levelling up “might produce some nice shiny new buildings. But I don’t think it will necessarily improve the lives and prospects of people living in them communities”.

Supporters of what the Labour government policy achieved include a former Tory speech writer for Theresa May. Will Tanner, now director of the Onward think tank, assessed 60 years of regeneration projects by previous governments. “This isn’t a party-political point. This is just about the right policy based on the evidence,” he says.

He said putting power in the hands of communities worked best, “so they are pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, rather than relying on a top-down government programme”.

He says the government is right to want to change the economic geography of the UK and is supportive of its plans. But adds: “The most important thing for the levelling up fund to do is to let go of power from Whitehall and to empower community organisations right down at the hyper-local level.”

The White Paper acknowledges the importance of local decision-making and promises more regional mayors. It isn’t yet clear what role will be played by people at a neighbourhood level.

Bricks and mortar

Back in Rhyl, we stroll around the town centre with Conservative MP James Davies, walking past boarded up and shuttered shops. He agrees. “Just building things, bricks and mortar is not the answer. It needs to be a cleverly thought through scheme that’s going to boost economic activity.”

We pause outside the derelict Queen’s Market, which is being bulldozed. It’s hoped a new food hall with flats and offices will be developed on the site through a mix of funding from the Welsh government, Denbighshire County Council, the levelling up fund and private businesses.

The plans would also see the town reconnected to the seafront. Incredibly, though an expansive sandy beach is just yards away, you can’t see it from the high street. Mr Davies says there is local backing. A master plan went out to consultation and has “the support of local councils, residents, businesses”.

But a potential obstacle is the number of high street shops owned by absentee landlords. A sample of Land Registry documents seen by BBC News show only five out of 25 High Street properties are owned by people local to Rhyl.

“That’s a real challenge,” Mr Davies acknowledges. “All you can do is invest in the areas that the local authority and willing partners own as a priority. And then you hope that economic activity will encourage others to follow over time.”

How do locals out and about on a beautiful, bright winter’s morning feel about their town centre and the plans to regenerate it?

“I’m not quite sure how to put this. It’s appalling,” says a man who moved to Rhyl seven years ago. “Shops closing, shutting arcades. Rhyl just isn’t what it used to be. I don’t think it will ever come back.”

But octogenarian former mayor, Diana Hannan, out on her mobility scooter, loves the town so much she moved back after emigrating to Australia. “We’ve got the best seaside resort in Wales,” she says.

“We get all this negative press about drugs and alcohol and all the rest of it, but we’ve got a lovely community living here. Rhyl is going to boom. You wait until all of these stores go up.”

On the road out of town we stop off at a food bank run out of the back of the Wellspring church. Amid shelves straining under the weight of tins of baked beans, pastor Mark Jones explains how Rhyl is full of “fabulous people”. But he says “there’s a lack of energy, a lack of enthusiasm”. “There’s this sense of hopelessness amongst the people. If you walk down the high street, you can just see it in people’s eyes.”

Mr Jones, who has lived in the town for more than 40 years, supports the levelling up plans but says the proposals “need to show the people of Rhyl that there is a hope and a future for them”.

“It’s OK to invest,” he says. “But you also need to inspire.”

Calls to help save Midas

Local leaders in Devon, including the boss of Torbay Council, have urged the government to help a struggling construction firm.

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

Last week Exeter-based Midas, one of the country’s biggest privately owned construction and property service companies, filed a notice of intention to go into administration.

Together with its construction arm Midas Construction and housing division Mi-Space, the group has a turnover of almost £300 million and 500 people working directly for it, with many more employed through subcontractors.

But the company recently posted a loss of over £2 million for its last financial year, blaming its troubles on the pandemic, ongoing shortages of materials and labour, and a significant rise in costs because of inflation.

Midas’ projects in the county currently include contracts with Torbay Council to build an £11 million Premier Inn, improvements to a school in Torquay and nine affordable homes in Paignton.

A spokesperson for Torbay Council said: “We are saddened to hear the news about Midas and their notice of intent to enter administration. We are continuing to work with Midas to identify issues and solutions and any further implications that might need attention in the future.

On the hotel, they added the council “remains committed to the scheme which will not only generate new employment opportunities but will complement existing hotel accommodation in Torquay that will attract thousands of guests each year, boosting our local tourism economy by more than £3 million.”

The Lib Dem leaders of Torbay, Teignbridge, North Devon councils have sent out a call to the secretary of state for levelling up, Michael Gove, asking for Westminster to step in to help the company.

Councillor Steve Darling, leader of Torbay Council said: “Midas filing it’s notice of intention to appoint administrators is a grave concern for us.

“We are becoming aware of the millions that are owed to subcontractors and are aware that this could significantly impact on thousands of jobs and businesses in the south west.

“If the government is serious about their levelling up agenda, then the secretary of state must step in to stop this engine of regeneration from collapsing and sending the south west’s economy in to reverse.”

While neighbouring Cornwall Council also has a number of contracts with the company for schemes which include homes, schools and workspace projects, Devon County Council said it has no current projects with Midas.

Exeter City Council and Mid Devon District Council say they currently have no live contracts with the firm, which has offices in Exeter and Newton Abbot as well as elsewhere in the south west.

However,  Midas is Teignbridge District Council’s main contractor for work currently taking place to decarbonise its Forde House headquarters.

A spokesperson for that council added: “While they are in the current phase of appointing an administrator, we are investigating alternative options to progress with the works.”

In a statement to confirm its intention to go into administration last week, Midas said: “the company continues to operate, while the directors work to explore all available options to achieve the best outcome for the business and our people, our customers, supply chain partners and all our stakeholders.

“Midas is committed to pursuing an outcome that will achieve continuity for our live contracts and asks all our valued stakeholders to remain supportive of the group at this time.”

Latest Clyst St Mary Residents Association press release:

Clyst St Mary Residents wait with bated breath for the recommendation by East Devon Planners  

On 40 four-storey apartments in Zone D at Winslade Park 

Many Clyst Valley Road residents, living adjacent to this inappropriate proposal, are holding their breath in anxiety, uncertainty and dread to see whether such an incongruous, urban design (which many have likened to an inner-city car park), opposite a historic Grade II* Listed Manor House in the rural village of Clyst St Mary, will be recommended for approval by East Devon Planners when the Reserved Matters Application (21/2217/MRES) is judged by the Planning Committee in the near future. 

This Zone D proposal by Burrington Estates (New Homes) Limited, (alongside a further 39 homes on a green field at the entrance to Winslade Park – Zone A) was approved by East Devon District Council (EDDC) Planners on 2nd December 2020 merely in outline, under a hybrid application which included full planning permission for the refurbishment of the vast Winslade Park Office complex because the entire masterplan was deemed of significant economic value to East Devon but resulted in other pivotal planning issues being disregarded. 

In December 2020, EDDC elected Councillors were advised by their Development Manager that the outline approval was only permitting the basic, foundational principles for residential development in both Zones A and D and Burringtons’ subsequent Reserved Matters applications would provide the crucial details regarding design, height, massing, access etc, which would take into account consultations from professional consultees and local contributors and could be challenged and amended to ultimately achieve the most desirable design resolutions. 

Planning Committee Councillors (including the District Councillor for Clyst St Mary) recommended that the Zone D outline proposals for three-storeys should be lowered to two-storeys and that Burringtons should consult with local people, before their submission of Reserved Matters, to ensure that their designs were compatible with the Neighbourhood Plan and did not encroach on adjoining homes creating any local detrimental issues.(See the U-Tube recording on EDDC Planning Portal for Planning Committee on 2nd December 2020 for Application No. 20/1001/MOUT). 

Unfortunately, Burringtons failed to provide a full consultation with the majority of the community (as advised by EDDC) preferring to restrict their consultation, at very short notice, to around 21 selected residents over a two day period! Sadly, this limited consultation has resulted in none of the comments made by any residents being included in Zone D amendments and to date no amended proposals for Zone A are published. However, instead of lowering the 40 apartment blocks to two storeys (recommended by Planners in December 2020), Burringtons increased them to four-storeys and also raised the entire ground level by approximately 2 metres for both the apartments and the access road (presumably to avoid potential ground-floor flooding in their proposed flats resulting from them building in a recognised flood-vulnerable zone)? 

Although Burringtons have named Zone D ‘Woodland Villas’ – the truth is that their proposals include significant felling/thinning of mature trees in a woodland protected by a Tree Preservation Order, with removal of up to 18m tall early mature oak, ash, lime and cherry and young holly, hazel, field maple, cherry laurel and sycamores in the under-storey, purely to facilitate the access road and additional parking necessary for these 40 four-storey flats. Furthermore this woodland is primarily deciduous and so will not provide sufficient screening for the existing traditional two-storey Clyst Valley Road homes during 6 months of the year – because the proposed raised four-storey flats will overlook and encroach on existing indoor home spaces and cause detrimental issues of noise, light and air pollution from the towering flats and the raised access road and boundary parking.  

Worryingly, the lack of safe pedestrian access at the bottom of Winslade Park Avenue for this entire Winslade Park development appears to have been ignored, despite extreme concerns from local residents that there are no pavements or lighting approaching a blind bend that seem crucial for 79 new homes and the commercial development to enable safe pedestrian access to the village amenities of the school, shop, post office etc? 

Although the Developers have agreed financial contributions towards a footpath (that is yet to be provided) between the Village Hall car park and the school, this footpath is on the other side of the A3052 from Zones A and D! The Development Manager emphasised (on 2nd December 2020 at the outline planning meeting) the safety issues that were of concern in Winslade Park Avenue – but suggested that prospective residents of  Zones A and D could drive to the Village Hall car park to access a safe footpath to be provided there in the future. However, many residents would, surely, rather walk the short 100 metres distance from Zone A to access the village facilities? To date, there appears to be no plans to clarify this unsustainable situation?  

Surely, ‘the elephants in the room’ are the inappropriate design for 40 four-storey towering apartments in a small, rural village opposite a historic asset, the overlooking of local residents’ indoor home spaces, the lack of safe pedestrian access to and from two large residential sites, the loss of protected trees and the exacerbation of flooding in a vulnerable flood risk area? 

Hopefully these matters will be addressed before any further decisions have to be made by East Devon’s Planning Committee in the near future – but the public perception is that economic benefits should not override the social and environmental issues and perhaps the Developers should be encouraged to submit proposals that will work for the people and not just generate profits for themselves?  

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The bottom of Winslade Park Avenue where there is no footpath or lighting 

Chairman Clyst St Mary Residents Association

Jonathan Pie explains Partygate scandal to Americans in epic New York Times debut

Jonathan Pie has taken his unique brand of political comedy Stateside with a new video published in the New York Times.

By Redrow www.thelondoneconomic.com 

Pie, a fictional news correspondent portrayed by actor and comedian Tom Walker, kicked off his US segment by explaining the Patygate scandal that has rocked the Boris Johnson administration to viewers.

Dubbing the prime minister a “liar” – a term ‘banned’ in UK political discourse – he said “Trumpian is the ease with which he tells porkies”.

Discussing the Patygate scandal Pie said Downing Street hosted “16 separate p*ss-ups” in breach of its own lockdown rules, including two that happened the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.

The comedian said Boris’s lies “are no secret” as he listed off all the things he’s fibbed about.

“He essentially lied to the Queen when he illegally shut down parliament, he lied to the country when he said Brexit would be good for farming, and fishing, and trade deals, and the economy.

“He’s been fired twice for lying. He was fired as a journalist for the Times newspaper for simply just making stuff up, and he was fired for lying about shagging someone behind his wife’s back.”

Pie went on to explain what shagging means, as well as other unfamiliar terms such as ‘scotch egg’, ‘pub’ and ‘Eton’.

Watch the hilarious clip in full HERE or on twitter HERE