Sunday, March 29, 2009

They can't be serious...can they?

any port in a storm...

"They can't be serious, can they?", exclaimed one senior Southampton Council Officer when they saw the Governments proposals to massively increase port landing fees. As Gareth Lewis reported in Friday's Daily Echo, the huge tax rise may spell disaster for the Port of Southampton.
Southampton is particularly vulnerable is it has built its business model on the quick turnaround of larger container ships and on cruise liners which would both be liable to pay the 70% increase.
As well as the danger to jobs (over 12,000 people are employed in the ports and allied trades in and around Southampton,) the environmental consequences could be serious too as boats decant in France and then use smaller vessels to land ashore in the UK.
The cost to UK PLC will be significant as imports become more expensive and exports less competitive.
As usual, whenever this government goes anything controversial, the city's two MPs go to ground - Alan Whitehead hasn't commented publicly while John Denham uses the excuse he can't as he is a Minister.
Rest assured that as the Cabinet Member for Transport, I will be fighting the proposals vigorously, joining with industry to lobby government to withdraw these crazy plans.
I just can't believe the industy is facing a fresh attack, especially after the port rates fiasco...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hopes dashed?

Mr Wright & one time friend, Liz Dawn...

On the 17th March Iain Wright MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government visited the Council at the Civic Centre. This was the culmination of a long standing campaign by Highfield Resident's Association for government to consider how very high numbers of larger 'Houses of Multiple Occupation' can change the character of older urban areas and review what can be done about it.
The first thing to note about Mr Wright is his relative youth (b.1972, he is the same age as me!) and like his immediate parliamentary predecessor, he certainly seems a smooth operator with the gift of the gab. That said, while the Minister could not have been more charming, I really don’t think he could have realistically have been less supportive of Southampton at all. On would have thought that given his loyalties to the area he represents, he could have been a bit more understanding of Southampton's plight. Southampton is extremely unusual in that the council estimates 58% of its housing stock in the central area of the city are classed as HMOs and 9 % of the stock across the city, compared to just 2% nationally.

The fundamental issue was, as I see it, that he didn’t really acknowledge the difficulties that having very high densities of HMOs in established older urban areas creates. Until one considers that central problem, one cannot identify relevant solutions. Indeed he said at one point that he wanted to see a larger private sector housing element in most cities (and if he did that nationally, presumably by making the buy to let market more attractive to landlords) the consequences for areas like Highfield could be incredibly profound.

On the matter of the relaxation of permitted development rights within the planning process, I also saw no recognition of the issues that have been created by the opening of that particular Pandora’s Box. I just don’t think it is a priority for political priority for him at the moment.

My biggest disappointment was on the issue of the use classes order. Until larger HMOs can be bought into and tested by the planning process, there will be nothing other than a largely unplanned piecemeal approach to development. His reluctance to make any commitment in this area, talking about ‘unintended consequences’ and all the rest was profoundly disappointing. I spoke to our Head of Planning & Sustainability at the Council after the meeting and in terms of a pre-legislative consultation; there certainly has been nothing forthcoming from government in recent months.

I felt his focus on community engagement (a laudable activity in itself) showed this lack of understanding of the problem. My view is that the University could not reasonably do more to engage with the local area and no one (as far as I am aware) has ever alleged that this is a problem in recent times. It is not that we are unable to live side by side but the social consequences of depopulation of families, older and working people that need to be considered.

My only comfort is that he did at least appear to commit to think about the problem and indicated that legislative time would be found if that was an appropriate solution at the end of the meeting, having earlier indicated he was pretty cool on the idea.

On a personal level, thanks to everyone from HRA for inviting me and letting me address the meeting; our wider concerns could not have been put more articulately by the HRA committee members as well as the University who answered the Ministers point's with brevity and courtesy.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Under the Boadwalk...

the site of the new 'boadwork' cycleway
Monday the 16th March sees the Planning & Rights of Way Panel consider an application for the City Council to create a million pound scheme to create a cycleway along the Itchen between Northam Bridge and Horseshoe bridge in St Denys.
I am pleased (and relieved) that the clear Officer recommendation is to approve the application- in fact, I expect it to sail through. For information, the report can be read under item 5 HERE.
The project is in fact quite unusual as although the City Council is in fact the client, the project is being managed by Sustrans which is a charity dedicated to sustainable transport and particularly cycling. I signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Sustrans on the 20th November last year on behalf of the council.
To enable the project, a grant of some £450k from the lottery fund is forthcoming as a result of the scheme winning part of the great £50million lottery giveaway. The level of interest locally was considerable and I was glad to be able to support the campaign.
For once, Network Rail were also very supportive corporately. They had to do a considerable amount of piling to stop their railway falling into the Itchen in 2007 and being aware of the project, carried out the works allowing space for the boardwork; in fact without that piling, the project wouldn't have been viable.
If all goes well, construction work should start in April with a completion date of October this year. Exciting times.