Blog: 17 February 2020Planning, politics and prospects for growth in the West

Following Partner Simon Prescott's appointment as a non-executive director of Business West,  Ian Mean, former editor of the Western Daily Press and Business West director for Gloucestershire, interviews him on a wide range of planning issues facing the region...

Planners by reputation and image, in my experience, tend not to be the most engaging of characters.

Simon Prescott, who has just been appointed a non-executive director on the board of Business West, does not fit into that category.

Indeed, far from it. He has developed a national reputation as a rather enlightened planner with big picture vision.

That talent has led him to be chair of the Planning Panel for the British Chambers of Commerce of which Business West is an accredited member of.

And for the last ten years, he has been a partner in the Bristol office of Barton Willmore. He is now a Senior Planning Partner.

Simon came to Bristol to go to university from Manchester 30 years ago.

“I went to the harbour and said: Wow. It was an absolute no brainer that I would stay.

“Following university, truthfully, I had an absolute nightmare trying to find a job at the time. It was the end of a recession, so many of my graduate colleagues were going off to call centres and shops just to get some money.

“I thought I am going to hunker down here. I have spent four years trying to be a planner - that’s what I want to do. I sat in on public inquiries and planning committees and volunteered for the Civic Society.

“A mate was working at Barton Willmore. Can you come here and help me, he said - I have got all these applications for telephone masts.

“It turned out that that the then senior partner had been up against me on an appeal, found out I was working here and said get him.”

I ask him about issues. Regional planning seems to be in a mess?

“I think regional planning has always been hard. Now, it’s as hard as it has ever been because it is so much more politicised.

“Planning and housing is also high on the government’s agenda but so is the politics of it and the nimbyism - there is a huge tension between the two.

“I have followed regional planning for the last 20 years locally.

“Probably city region planning is the best way forward. Travel to work areas. If you are going to work in a place, you might live there too.

“I have to admit that the old counties are a good proxy for planning.

“Take Gloucestershire, I think it is right to concentrate on Gloucestershire as a whole. I know nobody likes to talk about Avon, but I think that the West of England with its four authorities is probably a good functional economic area. Wilt-shire is if you included Swindon.

“I think we need some sort of national plan, so you know where the big infrastructure projects are.

How does he see economic growth in this area?

“Brand and what do we call ourselves. I am now used to calling ourselves the West of England for what is the four authorities around Bristol.

“I was never that embarrassed about the old Government office region, namely the South West.

“I think government wants something larger than local. If government wants to talk to this area, who does it call?

“How can we have one voice? If business wants to engage who, do they commit their time to. Right now, I think the Chamber networks have been really strong.”

He chaired one of the sector groups for the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership.

“That’s when business was really engaged with what was going on and it thought it was having a say.

“But I don’t feel that at the moment - no disrespect to those on the board.

“I do worry that the best and brightest no longer want to work in the public sector.

“You need good quality people in the public sector if the machine is going to work.

“I still believe in this, but I see it slightly less - that is the public and private sector working together more constructively. There is a reluctance from the private sector to volunteer for the right thing to do for an area. We need to recognise it is not all the public sector’s fault.”

How do you get politics out of planning more?

“I have not got the golden bullet on this, but I think it is easier for local politicians to make the best local decisions what will impact them locally.

“If we can get a way to distribute those targets and ambitions locally you have a far more sensible decision - once the local politicians and the stakeholders are told what they need to deliver.

“A national plan delivered locally.”

What is his view on the Green Belt? A lot of it - in my view - is just low-grade agricultural land isn’t it?

“I wouldn’t get rid of the Green Belt - I wouldn’t get rid of Green Belt policy. I would just apply it as I think it was in-tended to be applied - as a constraint around the biggest cities which is only released exceptionally.

“I think you have to accept exceptionally - once in a generation - it needs to be released a bit.

“It could be a perfectly legitimate answer that a certain settlement has reached its environmental capacity. 

“It is difficult to think Bath is going to grow much bigger. But for a lot of bigger cities, why at this point do you want to constrain them and not allow them to grow?

“It just affects the whole planning system and that link with economic growth.

“I am saying that planning has stilted growth. The last four rounds of plan making which loomed across local authority boundaries came to the conclusion that they had not addressed the Green Belt.

“The Green Belt is never addressed - politics is getting in the way.”

Do you think there should be a review of the Green Belt?

“This is where we struggle with the headline and the detail. We just need to change the Green Belt boundaries - we are turning away growth.

“The housing crisis in the West of England is exaggerated by the Green Belt.

“I get annoyed when the desire to leave the Green Belt distorts or leads economic strategies.

“The LEPs set a number of jobs they want to generate over a particular period. It doesn’t take a genius planning consultant to do the maths - that number of jobs equals that number of homes.

“There is a clear link between wanting to stop the politicians saying we want to build on the Green Belt and the number of jobs - jobs change people’s lives.”

If you were minister for the South West, what would you do?

“I think I would probably go back to some kind of sub regional plans. I would start with what is our growth potential and concentrate on everything for that growth.

“When Colin Skellett set up the LEP here he wanted to know any barrier to growth-to let him know.

“I think I would adopt that sort of approach. Truthfully, I would probably adopt that approach to sustainable growth.

“We have got to have growth but how do we achieve that and transform our regional economy to net zero carbon.

“Our cities are gridlocked - there is no real travel choice for people.

“Business is always complaining about the lack of development land to grow. How do we get over that?

“What we are seeing at the moment is, that because of the politics to build more homes and not on the Green Belt, we are seeing a lot of focus on brown-field sites. 

“A lot of these sites are employment land. This is the big challenge coming over the horizon.

“I really think business should engage with what is going on in its area. We should articulate our ambition for the areas in which we work.

“Business is a force for good.”

As we look at the multitude of cranes from his office in the centre of Bristol, I ask him about his aspirations for the future.

“I think it would be around ambition and growth. If we could start trying to solve the housing crisis I would be chuffed although I know it will take a generation.

“If we can give everybody that level of ambition, hope and aspiration. If we can start to level the North and South Bristol divide. South Bristol has the lowest engagement with post 16 education in the country.”

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Planning, Politics, Growth, South West, Business West