Friday, 2 July 2010

1st July 2010 – From Yarmouth to Yas Island (and watching UK planning descend into chaos)

Great Yarmouth...

One of the things I love most about my job is the diverse places it takes me to. I’m writing this on the way to East Anglia to talk about two Area Action Plans we’re producing for the run down waterfront areas in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. I’ve also been spending a lot of time in Abu Dhabi which despite global financial turmoil, continues to implement its mega-expansion plans. Here I am working on a master plan for a major new city quarter.

The contrasts between these places are immense. In a world of spending cuts trying to justify the funding for a much needed pedestrian bridge in Lowestoft is a major task. In Abu Dhabi they think nothing of spending billions of dirham on an entire metro system, tunnelling an expressway under the current city centre (causing traffic chaos throughout the city), building a grand prix circuit (on the lavish Yas Island where I had my tea the other night), creating the world’s most inclined tower to get one over on Pisa, or creating several lush golf courses in the middle of the desert.

I was last in Abu Dhabi a year ago where I visited Saadiyat Island (where we were trying to invent a system to implement the ambitious cultural district master plan involving 150,000 new residents, and world class museums including branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim designed by the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid). Last July we had to get a boat out, to what was a desert island with a collection of site offices. It is now connected to Abu Dhabi Island by a bridge carrying an 8 lane expressway, and now boasts a couple of resorts and golf courses. Where was sand, is now grass and planting.

The sustainability aspects of this massive growth are of course questionable. However, unlike neighbouring Dubai where the ribbon-like growth was relatively unplanned, Abu do have a vision and a development strategy set out in their 2030 Plan. They have also extensively invested in a development management system, and a bespoke system to encourage sustainability into projects that they call Estidama. Best of all is a “can do” attitude that is somewhat missing from planners in the UK.
Things couldn’t be more different in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth where since July 2009 development projects have been put on hold, pared back or cancelled whist local businesses have closed.

Abu Dhabi leaning tower....

However, unlike many other places in the UK, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are set to benefit from massive investment in off-shore renewables. The Great Gabbard offshore farm is under construction, whilst a wind farm the size of Norfolk is set to be built just over the horizon from the two towns. Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are perfectly positioned to benefit from this massive green-energy opportunity and our plan seeks to encourage this investment and make sure that local people are set to benefit.

This, of course, is all at risk at the moment. This week I was at the planning convention where current reform is causing gloom and uncertainty in the system. The new Coalition seem to be intent in reforming the planning system to reflect their “localism” agenda. Their view is the system is broken, and it must be quickly mended.

The Coalition sent along two ministers to address planners - Minister for Decentralisation Gregg Clarke, and Minister for Planning, Bob Neill Myself. Myself and another Young Planner (Nick Pleasant, who is genuinely young) set out the concerns of Young Planners Network ahead of the annual address, where we generally agree that change must happen to the system, but we planners are already implementing a localism agenda (our speech is online at

The two tories seemed to agree with what they are saying, and Clarke even compared Nick and I, to Nick Clegg and David Cameron (not sure whether to take that as a massive compliment, or a massive insult). However, during Clarke’s 20 minute speech little was really said about what was going to happen to planning, what their “localism” agenda really is, or whether they localism will be a force for collaboration, or simply a Nimby’s charter.

They did however promise to meet with the Young Planners, which we should all hope they keep their word on.

As Nick and I set out, and as was reinforced throughout the convention, it has never been more important that planners come together as a collective movement to stand up for planning. The next few months really are going to be make or break for planners.

Let’s hope it works, otherwise this time next year we’ll all be off to Abu Dhabi.

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