A week in America | 7 January 2022

Discussing planning regulations and processes on both sides of the Atlantic, Martin Liptrot looks at how trust between developers and residents could be beneficial for everyone.

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As we turn the page on a New Year, it seems many of the same old issues are still with us

In my hometown of Birkenhead, England and my adoptive home of Seagrove Beach, Florida, there is a debate raging about development.

In both places, residents are struck by the beauty and fragility of the physical environment and want it enhanced and protected. Developers often feel the same, recognising attractive locations and wanting to create new developments and homes in welcoming communities for this generation and the next.

But to read the headlines, the websites, and the often politically charged social media campaigns, you would think they were at war, riven by division and set in a ‘zero-sum’ game with only winners and losers.

On the outskirts of Birkenhead, civil war broke out about whether to build a luxury golf resort on a failing municipal course – one which would provide jobs, a top-end hotel, a spa and nationally recognised sports facilities making the region a destination for high-spending, golfers – but it also required some new homes to make it viable. And now a new conflict is brewing about building badly needed new homes on greenbelt land around some of the area’s most agreeable residential towns.

Things are similar in my corner of northwest Florida. Here, beachside mega-mansions and rental properties are all the rage. Homes trade for tens of millions and rental incomes command tens of thousands a month. Folks looking to escape from COVID-ravaged cities for the fresh air of the coast have created massive demand and, as a result, property prices have soared more than 25% in the past 12 months. These are the attractive conditions which send developers and landowners into giddy fits.

Of course, there will always be those who are absolute and unshifting in their stance for or against change.

If the stereotypes are to be believed, the NIMBY’s often have the loudest voices in the debate and proclaim to be the champions of their communities, but secretly they just want to dominate the dialogue. They will reject anything which changes what they profess to be valuable or challenges their entrenched views and opinions. On the other side are the developers – all flashy motors and wads of cash – fixated on building anything anywhere, motivated purely by profit, governed by spreadsheets and profit and loss.

What both sides really share is a trust deficit. They don’t speak the same language. They are strangers to each other, in part it seems, because that is how the system wants it to be.

Because planning laws in both communities are arcane and red-tape rules based, all parties are instantly drawn into a suspicion-riddled, combative discourse when, in most cases, there is considerably more in common than first appears.

Of course, there are formal consultation events, but these seem to exist to tick the boxes of statutory mandates and requirements, rarely do they bring current and future residents, developers and policymakers together around a single ‘big idea’.

Bizarrely, today’s planning regulations and processes – both on the banks of the Mersey and along the emerald waters of the Gulf – do little to build bridges. They appear to favour acrimonious conflict over seeking more accommodating positions which find compromises and mutual solutions.

In today’s planning environment, residents believe the deck is stacked in favour of developers, they wonder about the loyalty of their elected officials, and they express concern about the lack of transparency in the goings-on at city hall.  

The game seems to be how much can the developer get away with versus how many barriers and obstacles can existing residents raise.

With this absence of trust, it is seemingly easier to petition, object and threaten legal review than to sit down early in the process and engage all parties to work out what can be achieved to satisfy all.

In 2022 it seems regeneration and development tensions will continue to rise and legal challenges are becoming ever more fraught.

While the UK government has floated the idea of planning reviews, no such attempt to soothe the troubled waters is apparent here Stateside. Sadly, it is unlikely the rules governing planning will change in any meaningful way anytime soon, but it shouldn’t be beyond the wit and wisdom of elected officials, planning officers and county commissioners to recognise and encourage those developers who do commit to place-making with the involvement of local communities, rather than engaging with those who try to circumvent the rules or the wishes of others.

Yes, it slows things down and requires a little investment. But consultation with purpose, dialogue with shared objectives, and flexibility and accommodation on all sides is what is required.

In the lifetime of a project, it is money well spent and with handsome returns.

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.

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