Five place points from the Growth Plan

A copy of the Growth Plan

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any stranger…

Friday’s heavily trailed fiscal event contained few surprises for anyone following the news. But it was no less mind-bending for that.

Here was a ‘small-state’ government setting out its most statist programme for borrowing and spending yet. Their supporters would ridicule Labour opponents for suggesting an intervention this big.

At the same time, they unveiled the largest tax cutting programme in 50 years – bigger than Nigel Lawson’s 1988 budget that many still speak about.

The £60bn measures to fix energy prices for homes and businesses had to happen, it’s true.

Other details in the government’s Growth Plan – tax cuts making up £45bn of a £234bn debt financing requirement – sharpen one’s focus on the cost. That’s if you can stop your eyes watering at the size of the numbers.

Meanwhile, markets watched askance as the pound fell to $1.08 against the dollar.

Many commentators pointed to the regressive nature of the tax cuts, which unquestionably favour wealthy people. Others have made this point already, and I’ll touch on it later in this post.

Having followed many statements on growth and helped to promote them when working for a government body, I’m struck by the ‘throw everything at it’ spirit of this one. The pace of change it sets is extraordinary.

The Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell explained how unusual this approach is yesterday.

As always, there is much to debate, and people will pour over the detail. Having read the plan, here are five points I thought would interest those striving for better businesses and places.

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Mayor or committees won’t solve Bristol’s collaboration challenge alone

City of Hope Bristol

This post first appeared on Bristol 24/7’s Your Say section on 19 April. Thanks to them for their excellent coverage of all perspectives of the city’s mayoral referendum.

I’ve been fortunate to see devolution take shape in cities across England over the last 20 years.

That experience leads me to believe that local people, not Westminster, should have the tools to lead this change. Although Marvin Rees last year received a mandate to serve as mayor until 2024, Bristol has further to go before seeing the full benefits of devolution.

The referendum around whether the council is best led by a mayor or committee model of governance should sit within this context.

Context matters here. Although I’ve clocked hundreds of posts across Twitter and news feeds, this isn’t easy to see amidst claim and counterclaim.

Top posts online (by engagement) mentioning the referendum between 13 March and 16 April. 

I don’t have a vote in the referendum, but I am interested in its outcome as someone who works here and employs people living in the city. My thoughts come from that perspective, as someone who’s worked with the council and the offices of both elected mayors since 2010.

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Five points on place from #Budget21 and #SpendingReview

Chancellor's red box

Setting out a path to growth, or repairing the damage caused by austerity?

Personal and political perspectives will doubtless cloud views on Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget and spending review statements on 27 October.

From the perspective of a communicator and director of a small business based outside London, the statement felt like a pitch from a man in control of the narrative. This is a prized asset for government set pieces. And it’s why officials trail key measures – around Net Zero, infrastructure, transport and skills – so heavily in advance.

These measures coalesce under a plan for growth, building on the Prime Minister’s claims that the country must move towards a model of higher wages and productivity. With growth anticipated to reach 6.5% next year, there is cause for optimism from this most spendthrift and statist of small-state Conservative chancellors.

Even if there were few surprises, there remains plenty to make sense of. How many of the commitments are new money? How can we access the funding? Do we know yet what ‘levelling up’ looks like? The third question is a touch optimistic, I know. People will make up their own minds on that one.

For those interested in place-making and development, here are some of the snippets of interest we took from the announcement.

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Read the room: reasons to support Druidstone’s membership move

Manufactured storm clouds have gathered above Pembrokehire’s clifftops, at a place I know well.

They’re created by media interest in The Druidstone hotel’s membership scheme for non-guests who want an occasional drink in its popular bar. The Guardian sparked the interest on Friday, after a freelancer discovered the story whilst staying locally.

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Collaboration, not culture wars, will help us return to the office

Work at home (if you can). Get back to work (sorry, the office). Forget that, work at home please. Go back, gradually and carefully. Read the guidance. Businesses must work out what’s best. It’s on you. Fingers crossed!

These phrases illustrate the chaos surrounding England’s official office working guidance during the pandemic. I exaggerate in places. But each statement reflects a government position at a certain moment. Sometimes, ministers even took different positions on the same day.

Navigating this is tricky, especially if you’re not expert in workplace design, occupational health or HR. I’m more used to writing about 600-acre spaces than 600 sq ft ones, and I struggle to visualise how a shell will look when kitted out and occupied. “How many desks can you get in here again?” was a stock phrase used during recent forays into Bristol to check potential new office space.

What knowledge I have is shaped by conversations with helpful agents and dozens of viewings over recent years. Much of this was during COVID, which detonated drastic changes to everyone’s living and working patterns. Once, I nearly agreed a three-year lease on office space before government guidance shifted (again) to work from home. Not signing saved us from paying for a space we couldn’t use.

The process feels fraught with uncertainty and confusion. I know I’m not alone in struggling to find something that works for us post-COVID, as the environment around us remains in flux.

From this muddled standpoint, I’ve watched with interest as people on all sides of the vexed office debate state their case with certainty. As I write from Scotland (that’s flexible location working for you), respective positions around this debate appear to have hardened. Whether it’s work from home or return to the office, it’s taken a binary either/or context.

This is unhelpful when many organisations are looking at somewhere between those points (or hybrid, to use the jargon).

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Change to build community trust

This post first appeared on the TCPA’s blog series about trust in the planning process. Thanks so much to them for asking me to write something.

Public trust is a powerful concept, that’s beset with fuzziness and contradiction.

We instinctively know if we trust a person, organisation or process, but can’t always clearly explain why.

Leaders universally agree that trust matters, yet don’t pay enough attention to maintaining it. Like a football referee, many don’t fully appreciate its importance until something goes wrong.

I’m sure that most planning and place-making professionals appreciate how volatile trust can be. If you’re in any doubt, here’s a reality check: the sector faces a crisis of confidence amongst the people upon whom its legitimacy depends.

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