Snapdragon at PLMR recently held the third event of its ‘In Conversation With…’ series, an exciting programme where we speak with key political figures in local government about planning and development. Account Director, Natasha Kendall, spoke to Councillor Ken Rhatigan, the Leader of Basingstoke and Deane Council about national planning reforms, the Local Plan process, and Basingstoke’s future as the “capital of the South”*.
The Council is currently updating its local plan, and Cllr Rhatigan believes now is an especially interesting time to do so. With the Environment Act recently passing through Parliament, and a white paper on local government reform expected next year, the framework for reform has been set. Cllr Rhatigan believes the legislation could act as a catalyst for councils in the Southeast region to draw up new plans to deliver housing and place making.
Cllr Rhatigan believes that it is essential the planning system undergoes reform, as currently there are too many barriers in the way of housing delivery. He would start by scrapping the methodology which determines housing targets. Over the past three years Basingstoke and Deane has delivered over 1250 homes a year, a figure Cllr Rhatigan is very proud of. However, under the current system they receive no credit for that; instead, they are left at the mercy of speculative development and the appeals process.
The Prime Minister reshuffled his cabinet in September, with Michael Gove replacing Robert Jenrick in the slightly amended role of Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities. Cllr Rhatigan is well connected in national politics, and has had conversations with both men in recent months. Three weeks ago, he spoke to Gove, and was able to shed light on the direction that he thought the minister would take the department in.
Gove revealed he was committed to creating a new housing target figure. The current target is 300,000 new homes per year. Cllr Rhatigan believes that the Government will abandon this annual target, and instead spread delivery out over a longer period of time. He suggested a figure of one million new houses over the length of a parliament. Adopting this strategy would make sense politically for the Conservatives; it would enable them to lower the overall number of houses they have to deliver, and increase their flexibility in meeting the target. At the same time, they would also be able to claim that they want to build more homes than ever before.
Moving from national planning issues to the local level, Basingstoke and Deane Council is in the process of drafting a new local plan. Currently, the Council are identifying and selecting sites to designate for development. Most of this will come forward around Basingstoke, however some other smaller surrounding settlements will also need to expand. Cllr Rhatigan explains that this is necessary to support new infrastructure. This ties in with his philosophy that development should be infrastructure led, and that councillors shouldn’t demand infrastructure first.
One key focus for Cllr Rhatigan is revitalising town centres across the borough. He is adamant that they need to densify, both to inject fresh vibrancy into the towns and to support the green agenda. He does not shirk away from the possibility that they might need to build upwards, arguing that we need to utilise the space above our heads. As we move out the pandemic, and traditional retail shops continue to struggle, Cllr Rhatigan argues we need to replace them with experiences that will drive footfall and give people a reason to visit. He wants Basingstoke to become a place of festivals, museums, and a strong night-time economy.
Cllr Rhatigan argues the borough is in a unique and fortunate position to make this vision a reality. It is well located near two junctions of a major motorway, and is in an ideal place to bring forward large development sites such as a medical campus. He wants high-skilled employment to come first, to create a market that homes can then be sold in. He highlights how Basingstoke already has great affordability compared to similar towns nearby.
The Council is also one of the only councils in the South-East region with no debt. It is self-financing and owns a large amount of land, that can be built upon. Looking to the future Cllr Rhatigan wants to see the area take further control of its destiny through devolution. He believes the Government is set on continuing to introduce metro mayors and hopes that a North Hampshire unitary council will be created.
It is clear that Basingstoke and Deane is a place with considerable political and economic opportunities, and Cllr Rhatigan’s vision of it as the “capital of the South”* has only just begun to be realised. He urges developers to get in contact to ask about sites or development opportunities, as the Council is there to facilitate positive growth.
The webinar provided a thrilling insight into both national planning reforms and the local area of Basingstoke and Deane. We are very grateful to Cllr Rhatigan for his time and knowledge. Attendees should take away his key message, “sell the sizzle and not the sausage”, and focus on what developments add to the area when consulting local communities. Snapdragon at PLMR can help you shape these messages, as we have extensive experience of local engagement across the South-East. If you would like to discuss a site in Basingstoke and Deane, or elsewhere in the South – East, please contact email@example.com.