One of the 12 'principles' of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework is that planning should be 'genuinely plan-led, empowering local people to shape their surroundings.' This is how that empowerment works in reality.
Stephanie and Adam Sutton live on the Montagu Estate in Newcastle upon Tyne. Stephanie grew up on the estate, is 37 years old and works at accountancy firm Sage. Adam, her husband, is 29, works at Carluccio’s and says he 'married into Montagu'. Their house looks onto a 0.67-hectare rectangle of grass which is surrounded on all sides by houses. Newcastle City Council calls it 'open space'. Locals call it their green.
Montagu Estate is not a rich area. The green reflects that. It’s not like the green in richer Newcastle suburbs like mine, or in nice London boroughs. There’s graffiti on a telephone pole and it’s not attractively landscaped. It is used though. People walk their dogs on it. People socialise on it. Despite there being no lines marked out and it having a slope, kids use the two goalposts regularly – 'Every day without fail,' says Adam, 'even when it’s raining.' The kids have never asked why their green is crap compared to other greens.
In the summer of 2016 a developer named Isos (their highest paid director received £180,000 excluding pension contributions in the year ending 31 March 2016) revealed that it wanted to buy half the green from Newcastle City Council (whose chief executive is paid £160,000) to build 12 homes, all social rented. The other half of the green would not be built on and would remain owned by the council. Let the empowerment begin.
Notices were put on lampposts, letters were sent to some homes, and Isos arranged a public meeting at the estate’s community hall at 4pm on a weekday. A lot of people attended. 'Everyone was saying we should do something, we should do something, we should do something,' says Adam. Believing they had a role in the process, some residents began a campaign to stop the development, which they called Save Our Green. 'We are the residents of Montagu Estate. Our area has been built on time and time again until now. We are fighting to save the last piece of green safe space,' reads their Twitter bio.
Social media was one of their tools. One resident created a Facebook group. Stephanie created a Twitter account with a picture of children playing football on the green. She tweeted local footballers and David Beckham after her dad heard him on Desert Island Discs talking about playing football as a young boy. Nobody responded, unsurprisingly. As Stephanie soon realised, Twitter is full of similar campaigns. 'There was account after account set up by people all over the country trying to save their bits of green,' she says. She started a petition, because that’s another established tool of empowerment, using the 38 Degrees website (slogan: 'People. Power. Change.'). It was signed by 925 people.
Local media coverage can provide leverage, so residents held two demonstrations on the green which were covered by the local newspaper, the Chronicle. In the pictures there are banners saying 'Save Our Green' and one person is holding up a ball, while another has a dog on a lead. The campaign was covered by local television news and local radio. 'I was very positive that we’d save it,' says Stephanie.
Stephanie and others helped people formally object by printing leaflets explaining how to do it. Stephanie went to neighbouring suburbs and talked to people about what was happening. She put posters up in shops. 'I was just trying to get as many people in surrounding areas interested,' she says. There were ultimately 300 responses to the planning application, 299 of which were objections. One of the campaigners wrote a 14-page report, explaining all the reasons that the development was a bad idea for those who would be living with it (and without half their green).
None of it worked of course.
On 2 February, Newcastle City Council gave conditional permission for the development to go ahead. One of the conditions is a 'detailed scheme of enhancements' to the remaining half of the green, for which a budget of £30,000 has been promised. The council says it will work with Isos and local residents to decide how to spend that money – cash to compensate for the loss of half their green forever.
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The council’s report on the development refers to paragraph 74 of the National Planning Policy Framework: 'Existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless: an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown the open space, buildings or land to be surplus to requirements; or the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location; or the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the needs for which clearly outweigh the loss.'
An assessment was carried out by HMH Architects, commissioned by Isos, which said there are three 'similarly sized areas of General Open Space' within 500 metres of the green. Their diagram shows that two are 500 metres away, one is 200 metres away. I visited the areas and they are much smaller than the green. Two have paths on them leaving no room for a game of football. One is a rectangle of grass with enough space for a very tight kickabout, but it has no goalposts and is 500 metres away. The report mentions nearby moorland, but that’s unsuitable for football. Despite the kids using the green and its goalposts to play football on regularly, and despite there being no equivalent alternative near to their homes, the council agreed that half the green was 'surplus to requirements'.
In the future the kids’ best option for a game of football will be half the green they’re left with, which may or may not have goalposts, and which will be much smaller. 'They will be able to kind of pass it to one another,' says Stephanie, 'but they won’t be able to kick it and run and really get some exercise.' Locals will have lost half their green space and there is nothing they can do about it, as they can’t appeal. 'We don’t feel empowered whatsoever,' says Adam.
Many people across Britain have had a similar experience. Most of us would have predicted the outcome from the start. Adam and Stephanie will know better next time. Their story may seem small and local, but it speaks of a greater story nationwide: green areas are being lost across the UK - and those who use them are powerless to stop it.
Andrew Hankinson is a freelance writer who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne