|Planning matters again
||[Apr. 9th, 2015|10:12 pm]
On Tuesday I attended a meeting of the Council's Planning Committee, which discussed two applications to build blocks of student accommodation: it refused one application (the one which is more or less on my doorstep) and approved the other. Here's the report in the local paper, which quotes Councillor Mike Dixon, who argued for approval of both schemes, as dismissing the "200" objections to the County Hospital development received (it was 300, actually, but who's counting?) as meaning that the county’s other 499,800 residents did not oppose the scheme. I don't think that Cllr Dixon is representative of the Planning Committee as a whole, but I don't think he's an isolated voice, either: he was in the majority in voting to approve the Claypath scheme. So although I've been keeping well clear of the Twitter storm that followed the meeting, I'm going to try to unpick one particular thread of it.
Cllr Dixon argues in favour of approving development because it creates work in the building industry, work which is much needed in the ward he represents (Newton Aycliffe, I think). He followed the statement quoted by the press, that the vocal protestors are outweighed by the much larger numbers who had not commented, by saying that "we haven't heard from the builders and unemployed young people..."
Obviously building work does create employment, at least for the duration of the building, and we can hope that some of that employment goes to Cllr Dixon's constituents. That's true whether what is being constructed is a PBSA (Purpose Built Student Accommodation) or not. Looking at the plans for PBSAs, I suspect that they mostly involve throwing something together as fast as possible, before the bubble bursts, and that smaller, more individual developments might employ more local builders over a longer period. It would be interesting to know whether recent schemes, of both kinds, have created jobs in the County, and whether those jobs either still exist, or provided training which enabled people to find permanent jobs elsewhere.
Looking only at employment, which is a very narrow view to take, the University brings many jobs into the City, and that's very welcome. But the domination of the City by a student population which is absent for much of the year also has economic drawbacks: for example, shops find it difficult to survive. Buy-to-let has driven up house prices, and removed from the market the small terraced houses which would once have gone to first-time buyers as family homes. To rebalance its economy, Durham needs affordable housing, not speculative PBSAs.
The County Durham Plan set a target of 73% employment. The latest figure in the nomis official labour market statistics is 67.9% for the year October 2013-September 2014, gradually clawing their way back up from the depths of the recession (64.6%, April 2009-March2010).
But if you separate out male and female employment, the picture is a little different. Male employment fell to 67.7% in the year April 2009-March 2010 (7.6% below the national average) but on the latest figures is back to 74.4% (2.7% below the national average). Women's employment took longer to reach its lowest point, but in the year July 2011-June 2012 was at 59.9%. and has only recovered to 61.8%. The post-industrial north east has long suffered higher than average unemployment, but where the figures for men show a narrowing gap between local and national figures, women's employment remains at more than 5% above the national average. Austerity has meant a disproportionate loss of jobs in public service, so it's no surprise that women have been harder hit.
The Council has been playing its part in this pattern, however reluctantly. Government restraints force them to cut back, and when they do, women lose their jobs. A paper submitted to Councillors last month explains how successfully the Council's financial plan is being implemented, and says "Information recorded for staff leaving the council during the third quarter through compulsory redundancy shows 93% were female..." In addition, of those taking voluntary redundancy or early retirement, 60% were female ("which is more in keeping with the overall workforce profile") - and 8% had disclosed a disability. But there's no need to worry: "Equality impact assessments (EIA) form a key part of the ongoing MTFP process."
So when Cllr Dixon tweets " I have spent 6 months listening to the strident voices of the comfortable middle classes of Dhm City...", he is probably just expressing weariness with the democratic consultations of the Examination in Public of the County Durham Plan. None of us need take it personally. The word 'strident' refers to a sound which is loud, harsh or grating - not the 'dulcet tones' with which the middle classes are traditionally reproached. There is nothing in the dictionary definition to say that the voice described is female. Dictionary.com offers two illustrative examples, only one of which is the phrase "strident feminism". I ran a Google search on the most strident male speaker I could think of, Arthur Scargill, plus the word 'strident', and found 186,000 results. Substitute the name Margaret Thatcher, and that rises to 751.000. She, famously, had voice coaching to make her less strident and more electable, but I can't say that I liked her any better after it.