Thursday, 24 July 2014

Housing crisis? The public gets what the public wants...

Last week I watched a councillor object at a public inquiry to an eminently sensible proposal for a sustainable extension to a town widely acknowledged to be a focus for future growth. The following day the same councillor retweeted a post from The Economist highlighting that concern over housing is at its highest level since May 2008 at 15% (the Economist's article is here).

That retweet may have been out of interest and not endorsement, but it serves to illustrate the fundamental reason why there is a housing crisis in this country. That reason is summarised by Ipsos Mori in it's submission to the Lyons Review:

Our surveys point to a local ‘enough already’ sentiment, and the national sense of crisis is felt much less keenly by people locally. In fact, more disagree than agree that there is a local crisis (49% vs 45%) and 36% of those who think there is insufficient local affordable housing disagree that new homes need to be built.

Planning is collaborative endeavour undertaken by three principal parties. the planners, the public, and the public's representatives. The planners' influence on the process is regulated by the fact that planning applications have to be considered, and local plans have to be prepared, in accordance with relevant national policy. It is the public's representative, the councillors, that ultimately determine whether a planning application can be approved or whether a draft local plan should be submitted for examination.

In response to the growing housing crisis commentators have proposed ideas ranging from the weird and wonderful to the pragmatic and practical for both the planning system and the wider land and development system within which it operates. No amount of reform, however, would prevent a planning committee member grandstanding in front of an audience when refusing an application, or a council leader kicking a local plan into the long grass so that an objective assessment of housing need is not published before a local election.

As Ipsos Mori note, as long as councillors think that public opposition is the biggest barrier to increasing housing supply (and they do), there is a risk that they follow what they think opinion is, and don’t lead it to where they think it ought to be in the best interests of the whole community.

There are though indications that public opinion may be changing. DCLG has published findings on public attitudes to house building based upon the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey. This suggests that opposition to new homes fell substantially between 2010 and 2013, with 46% of respondents saying they would oppose new homes being built in their local area in 2010, compared to 31% in 2013. The proportion that was supportive increased from 28% in 2010 to 47% in 2013, but that 47% is still below the 73% who agree that 'there is a shortage of homes that are affordable in my area'.

Concern over housing might be at it's highest since May 2008 at 15%, but it will need to be a lot higher before planning applications are approved without the need for public inquires and local plans are adopted without the need for arguments about housing need.

As Paul Weller said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AE1ct5yEuVY

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

More drama in the build-up to Cheshire East's Pre-Examination Meeting

Another day, another appeal decision in Cheshire East. This Dunnocksfold Road, Alsager decision is though notable because the inspector offers a definitive view on the housing land supply position rather than just, as previous inspectors have done, concluding that the Council cannot demonstrate one.

"In applying the identified annual housing target from the CS + the backlog figure + the 5% buffer (2029 units) the resultant years supply would be 3.62 years. Even using the Council’s own assessed supply figure of 9897 it would only provide 4.8 years of land with a 5% buffer."

Also of note is a mild rebuke for the Council for using the RSS annual requirement of 1,150 homes per annum for the purposes of five year supply calculations, whilst at the same promoting an annual requirement of 1,350 per annum in the emerging local plan.

"On the evidence before me I conclude that for the Council to put aside their promoted CS housing target based on recent evidence within their SHMA and SHLAA in favour of a historic housing target from a revoked plan is a flawed approach."

Of most interest though in light of the Pre-Examination Meeting next week is the Inspector's comments at paragraph 63 on housing supply.

"All of the above factors under the heading supply give me little confidence that the overall assessment of land available to meet a five year housing land supply is robust and can be relied upon. The Council’s optimism that the sites upon which they rely as presenting development opportunities with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the sites within five years is at best questionable and at worst unfounded. The appellants have applied a reality check to the Council’s evidence and I find that to be more credible in this regard."

If sites identified in the local plan as coming forward in the short term only begin to come forward in the medium term then the ability to deliver the overall housing requirement within the plan period will legitimately be called into question.

The Pre-Examination Meeting is likely to be a lively affair...

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

RMS Cheshire East Local Plan finally hits the iceberg

I have not seen Titanic all of the way through. I recall watching until the ship left harbour, but then forwarded it until the iceberg appeared on the horizon. Hopefully that reveals simply an inability to sit through Kate Winslet films rather than a latent sadistic streak (let's leave that for now...), but it did come to mind this morning as I contemplated the news this week that the Inspector examining the Cheshire East Local Plan has requested a not inconsiderable amount of further information from the Council prior to this month's pre-Examination meeting.

The Local Plan, and the separate but integral question of the five year housing land supply, has twisted and turned over the past eighteen months or so, during which time two diametrically opposite views on its soundness have emerged. On one side, the development community has expressed serious doubts about the soundness of the plan (see the letter from Gladman dated 4 June 2014 here). On the other side, the Leader of Cheshire East Council, Michael Jones, has said that the Local Plan is "one of the best in the country".

Ultimately though only one view matters and that is the view of Mr S Pratt, the Inspector appointed to examine the plan, and those who have been following the perfect storm that has been brewing during the Local Plan process have known that, like the iceberg in the Titanic (to mix metaphors), the Inspector's view was coming and, also like the iceberg in the Titanic, that it's arrival would probably be compelling viewing.

So now that the iceberg has finally arrived has it fatally holed the RMS Local Plan below the waterline?

A recap. For a Local Plan to be found sound the NPPF requires it to be:
  • Positively prepared – the plan should be prepared based on a strategy which seeks to meet objectively assessed development and infrastructure requirements, including unmet requirements from neighbouring authorities where it is reasonable to do so and consistent with achieving sustainable development;
  • Justified – the plan should be the most appropriate strategy, when considered against the reasonable alternatives, based on proportionate evidence;
  • Effective – the plan should be deliverable over its period and based on effective joint working on cross-boundary strategic priorities; and
  • Consistent with national policy – the plan should enable the delivery of sustainable development in accordance with the policies in the Framework.
The additional information requested by Mr Pratt relates to:
  • How much of the 353ha. of employment land will be allocated for each business use/economic sector and how it will create 20,000 new jobs;
  • The basis on which the objective assessment of housing need was established;
  • How the plan addresses previous shortfalls in housing provision;
  • Why the housing requirement will support 13,900 new jobs, not 20,000, and will not meet identified affordable needs;
  • The justification for the proposed settlement hierarchy and the amount of development being directed to each;
  • Why certain sites are proposed for release from the Green Belt;
  • The definition of 'strategic' sites and locations, and the justification for selecting preferred sites and discounting non-preferred sites; and
  • The plan's accordance with recent Planning Practice Guidance.
There are some pretty fundamental issues here that, one suspects, will require at the very least some further work to justify the Council's position. I wrote a little while ago that "there has to be a more than distinct possibility that the examination inspector will recommend that the Local Plan will be, at best, delayed and, at worst, withdrawn." Certainly if the Council cannot clarify these matters to the Inspector's satisfaction at the pre-Examination meeting it is difficultly to see how the Local Plan can be positively prepared, justified, effective and consistent with national policy, and, as consequence, how it can proceed to examination in it's current form.

The Local Plan might not then be holed below the waterline, but it appears to be listing badly...

Localism In The Lyons Den

On the same day as an opposition debate in Parliament on housing supply, the Guardian has pre-empted Sir Michael Lyons' review of housebuilding, commissioned by the Labour Party as part of a policy review, by reporting his comments to a Local Government Association conference.

Lyons is reported as saying that the two main issues holding back the construction of more homes is the wholly inadequate supply of developable land and the small range of those able to build houses. On the latter point,  Lyons' comments about the need for new freedoms to get local government back delivering homes are consistent with earlier messages about lifting or removing borrowing caps, but if the final draft of his report does include his reported comments on the supply of deliverable land then the Labour Party might have a pre-election decision to make. 

Consider, for example, how these quotes from Michael Lyons...
  • "The direction of my work is if anything we will turn the screw on the process to make absolutely clear that every community has to do its best."
  • "We have to ask ourselves whether the planning system is used too often as a sword to attack any development rather than a shield against inappropriate developments."
  • "We should no longer tolerate the situation where we leave the job of finding land to the housebuilders, but then place obstacles in their way as they try to develop it."

..., contrast with these from Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities Secretary...
  • "Local communities should decide where they want new homes and developments to go and then give their consent in the form of planning permission.
  •  "Communities should be able to determine their own future and decide what their area should look like in five, 10, or 20 years' time.
As Patrick Wintour in the Guardian notes, and as any seasoned campaigner in the planning arena would endorse, the Planning Inspectorate has to have a role in ensuring houses get built, either by scrutinising objectively assessed need or determining appeals. The problem that the Labour Party is likely to have if it is to adopt the likely conclusions of the Lyons Review is that 'More power to the Planning Inspectorate' is not an immediately appealing manifesto commitment...