Friday, 11 December 2015

Green Belt Reform. Some Perspective.

If you were to believe the Telegraph this week, 'thousands of new homes are set to be built on the Green Belt in the biggest relaxation to planning protections for 30 years'.

If you were to believe the Telegraph of course...

However, the proposed amendments to the NPPF have certainly brought the Green Belt back to the media's attention, which is why some perspective is required.

This is not the biggest relaxation of planning protections for 30 years. Given the frequency with which the Government likes to tinker with the planning system it's probably not the biggest relaxation of planning protections for 30 days.

In relation to brownfield land, the NPPF, if amended to reflect the current consultation, will support the regeneration of previously developed brownfield sites in the Green Belt by allowing them to be developed in the same way as other brownfield land, providing this contributes to the delivery of starter homes, and subject to local consultation.

The current policy test in paragraph 89 of the NPPF prevents development of brownfield land in the Green Belt where there is any additional impact on the openness of the Green Belt. This, very loosely, might mean that if a former factory, for example, had 50,000m2 of buildings then it might be possible to argue that 50,000m2 of new homes would have no additional impact on the Green Belt. The proposed policy test would be that redevelopment may not be considered inappropriate development where any harm to openness is "not substantial", which might provide a basis for more than 50,000m2 of new homes in the example above. Given though that, as the consultation document itself states, only 0.1% of land in the Green Belt is previously developed brownfield land, this is hardly a fundamental change.

In relation to greenfield land, the NPPF, if amended to reflect the current consultation, will support the allocation in neighbourhood plans of starter homes on 'small-scale' sites in the Green Belt.

So, first of all sites are 'small-scale', and second all the development of it would need to be supported by a neighbourhood plan. Though the Government span this year that neighbourhood plans were boosting the supply of housing by 10% (presumably on the basis that something in a few neighbourhood plans is better than nothing in many absent local plans), research from Turley last year found that more neighbourhood plans than not sought primarily to resist development. Moreover, the majority of neighbourhood plans at that time were coming forward in Conservative-controlled authorities, in rural areas, in the south. In other words, prime Green Belt territory.

The significance of this proposed policy reform is not, therefore, in it's likely outcome, which even if it did result in thousands of new homes will not make a major contribution to the additional tens of thousands required to take output over the 200,000 barrier. The paragraph 89 amendment is consistent with an attitudinal shift towards brownfield sites in the Green Belt that has gone from 'major development sites only' in the old PPG2, to 'neutral impact' in the 2012 NPPF, to 'please just build on brownfield sites' in the next NPPF (some paraphrasing there...). Giving a Parish Council the ability to allocate Green Belt land for housing is a bit like giving Jeremy Corbyn the nuclear button. It is potentially powerful, but the chances are that it will not be used. 

No, the significance of this policy reform is more likely to be the fact that the need for housing on greenfield sites, albeit small scale and locally-led, will be held to be of greater importance than a Green Belt designation. Maybe, just maybe, it is a step towards the Government accepting that the absence of a five year housing supply, or the need to accommodate full, objectively assessed housing needs, is of greater importance than a Green Belt designation. Such a move might legitimately be said to represent the biggest relaxation to planning protections for 30 years, but the current consultation really is not.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Eric Pickles & The Prisoners' Dilemma

Thanks to this piece by Ed Smith, the former cricketer turned writer and TMS commentator, I have been introduced to the concept of 'The Prisoner' Dilemma'.

"Imagine how good cricket could be if we cured the easy fixes", writes Ed Smith, contemplating the factors that led to England's run chase in recent first Test against Pakistan being cut short.

Those factors all arise from a seemingly rational pursuit of self-interest, but, as Albert Tucker, the Princeton mathematician and game theorist, showed in his "Prisoners' Dilemma" theory, when two agents pursue narrow self-interest it can work against the long-term benefit of both. In cricket's case this is the long term future of the Test Match as a spectacle.

"That's interesting, Sam" I can hear you thinking, "but where are you going with this?"

Well, might it be said that planning in the Eric Pickles-inspired, post-RSS world has suffered from its own version of the Prisoner's Dilemma? For individual teams playing on pitches that may suit their own team or captains slowing down games to avoid defeat, read individual LPAs preparing local plans to suit their own housing needs without any regard to the ability of a neighbouring LPA to meet theirs.

As Ed Smith notes, "the only way to avoid this is to take the decisions out of the hands of the individual agents",which is all well and good, in theory, for a sport with a governing body, but what or who in the current planning system is persuading LPAs to cooperate 'for the good of the game'? The answer to that is probably the local plan inspector, who only enters the fray late in the day.

As in cricket administration, there must be a collective agreement within the planning system that serves the whole game, which is why it is heartening for planners to see some (not all) Combined Authorities seek strategic planning powers as part of their devolution submissions. At least some local authority leaders see that greater-than-local interests are also the best protector of their own individual local interests as well.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Early reviews: planning pragmatism or cyncial can-kicking?

There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which, having been inspired by a Spinal Tap gig, Homer and Marge buy Bart an electric guitar. A little while later, spotting that his initial enthusiasm has waned, Homer asks Bart why he doesn’t play it anymore…
“I'll tell you the truth”, says Bart. “I wasn't good at it so I quit. I hope you're not mad.”
“Son, come here”, says Homer laughing. “Of course I'm not mad. If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing.
There is a reason, Reader, for shoehorning a Simpsons reference into the start of this piece, and that is because this exchange often comes to mind upon hearing news of local plan delay. Why is it that according to NLP, in March this year, more than ten years since the 2004 Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act, 46% of councils had no local plan in place or had adopted one before the NPPF was introduced in 2012? The short answer is that local plans are hard. They are hard technically (the empirical tests of soundness), but more importantly they are hard politically.
Imagine the scene. The newly-appointed leader of a shire authority calls the Head of Planning into their office.
“Right then. We need a local plan in place. What can we do about it?”
“Well, Councillor, as I said to your predecessor, we know that we need to release Green Belt and we know where Green Belt release needs to take place. We can finish the draft plan now, consult on it over the summer, submit it in the autumn, and have it examined next spring.”
“Ok. We could have next year’s local election campaigns dominated by ‘Save Our Green Belt” campaigns, or...?”
“Well. Big City Council is having it’s plan examined in the autumn and we might have to accommodate some of it’s need as well. Plus the household projections will be out in the winter and the recessionary trends may bring our requirement down, so to submit a plan that completely up-to-date we could wait for that and update open space and retail studies in meantime.”
“Splendid. Let’s do that…”
How then to break this cycle of prevarication in the post-RSS world. It is difficult to recall the previous Government deploying any carrots to incentivise LPAs to get plans in place, but the NPPF’s presumption in favour of sustainable development, to apply when development plans were absent or out-of-date, was meant (after the transitional period) as a pretty big stick. NLP described local plan progress since the NPPF as “marginal” so the new Government has unveiled an even bigger stick, which is the prospect of the Government stepping in to get plans in place (“in consultation with local people”) if authorities have not done so by ‘early 2017’. This commitment was made in the Fixing The Foundations document produced by the Treasury in July 2015.
So what will happen when the immovable object of a recalcitrant LPA meets the deadline imposed by the irresistible force of a new Government in ‘jobs and growth’ mode?
The early review.
The compromise, says the pragmatist. The fudge, says the cynic.
According to the Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service (PAS), since the NPPF was introduced around a third of the plans that have been found sound have included the early review and it is clear that this is the direction that authorities will be encouraged to take in order to avoid the Government stepping in.
Greg Clark’s letter to the Planning Inspectorate’s chief executive on 21 July 2015 highlighted the “real value in getting a local plan in place at the soonest opportunity, even if it has some shortcomings which are not critical to the whole plan."
This was followed a day later by Brandon Lewis’ ministerial statement emphasising PPG’s reference to early review as an "appropriate way of ensuring that a local plan is not unnecessarily delayed by seeking to resolve matters which are not critical to the plan’s soundness or legal competence as a whole”.
How are shortcomings going to be defined as non-critical, and what are non-critical matters doing in the plan in the first place? Even if something could be descriebd as non-critical,  how is an early review reconciled with the NPPF requirement for LPAs to positively seek opportunities to meet the development needs of their area and to take account of longer term requirements, "preferably a 15-year time horizon"? The pragmatist would say that any plan is better than no plan, and it is hard to argue with that, but where is the benefit to anyone, least of all the general public, in having to revisit the big decisions every few years? The NPPF states in relation to Green Belt, for example, that when it is being defined LPAs should satisfy themselves that boundaries will not need to be altered at the end of the development plan period. “We’ve saved our Green Belt!” states the headlines in the local paper. Well, actually…
For the Inspector presented with an early review as the pragmatic solution to cross-boundary issues and local plan timetables that just haven’t aligned, it might very well be justified. The solution to this problem is a return to sub-regional planning, but there is nothing to suggest a statutory return to that any time soon.
For the Inspector though that is presented with an early review as an opportunity to delay the big decision, the early review really should not be justified.
“We accept, Inspector, that the OAN has been shown to be low, but we be propose to review matters after a Green Belt to be undertaken with our neighbours…”
“We accept, Inspector, that our delivery rates might be high, and that our strategic sites may not deliver in their entirety within the plan period, but we would propose to review matters when the five year supply position dips below five years…”
The height of the soundness bar is different for every plan, but it will be possible to distinguish the former justification from the latter. PAS guidance on early reviews highlights that they are “not a panacea for addressing the difficult issues”, but as 2017 approaches one can imagine that the pressure on PINS to accept a broader definition of ‘non-critical’ than might currently be the case will increase.
This might be politically expedient, but if one accepts that one of the reasons for forward planning is the identification and solving of future problems then early reviews do not represent good planning.
So either local planning is made easier, both technically (and Brandon Lewis has formed an 8 strong panel of experts to examine how the production of plans can be simplified), or politically (by de-politicising the big decisions through a return to regional planning), or recalcitrant leaders of recalcitrant authorities can be convinced, like learning the guitar, that the harder something is to do, the more it’s worth doing.
Hmm.
Long live the fudge…

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Green Belt is not the countryside

Did you make your childhood memories in the Green Belt?




The CPRE would like to know and it's "Our Green Belt" campaign has been launched 'to show the Government how important it is us'. According to the CPRE:

It’s where we relax. It’s where we watch wildlife. It’s where we take part in our hobbies. It’s where we eat and drink. It’s where we feel inspired. It’s where we make memories.

Powerful, evocative stuff.

According to a poll from Ipsos Mori though, which was commissioned by the CPRE itself, only 23% of people claim to know a 'fair amount' amount the Green Belt. A quarter of people in England have never even heard of the Green Belt and that figure is 62% for 15-24 year olds.

Even those who claim to know a 'fair amount' about the Green Belt will probably not be aware that it's five purposes as set out in the NPPF make no provision at all for public access of any kind,  so it is not actually for relaxing and watching wildlife, but let's put that pretty important point to one side and consider whether those that are aware of it really do associate it with wildlife, hobbies, inspiration and memories. 

Natural England monitor engagement with the natural environment and it records three general types of place (countryside, town and city, and coast), and within them the following specific types of place:
  • Park in a town or city
  • Path, cycleway, bridleway
  • Woodland/forest
  • River, lake, canal
  • Playing field or other recreation area
  • Another open space in town or city
  • Another open space in the countryside
  • Farmland 
  • Country park
  • Beach
  • Village
  • Children’s playground
  • Other coastline
  • Mountain, hill, moorland
  • Allotment/community garden
"Come on, Kids. It's Sunday afternoon and the sun is shining. Let's go out to the Green Belt", said no parent ever.

Now of course some woodlands, canals, country parks, etc are with the Green Belt, but proportionately speaking, those that are cannot make as much of a contribution to our collective experience than the woodlands, canals, country parks, etc that are not because there is significantly more green space other than the Green Belt (in England) than there is Green Belt (which accounts for 13% of land). Further, 33% of England's Green Belt is, as the Adam Smith Institute point out, intensively farmed. A good proportion of the remainder, it can be contended, is put to equine and golfing uses. The Green Belt is not the countryside.



Sunny, Sunday afternoons in our house meant the adventure playground at Belton House near Grantham, which a National Trust property and it is not unreasonable to think that most people's childhood memories include a trip in the car to the coast, to a National Park or to a local nature reserve. As the CPRE suggest in another advert, horsey types (and golfers) might be practising their hobbies in our Green Belt, but inhabitants of Green Belt encircled towns and cities might in greater numbers be crossing the Green Belt to get to the countryside and making in reverse on the weekend the journeys that commuters are doing during the week.

The CPRE is a campaigning organisation that needs to be campaigning about something. It is seeking donations 'to stop our Green Belt disappearing'. The Adam Smith Institute promotes libertarian and free-market ideas and advocates the abolition of the Green Belt. Is the Green Belt black? No. Is it white? It is fifty shades of grey and it's future lies somewhere between these points and a wholesale review that ends up releasing land accessible by public transport and which serves the five NPPF purposes the least, in exchange for publicly-accessible land of landscape and amenity value upon people might actually be allowed to relax, make memories, and so on.

Getting to that point though will take so much longer for as long as opinion-formers remain so polarising.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Devolution & The Birmingham Shortfall

Birmingham is booming and should set a target to be the UK's fastest growing major city, the council leader Albert Bore has said.

And why not. Midland New Street Station, the Metro Extension, Grand Central Shopping Centre and the new Mailbox work are all set for completion in 2015; there is more than one million square feet of city centre offices in the pipeline; and the Greater Birmingham and Solihill (GBSLEP) area is attracting more foreign direct investment than another local enterprise partnership zone in the country.

So all is rosy in the Birmingham garden? Well not quite. There is quite a large elephant in the corner and that is that Birmingham City Council cannot accommodate the homes that it needs. The submitted Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) identified a need for 84,000 homes to 2031, but is acknowledged and accepted that that figure will be higher by the time the plan's examination has run it's course. Birmingham City Council only has though capacity to accommodate just over 50,000 homes, which, for a city with an aspiration to be the UK's fast growing, is a problem. How though to solve it?

The current planning mechanism is the 'duty to cooperate' (DtC), the legal test of which is to ‘maximise the effectiveness’ of plan preparation'. The BDP has passed this test, but has yet to convince the inspector examining it that the outcome of it's co-operation will be effective. Herein lies the fundamental problem with the DtC because though the inspector would not be justified in recommending the adoption of the BDP without being satisfied that housing needs are “capable of being met” it cannot specify how much land should be allocated in neighbouring LPAs, nor can it await other plans being adopted.

The BDP will ultimately establish the scale of housing need as the first step towards achieving an effective mechanism between LPAs in the housing market area, but ultimately that mechanism will not be able to go much further than a commitment on behalf of neighbouring LPAs to either review already adopted plans or have regard to the Birmingham shortfall and the ongoing DtC in the preparation of new plans, plus of course a commitment by Birmingham City Council itself to review the BDP if the expected rate of progress is not being achieved.

The clear and present danger here is though that LPAs already find it hard enough to get local plans adopted that accommodate their own objective assessment of housing need, but, as the BDP Inspector himself puts it “I see no other way of proceeding that would achieve a faster result”.

Well, maybe there is.

Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. Now imagine that rather than dealing with the Birmingham shortfall on an incremental, local plan by local basis, each informed by the GBSLEP Strategic Housing Needs Study and Spatial Plan, the GBSLEP Strategic Housing Needs Study and Spatial Plan actually became a statutory development plan for the Greater Birmingham / West Midlands (let us not get bogged down in the name...) Combined Authority.

You may say that I'm a dreamer, but the prospect of a Combined Authority led by an elected mayor is now gathering real momentum and Mike Emmerich, former chief executive of the Manchester thinktank New Economy, has been appointed to work on a prospectus for the combined authority. Mr Emmerich is credited with brokering the 'Devo-Manc' deal, which included the nascent Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.

It is apparent, post-general election, that there will not be any fundamental changes to the planning system, which means that cross-boundary planning issues in places like Birmingham, Liverpool and Oxford will be left to individual planning inspectors examining individual local plans. The fast-evolving devolution agenda may, therefore, provide the leverage for cities to grasp these cross-border challenges and Greater Birmingham (or whatever it is called), it seems, is next in line after Greater Manchester to do so. The sooner it does the more likely it is that it will become the UK's fastest growing major city.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Campaign To Purchase Rural England

If you really cared about something that was under threat how would you go about protecting it? A practical option could be ownership or at least part-ownership, like the campaigners trying to save Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester, or the Pompey Supporters Trust, which took control of Portsmouth Community Football Club. A political option could be a campaign, like the Labour's twenty year fight to save the NHS...

This came to mind at a RTPI-sponsored Green Belt debate at Oxford Brookes University, where the Campaign to Protect Rural England's (CPRE) Head of Planning, Matt Thomson, began his remarks by stating that the CPRE "like to think that we own the Green Belt."

The CPRE do not, obviously, own the Green Belt, and instead 'stand up for it' on it's member's behalf, but what if it did? What if, in order to provide a 'beautiful and thriving countryside for everyone' the CPRE started to acquire beautiful land for the benefit of not just it's member's but for everyone. According to Wikipedia, the CPRE has 60,000 'members and supporters'. If all of those people paid the suggested subscription of £3 a month then the CPRE would have an annual income from subscriptions of over a £2 million. Investing half of that in farmland, at, say, £15,000 an acre, could represent 66 acres per year. Not a great deal, but over time it could be, and if the public are so keen to maintain the unique character of the English landscape, and to support sustainable farming and locally produced food (and 4.2 million National Trust members suggest that we are), perhaps people would actually spend more than £3 a month to do so. There might even be membership dividends from all of the farmshops, ice cream parlours and car parks...

A CPRE with a budget to identify, protect and improve access to special landscapes would, perhaps, make a greater contribution to the rural environment than a CPRE with a single 'Save Our Countryside' mandate. In this blog Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of the CPRE, recognises that "we need more houses, and some of them will inevitably go on greenfield sites. But we need to build with care." There is nothing more careful than a local plan process so let us imagine that through that process the sites most representative of the unique character of the English landscape were identified and allocated as such. With no development value at all they could be acquired at little more than market value. In the meantime, sites that are not representative of the unique character of the English landscape can be allocated for development.
 
So I would like to propose to the CPRE that it does buy some Green Belt. In fact, I think that I would join the Campaign To Purchase Rural England. More local plans would get adopted, more homes would get built, and there would be more chance of a 'beautiful and thriving countryside for everyone'.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Taking the local out of local plans

Who remembers 'Open Source Planning'? A Conservative Party pre-election Green Party that lamented a 'broken' planning system, rejected any 'piecemeal' reform, and attempted a 'radical reboot' of the Labour government's 'centralising, corporatist attitiude'.

 "The creation of an Open Source planning system means that local people in each neighbourhood – a term we use to include villages, towns, estates, wards or other relevant local areas – will be able to specify what kind of development and use of land they want to see in their area. This will lead to a fundamental and long overdue rebalancing of power, away from the centre and back into the hands of local people. Whole layers of bureaucracy, delay and centralised micro-management will disappear as planning shifts away from being an issue principally for “insiders” to one where communities take the lead in shaping their own surroundings."

Doesn't that sound nice...

Can you believe, good readers, that Open Source Planning is over five years old (where does the time go, etc...) and the reason it came to mind was because the influential Conservative-supporting website Conservative Home (ConHome) has published it's own manifesto for housing.

Helpfully for those who would not wish to see 'environmental protections, economic stability and local democracy crushed beneath a development juggernaut', ConHome 'rejects the notion that the only solution to the housing crisis is a planning free-for-all'. Rather, it proposes, 'a pro-active planning system based on detailed local plans and community plans drawn up with the full participation of local residents...' So far so good... 'and subject to their final approval through a local referendum...' Oh.

It is almost as if the last five years have not happened. Has nobody spotted what happens when communities are put 'in control' of development? Research from Turley in 2014 concluded that over half (55%) of all neighbourhood plans seek primarily to resist new development, with that number increasing to 63 per cent in rural areas. Has nobody spotted what happens when councils are put in control of housing targets? Research from Nathanial Lichfield & Partners ('Signal Failure', March 2015) has concluded that of 62 local plans found sound following the introduction of the NPPF in March 2012, a third require an early review to assess issues of housing needs and supply. Of the 43 plans currently being considered, 14 have been put on hold, requiring modifications relating to housing numbers.

Given that local plan coverage remains so poor it is unsurprising that ConHome see the planning process as 'back-to-front'. 'It starts off with developers deciding what to build, and then councils and local residents deciding what they want to object to'. This is not, of course, how a plan-led system should operate, but not only does ConHome want to treat the symptom (not having local plans) and not the cause (having local plans), it does so based upon an inaccurate diagnosis. Instead of acknowledging the role of 'top-down targets' in creating 'a building boom of sorts from 2001 to 2007', they (the Regional Spatial Strategies) are dismissed for 'forcing development through the system' and setting off a 'feeding frenzy that pumped cheap credit into property investments'.

It would be a great surprise if the Conservative manifesto on housing and planning deviated from the ConHome school of thought, which believes that localism is the key to getting more homes built. At some point though it will need to be recognised that this will not result in universal local plan coverage and, consequently, a supply of land sufficient to accommodate the need for new homes. Putting local plans and communities in control of specific sites, the design of development, and the spending of planning gain, which ConHome does advovate, is and can only be a good thing, but as far as how much development and where is concerned, we need a planning process that starts with what a community needs and not what it wants, and that means taking decisions at a higher than local level. Something like, a Regional Spatial Strategy, for example, or even a Structure Plan...

As I have written here previously, brave policy solutions are good, but a politician brave enough to swim against the tide of localism in planning would be better.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Green Belt. Sacred Cow.

Let's play a little word association game. A bit like Mallet's Mallet (for the readers who need to realise that knowing what this is makes you almost old...). Sam's Stick. Stafford's Staff. Anyway. You get the idea. I write a word, or words, you read it, and then lodge the first word, or words, that come in to your mind. Ok. Here we go.

The Premier League...
 
..., ok...
 
What did you think? Over-paid and over-hyped? Unmissable? Too many foreigners? Great brand?
 
There is, of course, no right answer. Football is a game. A sport. It means lots of different things to lots of different people.

Another one.

The Turner Prize...

..., ok...

What did you think? Cutting edge? Experimentation? Boundary-pushing? Indulgent nonsense?
 
There is, of course, no right answer. Art is a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, usually involving imaginative or technical skill (at least according to Wikipedia). It too means lots of different things to lots of different people.
 
One last one...
 
Green Belt.

..., ok...

What did you think? Cricket matches taking place on a village green in front of a thatched cottage? A ruddy-cheeked farmer stacking hay bales in the sweet-scented aroma of a newly-mown meadow? Sunday morning rambles with children through an ancient woodland, stopping for a game of poohsticks before lunching in a listed coaching inn turned michelin-starred Gastro-pub? These are, of course, all wrong answers.
 
If you got one or all of the following (all would be impressive...) you would be right:
  • checking the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; 
  • assisting in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; 
  • preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and 
  • assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
The Green Belt is a policy designation that serves these purposes. It is one of the environmental and policy considerations to be taken into account by a Local Planning Authority when considering whether full, objectively assessed housing need can be met by a local plan. These should be pretty dry, binary, back and white discussions, but because the Green Belt is increasingly being both used and understood almost interchangeably with the word 'countryside', and a romanticised view of a particularly English countryside at that, these dry, binary, back and white discussions are becoming less and less frequent within the local plan process. The words Green Belt are becoming laden with the emotive senses of both a golden past and foreboding future, and the politics of the Green Belt is having a greater and greater influence on the planning system and it's ability to deliver new sites for new homes.

The NPPF states that "the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence". There is no reference to ecological, landscape or leisure value there at all. Just openness and permanence (permanence in the twenty year sense not the two year sense). The Green Belt relates to settlements because it protects them from merging; protects their setting (if they are historic), and promotes their renewal (if they contain derelict land). The Green Belt also relates to the 'countryside', in so far as protecting it from encroachment is concerned. It could be argued, therefore, that the Green Belt is designed to protect land on either side of it rather than the land covered by it (Barney Stringer of Quod Planning has analysed the role and function of London's Green Belt, which makes for interesting reading). It is a very local designation, with it's width in any given location related to specific circumstances. It's use, application and meaning though, have taken on a wider national significance.

There is a parallel here with another of our national institutions: the NHS. Both were conceived in that golden post-war period when Britainnia still ruled the waves, when you could go to the village shop and leave your front door open, and when people cared more for each other than for themselves. The NHS is now so embedded within the national consciousness that the very thought of managing principles other than those adopted by Aneurin Bevan are treated as almost treasonous in some quarters. The public's attitude towards the Green Belt appears to be heading in a similar direction.

"Hang on, Sam." I hear you cry. "You work for a major home builder, of course you want to concrete over the Green Belt." Thank you for giving me that much credit. Like most town planners I subscribe to the Centre For Cities' three-pronged approach to the housing crisis, which can be summarised as greater urban densities through taller buildings and estate-renewal; the return of regional / sub-regional planning to address cross-boundary issues; and appropriate Green Belt release where needs justify it (new, or greatly expanded, settlements will also have to play a role).

The politicisation of Green Belt policy is making the prospect of sensible discussions about it harder and harder to achieve, which will mean that, as a direct result, building enough homes will become equally harder and harder to achieve. When I hear the words Green Belt two words instinctively lodge in my mind... Sacred cow...

Monday, 16 February 2015

OAN - The Numbers Game

This piece by Simon Coop at NLP very nicely anticipates the publication next week of the 2012-based sub-national household projections (SNHP), which, as Simon states, are expected to demonstrate a lower level of future household change when compared to previous projections.
 
Given that the SNHP will project forward the demographic and household formation trends that were experienced between 2007 and 2012, this lower level of change should not surprise anybody, and Simon's piece makes the point that they should not be taken at face value.
 
In planning terms, the SNHP do not provide a definitive position in relation to future housing need, and the national PPG requires DCLG household projections to provide only the starting point for the assessment of housing need.
 
This is election season though and, whilst Simon makes the point that a lower level of change in the SNHP might 'threaten the abilities' of pro-development politicians to make good on a commitment to increase the supply of housing, I would be more concerned about anti-development politicians making the SNHP both the starting point and the finishing point for the assessment of housing need. 
 
Increasing the supply of housing is an easier thing for an MP on a national platform to commit to than a councillor on a local platform. Given that it is at the local level now where objective assessments of need are defined it is here where the numbers game is played out and I would wage that there will be more politicians pleased for an opportunity to keep a local plan in the long grass than there are politicians worried about their committment to increase supply.
 
In fact, the reaction to the SNHP will be a good test of the reality that lies behind political rhetoric. If you hear a politician, of any colour and at any level, acknowledge that that SNHP should not be taken at face value and are, in any event, just a starting point, then you will know that they a) understand the planning process and b) are comfortable with the idea of new homes being built in their area. If you hear a politician say that the SNHP mean that the LPA in their local area should take the opportunity to revise housebuilding targets downwards then you will know what they really think...

Friday, 6 February 2015

Speeding up the planning process

Would you like to guess how long it takes to get planning permission for a 50 home development? Have in mind that the target for major applications is 8 weeks, which increases to 13 weeks for EIA development.
 
Research undertaken in 2013 concluded that across the Barratt Group it took an average of 22 weeks to get an application approved by a Committee, with a further 20 weeks required for S106 Agreement negotiations and the satisfaction of pre-commencement conditions.
 
I could write a very extensive piece about the influences upon the submission and determination of an application, and would probably end up concluding that any procedural efficiencies would be offset by the diminishing number of experienced, talented planners to implement them, but will settle today for a couple of ideas that I might submit to the inevitable review that the next Government will undertake 'on speeding up the planning process'.
 
Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) are often touted as the solution to this problem, and they are a sound enough concept, but in my experience the agreement is solely with the planning department and are not an incentive themselves to other council departments, let alone external consultees, who the Development Control manager has little control over. More often than not it is the other council departments and external consultees that can hold up the application process. A PPA needs, therefore, to incentivise and obligate everybody involved in the process.

If those other departments and agencies cannot be incentivised then how about getting applicants to gather all pre-app consultation themselves and, provided the scheme in question has not changed, making that pre-app consultation time-limited (say six months) so that it can be used by the planning department to determine the application without the need to formally reconsult again. If the consultee, who would still be notified, wants to change their mind they can, but the onus would be on them to change their initial view rather than to provide one.

Sensible, practical and so probably unattainable.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The public can see how to get homes built. It's the politicians that can't.

A recent blog post by Alex Marsh highlights a theme familiar to regular readers of this blog, which is that the political classes are lagging and not leading on housing.
 
"The problem here is typically diagnosed as being that politicians feel constrained to offer relatively modest policy solutions and tinkering round the edges because they fear voters will reject anything more radical."
 
Those in the, ahem, (green) field will agree that that is absolutely right. Alex highlights though the publication of data by Shelter this week that indicates that opposition to development has softened, and suggests that any politician brave enough to break away from "the conspiracy of minimal policy ambition" might be pushing at a 'partially open, rather than a locked and bolted, door'.
 
The issue, I would contend, is not necessarily one of policy ambition. Whilst true to say that no party is offering more than modest solutions, a consensues has emerged about the need for boost housebuilding. Although Brandon Lewis confirmed recently that a Conservative Government would not reintroduce targets, Labour's Lyons Review commits to 200,000 new homes a year and the Lib Dems are commited to 300,000. No, the reason for the lagging and not the leadership has more to do with a conspiracy about the level of Government at which decisions about new housing are taken. Our old friend 'Localism'.
 
Labour's Lyons Review, for example, identifies one of the reasons that we don't build enough homes as being "the fact that communities do not have all the powers they need to ensure that homes are built in the places they want". Let us remember the Turley research of March 2014 that looked at what happends when communities do have powers over the homes that are built. Turley found that of 75 published neighbourhood plans, 55% were designed solely to resist development, rising to 63% in rural areas. Lyons does not, and perhaps should have, highlighted what happened to housing targets when the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) were revoked as a reason that we don't build enough homes.
 
But here's the thing. Were a politican looking to break away from the conspiracy of 'community control' to view the Shelter data alongside this YouGov poll from September, then he or she may just be tempted to try something brave. The poll asked whether decisions to site new towns or major new housing projects should be taken nationally (for England as a whole), regionally or locally. The results are striking:
  • England as a whole: 30%
  • Regional level: 46%
  • Local councils: 14%
  • Not sure: 10%
Let us just dwell on that. The Coalition Government has promoted 'Locally-Led Garden Cities", but only 14% of people think decisions to site new town should be taken by local councils. 46% of people think decisions to site new towns and major housing projects should be taken at a regional level, but the Coalition Government scrapped RSS and Lyons' incentives to local authorities to bring forward garden cities and new Strategic Housing Market Plans are only a tiny step closer towards regional or sub-regional planning than the current 'Duty-To-Cooperate'.

Politics, I imagine, is akin to finding a path between what the public want to know and what the public need to know. The rhetoric around housing in the pre and post-election periods will do both. The need to boost supply in order to solve the national crisis is both urgent, and as the Shelter data demonstrates, becoming more popular. The rhetoric around planning in the pre and post-election periods will though do neither. The focus on putting communities in control will not boost supply, and as the YouGov survey demonstrates, is not actually something that the public appear to support.

Brave policy solutions are good, but a politician brave enough to swim against the tide of localism in planning would be better.