The Mango Blog

An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning

All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice!

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  • Time for a bit of strategic thinking.....

  • As the planning system in England tends to the wounds caused by the brawling between CALA homes and the egregious Mr Pickles over the role and form of regional planning, there is growing unrest on the Welsh side of the border over the lack of strategic direction on areas such as housing growth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in south east Wales, where the Welsh Government's population forecasts indicate that in the period to 2023 Cardiff will grow at a rate of between twice and six times that of immediately adjoining authorities. At the Welsh Government rates, the population of the city will grow by one third from 2012 to 2026. The implications of this have been crystallised in the recently published Preferred Strategy for Cardiff, which forms the basis of the new LDP for the city. This shows that, even adopting a lower rate of growth than the Welsh Government suggests, there is a need for 37,100 new dwellings over the plan period of which 18,250 dwellings must be located onto greenfield sites.

    Cardiff is bounded to the south by the sea, to the west by the River Ely, to the east by flood plain and green belt and to the north by the M4. To accommodate such significant growth means filling in the few large green spaces left in the city with allocations of up to 6,000 new dwellings at a time. Naturally, residents of these areas are in revolt over the plans. The city's arcane road and public transport infrastructure is creaking already. Even if the Council's rose tinted expectation that 50% of residents will travel by non-car modes is realised, such huge change will make Cardiff a very different place. It also begs the question as to what will happen post 2026. By that point, Cardiff will, quite simply, be full up. If ever there was a need for a strategic, regional approach in south east Wales, now would be the time for it. We have the Wales Spatial Plan but quite frankly, that is about as useful as the proverbial cat flap in the elephant house.

    The Welsh Government has commissioned research to look at the interrelationship between the various towns and authorities of Wales. A key recommendation of the 'City Regions' report – the first recommendation, in fact – is that housing planning be organised at a city region rather than at a local authority level and linked to transport planning to facilitate commuting. Against this advice, it is rather surprising that the Welsh Government is standing by and letting Cardiff struggle with accommodating its forecast new housing growth, especially when adjacent authorities have both the space and in some cases the inclination to accommodate more of Cardiff's overspill. It is also rather bizarre that, having invested millions in the regeneration of the valley communities over the past decades, the Welsh Government seems to be doing little to channel positively the attraction of the Cardiff city region to create new jobs and housing in adjoining valley areas.

    Granted, such a strategy may not draw all of the development pressure from Cardiff, nor should it, but as these areas benefit from the success of being in the capital region, there is surely some sense in sharing the burden of that role also. With Cardiff's plan at its early stages and the plans of a number of adjoining authorities yet to be adopted, now would seem an opportune time for the Welsh Government to act on the findings of its own research and give some clear strategic guidance on how the Cardiff city region ought to grow.

    It is time to show what Cardiff Bay can do. Or should it now be renamed Toothless Tiger Bay?

  • PPW5 - It's all about the jobs... at last!

  • It is a rather rare event in this blog that I dish out praise to the Welsh Government. (WG). That is not because I have any particular axe to grind with the current administration. It is simply that WG has, to my mind, been painfully slow in responding to the economic crisis that has hit Wales as hard, if not harder, than other nations of the UK. It has, in my view, jumped blindly on the sustainability bandwagon without considering properly or fully the implications of so doing on the effects of investment and development. It has also failed to respond positively and speedily to the culture that has emerged in many parts of the Welsh planning system that process is more important that delivery. It has presided over a ballooning of the administrative burden placed on applicants and local planning authorities.

    It has of course consulted on many of these issues. It has however failed to act quickly and decisively on those consultations. Moreover, it has in considering these consultations, appeared to draw too often upon the views of a small clique of WG friendly professionals at the periphery of day to day planning without full and proper regard to the views of those at the coal face the Welsh planning system.
    The effect of all of this has, in my view, been to leave Wales standing while England has taken positive steps to encourage new jobs and investment. Today is different. Today, WG has at last acknowledged within the new Chapter 7 of Planning Policy Wales that jobs and investment are equally as important as social and environmental issues; and that occasionally, jobs may need to take precedence over social and environmental considerations.

    It has also recognised the blindingly obvious point that a job is a job, regardless of whether it is within a warehouse, a shop, an office, a leisure centre, a factory or a theatre. The implications of this change in policy should not be underestimated.
    Local planning authorities can no longer hide behind decade old employment allocations to prevent redevelopment for other job creating uses.
    Imposition of the significant burdens that the sustainability standards in Wales place on new buildings may now be balanced against the job creating benefits that a less sustainable building can bring. While there are some local planning authorities in Wales that I am sure will respond positively to this change in direction, there will be others who will I am sure try and argue that it is 'business as usual'. LDP and appeal Inspectors will, I am sure, give such dogmatism short shrift.
    So, well done WG. There is hope for you yet.

  • Planner bashing - It's a game anyone can play!

  • The planning profession is once again up in arms as the Prime Minister is accused of joining the ranks of senior politicians both in Westminster and in the devolved nations having a dig at planners. I say 'the profession', it appears to be mainly those professionals working in local authorities who are the most irked, which is hardly surprising since it is they towards whom most of the criticism has been levied.
    The responses to Mr Cameron´s comments are predictable. "Planners only apply the policies that central government create" shouts one officer. "Give us the funds and we will give a better service" wails another. In many ways, both have a point.

    In terms of policy, all we have had from central and devolved government (of whichever persuasion) has been changing policy. Worse, policy has developed almost schizophrenic tendencies. We are told that planners should both support new sustainable economic development that is inconsistent with the development plan and to resist development that is premature to an emerging plan. We are told that green belts are both sacrosanct and that they are fair game. We are reminded that affordable housing is essential, but given clear signals that it should be relaxed to allow development to go ahead. We are told that retail is an employment activity but that loss of employment land to such uses should be avoided. I guarantee that if you can find a statement of policy somewhere in the grey and largely meaningless dirge of national planning policy, you will certainly find another somewhere else (either in the same document or in one of the very many documents that the Government failed to rescind) that says the opposite.

    Trimming of budgets is a fact of life in this climate, but if development is one of the ways to kick us out of recession, then shouldn´t an efficient planning system be something worth funding properly? I was told recently that every new house that is built generates the equivalent of a job for one person for a year. Investment in a new and motivated planning officer would perhaps be far more efficient and effective investment than these awful and pitiful grants and funds that Government is obsessed with that seem to cost more to administer than they actually deliver.

    From my comments you would be forgiven for thinking that I am entirely on all fours with my local authority colleagues on this planner bashing issue. Let me say right now, I´m not. There are, in my view, far too many bureaucratic dinosaurs in planning departments who are more interested in process than delivery – luddites who seem not to realise that the world out there has changed and see development as inherently a bad thing.

    There are still some grumpy old trolls hiding in the darkest recesses of local plans offices across the nation who truly believe that, one day, manufacturing will come back to Britain with a vengeance and that consequently they should hang onto that fifty acre B2 site they allocated thirty years ago, just in case. Such people should be put out to pasture. However, let´s not tar all local authority planners with the same brush. There are still some out there that want to make a positive difference. Perhaps if Government stopped fiddling with policy after each breath and paid for some fresh blood in planning departments, the system may just be allowed to work in the manner that it was intended.

  • Feeling needy, Mr Pickles?

  • When PPS4 was issued in 2009 one of its key purposes was to abolish the requirement for applicants to demonstrate a ‘need’ for new retail floorspace.
    The abolition of this test was in response to criticism in the Barker Report that singled the need test out as a blunt and dysfunctional tool that, as the Government acknowledged, all too often causes planners to get caught up in debate about technical definitions, and overlook the vital question of what the proposed development actually means for the town centre and the people who rely on it.
    Three years on, and PPS4 has been superseded by the NPPF that makes absolutely no reference to a requirement for applicants to demonstrate a ‘need’ for new proposals.
    Yet, in a number of recent retail appeal decisions the need test gained as much consideration as the sequential test and impact.  So are Inspectors and retail planning boffins ignoring the guidance and giving life support to a hypothetical and pretty meaningless test that ought to have been lain to rest three years ago?  It certainly seems so on the face of it.
    So why has the need test continued to appear in retail planning cases?  The first reason appears to be that PPS4 was drafted so badly that need appeared, albeit obliquely, as one of the strands (16.1.d) of the impact test. 
    It referred to impact “..taking account of current and future consumer expenditure capacity in the catchment area up to five years from the time the application is made…”
    If it were limited to this reference alone, then one would have expected the need test to be confined to a few lines at the end of the impact chapter in current retail assessments and appeal decisions.
    What appears to have occurred however is that in seeking to provide ‘Practice Guidance’ on PPS4, Sir Humphrey has opted to insert the need test liberally and randomly throughout the document.
    For example, at Paragraph 5.7 in the context of the sequential test it refers to the prospect of opportunities coming forward “likely to be capable of meeting the same requirements as the application is intended to meet.”  Sounds like a need test to me.
    At Paragraph 6.33 in the context of the sequential test it is somewhat more explicit:
    “While there is no policy requirement to demonstrate need, an operator claiming that it is able to be flexible about its chosen business model would be expected to demonstrated (sic) why a smaller store or stores could not meet a similar need.”
    Sir Humphrey has done well with this one.  In the same sentence he has claimed there to be no ­policy requirement for a need test at the same time as insisting that one would be necessary to support a new retail proposal.
    He has also managed to sneak the dreaded need word into Paragraphs 7.34-7.36 in the context of assessing the appropriate scale of new proposals.
    Indeed, the only reference in the Practice Guidance that appears to be properly reflective of the actual Guidance itself is hidden away in the appendices at Paragraph D12, which suggests that turnover ought to be considered:
    “in light of of quantitative capacity and other qualitative need considerations.”
    As I have noted, the NPPF has superseded PPS4 and is completely silent on need. 
    This has however proven no obstacle to Sir Humphrey.  Immediately following publication of the NPPF his flunkies at DCLG asserted that the Practice Guidance is still a material consideration in the determination of retail planning applications. 
    The NPPF and the Practice Guidance make for unlikely bedfellows.  What we have is on one hand a national policy framework in England built on principles of simplicity and supporting development and on the other an ‘adopted’ Practice Guidance that continues to advocate a test that contributes towards a confused, dysfunctional and perhaps even anti-development approach towards new retail.
    The result is confusion, with neither practitioners nor local authorities understanding fully whether to consider, and what weight to place upon, a demonstration of need.
    One would have hoped that the egregious, plain speaking Mr Pickles would have stepped in and addressed this inconsistency.  Perhaps he hasn’t seen the need.

  • Unaffordable housing

  • What is affordable housing?

    To some, it is "key worker" housing, providing homes for the nurses, doctors, teachers and other hard working public employees who play their part in the community and contribute to the richness of the fabric of that community. To others, it is something entirely different - it is "social housing" to accommodate those on benefits who have no desire to work at all, who who cause trouble for those self respecting residents of adjoining properties and streets. Whatever it is, it has become part of the lexicon of planners across the Principality and elsewhere. Housing needs assessments paint a picture of perpetual doom as increasing numbers of our population are deemed not to be able to afford to get onto the property ladder.

    Whether one agrees with the principle that market forces ought to be interfered with in this way is neither here nor there - politicians of all flavours seem to agree that making homes affordable is one of the big issues of our day. The big question is however, what makes homes unaffordable? Going back to simple A level economics, the price of housing is a product of supply and demand. If the housing supply is somehow restricted and the demand stays the same, house prices will rise. This works in practice, too. New towns such as Milton Keynes have understood this concept and have for years regulated the release of new housing to match demand, to smooth out sharp rises or falls in house prices.

    Stage one of making housing more affordable ought therefore to be to increase the general supply of open market housing. This is easier said than done. Despite ministerial pleadings, some authorities in Wales seem totally unable to recognise the need to flex and adapt positively to changing market conditions. These, it would appear, prefer to see no new houses being built than to depart from their local plan allocations, however dated and pie in the sky those allocations may now seem. Setting aside the fact that every new home built employs the equivalent of one person for a full year, by their inaction, these antediluvian authorities are guilty of constraining housing supply, forcing up prices and making housing in their areas less affordable.

    Of course, even if local planning authorities were to approve every housing application ever submitted, the market would not provide a perfect balance of demand and supply. While in theory the average house price would match the average income, the reality is that in some areas, particularly cities such as London, housing supply is physically limited and demand is so high that even middle income earners find it difficult to buy onto the property ladder. This is a market failure that government, rightly in my view, ought to apply itself to. The current government thinking in this regard is straightforward - force developers to provide a proportion of their housing at below market rates i.e. make it more affordable.

    In pure economic terms the effect of this is inescapable. When supply is constrained, market prices go up, and properties - to buy or rent - become even more unaffordable. Of course if affordable requirements are set at reasonable levels and if the local plan dinosaurs that exist in some local authorities are kept at bay, the effect on supply ought not to be too marked within the normal ups and downs of the housing market. However, what happens when the level of affordable housing requirement is set at higher levels? We have recent experience of a rural authority that has a policy of demanding that 60% of new housing in its principal town must be affordable . Westminster, one of the most expensive areas of the country, tops out at 50% affordable housing requirement, and only then for large scale non-central developments. Why does a rural local planning authority insist on a level higher than one in the very centre of our nation's capital?

    There is no doubt that there is a local need for more affordable housing and that developers ought to take a share of the responsibility of meeting this need. However, when 6 out of 10 new homes are required to be affordable, the balance of responsibility is clearly leaning the wrong way. So what on earth has prompted this particular authority to pick a policy from the lower branches of the la la tree? There are two schools of thought. The first is that housing development is so lucrative that developers can "easily afford" to subsidise affordable housing to this ridiculous level. The fact of the matter is, however, and as the statistics are starting to show, they are patently wrong.

    This leads into the second school of thought - that, despite the clear direction of national policy that the presumption ought to be in favour of new development, the authority just doesn't want to see it happen. If we really want housing to be affordable, then the solution appears to be much more than grabbing opportunities to raise the affordable housing obligation at every opportunity. It is about pragmatism - Reflecting sensibly on dated housing allocations, listening to and responding positively to market demands and setting realistic affordable housing levels.

    The housing market is dynamic and if we are to make housing affordable for all, it is time that in some local authorities the officers showed a bit of dynamism, too.