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!

For specific help on planning matters, please contact Mango.

  • 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.

  • Planning delivery - winds of change or just hot air?

  • It was the RTPI annual planning conference in Cardiff this week, which I have to say was one of the best such events I have attended for some time. Well done to Roisin Wilmott for organizing it.

    I will admit that part of my enthusiasm is in part down to the rather nice (recyclable) bags we received on arrival and the particularly good stock of competitor consultancies' pens, pencils and post it notes that I was able to acquire.

    However, what really made it for me is that, for the first time in years, the conference seemed to grapple head on the issues that really matter out there in the development world. If previous conferences had been friendly lightweight bouts, this one was more akin to cage fighting.

    The theme of the event was delivery. The underlying message from start to finish was that the Welsh Government and certain local authorities need to start focusing on the outcomes of the planning process, not the process itself. The day was full of examples where the process has failed both the economy and the environment and no one could have been left in any doubt that change is required.

    Against that backdrop one would reasonably have thought that there is a wind of change blowing through the planning offices of the Principality. Yet immediately after the conference I spoke with a colleague (who did not attend) regarding the frustration he had with getting a simple change of use application registered.

    Picture the scene. An existing, vacant shop unit within a local centre is proposed to be changed to a quality restaurant. The existing building is largely fit for purpose and so the only need for interaction with the planning system is to change the use class from A1 to A3, with no built works at all. Simple? Apparently not.

    Firstly, a design and access statement was demanded, despite there being no built works required or proposed. How does one explain the design of something that hasn't been designed? This is however a WG requirement of the recent Development Procedure Order and the local authority had no ability to waive the requirement. As such, time and money was wasted preparing a document we didn't want to write and the planning department was likely not to read.

    Secondly, the local authority insisted upon internal layout plans of the proposed restaurant, despite internal arrangements falling outside the scope of planning control. The reason was apparently to calculate car parking requirements yet there was no policy or SPG basis for the request.

    At the conference this week there was a compelling presentation by Dr Calvin Jones of Cardiff Business school highlighting the global oil crisis that sits just around the corner and the need, amongst many other things, for clear measures to reduce our dependency on car use. Yet, still, the welsh planning system still includes an effective presumption in favour of meeting the demands of motorists. Conceptually, this is just plain wrong, particularly in locations (such as this) where there is genuine accessibility by many other modes of transport.

    My colleague's argument against providing an internal layout plan was not however that the principle of providing parking was plain wrong (even though it is!). There was a genuine practical difficulty in that, as is common in cases such as this, the client had not and would not prepare any such plans until the change of use planning permission was secured and the premises acquired.

    In such circumstances the pragmatic approach would have been to apply an approximate net to gross ratio, as is commonly done for food store schemes. Such an approximation would be eminently reasonable since internal arrangements would in any event fall ordinarily outside the scope of planning and so any plans supplied could not reasonably be expected to be anything other than illustrative.

    Once again, however, the system (in this case the local planning authority) showed no pragmatism at all and insisted on costly, meaningless and unenforceable plans being supplied.

    Thirdly, despite the application being for a change of use only and despite the fact that it would need to be the subject of a separate application in any event, the local authority asked for details of extraction plant locations. While the detail of the plant was not known to the client for reasons explained already, general locations could be assumed and my colleague was happy to indicate these to the local authority.

    What then happened however was the bureaucratic icing on the cake - the local authority demanded a design and access statement to consider the plant that we were not actually applying for. The absurdity was there for all to see. My colleague was being asked to explain the design philosophy for plant of which there were no details; and to demonstrate how the client had made the area of roof upon which the plant would be sited accessible to the less mobile. Forgive me, but having to provide a document explaining how people can travel to the roof plant by public transport is not just absurd, it is plain stupid.

    This example typifies the difficulties with planning at the moment in Wales. The process is standing in the way of the delivery. In this case, delivery of the economic benefits of new jobs and investment and the environmental benefits of bringing into beneficial reuse a vacant building in an eminently sustainable location.

    The conference discussed delivery in terms of environmental issues standing in the way of economic development, yet in truth planning has always been about balancing these two issues. What stands in the way, and what gives planning a bad name in the development community, is the process by which the balancing is undertaken.

    Regrettably, pragmatism and proportionality in far too many cases still do not exist in the Welsh Government and local authority lexicon. The creation of local lists and application checklists were intended to bring clarity to the system and to ensure fully informed decisions, but have instead in cases such as illustrated above provide sustenance to the 'computer says no' attitude that still exists in some parts of the public sector, to the detriment of both the economy and the environment.

    Attendees at the RTPI conference received that message loud and clear. I live in hope that the message is taken back to the town halls across Wales and brings about the culture change we need desperately.

    As one of the, excellent, conference speakers rightly put it, consulting and talking about improving the planning system is good, but delivery is what it is all about.

  • Populism. The new way to decide planning applications?

  • As many of the more observant will have noticed, on 3rd May it is time once again for that one quarter of the electorate that can be bothered to visit their local school and mark a cross next to a name that sounds vaguely familiar.

    Yes, it's local election time. That period every four years when environmentally responsible political parties litter our doorsteps with unwanted flyers festooned with cut and pasted pledges, cheesy photographs and the occasional dubious graph to show just how bad 'the other lot' are.

    It is pretty usual at this time in the electoral cycle for local councillors to re-appear into view and to shout from the rooftops their commitment to whatever the 'popular view' may be on matters affecting their constituents. This year however populism is more rife than ever. In many parts of the country we are expecting major upheavals of local government, with many key councils likely to change political colour or enter into cross party alliances. The stakes are particularly high - and all this is happening in the brave new world of localism.

    This is not good news for planning decision making. Planning committees in March and April have in many places become opportunities to grandstand. Woe betide the applicant with a proposal that has a strong planning merit but a degree of local opposition - in this period, the chances of approval are likely to be seriously harmed.

    Too often, it seems, decisions are being made at this time in the electoral cycle on grounds of political short term expediency rather than planning merit.

    It seems perverse that while the rules of purdah (Sorry, politically correct WG, rules of the pre- election period) mean that politically sensitive announcements can't be made in the period leading up to the elections, this doesn't stop the most politically sensitive decisions being made in the same period in the name of local votes.

    We can't halt the planning process for several months every few years. That would be impractical. There is however surely scope to find a way to filter out the applications at risk from political manipulation?

    The trouble is, I am not sure that politicians would want that. These 'final' decisions of an administration are much like presidential pardons - often unpalatable but the price we have to pay for our system of democracy. As Winston Churchill once put it, "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried."

  • Pasty tax - A half baked idea for our high streets?

  • Three months after Mary Portas' high profile review, the UK Government has dealt a hammer blow to one of the current cornerstones of our beloved high streets. The timing of this blow is even more unfortunate when you consider the UK's town centres currently have the highest average vacancy rates since records began (now 14.6%).

    Bakeries, and in particular the rise of bakery chain Greggs, have been one of the few, if not only, high street success stories of recent years. The introduction of a 20% levy on some items in a sector that operates on tight profit margins will lead to some very difficult decisions for bakers up and down the country. If operations carry on in their current format, how and when to charge is the first obvious and well-documented grey area. If customers cannot stomach the price increase (sorry), bakeries may have to take a view on what temperature to serve their products at. In the past one would have said 'woe betide anyone who serves me a cold sausage roll'. But at a time when everybody is watching every penny, we would probably prefer that to paying 20% more or anyone losing their job.

    Unfortunately, this VAT change could mean another unwanted record in terms of average vacancy rates on our high streets, as bakers and your average blue-collar customer struggle to absorb the cost overnight.

    The last thing our high streets need now is a VAT attack. Add to this the fact some big high street names, such as Game and Peacocks, are in administration and hanging on by a thread and you could be forgiven for feeling a tad cynical about Friday's announcement that the Government will be adopting "virtually all" of Portas' 28 recommendations (Taxing bakeries was not one of them). This will be of no comfort to high street bakeries.

    There is an argument that other "take aways" are taxed in this way and this is just levelling the playing field. Bakeries are however an A1 use, one that we try to focus in our high streets and not one that we try and tuck away in the back streets. While the focus has been on Greggs, there are still many independent pasty shops who do not have the ability to cut costs in the way that larger companies do and will be hit hard by this.
    In land use terms this will simply increase the number of voids in our principal shopping areas. Somewhat of a half-baked idea, then....

  • NPPF – A culture of “yes”?

  • This week saw the release of the much hyped (and imaginatively entitled) National Planning Policy Framework – and it seems that just about everyone who got a bit hysterical about the draft and its implications for building on the countryside seemed happy about it. The CPRE was "reassured", the Telegraph considered the publication "a good day for those who care about the countryside".

    The brownfield issue was an unwelcome distraction from the essential objective of the new guidance - a re-assertion of the role of planning in proactively delivering economic development.

    In recent years, planning policy and its application seems to have had an underlying objective of resisting all change that would take England into the modern era.

    Merchant bankers (not cockney rhyming slang) moving from the city into the countryside, buying up the homes and then resenting new housing for the locals; Eco-mentalists in Europe affording levels of protection to bugs, bunnies, bats and dormice that human beings can only dream of; Middle class activists teaming up with the unions and green pressure groups to undermine the supermarkets that provide cheap and convenient groceries for busy, working class families; And my favourite – eco-mentalists trying to stop the very wind turbines that a few years ago they were screaming at us to turn to.

    It seems that everyone wants development, but just not near them. Not an easy issue to address in an overcrowded island such as ours.

    With some exceptions, we appear to have developed a 'culture of no'.

    This 'culture of no' sits well with some local authorities. It is much easier for an officer to reject a proposal that has local objections than to face the wrath of the public and the members defending a perfectly acceptable, but unpopular proposal.

    Localism just adds another tier to this. Empowering local members is fine from a democratic point of view, but all too often the 'popular' decision is a short term one. Some local planning authorities prefer the politically sensitive decisions to be made by an Inspector so they can say to their electorate that "it wasn't us that allowed it".

    The development sector ought to be able to rely on development plans. Section 38(6) of the 2004 Act says they should. Yet more and more often in recent times we have seen the development plan being set aside. Often this is because the plans just aren't up to date or the policies are drafted by boffins with a poor understanding of the commercial property world. However, even when we have brand spanking new plans with sensible policies – and there are a few out there – they get ignored on a regular basis.

    The "culture of no" means that the relationship between developers and local authorities is, in far too many cases, confrontational rather than constructive and practical. Instead of working together to achieve a better scheme for all concerned, we end up with an appeal Inspector considering a scheme to which the local authority has not provided any meaningful input.

    The NPPF is a damp squib in a number of respects, with many of the more pro-development elements of the draft unceremoniously left on the shelf to appease the bearded and sandaled. What it keeps however is an unambiguous message to all decision makers that the presumption should be in favour of sustainable economic development.

    The best bit however is that in a decision making context, it makes it absolutely clear that if the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out of date, permission should be granted unless adverse impacts would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of the development. Moreover, such decisions should be made without delay.

    Many local planning authorities either have no adopted development plan or one that is out of date – and almost all are out of kilter with the changes of the NPPF - , so this presumption ought to be quite a blow to the "culture of no".

    The force of this change is however tempered in a number of ways. For example, local planning authorities have been given a twelve-month period of grace within which to continue to rely on their old plans. Additionally, the NPPF has not abolished "The Planning System – General Principles" which sets out the circumstances where authorities can properly refuse proposals on grounds of prematurity.

    It would appear therefore that the "culture of no", while under threat, still has wiggle room.