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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  • 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.

  • 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."