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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  • 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.

  • CIL - the antidote to green shoots?

  • Successive governments have toyed with the idea of taxing profits made when securing planning permission. Indeed, betterment was a cornerstone of the early planning legislation.

    A land tax has been tried by successive governments but abandoned for some reason or another - principally the concern that it would cause the property market to stop working and destroy the economy.

    However, having done that successfully without CIL I guess the prudent Mr Brown had nothing to lose when he introduced this levy shortly before the public sent him packing.

    Of course the option was always open to the new administration to pull back from this, but after inheriting a public debt of unprecedented scale, it was quite easy in political terms to convince a public increasingly cynical of all profit making enterprise that it should continue.

    The fruits of that non-decision are now starting to show. This week we saw Redbridge introduce a charge of £70 per square metre for development in its Borough, equating to an eye-watering contribution of £317,730 for a residential development of 4,539 sq m. This is quite tame by recent standards however. The London Borough of Merton has proposed a rate of £385 per sq m for residential development and Wandsworth a rate of £575 per sq m. These are astonishing charges.

    The way in which these rates are calculated is cloaked in mystery but the extension of a moist digit into the atmosphere represents at least 90% of the process, it would seem.

    On the face of it, securing much needed public funds from developers seems like a good idea. However, at this point in the market anything that adds cost to development that is already hindered severely by the availability of finance and ever increasingly ridiculous demands for affordable housing and eco friendliness has but one outcome - that limited development that is happening at the moment will just not go ahead.

    Coupled then with the ridiculous scenario that having committed (the landowner) to a significant CIL payment a developer may still need to pay for key infrastructure essential to the delivery of his or her development (Can you trust the local council to deliver a signalised junction adjoining your site in a timely manner when there is no Section 106 obligation requiring it to do so?) then you get a planning system that does the exact opposite of what it is intended to achieve. Development gets slowed, or stopped, at a time when what the economy really needs is for it to speed up.

    A number of authorities have recognised the real burden that CIL is creating and have reduced their charges to reflect the economic climate. These are however the exception.

    I am not for one moment claiming that we should drop CIL and revert to the lottery of Section 106 agreements. It is however time for the boffins in Whitehall and local authorities to apply joined up thinking in delivering a contributions protocol that supports the delivery of essential infrastructure but does not put the brakes on development at the time we need it most.

  • Travel back in time with the Planning Portal....

  • A few years ago, a young upstart on the graduate entry programme told the mandarins in Whitehall about this wonderful new fangled thing called the world wide internet super highway and how it could change the world. Most of the boffins just harrumphed loudly and then settled back to sipping sherry and reading the Financial Times. It WAS after 4pm, after all.

    At the back of the room however, one of the mandarins took a moment to absorb the news of this new development. Perhaps, yes perhaps, this youngster was onto something. Perhaps this was the thing that would change the world's view on bureacracy. Better still, perhaps this could make his own profession, planning, popular and sexy......

    ...and the Planning Portal was born.

    Save paper, time and money by submitting planning applications on-line. A simple message. Who could not just love it?

    Well me, for a start. I detest it.

    Take the application submission interface. Yes, please take the interface. If you can find it. The portal itself been designed by a government department with graphic design abilities that Captain Blackadder would describe as akin to "Ten colour blind hedgehogs. In a bag." It is about as inspiring as a week old caesar salad and is marginally less intuitive. It takes so long to complete the endless forms that if you started one today, by the time you get to the end of it Scotland will be independent and Greece will be using the Drachma.

    Then there is the restrictions that it imposes. Plans and documents cannot be more than 5MB in size, so larger reports need to be split into several parcels and some poor administrator the other end has to rebuild them like some kind of mind numbing jigsaw puzzle. In this world of fibre optic internet connections why is it that the planning portal thinks local authority systems can cope only with the file sizes generated by A3 monochrome plans?

    The most ridiculous thing of all however is that if you upload a plan to the portal you need to confirm that you have printed the plan out at its original size before sending it. So, the paperless application system requires me to print off a full size copy of a plan that I do not want. Very eco, Mr planning portal dude. Of course, by asking me that question, it also assumes that someone else will be printing the plans. Even more eco friendly.

    So to the fees. Just to get the nationalist point out first, the statutory fees that the portal generates for applications in Wales are just plain wrong. It is as though it has applied an exchange rate to the English Pound. Perhaps it knows something about independence for Wales that I don't.

    In terms of actually making payments, we were told at one training session for the portal that all we needed to do was to put credit card details into the website and bingo, all done. The planning portal dude was slightly taken aback when we pointed out that not a single person in the company had a limit that could support the £50,000 application fee for our next submission.

    No problem he said, just post a cheque.... Sounds simple? One would think so, but it is no easy task getting the cheque reconciled with the online application. That isn't surprising given that some authorities tell me that they get applications where the cheque never appears at all. Yes, somewhere out there there are people submitting applications on the Planning Portal as a joke. Oh, how they must chuckle.....

    The final moan of the day is what happens with my electronic submission the other end. It is like the planning portal dudes were told to create a webpage, not a system for processing planning applications.

    The whole raison d'etre of submitting on-line is that it is faster and you don't need to chop down a forest the size of Wales (forests are measured in multiples thereof) to get an application registered.

    The reality is however that some local authorities seem to want all that paper. I have no idea why. Perhaps they need the paper to fire up their wood stove heating. Maybe they need to prop up damaged furniture and there are not enough brick samples in the office to do the job. For whatever reason, I have yet to submit a major application without someone calling up for ten additional hard copies - and sounding very indignant when I protest.

    In most cases I am told that it is because certain consultees apparently don't have the facilities to read the electronic copies already submitted. With few exceptions, that's just laziness in my view. The planning system has moved into the new century (just about) and consultees ought to catch up. I was told by the planning portal dude to refuse to supply hard copies to authorities that request them. Great idea but triggering the wrath of the parish council isn't usually a good idea.

    So why do I use it if I detest it so much? Aside from the very marginal environmental benefits, that is? Perhaps there is some slightly perverse pleasure in knowing that the submissions are often greeted the other end by exclamations of "Oh hell it's another one of those electronic applications".

    More likely its because whether one likes it or not, e-submissions are the way of the future. Only by showing the boffins that it being used and is here to stay can we drag them up to the plate and force them to deliver us a modern system that achieves those original objectives.

  • Its all about the jobs...

  • It is not often that I find myself congratulating the Welsh Government. Today, however, I take off my woolly hat to them. They have released proposals to change planning policy to be more friendly towards new development and inward investment.

    The credit crunch and recession have been with us for a number of years and it is surprising that it has taken so long, but I will not dwell on that. It is the content that counts.

    In that respect, the policy is in many ways suspiciously similar to that which has been around in England for a number of years. The definition of economic land uses have been broadened to include other non traditional employment categories such as retail, leisure and public services. It also recognises that land supply needs to be considered for these economic uses and not just sheds and offices.

    The general tenor is that planning authorities have a balancing act to achieve, supporting economic and employment growth alongside social and environmental sustainability.

    It makes clear that planning authorities must adopt a positive and constructive approach to applications for economic development.

    For some authorities, that is old news. There are a number of good examples in Wales where planning departments have been working alongside economic development colleagues to provide this kind of approach. It is however a wake up call to those other planning authorities and national park authorities that have traditionally seen development as a bad thing to be resisted at all cost.

    In that regard it makes abundantly clear that the economic benefits of a proposal ought to be given equal weight to social and environmental issues and can in fact in some cases outweigh such considerations.

    Perhaps the most significant part of the emerging guidance is that gives specific instruction to local planning authorities to look favourably on applications for economic land uses that are not in accordance with the development plan if the economic benefits of the development are demonstrated to outweigh any adverse impacts.

    These changes are a real, and in my view welcome, poke in the eye for the eco-mentalist lobby (as Clarkson would describe it) that seems in recent years to have gained free reign over the planning system and in my experience frightened new investment and jobs out of the Principality.

    It is also a clear message to those planning authorities who consider that their contribution to economic development starts and ends with the allocation and re-allocation of tracts of unattractive land for industrial sheds that they must change their ways.

    The most important signal that the policy sends is to people outside of Wales. It shows investors and developers from across the border that they should not be put off by Wales's obsessions with sustainability standards and carrier bags. It shouts loud and clear that Wales is once again open for business.

    Whether the policy succeeds or not is of course in the hands of local authorities. While some will grasp the nettle, I am sure there will be some senior officers and councillors who will pretend that nothing has changed.

    In those cases the Welsh Government needs to make it absolutely clear that they will not hesitate to intervene where old style planning stands in the way of new jobs.

  • Localism - People Power or Nimby Nirvana?

  • Well we have it at last. The Localism Bill was signed into legislation last week and is now the Localism Act 2011.

    Considering the fanfare that surrounded the Bill's introduction, the passing of the Act was the legislative equivalent of Bonfire Night in the rain. Not surprising really, though. Perhaps before making such an issue of it, the Westminster Government should have realised that it had set itself the impossible task of satisfying the largely middle-class desire to set middle England in the stone age and halt all development while also remaining the friends of business and setting a positive framework for new investment in those very same areas.

    The result then is a bit of a damp squib. Worse, it is a pretty indecipherable damp squib. Lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of all those legal challenges that will inevitably follow the application of the various elements of the legislation.

    For those residing in England, the DCLG has published an idiots guide to the Act, presumably so that Ministers can understand what they have signed us all up for.

    For Wales, the position is even more confusing. The legislation scribes have had immense difficulty in understanding how an Act of Parliament sits with Measures proposed by the Assembly.

    In England, local authorities are to be given a general right of competence ( I will leave it to others to make the jokes about competence and local authorities being mentioned in the same sentence). This means that they can basically do anything that is lawful, much like an individual and not be constrained by that "silly old restriction" imposed by just a few centuries of public law that actions of public bodies should be constrained by the powers they are specifically granted.

    There is also a community right to stop private landowners selling buildings or open space before the community has been given the opportunity to buy it off them. Sounds good, but how many communities will take advantage of this? I am willing to bet that apart from a few pristine villages on the fringes of London filled with wealthy and oft retired Major Generals, Guardian journalists, bankers and others that can spare a few 'k' to buy the village pub (that is being sold precisely because those same people couldn't be bothered to drink there when it was trading) no-one is interested. A community right to build suffers, in my view, the same fatal flaw.

    The piece de resistance of the English nimby's Magna Carta is the neighbourhood plan. Apparently, what we really need to deliver the communities we want is yet another tier of planning documentation. What makes this one special is that it isn't to be sullied by the views of elected district councillors. However divorced from reality councillors can be sometimes, they are still put there by the electorate. How can a neighbourhood plan prepared by unelected people be truly a plan of the neighbourhood?

    So what does Wales get? Well for the first time in many months I find myself congratulating the Welsh Government's planners for cherry picking the best bits of the Act and keeping us well away from the more loopy bits.

    For example, we get changes to CIL. We get the requirement for pre-application consultation to be undertaken for certain types of planning application- the scope of which is to be established by a later development order. Sensibly, 'local finance considerations' are excluded as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications.

    The argument of WG has been that many of the principles of localism have been a part of Welsh planning for years and we don't need an Act to tell us to listen to the locals. If WG can carry that pragmatism forward in the various ongoing reviews of the welsh planning system and the new Planning Act, then there is hope for it yet.