It’s all in the reporting…

‘Labour pledges to strengthen brownfield first policy’, announced Planning Resource on the 23rd September, commenting on the speech made by shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman-Woods at the Labour Party Conference.

Never mind that she went on to say that there isn’t sufficient available brownfield land to keep pace with housing supply and that garden cities, garden villages, and urban extensions would be necessary, Planning Resource chose to focus on the potential tightening of the NPPF in respect of ‘brownfield first’.

It would make it much easier to have a grown up debate about housing – and the flavour of the land necessary to make proper inroads into delivery – if journalists didn’t constantly open the trap door to try and catch those people out that have an opinion, and to pick out points that frankly aren’t news at all.  The NPPF couldn’t be any clearer in promoting brownfield land above greenfield land.  That’s because the protection of countryside is a key tenet in the presumption in favour of sustainable development (i.e. not prioritising building on farmer Giles’ cabbage patch), and the protection of all protections, the Green Belt cannot be touched save for where very special circumstances exist.  However, additionally – and this is a point often overlooked – the NPPF is a material consideration, and not part of the development plan; there isn’t a local authority in existence that has a development plan policy that promotes greenfield development over brownfield land.  So any reference to tightening the NPPF is nonsense and so is the reporting.  Why? Because it is a) unnecessary to make even the merest of tweak to the NPPF, and b) even if it was ambiguous on the subject, it would always be trumped by a local authority with an up to date plan.  Or seemingly on this issue an out-of-date one, judging by recent Secretary of State decisions…

Wouldn’t it be amusing to apply an ‘honesty tab’ to what Blackman-Woods actually said, bearing in mind that in the majority of instances, the pressure on housing, and therefore the imperative to allow infringements beyond brownfield boundaries lies within Green Belt authorities in the South East.  It might look like this:

“Because of the huge uplift we need in housing supply, brownfield land will make no material difference whatsoever in addressing housing need and house price inflation.  We are going to have to allow a mass influx of garden cities, garden villages, urban extensions – frankly anything that enables massive inroads into housing delivery, and in almost all instances, that will mean releasing Green Belt land in and around London and the South East.  It’s going to be a nightmare convincing communities to support such growth, because nobody wants it.  So we are going to have to get landowners and developers to pay for as many community incentives as possible, as early as possible, because no Government can afford to make such grand gestures, and when it all goes wrong, we don’t want to be held responsible”.

For the avoidance of doubt, Blackman-Woods didn’t say that, but when she talks about an honest conversation, I know what has more resonance out of the two messages.  It’s unpopular to talk in blunt terms.  It’s certainly not a vote winner.  But equally, the housing crisis has got worse ever since the Blair Government took on the brownfield-first agenda set in motion by John Gummer (and promoted it as a success, and continues to do so to this day).

I don’t think there’s much chance of any politician being honest any time soon, and equally, I don’t expect to see the media making it any easier to report on such issues either.

So the status quo is set to continue.  And the majority will be damned to the consequences.

Evening Standard Letters – Scottish Independence Referendum Campaign

An abridged version of this article was published in the Evening Standard on the 12th September 2014.

“Since the announcement on the 5th September that the Yes campaign was forging ahead of Better Together, probably like many people, I’ve been weighing up the very real possibility that we could find ourselves living in a dis-United Kingdom.  That’s a truly horrendous idea to me, and made more so by the overwhelming sense of helplessness in having no ability to influence the course of events.  Less than a week to go to the vote, it feels akin to watching a slow car crash unfold.  

The Better Together Campaign has been accused of being complacent and disorganised, but to my mind, the rest of the UK, in a classic sense of Britishness, has been far too polite to point out what it thinks, and instead has been content to state that it is for the Scots to decide.  Well, that needs to change.  And the gloves need to come off.  Because if Scotland goes its own way, there are potentially profound political, economic and social implications for England in particular.  We will inevitably have the Scottish backlash, with people demanding that all Scottish Members of Parliament should be banished to the North, which not only would potentially trigger a brain drain of intelligent politicians, make us less inclusive as a Nation, but also increase the pressure on an exit from the European Union, as the right wingers, especially from within the Tory party, would not only increase in prominence, but take heart from the Scottish referendum.  So not only will Scotland find itself more isolated, but potentially the rest of the UK too.  So I really hope that for the final week of the campaign we see an overwhelming show of support from business, media, the arts, sport, and that we do everything we can to encourage those Scots that do have a vote, to vote for the good of all of us, and keep us united as a country.  

I think of myself as English first, and British second, and I think that’s an argument for, and not against, Union.  Working in the property industry, in London, which is so focused on a collective of multi-nationals in such a concentrated area, it’s evident how many people are lamenting the possible loss of part of the Nation that for many is seldom visited.  Very few are born Londoners – they become Londoners, and the Capital is everyone’s capital – and I think that inclusivity makes it difficult for Londoners to understand the desire to divorce and separate, and become more isolated, especially when the Scots travel so well.  Like the economic crises that have gone before, Scottish independence will probably be London’s short-term gain, as business (and a wall of money) lands in London looking for a safe home, and that influx of money, and people, will further exacerbate London’s housing and infrastructure pressures. 

But Londoners and the property industry – are pragmatic, and opportunistic; developers will lap up the investment, and the man down the pub will look on the bright side that their taxes are no longer propping up the Scottish National Health service and universities” 

Everybody Needs Good Neighbours…

Just when you think Secretary of State decisions cannot get any more frightening, along comes Malmesbury ( Has there ever been a Secretary of State (with whatever relevant prefix that related to planning at the time) that has issued such overtly political decisions seemingly in spite of all planning logic?

For those without access to the hyperlink, the synopsis is that an application for 77 homes in Malmesbury, that was fit to be determined against the NPPF-endorsed backdrop of no up to date development plan, and no five year housing land supply, has been refused because of conflict with a draft neighbourhood plan. The neighbourhood plan in question is not part of the development plan. It also has not been independently examined or the subject of referendum. But the SoS, in overturning his inspector, has determined that the absence of inadequate housing land supply is not sufficient to justify the release of the site at the present time.

This raises a number of important issues; the land in question is not Green Belt, and so there is no obligation to demonstrate very special circumstances. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is a key tenet of the NPPF, but has been seemingly discarded in favour of an unadopted (daughter) planning document. Once again the Planning Inspectorate has been undermined by the SoS, which weakens the appeal process considerably. And finally, with wonderful schadenfreude, a centralist intervention from the SoS has been used to apply the virtues of localism.

If it didn’t completely undermine the planning system including the principles of the development plan and the NPPF, economic recovery, developer and consumer confidence, it would be funny.

I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: Please can we abolish Secretary of State decisions?