No relief from constant changes…

The recent press coverage on the Vacant Buildings Relief clause, introduced into the National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG) in late November 2014, has engendered a fair amount of disbelief across the property divide. Local authorities in London and the South East are scratching their collective heads to understand how they have potentially lost billions of pounds in S106 contributions for affordable housing. Developers are pinching themselves at the serendipity of being presented with an unexpected windfall in their profit projections.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that there will not be other parts of the country where both local authorities and developers are pleased that it has suddenly become more viable to deliver brownfield land for residential development.

That, of course, was the Government’s intention; to demonstrate for political purposes that they are the party of urban regeneration – of brownfield development over greenfield. The problem, is that the Government, in its desire for political gain, has once again failed to consider the detailed implications of its proposals.

The immediate effect of the Vacant Buildings Relief amendment is apparent. Schemes that were viable with an affordable contribution have become jackpot-projects, precisely because the quantity of affordable will be reduced in favour of open market sale properties. Cash-strapped local authorities will lose out, and society at large will be the poorer for an unexpected and unnecessary drop in low cost homes. Moreover, ironically, delivery as a whole will fall, as every land owner, developer, asset manager and planner worth its salt will put a veto on site demolition and scheme implementation to enable amended development appraisals to be undertaken, and, in many instances, for revised planning applications to be submitted.

However, to my mind, there is a much more meaningful implication of what the Government has done, and it goes to the heart of the Government’s so-called simplification of the planning system. Fundamentally, the Government has undermined the very foundations of our planning system, being the primacy of the development plan – and they’ve put a dent into localism to boot.

Most people within or on the edges of planning and development have grown up on the premiss that the starting point for considering any planning application proposal is its respective compliance with the development plan. Land owners and developers function, after all, within a plan-led system; and, provided that plan is up to date, one might say with good reason. At their best, a development plan is based on a thorough evidence base, has been subject to multiple rounds of consultation with the local community and interested stakeholders, has been cross-referenced with other strategies (for example, infrastructure deficiencies), and a S106 schedule or Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) has been put in place to capture a proportion of the value from planning gain to maintain a fashion of equilibrium within the development plan area. That process may take three or more years to put in place, with the final endorsement being an independent planning inspector determining that the plan is ‘sound’.

Now let’s consider the NPPG. Being a so-called living document, it can be changed in the blink of a track-change, with no warning or consultation. Despite having no development plan status, it is expected to trump development plan policy. The potential for constant meddling is one of the reasons why Iceni developed its Pocket Guide to Planning App, as policy seemingly changes before one’s very eyes.

And of course, it can change again in equally rapid fashion. So who’s to say the Vacant Buildings Relief clause – or any other – won’t be discarded or amended, potentially after a round of sheepish conversations have taken place between developers and authorities, thousands of pounds have been expended on scheme re-designs, and reworked construction programmes have been initiated?

The reality is that constant tinkering is destabilising and unnerving, for both the private and public sector. A rolling NPPG is an unmitigated bad idea. It really need not be this difficult to put an easily understood planning system in place – and to then leave it alone.