Don’t Blame the NPPF

Planning Resource (7th April) carried an interesting story regarding developer pessimism over the impact of the NPPF on planning processes, and in particular, the impact on home building. In the same article, it is reported that the majority of respondents have greater confidence in a future Conservative administration making a positive, material impact on the same issues than any other party.

This throws up some interesting paradoxes, and all the more so because those being interviewed were from house building companies and housing associations, so people that know a thing or two about on-the-ground delivery.

It was the Coalition that introduced the NPPF, and so whilst it would not be right to solely place the credit (or blame) at the door of the Conservatives, they have undoubtedly had a greater influence on its inception than the Lib Dems, and certainly more so than the collective opposition. So although most people interviewed think the NPPF has not worked, they are nonetheless more receptive to the Conservatives continuing at the helm of planning than any other.

Why is that? It would be wrong to say what individuals privately felt. However, it may be argued that the NPPF – and the professional practitioners that led its drafting – came up with a perfectly sound planning organ to lead development in the 21st Century. What has undoubtedly undermined its operation can be broken into three parts: political intervention, funding, and speed of change.

Firstly, there is nothing like an unexpected Secretary of State decision, or ministerial statement of ‘clarification’, to completely destabilise planning decision making, developer investment, and ultimately development implementation. Within this context, I would include tinkering with permitted development rights and unilateral changes to the NPPG.

Secondly, seismic changes to planning at a national level are inevitably felt most locally, and in particular, both those local authorities struggling to introduce a new style development plan that complies with the objectives of the NPPF whilst at the same time, responding to swinging budget cuts, which in many instances have ripped the heart out of many council planning departments. Teams that have evolved organically, with depths of experience of local communities, geographical areas, and planning, have been badly damaged.

Thirdly, the resultant impact of change borne by the NPPF, and the difficulties of responding to change within an era of austerity, has resulted in frustration from Government, the development industry and local communities, essentially at the speed of implementation of the NPPF. Ironically, the desire for change is partly to blame for the pace of change.

So why are developers apparently willing to give the Conservatives a further five years? I suspect in part, this is because there has been enough change to last anyone for a good while yet, and that now is the time to bed in foregoing events. Equally, there is typically a sense that planning is a subject for Governments to grow into, and that a second Conservative-led administration would be capable of taking a more balanced view about the role of planning, and where the fault lines lie than a new regime.

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.

A duty that needs to reach beyond London

“James Ashton’s article in the Evening Standard (4th December) on the new progressive stamp duty system attempts to lay down some of the pitfalls of a higher revenue on top end properties, but I’m not sure that even he believes in the counter argument that he is making. Clearly it’s fairer; I’m not sure many people are going to be lamenting a slowdown in the profits being made by estate agents in the £10m plus housing market.

The key is what happens to the money. Because London doesn’t need it – certainly when compared to the rest of the country. If London will generate 55% of national stamp duty, that is probably reflective of the unhealthy imbalance London has on the economic wellbeing of the UK. That money should be ring-fenced for investment in other areas, both to encourage investment elsewhere, and to take the heat out of the Green-Belt strangled city we live in. No one is going to sanction a mass building programme around the M25, so we need an alternative plan.

To put this into perspective, it’s currently possible to buy a one bedroom flat in arguably the nicest part of Birmingham (St Paul’s Square, within the Jewellery Quarter) for £120,000. 10 years ago it was worth £115,000. Londoners wouldn’t be surprised to witness that kind of capital growth in one month. It cannot be sustainable to have such disparity between our first and second cities. Unless we are happy to call them first and second class economies.”

The Lyons Review

As we roll on towards next year’s General Election it has to be said that anything which increases the profile on the need to build more houses is welcomed. With that in mind, the timing of the Lyons Review, published last week, is a healthy reminder for the main parties to keep this issue top of the agenda.

Its announcement on the same day CLG issued new statistics on development activity on Green Belt land is a telling counter point. The statistics are there for one thing only; for CLG to defend accusations that development creep is reducing Green Belt protection. As Tim Taylor of Forsters rightly points out, it is a sad indictment when we would rather highlight the 13% of the country protected by Green Belt (not to mention the myriad of more tangible environmental protection zones) than the 9% of urban land that our population is packed into.

Lyons sets out a number of ideas, amongst them is the headline of seeking to deliver 200,000 homes a year by 2020. This is to be achieved through initiatives including the creation of ‘New Homes Corporations’, empowering the Planning Inspectorate to step in and act in the face of non-confirming authorities, and providing authorities with financial incentives to help deliver garden cities and other forms of growth. However, whilst the document is sufficiently well crafted to avoid accusations of being politically-sided, it nevertheless fails to highlight that delivering growth will require the comprehensive review of Green Belt land.

A key word search of the document demonstrates that whilst the Green Belt is credited with limiting urban sprawl, and is partly attributed with the rise in property values and the vaulting of growth to beyond the Green Belt, it doesn’t confirm that accommodating development in the South East of England will be contingent on one indisputable fact: it won’t happen on brownfield land, and it will require Green Belt land to be released.

Lyons seeks to address the immediate problem of housing supply – that was his brief after all. But within that limited remit, it can only be regarded as a remedial measure. It cannot address the inexorable growth of London, and the two-speed economy of the UK. It cannot reverse the fact that the majority of aspiring graduates see the success of their career path indelibly linked to London, with the exception of very limited areas of the economy. It cannot temper the fact a row of eight parking spaces in Kensington costs in excess of £200,000 on the open market, whilst a two-up-two-down terraced house in Stoke-on-Trent is yours for a quid (if you’re prepared to commit to the renovation works).

Fundamentally, our politicians need a plan, and, in this respect, town planning is only a small part of the process. What do we want the UK to be like in 50 years? Are we happy for London to dominate at all costs? Do we have a plan for Manchester that is complementary, and not a replication, of what Birmingham wants to be? Are we willing to introduce tax breaks to makes it compelling for businesses to locate in Cardiff and not London? Are there parts of the Country where we are willing to focus the necessary expansion of power plants and heavy infrastructure to the benefit of the Country as a whole?

The absence of a National Plan puts almost blind reliance on local authorities voluntarily delivering local initiatives and actions, which that when patched together creates a national framework. That is akin to the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s asking general managers to define their store plans and to hope, when combined, that it provides a corporate business plan covering everything from supply chains to product lines, to branding.

Even with a National Plan, it would take decades to temper the giant-sized behemoth of London with productive – rather than defensive – proposals for other cities and regions. In the interim, we are going to have to be pragmatic and put growth where the market craves, namely the South East of England. But in the long term, a National Plan would provide genuine alternatives for businesses, investors, and, most importantly, individuals as to where they work and live.

Mansion Tax – Coming to a Town Near You…

In a blatant bit of electioneering, Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis have this week announced new guidance to reinforce the protection afforded to Green Belt land.  I say new guidance; what I really mean is that they haven’t said anything new at all, or certainly nothing that hasn’t been self-evident for the best part of a year, being that housing need is not going to win a planning permission this side of the General Election – at least where the Secretary of State is concerned.

I won’t be the only one marvelling at the black humour of the champion of Localism issuing diktats from Whitehall to local authorities on how to write their development plans and determine planning applications.  They can do whatever they like, just as long as it absolutely meets the objectives of the Conservative party manifesto for the foreseeable future.  Presumably, once the Election is out of the way, we can recover a semblance of common sense – albeit how much blood is left on the carpet from upturned local plans and perfectly good residential development proposals refused for political reasons, remains to be seen.

So we can look forward to an ever increasing simmering of house prices in London and the South East in particular, pushing more and more properties to the precipice of the Mansion Tax threshold, as proposed by the other main parties.

It’s not my intention to get into a political debate about Mansion Tax – I’m simply being philosophical.  Successive Governments make weak decisions about addressing housing need.  The demand on the limited stock of accommodation grows exponentially.  The solution?  Penalise the owners of the limited supply of housing.

Labour and Liberals love to espouse the unjustness of the owner of a £50m property paying the same Council tax as the owner of a £500,000 property, but they are in the minority.  The reality is that there are now an awful lot of people in London and the South East that are puzzled to find their main asset worth in excess of £1m, which has hurtled in value over the last five or ten years, and so, if supply doesn’t increase dramatically, could find themselves lumbered with a Mansion Tax (which is a national tax of course – not local) within the lifetime of the next Government.  They can’t control the huge boom in population in London.  They haven’t been offered a national plan to redress the imbalance of London and the South East.  They don’t dictate housing delivery.  The don’t devise inward investment strategies for other parts of the country which might attract jobs, and therefore population dispersal to other regions.

This whole issue seems a million miles away from the progressive debate that took place during the Scottish referendum, where all sectors of the community – not just Scottish – felt empowered to have their say (and obviously in the case of those eligible, to vote in record numbers).  A Mansion Tax is a sticking plaster over a gaping wound that would penalise, in the main, the fortunate but silent majority who now find themselves owning homes, the value of which they could never have dreamt of in their wildest dreams, could certainly never afford to buy now, and do not have cash piles stashed away to pay an arbitrary tax.  The ‘have-nots’ have rapidly decreasing prospects of getting on the housing ladder, and are being falsely led into resenting the ‘haves’, when their outrage should be focused on the inability of the main parties to work together to de-politicise the housing crisis.

The bleak reality is that no party is proposing any kind of solution.  Its utterly depressing.

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 (http://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1311375/pickles-blocks-77-homes-draft-neighbourhood-plan-clash?DCMP=EMC-CONPlanningResourceDaily&bulletin=planning-daily). 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?

It’s Well Worth Reading Beyond the Mayor’s Headlines

The Mayor of London published his draft Infrastructure Plan today, which projects London forward to 2050, and considers a context for London in which 11 million people live in the City.  The document itself, together with the accompanying presentation, is easy to read, thought provoking, and in many areas challenging.  

The Mayor launched the draft Plan at Barking Riverside, a fitting location for the type of development necessary to keep check on London’s spiralling demands on housing, particularly from the quiet middle; the aspiring home owner that can’t afford to spend £1m+ on a family property, and young professionals in search of decent rental accommodation.  

The headlines are a Tory General Electioneer’s dream: investment in roads, rail, tube, employment growth and a commitment to maintain London at the top of the international tree for competitiveness, whilst leaving the Green Belt unscathed, at least until 2025, whilst delivering 400,000 homes on brownfield land.   

However,  it’s well worth looking under the skin of the announcements, and the draft Plan itself.  For example, the Mayor claims that it is not feasible to adopt an ‘Abercrombie-style’ approach to planned growth, suggesting that “you have to go with the grain of how people live their lives”.  For those that don’t know Abercrombie, he wanted to disperse growth to outlying settlements, to try and share the wealth and opportunity inherent in London.  There’s no need to get into the detail of that – that’s a whole new blog entry – but it is worth considering the implications of the Mayor’s statement.  With no strategy to mitigate the relentless demand on London, is it really feasible to cater for the Capital’s housing requirements on brownfield land alone?

Notwithstanding the Mayor’s announcements, I don’t believe there’s anyone at City Hall – especially the Mayor – that really believes the Green Belt will survive unscathed – because the draft Plan pretty much says so.  There’s some very interesting maps that imply growth spreading out, like a spider’s web, to a variety of towns and conurbations well beyond London, which has a great big whiff of a latter-day Abercrombie.  Even if London doesn’t touch its Green Belt, the Mayor is effectively asking others to.  Equally, whilst the draft Plan does infer that the Green Belt in London will not be touched before 2025, the caveat is that the next comprehensive review of the London Plan will look afresh.  That’s scheduled for 2016, so safely after the General Election. 

There’s much to like about the document in taking a forward thinking approach to London’s aspirations and pressure points, but I can’t help but feeling that this is a further example of planning in isolation.  I love London, and am proud of its success, and I want it to stay the no.1 City in the World.  But how can the City be planned without thinking about either a south-east or national context?  How can infrastructure be planned if the only regard is the destination – London – and not the source? I really hope people read the draft Plan and make comment, but I also hope that the TCPA in particular put pressure on Government to think about the UK in 2050, and not simply London.

We Don’t Need any More Ministers, Just Better Functioning Ones

The RIBA have issued a very worthy document entitled Building a Better Britain: A Vision for the Next Government.

Unlike one of their star members (see my last entry) RIBA endorse the need to review the Green Belt in order to aid housing delivery. They also advocate the introduction of a national framework strategy (something I have previously called for), a minister for architecture – and a national architecture policy – and amongst other things, further devolved power to local level to encourage communities to take the burden for delivering growth and infrastructure.

I like the RIBA. They have an opinion, and they express it – often in more frank and timely fashion than the RTPI do. I also don’t blame them for making a push for architecture at a national level. They are there to protect and promote their members after all. However, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to call for a minster for architecture. It would be a bit like the CIPHE (look it up) calling for a minster for plumbing. Not exactly a priority.

But they are right to call for a national framework. Wales have one, so why doesn’t England? Housing is not an isolated land use: it goes where the jobs are – or rather, people follow the jobs, and housing has to try and keep up. There’s not enough jobs in the north. There’s plenty of jobs in the south. You can buy a house in the north for not a lot of money. You need loads of money to buy anything in the south. It’s going to take years to reverse that trend, and it does require a national mandate.

However, I don’t think the RIBA is correct in assuming that local authorities will create patchwork of local policies that will feed into a national framework. Localism encourages people to look after themselves and their closest stakeholders. The duty to cooperate is a giant size failure of the NPPF. Council x is not communicating with council y, let alone on a sub-regional or regional basis. I am not suggesting that we need to wind the clock back ten years to regional assemblies, but we do need some form of mechanism to capture the benefits of growth and infrastructure across the country. Take HS2: if it does go ahead, it will have been an isolated decision from where homes and communities are to be located. A national plan (or framework) could have aligned jobs, homes and infrastructure. As it stands, it simply looks as though there will be parkway stations that will allow people to commute further to work in London.

The RIBA’s document is pitched square and centre at the next Government, and that is probably well advised. We have a Secretary of State that is unlikely to make a decision on anything this side of the General Election that leads to accusations in Tory heartlands of ‘concreting over the countryside’. The best planning minister we have had for generations has been quietly shipped off to straddle the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills and Education.

So what I would advocate is the next Secretary of State (of whichever party) making some quick and decisive decisions. Firstly, establish a working party to introduce a national framework by the end of the five year Government which would look at planning, infrastructure, taxation and other associated issues holistically. Secondly (and one for the lawyers), seek to align local elections to the same five year cycle so that all political decisions are condensed to the same window. Thirdly, abolish the right to Secretary of State decisions. There is no need for them. Let planning decisions be made on planning grounds. If they are wrong, the Courts will soon put them right. However, they are unlikely to have the whiff of party politics about them, and the relevant Secretary of State can’t be accused of intervention.

Such measures would provide real leadership, and would negate the need for further ministers to take responsibility, be that for architecture or anything else.

Ian

P.S. Before anyone says ‘too difficult’, think back to 1997. Four days after Labour won the General Election, Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England independence from political control. Just saying…