As practicing Town Planners, we represent a wide range of clients including private individuals, farmers, businesses, housebuilders, landowners, and strategic land companies and working across a wide range of housing and commercial projects from inception to delivery. Our team has reviewed the consultation and we provide the following response below.
We support the Government’s commitment to delivering 300,000 homes a year. However, we firmly believe that the changes proposed to the National Planning Policy Framework (‘the Framework’) will result in the delivery of significantly fewer less homes. We do support the objective behind the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (‘the LURB’) of increasing home ownership, ensuring that the environment is protected, and speeding up plan-making and the planning process generally; however, we consider the changes proposed by the Framework are confusing, with competing and conflicting objectives, and a watering down of the checks and balances that currently underpin our planning system. We do not believe these changes will resolve the housing crisis or improve the planning system.
In the foreword to the 2012 Framework, it was stated “sustainable development is about positive growth – making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations. The planning system is about helping to make this happen”. The Framework has lost this vision – quite literally in that this clearly articulated vision has been deleted. Instead, of a clear vision, this Framework presents us with competing and confused objectives – boosting housing supply on the one hand, but misplaced protectionism on the other.
Questions from ‘Chapter 3 – Providing certainty through local and neighbourhood plans’
Chapter 3 Q1 Do you agree that local planning authorities should not have to continually demonstrate a deliverable 5-year housing land supply (5YHLS) as long as the housing requirement set out in its strategic policies is less than 5 years old?
No. We consider that LPA’s should continually review the delivery of sites allocated to meet the housing requirement and should be required to demonstrate a deliverable 5 year supply to keep LPA’s accountable.
Take Basingstoke and Deane Borough for example; it adopted its Local Plan in 2016 and the effect of that adoption was to create a 5 year housing land supply. However, within 18 months of adoption, it was held on appeal that the supply had fallen below 5 years and the Council has not been able to rectify this position since. Why? Because of the adopted spatial strategy which relied on a few large-scale strategic allocations that had significant infrastructure requirements and which have been slow to deliver (a well-documented national issue). Also, planning applications took a lengthy time to be determined due to the complexity of the project i.e. the Manydown application for c. 3500 homes took 4 years to achieve planning permission from submission and is still not delivering now 7 years after the adoption of the plan. So clearly, whilst the Council did allocate sites to meet the housing requirement, the delivery trajectory was unrealistic and the strategy did not allow for sufficient growth elsewhere in the Borough to maintain supply.
Basingstoke is just one example of the picture in many Council areas. LPA’s should be held accountable for the plans they produce and adopt. Maintaining a rolling 5 year supply and demonstrating this through a continual review ensures that a sufficient supply of housing is continually coming to market. This ensures the housing needs are met, that sufficient affordable housing is being delivered and also brings forward CIL/s106 funding / improvements.
Chapter 3 Q2 Do you agree that buffers should not be required as part of 5YHLS calculations (this includes the 20% buffer as applied by the Housing Delivery Test)?
No. The purpose of the introduction of the buffer was to improve the prospect of meeting the planned supply. The retention of a buffer is therefore vital.
The objective of this amended Framework is to ensure a ‘sufficient’ supply of homes. A buffer is therefore necessary to help LPA’s ensure a sufficient supply because the delivery of housing is contingent on a number of factors which can and do change overtime. A 5% buffer added to the housing requirement should therefore remain. We also consider that the 20% buffer should remain in areas with a persistent under delivery of housing and where there is a lack of reliable evidence that the shortfall in 5 year supply will change in the immediate future.
Chapter 3 Q3 Should an oversupply of homes early in a plan period be taken into consideration when calculating a 5YHLS later on or is there an alternative approach that is preferable?
No. We consider that it might be possible for the Government to incentivise LPA’s who over-supply against the requirement in any given year through the New Homes Bonus or similar i.e. an additional payment is given to those authorities to invest into their planning services. However, from a decision-making perspective, we consider that past oversupply should not be taken into account because it could not be certain that such oversupply in the past would meet the housing needs of the market now i.e. did the oversupply provide the right type of housing in the right locations. Given this ambiguity, we do not support this change.
Chapter 3 Q5 Do you have any views about the potential changes to paragraph 14 of the existing Framework and increasing the protection given to neighbourhood plans?
We do not support the blanket protection proposed, as not all Neighbourhood Plans are prepared equally.
We have had direct experience of working with Neighbourhood Planning Groups in the plan-making and decision-making stages. Our experience has been positive as well as unfortunately negative and we have seen good sustainable sites that score well through the Council’s own evidence, dismissed for non-planning reasons. But we have also had positive experiences where the Neighbourhood Plan has supported growth and ensured the vitality of its community through good sound planning.
We do recognise that a good Neighbourhood Plan can be a valuable tool to a local community. Therefore, where a Neighbourhood Plan has been adopted to deliver the housing requirement set by the LPA, and where it can be proven that the Neighbourhood Plan has been effective in bringing the allocated sites forward for development, we would support the additional protection being proposed by Para 14 to those areas. Essentially, we suggest that the Neighbourhood Plan needs to be accountable and demonstrate it is being effective to benefit from the protection.
We have seen Neighbourhood Plans allocate housing significantly less than the housing requirement set in a recently adopted Local Plan – the Woodcote Neighbourhood Plan in South Oxfordshire is a recent example. In this area, sites have been allocated that have limited prospects of being delivered, and which are too small to deliver affordable housing or other infrastructure benefits. We do not consider that is good planning, and therefore in those areas, where the Neighbourhood Plan did not plan for the requirement set to the area, and/or where there is no clear evidence that the allocated sites are being delivered, we do not consider the plan should benefit from the protection.
Questions from ‘Chapter 4 – Planning for housing’
Chapter 4 Q6 Do you agree that the opening chapters of the Framework should be revised to be clearer about the importance of planning for the homes and other development our communities need?
We do agree that the Framework should be clear at the outset as to its vision and purpose which surely in the context of this country’s housing crisis should be to provide the homes the country needs. Therefore the opening chapters should give great emphasis to boosting the supply of housing and ensuring the right number and type of homes are built in the places where they are needed. This should also recognise that planning is about striking a balance between economic, social and environmental impacts and benefits.
Chapter 4 Q7 What are your views on the implications these changes may have on plan-making and housing supply?
We consider the amended Framework misunderstands the root cause of delays to the delivery of housing and other economic development. Many of our clients are striving to bring forward their sites, but face barriers at the local level that result in the delay to the delivery of sustainable housing. A significant barrier is the under-resourcing of planning authorities and the inherent delay this causes to the processing of applications.
The proposed changes to the Framework, ironically, result in greater uncertainty and in our view will result in fewer homes being delivered and will further complicate the plan-making and decision-making process.
Chapter 4 Q8 Do you agree that policy and guidance should be clearer on what may constitute an exceptional circumstance for the use of an alternative approach for assessing local housing needs? Are there other issues we should consider alongside those set out above?
Yes, we agree that policy and guidance should be clearer, but where an LPA seeks to use an alternative approach, that decision, and the process then followed, needs careful, robust and rigorous analysis both by the public and at Examination. Hence, we do not support the removal of the need for plans to be justified. We will also point out that the standard method is already an advisory starting point.
Chapter 4 Q9 Do you agree that national policy should make clear that Green Belt does not need to be reviewed or altered when making plans, that building at densities significantly out of character with an existing area may be considered in assessing whether housing need can be met, and that past over-supply may be taken into account?
No. Firstly, Green Belt is a spatial planning tool, it is not an environmental designation. That does mean there are sites washed over in the Green Belt where development can be accommodated without harm.
Secondly, we wonder whether the MP’s who heard the Statement made by the Minister of Housing and Local Government to the House of Commons on 26 April 1955 as to the importance of Green Belts understood at that time its significance for Town and Country Planning in the 21st Century! Was the statement ever intended to mean that a Green Belt would act as an unchangeable policy constraint for ever more?
Rt. Hon Duncan Sands MP addressed the Commons stating that “I am convinced that, for the well-being of our people and the preservation of the countryside, we have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent the further unrestricted sprawl of the great cities”. It cost 3d to receive this statement in print at a time when this countries population was around 52 million. This country’s political leadership has changed many times over in the 68 intervening years– even our currency has changed, and this country has joined and since left the EU. There have been significant other changes, but in many ways our planning system and our Green Belt policy, is still stuck in the 1950’s.
To plan effectively for the well-being, housing and economic needs of the 67 million people in England today, we cannot afford to hold the Green Belt as sacrosanct. The Green Belt around London is in fact around 3 times larger in area than Greater London itself. It includes significant areas of farmland, and only a modest proportion of this land is actually publicly accessible – note that was one of the main drivers being establishing Green Belts.
But we think it important to remember that in his Statement, Rt. Hon Duncan Sands MP used the term “unrestricted sprawl” and this term exists in the Framework today. We understand this does not mean that any development in the Green Belt should be prevented, instead we understand it to mean that it should be possible to release areas of land on the edge of a built up area that have clear and well defined boundaries without that act leading to unrestricted sprawl. There are many such sites, and many are in sustainable locations on the edges of our existing towns and villages.
We are strongly concerned that if Local Planning Authorities are not required to review Green Belt boundaries, housing needs will simply not be met. Another consequence of this is that development will be forced into more and more unsustainable locations, away from main transport corridors for example.
For example, recently Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council produced a report which concluded that the housing market was overheated meaning that house prices were too high for the majority of people in need of a home. The Council’s paper stated that the only way to meet the housing need of the Borough was to release land from the Green Belt for housing. This Council, who have a significant housing land supply shortfall and no up-to-date Local Plan, should be supported and guided by National Planning Policy to review all the options for meeting housing needs, including the Green Belt, and should be directed to select the most sustainable options for development, even if that means marginal encroachment into the Green Belt.
Chapter 4 Q11 Do you agree with removing the explicit requirement for plans to be ‘justified’, on the basis of delivering a more proportionate approach to examination?
No. Whilst we do agree that the current plan-making process is onerous, expensive and time-consuming, this will not be addressed by the removal of the requirement for plans to be ‘justified. We strongly oppose that change which we feel goes to the heart of plan-making. Public Authorities should be accountable for the decisions they make in the public interest. The requirement for plans to be justified should remain otherwise the process will become even more politicised, based on short term interests rather than long-term legacy.
Further, and in relation to the Duty to Cooperate, a significant issue is the lack of alignment of Local Plans. If Authorities worked together in a more cooperative way and aligned Local Plans, it is possible that costs could be reduced by sharing of data and information for example, a Green Belt assessment could apply to a housing market area which often straddles multiple administrative areas. This could help authorities ensure their respective needs are being met by focusing development on the most sustainable locations. The current system whereby LPAs can be plan making with little or no regard to strategic cross boundary issues, or on completely different timelines, is a serious problem. For example, the three West Kent Authorities failing to work together effectively on a green belt review and relying on three separate evidence bases has led to two of those Authorities Plans being found unsound at Examination.
Chapter 4 Q16 Do you agree with the proposed 4-year rolling land supply requirement for emerging plans, where work is needed to revise the plan to take account of revised national policy on addressing constraints and reflecting any past over-supply? If no, what approach should be taken, if any?
No. There should be no change to the requirement to demonstrate a 5 year housing land supply requirement, even whilst a new Local Plan is being prepared.
Chapter 4 Q18 Do you support adding an additional permissions-based test that will ‘switch off’ the application of the presumption in favour of sustainable development where an authority can demonstrate sufficient permissions to meet its housing requirement?
No. Permissions granted and homes delivered is not the same thing. A key aspect of the Housing Delivery Test is in the word “delivery” and a deliverable site does not mean the same as a site with planning permission. Further guidance on the meaning of deliverable would be welcomed. Further, the role of the planning authority does not stop at the granting of the permission, but it endures through clearing conditions and supporting the applicant to get building. The presumption should be triggered by the delivery test, not by the granting of permissions.
Questions from ‘Chapter 5 – A planning system for communities’
Chapter 5 Q23 Do you agree that we should amend existing paragraph 62 of the Framework to support the supply of specialist older people’s housing?
Yes. We support these changes – we support the provision of the right type of homes for all sectors within the market, young or old, everyone has a right to a good home.
Chapter 5 Q30 Do you agree in principle that an applicant’s past behaviour should be taken into account into decision making?
No. The long standing and important principle of the planning system is that applications should be determined on their merits.
This change also gives us significant cause for concern regarding resources. Planning Authorities are already stretched, and this change would inevitably take the focus away from assessing the planning merits of a development now and instead place the focus on something that has happened in the past. As professional planners this cannot be right. Planning should be focused on a balance of the benefits of the development against its impacts. It should be about making fair and robust decisions. It should not be concerned with who the applicant is or events of the past unrelated to the proposal today.
Further, we consider this could lead to grossly unfair decisions resulting in unnecessary appeals i.e. an applicant today being denied permission due to a slow delivery on a site in the past and time being spent exploring the reasons for the past slow delivery and what that means for the development today. This process would expend a significant amount of time and resource and as above, takes away from the fundamental principle of balancing the harm of the proposal today against its benefits.
In any event, this would be a toothless policy because Applicants could use differing names for projects.
Questions from ‘Chapter 6 – Asking for beauty’
Chapter 6 Q33 Do you agree with making changes to emphasise the role of beauty and placemaking in strategic policies and to further encourage well-designed and beautiful development?
We consider that the term “beautiful” and what is meant by “beauty” needs to be clearly defined. Design is like art, what is pleasing to one person could be disliked by another. Planning is similarly subjective. To assist, rather than adding further terms and terminology, the Government should assist by clearly defining terms used and deferring what is meant by achieving a well-designed place to local level design codes and guidelines.
We trust that our views will be taken into consideration. We would finally add that we consider piecemeal changes to the NPPF are not helpful. The industry is looking for certainty; all these changes in policy and intended policy yet to be published is having a direct impact on confidence in the planning system, undermining efforts to build back better.