Written evidence submitted by Ashford KALC [FPS 060]
Who we are
- We represent nearly all the 40 parish, town and community councils in the borough of Ashford in Kent. We are members of the Kent Association of Local Councils (KALC) which in turn is part of the National Association of Local Councils. We address matters of common interest including planning. We are a diverse range of councils including long-established rural villages, the town of Tenterden and newly formed urban parishes created in Ashford’s recent expansion.
- We welcome this opportunity to submit comments to this Inquiry. We are all deeply engaged with planning precisely because local outcomes matter for our communities whether those are urban or rural. Local knowledge and local democratic engagement are fundamental drivers of better outcomes.
- MHCLG data shows that the number of dwellings in Ashford borough increased by 27% between 2001 and 2019. This puts us in the top 5% of districts in England for housing growth. By 2030 the borough will have grown by around 50% in thirty years.
- Indeed, if all districts grew as rapidly as Ashford is set to grow this decade England would be building nearly 500,000 houses a year not 300,000. Yet, the proposed new targets would force Ashford to build at an even faster rate which cannot be right.
- Our residents are not Nimbies. While they want to preserve, both for us and for visitors, the lovely countryside around us that we are fortunate to have, they also worry whether their children and grandchildren will be able to find housing, whether their older members will have suitable homes to downsize to, and that there is a three-year waiting list for council housing in Ashford. Despite the rapid growth in housing in Ashford, rural areas have too often seen many “executive houses” built rather than the types of houses that are needed.
- Summary of Key Points
- The current planning system is not perfect, but it has merits. It should be improved not replaced. It is not the main deterrent to the 300,000 a year target.
- Lack of build-out, while not the only factor, is a major hindrance to achieving housing targets. In recent years Ashford has granted 7 permissions to every 4 completions. The CPRE estimates there are currently one million extant housing permissions.
- We are not convinced by the new system proposed by the government and consider there would be grave dangers in moving to it.
- We like the focus on improved design, and the institution of a body to champion good design, but do not see why there should be a “fast track for beauty” rather than any other attribute.
- The proposed system for housing targets has been justifiably criticised. In particular we dislike the emphasis on Household Projections which would oblige districts which have already delivered an above average rate of housebuilding to build at an even faster rate while allowing those who have built less to continue doing so.
- Better public participation requires a range of methods (including notices on lamp posts) not just digital systems. Techniques used in Neighbourhood Planning could be adopted.
- We believe the current system generally provides adequate protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical and architectural importance. The principles of the green belt should be preserved and extended over the whole country but the current green belt around London has become totemic and not all of it justifies its status.
Q1 Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?
- The current planning system can be confusing and complex and parts of it need to be made easier to engage with. But it needs to be improved not junked. Many planning applications are dealt with efficiently and relatively quickly. Examples of possible improvements are:
There is a crucial need in many areas to build more houses for affordable rent. Local authorities should be encouraged to do this and be able to borrow on very favourable terms to achieve it.
More emphasis needs to be paid to the types of housing built and matching them to local needs.
Encouraging community engagement at the plan making stage of Local Plans is difficult except for specific sites. Some techniques used in Neighbourhood Planning could encourage more participation (see paragraph 30 below).
Many planning applications for major sites could be made less complex if the system did not encourage unnecessary verbiage, the inclusion of additional rather than replacement documents when changes occur, and adding endless amendments to existing applications rather than submitting a new one.
The system should allow for penalties when major developers fail to build out permissions within a certain time frame without a reasonable excuse.
There should be more transparency about sites being put forward for development. This is often withheld on grounds of commercial sensitivity, but the inclusion in a Local Plan or the granting of planning permission is a public benefit conferring private profit. The process should therefore be transparent. The lack of transparency gives the developer an unfair advantage over the communities impacted. The MHCLG call for evidence on Transparency and Competition on this subject is welcome.
Planning departments need to be properly resourced. This includes having sufficient staff to supervise the oversight of conditions, building regulations and enforcement as well as dealing with planning applications (see paragraph 20). Where these matters are not dealt with properly at the beginning, then serious mistakes can sometimes occur and/or time and money can be wasted.
Example: Conningbrook Lakes Development
The archaeology on this site is considered by Kent’s senior archaeological officer as of national and potentially international significance. However, with an overstretched planning department, conditions requiring further investigation were not discharged and part of the site is now built out.
Example: Poppyfields, Charing
Lack of oversight meant drainage details were not properly dealt with. Fresh and foul water systems were built too close risking cross-contamination if future repairs to one system damaged the other. Expensive adjustments plus re-laying affected roads had to be made after completion. This meant not just disruption and expense but delays to the contractor’s next site to the detriment of meeting housing targets.
- We are not convinced that the government’s proposals have been properly thought through or assessed. It is tempting to think that simpler, quicker systems can be found but real life is complex as are planning matters. Zoning is intended as a simplification but in practice it is more likely to add complexity and time. It is not at all clear how it will work in practice. Major sites would need special attention and dedicated groups to develop workable plans that integrate with surrounding areas, as well as creating communities with housing and employment both fully considered. The opportunity to zone protected sites beyond those already carrying a designation is welcome, but again it is not clear exactly what is being proposed, nor the degree of protection such a zone will bring. Will it water down current provisions? If zoning is to work it must acknowledge environmental constraints and other local circumstances from the outset.
- Automatic permission regimes introduced by zoning or other large-scale extensions of permitted development will not reduce time or complexity but may introduce unintended and unforeseen outcomes. The proposal that major housing sites should get automatic permission as Growth zones is dangerously ill-judged. Permission in Principle as presently specified is not sufficiently detailed and would need to be subject to site-specific criteria policies as included in current Local Plans. Automatic permissions will not encourage greater or earlier engagement. On the contrary, they risk disenfranchising communities and weakening the localism that has enabled Neighbourhood Plans to flourish in recent years.
- Even were the new proposals able to improve matters (which we doubt), it is highly questionable whether now would be the right time to impose them. Any major change causes disruption and that disruption will itself be the cause of much delay in granting permissions, thus further hindering the goal of achieving 300,000 houses a year, and 1,000,000 houses by 2024.
- The approach to sustainability fails to grasp the breadth or importance of this to good development and planning reform. The economic, social and environmental dimensions are not discussed, and we are particularly surprised by the lack of any focus on development for employment or community needs such as schools, surgeries and meeting places, transport systems and the need to provide rapid broadband where this is lacking. The White Paper seems almost entirely focused on house building and largely ignores these other crucial matters that make a thriving community.
- Neighbourhood Plans are an essential community planning tool – they must not be diminished or put at risk by these reforms. They should be simplified but they must retain their legal weight in planning decisions as the only directly democratic part of the planning system. While brief mention is made to them in the proposals it is not at all clear how they would fit into the proposed system.
- We do not believe that it is correct to press on with these planning reforms without first properly examining them against the statutory commitments the government has already made on climate adaptation and mitigation requirements. We are concerned climate change is being taken for granted as an “obvious framing” rather than being deeply thought through and taking the Environment Bill fully into account.
- We do welcome the focus on better design (see response to Q3).
Q2. In seeking to build 300,000 homes a year, is the greatest obstacle the planning system or the subsequent build-out of properties with permission?
- There is no one cause but we do not believe that the planning system is the major obstacle. We note that while there has been pressure from government on planning authorities, other causes of delay have received far less attention; many parts of the process are not within the control of local authorities.
- Lack of build-out is definitely an obstacle. We are aware (from partly unpublished data) that the average rate of build-out to permissions in Ashford in recent years has been around 4 to 7. If build-out took place at a predictable and steady rate there would be no problem in meeting, or indeed exceeding, housing targets.
- CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) estimates that there are currently around one million properties with planning permission nationwide that have not yet been built out – up from around half a million five years ago. The figures speak for themselves. We believe there should be material penalties (e.g. the imposition of council tax on the unbuilt dwellings; potential for local authorities to acquire the land at a discounted rate) for large developers who do not build out within a reasonable time frame without good reason. A build-out timetable could be an integral part of planning permission.
Example: Chilmington Green
A major development of 5,750 houses. Outline planning permission was granted in January 2017. Due to delays from the consortium of developers to date, only 40 dwellings have been completed and occupied. Further, a bond to enable major improvements to the nearby A28 road is not due until 400 houses are built which is now likely to be 2022/23. Matching funding for the road previously granted has now fallen away potentially jeopardising the essential improvements to infrastructure.
- Inevitably (and rightly) environmental and other constraints limit the amount of housebuilding that can be achieved. Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Ancient Woodland, SSSIs, sites of historical importance, all limit what can be achieved. Neither is it just protected areas that can limit housebuilding. Narrow lanes to some villages and limited resources in villages make large-scale development impossible and unsustainable.
- Much of the borough of Ashford is drained by the River Stour and its tributaries. Later in its course, the Stour feeds the designated sites at Stodmarsh which are internationally important for their water-dependent wildlife. Raised levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, thought to arise primarily from housing and agriculture, are causing eutrophication to parts of Stodmarsh. Natural England has therefore recently (July 2020) issued guidance that all new development impacting the river should demonstrate nutrient neutrality pending further investigation of wastewater treatment. This is currently delaying all planning applications, large and small, in the affected region, and throwing housing targets into doubt.
- Where planning delays do occur, they are usually not due to the “system” but to other factors. One is lack of staff. The Federation of Master Builders (Oct 2019 survey) cite the lack of planning resources as the 2nd problem after land availability, but this is a resource not a system problem. There is currently a shortage of planning officers in England; Ashford, for example, typically has several posts vacant. Private companies can tempt experienced officers with higher salaries. The constraints on local government spending do not help.
- Further delays can be caused by overly long or incomplete documentation submitted by developers. We have all had much experience of ploughing through overly long documents, which unnecessarily quote sections of the NPPF or Local Plan at length, in order to find the few sections that matter. Incomplete or absent documentation also causes delay as the application has to be put on hold while they are submitted. Another cause of delay is that developers are unwilling to compromise, preferring to chance the Appeal process rather than amend their applications as advised by the local authority to be appropriate for a location.
- Lack of infrastructure causes delays. For example, in Ashford a number of major intended developments were caveated as “subject to M20 junction 10a”. This was originally planned for 2004 but was eventually completed in 2019.
- The capacity of the construction industry and lack of sufficiently qualified and experienced people is another factor that has been cited. Efficient building requires properly trained and effective supervisors and operatives. More training in new and quicker building methods is badly needed. Building at this level of delivery has previously always been a combination of market and non-market delivery, non market being local councils building social housing. The market absorption rates will constrain delivery of market housing, particularly if large sections of the population cannot afford the houses being offered for sale. And there are other supply chain constraints – including shortage of skilled labour and building materials.
Q3 How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?
- These are multifaceted questions to which there is no simple answer. We welcome the focus on better design in the White Paper provided it is not a substitute for other equally important elements. Too much building is based on standard design portfolios of major companies so we welcome the proposals to establish a body to champion good design and to promote the delivery of local design codes, provided there is always space for innovation. The White Paper, however, leaves many practical questions concerning implementation and legal status unanswered.
- We do not agree with the proposal to have a “fast track for beauty” as we do not see why this should be prioritised over other issues. Good design is not just the look of a building or place but also its practicality, the provision of appropriate infrastructure and facilities, green spaces, and building standards. Building regulations need revision to encourage latest environmental techniques as standard.
Q4 What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?
- This is not an easy question to answer. In many ways we believe there are arguments for regional planning bodies which could set housing requirements alongside plans for infrastructure. In their absence, we accept the need for a national system but would like to see this as guidance rather than an absolute.
- The proposals put forward by the government have been widely criticised and justifiably so. We do not intend to repeat all the criticisms here. We do want to highlight the problems with placing so much emphasis on the ONS Household Projections which, since they are essentially projections of past trends, mean that areas like Ashford, which have contributed above average household growth in recent years are rewarded by being obliged to build at an even higher rate, while the reverse is generally true for districts which have recently built less than average. This is not just a question of fairness but the fact that sites become less and less sustainable and infrastructure overburdened.
A major development of up to 135 houses will be built on a site which is not just on a spring line but also a very sensitive groundwater protection zone. Many of the houses will be well outside easy walking distance to the village centre and shops. We already have problems with the sewers in the area which are inadequate; on two occasions earlier this year foul water backed up not just into people’s houses but into the clinical sinks in our purpose-built GP surgery serving over 10,000 people.
- Here are some elements we suggest could be included in a target-setting system:
Existing dwelling stock could be a starting point. This is a reasonably fair, and also stable, variable.
The impact on housing need of projections of natural population growth could be included since the factors affecting this – birth and fertility rates, life expectancy – normally change only slowly so the recent past is usually a reasonable guide to the near future. Net migration into or out of an area should not be included since it is directly affected by recent growth in housing stock, and therefore becomes self-reinforcing.
Regional policy should be taken into account – that is the drive to shift economic activity away from London and the South East.
Affordability could be included with caution. Affordability is a regional problem and building more houses in one district will only have a marginal effect on affordability if neighbouring districts build more slowly. It is also subject to misleading or improper calculation if commuter areas are judged by local pay rates rather than the pay of the areas to which the residents commute (such as in Ashford, but also many other areas and not only around London).
Q5. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?
- There is usually little problem in public engagement when a site is being considered for planning permission. The need is to engage people in preparation of Local Plans. There is much to learn in this regard from methods used in Neighbourhood Planning. Neighbourhood Plans are the only truly democratic part of the planning system since they are not just built on the wishes and views of local people but have to pass a local referendum.
- Neighbourhood Plans start by establishing broad aims and objectives and then develop policies and projects. Workshops, presentations and exhibitions are used throughout and at least one extensive questionnaire is delivered to households. “Dotocracy” is a common practice. During workshops or exhibitions objectives, draft policies and projects, or proposed sites, are placed on boards and people use small round green, yellow or red stickers to indicate either approval, the need to amend partially, or disapproval. Alongside are opportunities to comment.
- A variety of means of communication needs to be used both for establishing planning policy and for consideration of applications. These obviously include state of the art digital means but it would be a mistake to rely on these. Not everyone uses the internet and in rural areas broadband is of mixed quality, so relying on these exclusively would exclude sections of the population. Even for those who are comfortable with digital means other forms of communication can often be effective. Despite what the White Paper says, this includes notices on lamp posts and site notices generally, which can often be the means of alerting even the most digitally aware people to something that is happening; indeed we would like to see more visible notices.
Q6 How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?
- We consider the current planning system does this reasonably well for designated areas and buildings, though as planning is always a matter of balancing conflicting objectives and impediments, no protection can, or should be, absolute. Settings are often less respected but could be so with clearer policy guidance in the NPPF.
Q7 What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?
- The principles of the green belt – to prevent urban sprawl, reduce ribbon development, prevent settlements coalescing, ensure access to the countryside etc – do not need to change. Indeed, they need to be extended further to apply nationwide. In our borough, for example, there is a need to maintain space between Ashford itself and surrounding villages, some of which have already been overgrown. There are also dangers of villages coalescing. While Ashford has two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty the area between them currently has no protection despite much of it being pleasant rolling countryside typical of Kent.
The expansion of Ashford has swallowed up some villages and, if continued, will threaten more. One of those is the ancient village of Shadoxhurst which lies beyond the major development of Chilmington Green (5,750 dwellings). There is a clear need to maintain an open space between Chilmington and Shadoxhurst – not just to preserve Shadoxhurst but to prevent sprawl, and to provide a “green lung”. Yet there is already pressure from landowners and developers to build in the gap and permission has already been granted for one area of a field, while the landowner is working towards gaining planning permission for the rest of the field.
- A national and local framework of green corridors – merging with blue corridors along rivers – is needed.
- In contrast the London Green Belt is extensive (though patchy) and its extent has a negative effect on the unprotected areas outside it, such as much of Ashford, since it results in housing being pushed further out from the capital. It now has totemic status which not all of it deserves. It is noteworthy that while the housing stock in Kent, a county with little green belt, grew by 20% between 2001 and 2019 that in Surrey, a county nearly all green belt, grew by just 12%.
Q8 What progress has been made since the Committee’s 2018 report on capturing land value and how might the proposals improve outcomes? What further steps might also be needed?
- We can only speak for our experience in Ashford. We believe Ashford has had a fairly good record in ensuring that developments provide affordable homes (although the borough as a whole needs more of them). Ashford’s Local Plan, which was adopted at the beginning of 2019, does set out some clear expectations. However, the borough relies too heavily on a standard list of s.106 items (it does not use CIL), which we assume developers will accept, and it does not always push hard enough for additional items. As a result, parishes can find themselves with too much money for playgrounds or allotments and nothing, despite requests, for items that are needed more.