Written evidence submitted by Rutland County Council [FPS 071]

 

The Committee invites evidence on the following issues:

 

  1. 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?

 

It is recognised that the planning regime in England has become over-complex, plans take too long to prepare, assessments of housing need and environmental impacts have become too complex and opaque, is subject to appeals and recourse to the Courts, the process for negotiation of developer contributions has become protracted and unclear, and more is needed to improve the quality design in new development.

 

              The White Paper needs to recognise that the national shortfall on housing delivery is a complex matter going beyond the reform of the planning system.

 

              The White Paper is short on detail as to the form of any subsequent primary and secondary legislation and as to how many of the ideas in the White Paper will be taken forward.  It is noted that the Government intends to undertake further consultation on specific issues, and this is welcomed.   The lack of detail and further consultation is likely to impact on the proposed legislative and implementation timetable.  The lack of detail in the White Paper has also raised more questions than answers and as a result we have responded by addressing each proposal set out in the White paper rather than responding to the limited questionnaire.  This has extended the amount of time that has been expended in drafting a response.

 

It is a serious deficiency of the White Paper that it gives no consideration whatsoever to minerals and waste planning.  It is far from clear how planning for mineral extraction and waste facilities could fit in with the concepts of growth, renewal and protection areas.  Similarly, as the White Paper focusses on housing delivery, it fails to pay sufficient attention to how the planning system can best support issues considered extremely important in Rutland such as climate change, employment and the recovery of local economies; sustainable transport; the need to protect best and most versatile agricultural land for food production.   Whilst the White Paper has a general emphasis on housing delivery, there is little or no reflection on special housing needs, such as Gypsies and Travellers.

 

 

  1. 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 avoiding the fact that the only time housebuilding rates exceeded 250,000 per annum in England since WW2 was in the period 1955 – 1975 when local authorities invested in substantial amounts of housing (see below). This was an era of political consensus regarding housing policy in which the value of broad based sectoral provision was acknowledged. The annual completion rate from 2014/15 – 2018/19 has varied between 124,000 and169,000 (ONS) compared to the current government target of 300,000 pa.

 

             

 

              Given that there is over a million homes which already have permission what are the government’s plans to speed up their delivery since if the planning process can be reduced in complexity and therefore timescales it is essential that these homes are built at the earliest opportunity. Consideration might be given to the idea of Council tax being charged on undeveloped or underdeveloped land which has permission.

 

              In November 2017, the Committee interviewed the then Secretary of State Alok Sharma and he indicated that

 

               As I said earlier on in this evidence session, the proposals will include commencement periods to be brought forward from three years to two years.  On the whole issue around transparency on buildout, at the start of the process a developer should say, “This is the speed at which I will build out a particular site”.  Having transparency is a really very powerful tool in terms of keeping people focused on their promises.  We can also, and we plan to, make changes in the planning application forms, where we can require people to say, once you get planning permission, when they will actually start the building on this site and how quickly they expect it to take place.

 

              Three years later no such action has been taken

 

  1. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?

 

The proposal that master plans should be prepared for substantial areas of development, which will include design coding is warmly welcomed.  These work best where they are prepared through collaboration between the LPA and the developer, in dialogue with the local community, so that their interests and concerns are addressed through the development process.

 

              The White Paper promotes the concept of pattern books for particular areas which will reflect the local character.  As a concept this is supported, because much of the dissatisfaction with new housing is that developers’ standard house types are used with no regard to the local vernacular or the forms and styles of housing in the area.  However, this needs to be balanced against considerations that “pattern books” may stifle design innovation and thereby create uniform environments. How do you codify beauty?  There will undoubtedly be challenges of securing community agreement on good design, with a difficulty for most people in separating good design from personal taste. Who arbitrates? How do you apply a design code(s) where there is a rich tapestry of building types, styles and ages within single streets? There is a risk of pastiche/ bland areas/ standard house types.

 

              The proposal for pre-approval of designs through permitted development misses the crucial point, that development within an existing urban area commonly raises material considerations other than appearance.   Considerable care needs to be taken to ensure that proposals for permitted development do not remove the means for material considerations which relate to existing residents’ quality of life to be addressed. 

 

              This will also require a programme of up-skilling planners as well as address capacity within LPAs.

 

 

  1. What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?

 

The White Paper says that plans should be for a minimum period of 10 years.  It is not clear whether this would be from the time of preparation of the plan or the anticipated date of adoption.

 

              No reason is given for departing from the current requirement that plans should be prepared for a minimum period of 15 years.  If the Government is minded to bring this change forward, it is urged to set out clearly its reasons for the proposed change, so that interested parties can respond.  At this time the point needs to be made that a risk with a shorter plan period is that plans could become less strategic in nature, and more likely to be based on incrementalism. There is also a significant risk that a 10 year horizon does not provide sufficient time for major development proposals, particularly those which require additional infrastructure to be planned and delivered, reducing the effectiveness of the “growth area” designation in delivering new homes and jobs.

 

It has been suggested that binding requirements would be set through the use of an algorithm, which would factor in considerations such as the extent of land constraints, the scope to use brownfield land, and the needs for other types of development.

 

              Further work and consultation with LPAs would be appreciated to determine how local circumstances could be taken into account within any proposed algorithm.  A whole series of questions arise, which would need to be resolved in designing an algorithm, or any other methodology for that matter:

 

              It is contended that to be able to set binding targets which would stand up to scrutiny, the Government could not safely seek to depend on an algorithm – there are too many factors where locally specific assumptions would need to be made.  Rather, it would need to commission a series of sub-regional studies to assess the requirements and potential capacity for all kinds of development for LPAs or groups of LPAs.  These would have to deliver their outputs before material progress could be made on the local plans for those areas.

 

              Leaving the calculation of how much development land to provide to local decision is preferable to a centralised formula which is already proving to be unrealistic when tested on local authorities, especially in the case of Rutland. Lichfield consultants have calculated new housing targets using the new method. To demonstrate the point, the table below (Table 1) indicates how unrealistic and potentially harmful the new figures are.

 

Table 1: Comparison of selected LPA Local Housing Need Figure changes in ascending order

 

LPA

Average delivery (3 years)

Current Standard Method

Proposed new Standard Method

% age increase

Newark and Sherwood

572

494

764

55%

Fenland

418

538

844

57%

Corby

535

506

799

58%

Breckland

692

661

1,070

62%

Brighton and Hove

392

924

1,520

65%

Tonbridge and Malling

806

843

1,440

71%

East Devon

842

928

1,614

74%

Boston

391

249

443

78%

East Northamptonshire

462

457

821

80%

Chiltern

291

343

619

80%

Havant

402

504

963

91%

Dover

435

596

1,279

115%

South Derbyshire

986

548

1,209

121%

North East Lincolnshire

257

211

470

123%

Harborough

592

550

1,238

125%

Cotswold

824

487

1,209

148%

Rutland

240

122

307

152%

Hillingdon

854

783

2,026

159%

Hackney

1,328

1,862

5,031

170%

Bromley

707

897

2,487

177%

North West Leicestershire

845

359

1,153

221%

Kensington and Chelsea

268

998

3,285

229%

Camden

993

1,568

5,604

257%

Westminster

1,096

1,495

5,750

285%

Richmond upon Thames

423

441

2,247

410%

 

 

  1. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?

 

The proposals in the White Paper for community engagement within the proposed statutory process will not enhance community engagement but drastically restrict it.

 

              The proposal seeks to increase engagement at the formulation stage of the local plan, and specifically in the first stage of calling for suggestions for sites and areas under the three categories.  That will enable people who have an interest, and representative bodies such as Parish councils, to make representations on things they would like to see in the plan.  In principle this is desirable.

 

              However, the great majority of the population and representative bodies such as parish councils will not be seeking to promote development.  Rather their interest in the plan will be to understand how it may affect them, and in particular how it may affect the area where they live.  So, the appropriate time for them to get involved is when there are actual proposals by the LPA to respond to.

 

              Under the current plan making process the normal opportunity to see and comment on the emerging plan proposals is the draft plan stage.  People can examine the proposals of the draft plan, to consider whether they may affect them, whether favourably or in a manner which they feel will harm their interests.  They can submit their comments on the proposals, and have these considered by their elected members, who will decide whether to make changes to the plan before moving towards its submission.  This gives ordinary citizens a genuine opportunity to influence the plan, and elected members the occasion to consider the effect upon the people they represent.

 

Under the White Paper proposals there would be no draft plan stage.  Rather, having formulated the plan the LPA would submit it for examination, and at the same time publicise it for people and organisations to comment.  Given that the period proposed from submission to the Inspector’s decision on the plan is only six months that would give the LPA, as the democratic body charged with preparing the plan, no practical opportunity to consider the comments received, and decide whether it wished to make changes in the light of those comments.

 

              There would be no opportunity for elected members to represent the interests of their electors by considering comments they make on the plan to decide whether they can improve it before submission.  That function would be taken away from the LPA and passed to the Inspector, whose function would not be to consider the particular concerns of members of the public and communities, but to assess in a much more limited way whether the plan met the sustainability test.  Whilst they would have the right to have their comments considered by the Inspector, ordinary people would not have the expertise to argue their position at examination hearings. There is also an absence of detail as to whether examinations would take place in public, given that “hearings” could be by phone or in writing.

 

              Thus, whereas the White Paper has a stated aim to improve the opportunity for people to genuinely influence the plans for their areas, the proposed process would actually substantially reduce the scope for them to do so.  Instead, the main opportunity to influence the content of plans would reside with landowners and developers, who would be able to use their resources to promote sites for inclusion in the plan; together with some interest groups, which would have the capacity to engage effectively in the examination.

 

              What must be considered likely is that without the opportunity to comment on a draft plan, people and groups will take up the only opportunity available to them, which would be to make representations on the plan and have them considered by the Inspector.  If large numbers of people did this that would greatly extend the work of the Inspector, because with no stage for the LPA to consider and respond to such representations, the Inspector would have the full responsibility for doing so.  This could impact significantly on the length of the examination process.

 

              Having had limited opportunity to influence the local plan, people who were unhappy about particular proposals would hope to have their concerns heard at planning application stage.  However, the White Paper proposals taken together seek to shift decision making from the planning application stage to the plan making stage and reduce the scope of what can be considered where planning applications are required.  So, people seeking to engage at that stage would find that they had little real opportunity to influence proposals which gave them concern. The reforms set out in the consultation seek to ensure the planning system is accessible, accountable, digital and transparent. This is proposed to create an increase in access and engagement for all groups and individuals. However, there is a risk that there will be a differential impact on those who do not have internet access, who are proportionately greater in older age groups, by the Government’s proposals for the planning regime in England to be more digitally orientated.  Without due provision, the proposals may also disadvantage those that prefer or require access to paper copies.

 

We welcome the intention and proposals to harness modern technology to speed the validation of applications, improve case management software, move to shorter and more standardised applications, improve planning registers, standardise planning decisions and some elements of developer contributions, improve planning notices, standardise technical supporting information and introduce national standard planning conditions. Provided such changes are well-designed in liaison with prospective users, there is considerable scope to both speed and simplify processes and make planning information more readily accessible to the full range of potential users.  Whilst speedier decisions and certainty is important, but most would agree that the most important thing is getting the right decision.

 

              There has been speculation that these proposals might be developed in such a way that they would enable artificial intelligence to read development proposals, assess whether they conform with plans, codes, and the NPPF, and determine the application.  It is considered that in the case of minor and straightforward applications there is substantial scope for artificial intelligence to carry out much of the appraisal process and point toward the likely decision. 

 

However, more complex applications commonly comply with some policies and conflict with others and raise issues which are particular to the specific proposal, so that a balancing exercise is required to come to a judgement on the merits of the application.  It should be clearly recognised that artificial intelligence can assist in the processing of such applications, but not replace that exercise of judgement.

 

The principle that plans should become much easier to read and use, and harness new and emerging technology to do so, is supported in principle.  What needs to be fully appreciated is that a considerable amount of development work will be required to produce workable systems which meet all the functions of local plans and their scope.

 

 

              It will also be important to ensure that the new models for plans will be accessible to all in the community, and not exclude people who do not have a computer or mobile phone, for instance.  Guidance will be required through templates or examples of how this might work, or it might even be appropriate to consider the development of a national software to support us. This might help to achieve a common style and approach across the country for the benefit of communities and developers. It is interesting to note that this is not even at the pilot stage, yet it is the basis of this proposal. Is this not premature

 

 

  1. How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?

 

The White Paper says that development proposals in protected areas would be assessed against policies in the NPPF.  But the NPPF identifies a wide range of matters which can only be addressed by the development of local policies to reflect the particular local circumstances.  Where such a plan policy was relevant to a particular proposal in a protected area, it would still need to be taken into account.  This would be particularly relevant in the case of a larger proposal in a protected area which offered benefits which could lead to the grant of approval.

 

              The areas to be treated as protected areas are described as areas where their particular environmental characteristics would justify more stringent controls.  Apart from designated areas, there is reference to areas of open countryside outside of growth or renewal areas.  This needs to be explored further, because urban areas are often fringed by uses such as sports grounds, golf courses, and other activities which do not have the character of open countryside.  However, given the intention of the White Paper to give further emphasis to development being plan led, it would appear necessary to include such land within protected areas, on the basis that it is not identified for growth or renewal.

 

              An alternative would be to reserve protected area status for areas where there really is something which needs to be protected, and for plans to also be able to identify areas of land which is not assigned to either of the three categories in the White Paper.  In such areas there would be no presumption in favour of development, but neither would they be presented as being protected.

 

Issues also arise about parks, playing fields, amenity greenspace, school grounds and other greenspace within towns.  Such areas are very important to community life and well-being and will need to be retained.  However, they are not covered by any of the designations listed in the White Paper.  The implication is that they would be included within renewal areas, but in such areas, there will be a presumption in favour of development.  This cannot be right and would send the opposite message to what is intended. 

 

The implication the points made here is that it would not actually be possible or sensible to try to force every scrap of land into one of the three categories.  The logical solution would be to have an additional designation which does not carry a presumption either in favour of or against development, with some such areas being subject to appropriate policies specific to them.

 

              Finally in relation to Proposal 5, the White Paper suggests that Conservation Areas would be included as protected areas.  However, large parts of many town centres are covered by Conservation Areas, and these areas are considered suitable for minor development and redevelopment so could be considered suitable for a “renewal” area designation, so key growth areas would be protected areas, which would be confusing and misleading.  This needs further consideration.

 

 

  1. What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?

 

No comment not directly relevant to Rutland.

 

  1. 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 would support many of the proposals in the 2018 report including a fairer share of the uplift in land value used for housing development and the opportunity for local authorities to have enhance CPO powers to assemble land especially for affordable homes

 

The intention in the White Paper to develop further options to support faster build out on large sites is welcomed, and we look forward to seeing proposed measures. Such proposals must however become an important part of the new process in recognition that build out rates are affected by external influences beyond the control of the Local Plan.

 

              The proposal needs to pay attention to the spatial and sequential elements in the physical development of sites, such as access, security, construction management issues and absorption rates which affects the completion rate on large sites.

 

             

 

              The recent report by former Conservative Minister, Oliver Letwin MP reaffirmed the findings of other surveys to show that housebuilders limit the number of homes built each year. In Letwin's letter to the Chancellor of 9 March 2018, he had already formulated an explanation for slow build out rates which amounts to too low an "absorption rate" i.e. the  rate at which newly constructed homes can be sold into the local market without materially disturbing the market price. This last statement alludes to the fundamental raison d'etre of corporate house builders, which is to convert land and buildings into shareholder value. There is no legal or moral obligation for them to meet local and national housing targets. 

 

              In her government-commissioned review of housing supply, economist Kate Barker argued that reform of the planning system would not be enough to increase the number of homes built. What was needed was a huge increase in productivity by the housebuilding industry. No such increase in production has been forthcoming.

              More useful areas of reform would include:

              Reducing the concentration of oligopolistic power in housing supply;

              The shifting of revenue spending on benefits to a new capital programme of bricks and mortar;

              promotion of modern methods of construction as a means of accelerated delivery;

              a public inquiry into the current pandemic of poor quality newbuild homes; and,

              fiscal disincentives for land banking and slow build out rates.

 

 

October 2020