Written evidence submitted by Locality [FPS 086]
Locality is the national membership network supporting local community organisations to be strong and successful. We support these local community organisations to unlock the power in their community to build a fairer society. Our member network of over 1000 community organisations creates the services their community needs most in spaces where everyone belongs. Every week our membership network supports over 400,000 people, helping to transform lives. Locality provides specialist advice, peer-learning, resources, and campaigns to create better operating conditions for our members.
Background to our response
Locality has been working with communities to develop neighbourhood plans since the powers were introduced through the Localism Act 2011. Neighbourhood planning enables people to shape their communities, influence growth in an area, and allows local residents to set their own planning policies that reflect local priorities and deliver local benefits. For the last eight years, Locality have delivered the neighbourhood planning support programme on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). To date we have supported over 2,400 communities to develop neighbourhood plans through direct support, advice and grants.
Locality also supports new groups interested in community-led housing through information and advice. Community-led housing projects are led by community groups determined to make sure that new homes are built and empty homes and buildings can be brought back into use to meet local housing needs. Locality facilitate a member-led group of over 50 community-led housing providers, to develop policy and recommendations about how community-led housing can be strengthened. We are also members of the Community-led Homes partnership, providing information, advice and support to community-led housing groups and growing the community-led housing movement.
Given the background of our organisation, we believe it is appropriate to submit evidence.
We believe that there is a need for a level of reform of the planning system to help make it more efficient and effective. However, we do not believe the Government’s proposals are the right approach. The planning system will always need to have a level of complexity, as it involves mediating between a range of competing stakeholders, including the community.
The proposals, in the name of simplification, will reduce democratic accountability in the system by limiting the degree to which the public shape planning outcomes, largely confining it to the plan making stage. We believe that the public should be afforded the ability to truly influence planning by having the opportunity to comment on site specific proposals and through making neighbourhood plans that have sufficient scope to shape growth and bring forward development the community wants and needs.
An underlying premise throughout many of the proposals is that the planning system is the root cause of the housing crisis. However, we believe this is a misdiagnosis and that this is not the case. Therefore, these reforms will do little in the way of solving the housing crisis and they have the potential to lead to uncertainty and a greater sense of the unknown, resulting in fewer homes being built.
Instead of the reforms proposed, we believe that increased funding for local authorities, better utilisation of existing tools (e.g. permission in principle, neighbourhood development orders (NDOs) and neighbourhood plans) could help make the planning system less complex and improve consistency in decision making, without compromising democratic accountability.
We support the proposals to move away from documents to data, with a greater emphasis on digitalisation. However, this must be finely balanced to ensure that those without access to electronic devices and the internet, as well as those less technologically savvy, are not frozen out of planning.
Response to questions
1.1. We believe that the planning system should support the inclusive engagement of local people in the development of sustainable and thriving communities. The planning system must be about designing socially, economically and environmentally sustainable places with the long-term infrastructure required to reduce inequalities. This requires a planning system where health and wellbeing, the environment and housing affordability are planning priorities. A well-functioning, democratic and inclusive planning system has the potential to deliver solutions to the big challenges facing our society – from the future of our high streets, to lack of affordable housing and climate change mitigation.
1.2. While we recognise the need for reform to make the planning system more efficient and effective to truly meet local needs, we do not believe that many of Government’s proposals represent the right approach. In particular, we do not believe that the proposals to overhaul local plans through moving to a land categorisation system is the best route to meeting the Government’s stated aims of improving certainty in the planning system and thereby tackling the housing crisis and securing better designed places. Furthermore, we believe that such an approach reduces accountability in the planning system, reduces the ability of communities to have their voices heard, and will lead to poorer quality places.
1.3. We recognise that the current complexities in the planning system can lead to uncertainty and inconsistency in how planning decisions are made. However, the suggested proposal of land categorisation and streamlining will create an inflexible system which presents huge risks for public participation and accountability in the planning system. We maintain that in a democratic planning system, local people and locally elected representatives (as spokespeople for the wider community they represent) should continue to have their say in planning applications.
1.4. We believe that, instead of these proposals, the issue of complexity and inconsistency in the planning system can be better remedied by: improved development and training for councillors in how the planning system works; and adequate and appropriate funding of Local Planning Authorities to counteract the years of underfunding in training and development. This will lead to more consistent planning decisions.
1.5. Use of neighbourhood development orders, is also an example of existing tools that could be better used to increase certainty within the planning system. Similarly, a further option could be to retain the current system but have some sites or areas with permission in principle for some types of development, such as community led housing This could help kickstart regeneration without negatively impacting other parts of a planning authority’s area. We think this would be best done where sites are allocated by neighbourhood planning groups in their neighbourhood plans. In this way public engagement is embedded in the process.
1.6. In addition, greater use of neighbourhood plans can also help Government meet its objectives of delivering more housing, as research shows areas with neighbourhood plans bring forward more housing than would otherwise be the case. We discuss neighbourhood plans in more detail later in this submission, where we set out its value and why the scope of neighbourhood plans must be protected.
1.7. As we note later in our submission, the Government’s proposals would reduce accountability and give people less chance to have their say in planning matters. Moving to a categorisation system whereby the principle of development and outline permission is obtained up front has the potential to reduce the degree to which the public can have their say in specific development proposals and shape their communities. Fundamentally, we believe that these reforms are a backward step for community power within the planning system. When preparing our response to the Planning White Paper we surveyed members and groups we have worked with. The majority of respondents expressed significant concerns about the proposals, and concerns about local democracy, community control and localism were referenced as a key reason for opposition to the land categorisation system by over two-thirds of respondents.
1.8. In addition, such radical reform will be complex and will take a long time to realise as it will require comprehensive legislative overhauls. This has the potential to lead to uncertainty and a greater sense of the unknown. This will likely lead to a slowdown in activity, which at an already vulnerable moment for the country due to Covid-19 has the potential to seriously exacerbate existing issues, resulting in fewer homes being built.
1.9. In addition, as we note in more detail in the response to the next question, planning is not the main cause of the housing crisis. The proposals are based on a rationale that the planning system is the root cause of the housing crisis. However, we believe this is a misdiagnosis. Instead, a more targeted approach is required in tackling the housing crisis including: encouraging mixed developments, tackling developer land banking, encouraging the release of land including that owned by the public sector for community led and affordable housing, and providing capital subsidies for affordable housing.
1.10. In summary, we do not believe the move towards land categorisation is the right approach. Instead, as we outline in this submission we recommend other reforms, as identified above and in the response to our next question (both planning and non-planning), and greater use of existing planning tools could help increase certainty in the system and secure greater build out of homes.
2.1. We believe the greatest obstacle to building 300,000 homes a year lies with the subsequent build out of properties following permission, as opposed to the planning system itself.
2.2. As the LGA highlight, 9 out of 10 applications for housing are approved. This demonstrates that there is already a large degree of certainty in the system and that the planning system is not the obstacle to delivering the housing we need. The problem is that there are currently up to 1 million houses with permission that have not been built. Therefore, the Government should place more emphasis on exploring why these permissions have not been built out, as the certainty the planning system currently provides is not the issue.
2.3. In addition, the Letwin Report made it clear that a key obstacle to build out is the market absorption rate- i.e. the rate at which homes can be released onto the market without materially disturbing the market price. In effect, this means that developers slowly release new dwellings at sluggish rates in a bid to keep demand (and therefore prices) higher to maximise profits.
2.4. To address this issue, sanctions are needed and could include for example: financial penalties for developers that do not build out within specified timeframes; rescinding permissions where developments are not built out in a specified time; equipping local authorities with compulsory purchase powers and resources to build on land with permission that is not being built out, and/or giving local authorities the power to charge a full levy on the unbuilt permissions.
2.5. It is also important to recognise the relationship between economic opportunity and housing. One of the most effective ways of increasing housing supply against the context of the business models of house builders is to create economic opportunity in under-performing areas. This will create demand in areas where there is greater market capacity.
2.6. The proposals outlined in the Planning White Paper are based on a rationale that the planning system is the root cause of the housing crisis. However, as highlighted here, we believe this is a misdiagnosis. Instead, a more targeted approach is required in tackling the housing crisis.
3.1. While the appearance of buildings is undoubtably important, the focus should be broader than what development will look like. The planning system should be a tool to ensure that places are functional, inclusive and sustainable.
3.2. Design impacts can be broad, including accessibility for those with disabilities, microclimatic impacts such as wind, provision of amenity space and the approach to car parking, in addition to the aesthetics. The style approach to the building may not be universally pleasing to all (e.g. some people favour pastiche over modern designs) but this is a matter of taste, beauty can be subjective and it is therefore preferable for planning to focus on good design. Similarly, areas may not be seen as beautiful in the traditional sense, but can still be fun, vibrant and exciting spaces that people want to spend time in. Such places help to add character to an area. Planning should not impose stylistic constraints.
3.3. Therefore, any future changes to the planning system should secure good design in the broader sense, rather than focusing on beauty and styles of individual buildings.
3.4. Neighbourhood plans also have a role in delivering well designed places and this role should continue. For example, many neighbourhood plans seek to address design via detailed design policies within their plans that are often underpinned by detailed design guidance and codes. In this way, neighbourhood plans build on the policies of the local plan by being more area specific, in turn delivering better quality design outcomes than a local plan alone would allow.
4.1. The consultation on changes to the current planning system details further changes to the standard method. While we welcome the Government’s intention to amend the standard method in a bid to bring forward housing that the country needs, we do have concerns with this approach. Setting a country wide formula will mean that it is not possible to truly reflect local need and could result in unrealistic growth targets in the South, while at the same time stifling any growth and regeneration in many northern areas, counteracting the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
4.2. Rather than making the standard method compulsory, it should be optional and used by local authorities where they believe it can generate figures that genuinely reflects local need.
4.3. Also, the methodology will not solve the housing crisis, because as noted elsewhere in this response, planning isn’t the obstacle to building and greater tools are needed for local authorities where build out is not happening following granting of permission.
4.4. We also note that in the consultation on changes to the current planning system the Government is planning to ensure that 25% of all affordable housing that comes forward via developer contributions is First Homes. We welcome this new housing product, but caution that flexibility should be maintained in the system so that the First Homes product does not jeopardise the ability of local authorities and communities to meet the full range of affordable need in their areas, including housing for rent at affordable levels.
4.5. We are concerned that the proposals in the White Paper would create a reliance on a centralised method for factoring in constraints. We believe this could be too crude a tool to take into account local issues and constraints. For example, a standardised tool is unlikely to be sophisticated enough to apply judgement to how much of an absolute a constraint is. For example, how much of an absolute the green belt is as a constraint could depend on how much of the area is made up by green belt and what the green belt is currently being used for.
4.6. In summary, the approach taken should be flexible enough to allow true consideration of the local area’s needs. This could be achieved by allowing local authorities to use their own robust methodologies to arrive at housing requirement figures. Similarly, in arriving at a determination of affordable housing mix, this should be left to the local authority and neighbourhood planning groups to determine, rather than being determined centrally.
What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system?
5.1. A fundamental principle to ensuring public engagement in the planning system is having a system that allows the public to have a real impact. Therefore, to ensure continued engagement in the system, this must be maintained.
5.2. The current system allows for community input to genuinely shape outcomes through providing a range of platforms to express their views. For example, at the local plan making stage, through developing neighbourhood plans and at the planning application stage when applications for development on specific sites are put forward.
5.3. As currently presented in the Planning White Paper, it appears that local communities will largely only be afforded one opportunity to influence planning, which will be at the plan making/design codes/guidance development stage. This new approach appears to suggest that there will largely be no place for communities to comment on specific individual development proposals as they come forward over the lifetime of the plan. This is problematic as feedback from our members and neighbourhood planning groups we work with makes it clear that often individuals struggle to engage at the local plan making stage as proposals are high level. Often it is only when individual applications come through and individuals can clearly understand potential impacts upon them that they truly become engaged in the planning system. Therefore, the ability to comment and shape proposals at this later stage is critical to ensure that the system remains democratically accountable.
5.4. An important element in ensuring community engagement in the planning system is to continue to allow people the opportunity to comment on proposals at the stage when site specific proposals have been drawn up. Failure to do this limits the ability of the public to truly shape planning outcomes and will also disenfranchise the community from getting involved in the earlier stages of plan preparation, leading to less engagement overall.
5.5. In addition to protecting the ability of the public to comment on site specific proposals, another important way to ensure community engagement in the planning system is to continue to protect the neighbourhood plan making community right. Neighbourhood plans are an important tool in helping to ‘bring the democracy forward’ in planning, by allowing communities to engage proactively on how they would like their areas to develop. In the last eight years, there have been over a 1000 made neighbourhood plans and over 2600 further groups developing plans. Many more groups are working on updating their plans to keep them up to date with the local and national context.
5.6. Neighbourhood plans have been particularly successful in:
• allocating sites for development (including housing). Neighbourhood plans are actively helping to address the housing crisis by bringing forward more housing than the local plan requires. Research from MHCLG in 2015 found that neighbourhood plans bring forward more housing than areas without neighbourhood plans. This has been further demonstrated in more recent research, where looking at 135 plans, it was found that they allocated 18,000 additional units in total above the local plan allocations;
• adding meat to the bones of local plan policies and tailoring land use planning to the hyper local level (with policies to: promote city and town centres and high streets; promote heritage-led economic development and regeneration; promote employment, enterprise and economic diversification; as well as securing housing that reflects local need);
• protecting locally valued green spaces (through local green space designations); and
• shaping the design of proposals through guidance and codes.
5.7. All of this is delivering real change in communities. Given this, the scope of neighbourhood plans must be protected, regardless of the planning system pursued (categorisation or other). We are concerned that some of the proposals in White Paper could mean a reduced scope for neighbourhood plans, with an emphasis largely on design. Failure to allow neighbourhood plans to direct and deliver growth in the ways outlined above will therefore result in less uptake from communities in neighbourhood plan making. This would reduce the involvement and engagement of local people in planning and therefore may lead to greater contention with developers (as recent research demonstrates that where a NP seeks to shape growth, there is less tension in development, which can reduce delays associated with legal challenges or other forms of opposition). It would also lead to poorer and less sustainable outcomes for communities, as it would greatly inhibit their ability to bring forward housing that truly reflects local need.
5.8. In summary, the best approach to ensure community engagement in the planning system is maintaining a system where people feel like they can truly have an impact. In practical terms this means maintaining the ability to comment on site-specific proposals and producing neighbourhood plans with the full scope afforded to them via the Localism Act (including the ability to shape growth). Failure to do this will undermine public confidence in the system and will lead to disenfranchisement, leading to less people engaging.
What role should modern technology and data play in this?
5.9. Modern technology and data should play a key role in securing engagement in the planning system and we welcome many of the suggested proposals outlined in the White Paper to make decision making faster and more certain, including the greater digitalisation of the planning application process and increased reliance on data to improve accessibility and make efficiencies. We also welcome the proposal that would see the creation of a digital template for planning notices so that planning application information can be more effectively communicated and understood by local communities. This will help make this more accessible to a wider range of people than traditional methods would allow.
5.10. However, more traditional techniques will also need to play an equally important role to secure engagement in the planning system. We believe that it is essential to also ensure that those without access to devices (for example, due to finance, or technical capabilities) are not left out of the process and therefore traditional methods should remain alongside the new approaches.
5.11. This includes traditional face to face engagement. Charette style workshops could be particularly useful to secure meaningful input from communities into the local plan making stage.
5.12. Similarly, while social media can be an excellent way to raise awareness of plan making work, physical promotion (posters, boards etc.) in communities is still essential for those without access to electronic devices. There are also a range of ways in which consultations can be taken to where people are gathered for other reasons to raise awareness and to draw upon and take account of a wider range of perspectives. In addition, it is worth recognising that some areas, owing to a range of factors (including socio-economic), will require greater levels of targeting and resources to secure effective engagement.
6.1. The checks and measures in place within any planning system should both afford the protection of such assets, but allow for improvement and enhancement to maximise opportunities.
6.2. The reforms set out in the White Paper suggest that development in Protected areas (which would include some of the areas that could fall into the above) should be dealt with through the traditional planning application route, which we welcome.
6.3. However, the categorisation as Protected should not stifle economic development or regeneration. For example, it is worth noting that many conservation areas are a focus for economic and physical transformation. The White Paper proposes to label them as Protected. There is no recognition that historic areas are sometimes a basis for dramatic physical and economic transformations, for example through bringing back empty commercial spaces into good quality housing. The White Paper does not consider heritage-led economic development or regeneration and the simplistic categorisation approach has the potential to stifle it and this should be avoided.
6.4. The current planning system that is in place helps support decision making through the evaluation of the likely significant effects of the plan on the environment, focussing on how adverse effects can be mitigated and positive effects enhanced. While there is no doubt that a more streamlined approach would be welcomed by many stakeholders, it is essential that any reforms do not compromise the ability to adequately assess the impacts of a plan. Without appropriate and balanced mechanisms for assessing the impacts of a plan on the environment, there will be poorer quality, unsustainable places, with worse environmental and health outcomes.
6.5. This is particularly concerning because the proposals would see local plans granting outline planning permission for significant development, meaning that specific proposals are likely to be subject to less scrutiny further down the line.
6.6. The White Paper proposals do not set out how the environmental impacts will be screened, scoped and assessed for a particular scheme coming forward in a Growth area. If this is part of the reserved matters stage ( as opposed to the outline stage, which is currently the case), this could potentially increase uncertainty and prove costly and time consuming for developers if they have prepared detailed plans for a scheme that has harmful environmental impacts. It is likely that a developer would not want to produce detailed plans when the environmental effects have not been adequately assessed at an earlier stage. Fundamentally, greater scrutiny is required at the plan making stage, so as to ensure high quality, environmentally, socially and financially sustainable development is promoted.
7.1. We believe the flexible approach for development on green belts should be maintained, with a continued emphasis on utilising appropriate brownfield and underutilised sites in the first instance. However, within this flexible approach it is essential that long term benefits to communities and the environment are not eroded. We would also like to see the ability of neighbourhood plans to make amendments to green belt boundaries (where LPA strategic policies establish a need for changes to the green belt boundary) to continue, as per paragraph 136 of the NPPF.
8.1. We believe the approach to land value capture needs to take account of areas where the land economy is marginal or where there are viability gaps. The levy should aim to capture more value in high growth areas. Some of this increased amount can then be passed on to neighbourhood planning groups to support infrastructure priorities identified through the neighbourhood plan development process.
8.2. The White Paper proposes that the new levy should capture changes of use through permitted development rights. We welcome this proposal and believe that changes of use through permitted development rights should be captured under any planning gain arrangements, including the existing S106 and CIL arrangements. The LGA notes with the current exclusion of changes of use through permitted development rights, more than 13,500 affordable homes have been lost. The proposed changes will particularly benefit areas with high levels of office to residential conversions through the permitted development route. However, we do not support the use of permitted development rights for change to residential use in its current form as it leads to poorer quality developments and mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure housing is delivered at a suitable standard.
8.3. We recommend that the Government also recognises the need for more strategic investment in the form of central Government funding to fund greater affordable housing provision and community led housing.
8.4. While we welcome the intention of simplifying the levy process and securing greater monies for essential infrastructure and affordable housing, we do have a number of concerns. For example, we are pleased to see the commitment in the White Paper for the new levy to deliver affordable housing and in particular we are pleased to see reference to a preference for on-site delivery. However, consolidating wider infrastructure spending (the type which CIL currently provides) with affordable housing (currently provided through Section 106) increases the potential for affordable housing needs having to compete with wider infrastructure unless safeguards are put in place. Without safeguards for contributions for affordable housing the changes could potentially mean more areas seeking provision of community infrastructure at the expense of affordable housing. Keeping both streams separate safeguards against this happening (or at least formally ring-fencing an appropriate amount of the levy for affordable housing).