Written evidence submitted by London Borough of Hackney [FPS 091]

Introduction

Hackney Council is the planning authority for the London Borough of Hackney, responsible for the planning strategy for the Borough, local planning policies, design principles and supplementary planning documents.

The Council is responding to the inquiry because the Government’s proposals set out in their White Paper, titled ‘Planning for the future’, would have a profound impact on the Council’s planning role, and ability to shape the local area cooperatively with our local communities.

The proposals would also impact the Council’s ambitions to deliver genuinely affordable homes for our residents. As a council-developer, centralised control of planning policies would impact our regeneration programmes and our ability to deliver on the pledges we made to local residents regarding genuinely affordable housing in our schemes.

While we welcome the opportunity to engage in reforming and improving the UK’s planning system, fundamentally the Government’s proposals only address one element of planning ─ housing development. We welcome the opportunity to engage with this inquiry to encourage the Government and the Committee to consider planning for what it is ─ place-making.

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?

1.1              The UK’s planning system is the envy of many other countries.  At its core are the principles of sustainable development, social equality and cohesion and balance and fairness.  Hackney Council has enshrined these principles in our borough strategy ─ Hackney: a Place for Everyone which in turn has informed our Local Plan. However, over the years amendments to the English Planning system have eroded the system’s ability to secure these principles in favour of land and developer interests and at the cost of a fair and balanced society.  The new proposals compound and consolidate this position. 

1.2              The Government’s new proposals are NOT proposals for a Planning system.  The White Paper addresses only one particular area of planning ─ that of housing.  The White Paper is essentially a Development White Paper, not a Planning White Paper. It seeks to liberalise the Planning system to increase land supply for more housing and expedite planning permission.  However, land supply and the granting of permission are not the key factors that are holding growth back. 

1.3              The Council considers that the Government needs to be seen to be delivering its manifesto commitment of 300,000 pa by the time of the next election. These proposals will not bring these forward. The planning system has granted developers permission to build 1m homes which currently remain unimplemented - more that 300,000 in London alone amounting to 10 years’ worth of housing targets. In Hackney, over the last seven years,  nearly 1,000 residential permissions remained unimplemented.  If implemented, they would have delivered over 2,000 net additional new homes[1]. Of almost 4,000 units approved,  3,000 were either started or completed - securing over 11,000 new additional homes.  Within this context, the release of additional land for housing would be highly premature as it is clear that the development industry is projecting and actively seeks rising profits for itself through the manipulation of delivery and supply.

1.4              As evidenced by the Letwin Review, developers will only construct at the rate of absorption where that rate sustains current prices, profits and shareholder dividends derived from the financial parameters their developments are premised on.  These prices are unaffordable to most and particularly to those in the most acute housing need. This will continue to be the case as long as house prices continue to be linked to land values, not to household incomes which is further compounded when coupled with the restricted supply of new homes.The planning system is working, development finances are not.

1.5              The recently adopted Hackney Local 2033 (LP33) sets out the Council’s approach towards genuinely affordable housing under LP33 Policy LP13, which seeks a tenure split of 60% Social and 40% Intermediate.   In support of this policy, the Council prepared evidence, set out in the Strategic Housing Market Assessment Addendum 2018, that the need for genuine new additional affordable housing provision is a clear market signal for intervention.  This evidence supports the policy’s tenure split, which seeks the delivery of at least 60% of all affordable provision as social rented accommodation.   Evidence demonstrates that this approach is sound, deliverable and does not in any way place development viability (or growth) at risk.   Consequently, the Council suggests that the Government withdraw this proposal and continue to allow local planning authorities to set local policies that accurately reflect evidence of need and viability, in addition to addressing local needs.

1.6              The Council currently has a waiting list of over 13,000 households and over 3,000 homeless households living in temporary accommodation.  Hackney is also the ninth most deprived local authority area in the country.  Evidence demonstrates that 70% of all the Borough’s households have an income of £30,000 or less. This is in a context where house prices in Hackney have risen by over 71% over the past five years and are among the highest in the country.  In response, the Council, through its own housebuilding programmes, is seeking to deliver 2,000 new homes between 2018 and 2022.  Alongside Council homes to rent, many of these will be shared ownership homes, which are marketed to and mostly purchased by local people.

1.7              Any new proposals aimed at achieving construction for the number of homes needed for where they are needed should, at the very least, seek to:

                    Enforce changes to development finance in order to de-couple property prices from escalating land values and tie them to buyers’/renters’ household income instead

                    Enforce the implementation of permissions

                    Make planning obligations genuinely obligatory as per Reg 122

                    Provide local authorities improved financing and land acquisition capacities to provide where the market will not and enable them to provide at the same successful degree as they did in the past.

In doing so, this will lead to a re-adjustment of the forces pushing viability and affordability to breaking point, including:

                    Containment of rises in land values

                    Reduction on banks’ lending criteria on developers

                    Containment of expectations of financial gain.

2.                  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?

2.1              Build-out and the impacts on this of land values and development finance are the main obstacles. The grant of permission should come with an enforceable obligation to build what is consented. This would prevent land banking and the onward sale of sites without development.  Hackney Council highlights its role as a local housing developer, delivering genuinely affordable homes that meet local needs.

2.2              Hackney Council suggests that if the Government is serious about introducing interventions that secure build-outs then it explores potential options that transfer land with unimplemented permission to local developers with a strong consistent record of delivery - for example the London Borough of Hackney.  Hackney Council welcomes such an intervention as it would meet the shared objectives of significantly boosting supply and meeting real local housing needs.  It is notable that the only points in recent history where we have exceeded construction of 300,000 new additional homes per annum have been during periods of sustained home building by local government.

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

3.1              ‘Beauty’, as a term, presents challenges as it is not an objective term that people agree upon. What can be agreed upon, is that development that is of a high quality in terms of materials and detailing, as well as proposals that are contextually appropriate, is always encouraged throughout the planning process within The Council at present.

3.2              Currently, we develop both area-based planning policy that informs development in a particular area, and thematic policy which aligns with the aims of adopted policy.  This ensures that development is contextually appropriate, specifically in relation to materiality, scale and massing as well as architectural language. It also means that planmaking is informed regularly through consultation, meaning the local community is engaged.

3.3              It is considered that the use of pattern books promoting the copying of “popular” designs to facilitate speedy high-density development will work against the principles of beauty.  The use of such codes are contradictory to the desire for promoting innovation and modern methods of construction, specifically to deal with the climate crisis. Hackney Council is unconvinced that such replication enables densification, or local acceptance of it, nor speed up housing delivery in dense urban environments.

3.4              Beauty must be more than skin deep. Current policies are weak on delivering robust construction quality, and innovation is often used as an excuse for delivering homes which are not designed to last. The beauty of many historic buildings comes directly from the construction, whereas contemporary copies of popular designs have little depth of quality.  Policies should eliminate the use of poor quality materials, finishes, and construction methods which fail and are not fit for purpose in the long term.

3.5              Britain has some of the smallest new homes in Europe. As part of a national design code, the Nationally Described Space Standards for housing should be upgraded to address the poor internal spatial qualities allowed by the current code. Brighter homes with multiple aspects, larger windows, higher ceilings and more generous spaces are beautiful, flexible and uplifting should be encouraged by upgraded prescribed space standards.

3.6              Currently, the permitted development regime includes conditions that require design elements, such as matching materials, pass a test relating to ‘appearance’. These conditions are vague and unenforceable in practice. It remains unclear how tests such as “appearance” relate to local policies on design and whether they can be applied to Permitted Development applications. The proposed use of Local Orders to modify the set of standardised forms to align with local acceptance complicates the system further. This will only add a layer to what is in essence a similar process to gaining planning permission under the current system.

3.7              It is highlighted that the Government’s own “Living with Beauty” report is highly critical of the design consequences of recent changes in Permitted Development rights.  Hackney Council concurs with this critique. Therefore, it is considered that extending permitted development rights would have an adverse impact on place-making and the quality of development.

3.8              It is considered that in order to ensure buildings are appropriately and contextually designed, further resources should be allocated to ensure supplementary planning guidance can be provided by the LPA, in collaboration with local communities through consultation. This can apply for certain geographic areas of the LPA, or be related to specific themes that are pertinent and/or democratically supported by local residents, as is the case with the ‘ Draft Growing up in Hackney, Child Friendly Design SPD’ .

3.9              In order for the planning system to be fit for purpose, it needs to be adequately resourced with well-trained officers that have knowledge and expertise in evaluating design, sustainability and heritage aspects of development proposals.

3.10              The best way that our planning system can ensure that future developments are beautiful and fit-for-purpose is through local policy-making and guidance.  Such an approach will allow for local distinctiveness; for example in terms of materials, natural landscapes and existing townscapes; to be given full consideration.  The preparation of policy and guidance at local level also provides opportunities for local residents and communities to directly engage in plan-making and decision-taking.  By doing they can share ownership of the policy layer and the subsequent decisions that it informs.

3.11              In contrast, the codified national approach proposed in the White Paper is an inflexible one-size-fits all that has the potential to impose a “pattern-book” vision of beauty, in the process stifling innovation and advancement in the name of popular consent.  It is highly unlikely that the proposed approach will have the capacity to take account of local distinctiveness.  Equally, the centralisation of policy-making runs the risk of alienating and disenfranchising residents and communities.

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

4.1              The proposed standard method is a crude and arbitrary mechanism for calculating and setting housing requirements for individual local planning authority areas at a national level.  It is noteworthy that the Government’s own political housing target (300,000 new additional homes per annum) is not derived from any reliable technical evidence base.  The standard method is an artificial mechanism for arriving at the Government’s target and as a consequence is unreliable and unsound. 

4.2              Approaches to determining housing need rather than political desire should take account of the complexity of the housing market in various areas.  Hackney, as an inner London borough, has an extremely complex pattern of land uses and values which put pressures on housing delivery and supply.  In our experience, assessments of affordability need to be much more sensitive to local housing markets and the ability of local residents to access good quality housing that is affordable relative to their income.

 

4.3              It is noteworthy that within London the standard method is not used to identify objectively assessed housing need through the London Plan.  Instead, the London Plan uses a genuinely evidence-based approach to identify the housing requirement for the London Housing Market Area.  The Council believes that this approach continues to be sound.  Furthermore it is noted that the approach taken by the London Plan, in contrast to the standard method, already factors in housing land availability and other constraints.  This is an approach that is consistent with the Government’s own proposals in the recent White Paper.

4.4              The Council deems that at the macro level, the proposal to rapidly increase housing supply, through the standard method, may have a very limited impact on improving affordability.  The Council considers the proposals crude, centralised and controlled assessment of housing need does not in any way reflect the specific housing challenges faced by the residents and communities of Hackney.  The reality is that places like Hackney will not be able to significantly increase supply to the levels that would have a measurable impact on affordability.  For the Government’s approach to work the Borough would need to transform the typology of future development into something akin to that encountered in extremely high density megacities.  Such high-intensity, vertical typologies are entirely alien to places like Hackney.  Their introduction would have an extremely negative impact on the lived experience of communities and a harmful impact on the visual character and appearance of the Borough, with further harm being highly likely experienced by our statutory and local heritage assets.

4.5              Given the high intensity of such typologies the potential impact on amenity (to residents and communities) could be felt beyond the Borough’s administrative boundary.   On that basis the Council strongly argues that this aspect of managing housing supply and delivery is best left at local level to manage and implement.  Our evidence of success demonstrates that such an approach works.

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

5.1              The best approach is to continue to deploy a range and variety of engagement tools that are appropriate for the place and the type/ context of consultation and engagement.

5.2              Proposals for greater use of new technologies to secure improvements in community engagement is welcomed. In recent years, Hackney Council has updated their practices to explore more creative, digital avenues of engagement and consultation such as use of Commonplace.

5.3              However, Hackney Council seeks clarification as to whether the proposal will be supported  with funding for training and resources on ground to ensure this is democratic and meaningful?

5.4              It is vital to remain aware that a sole focus on the use of digital technology holds the significant potential to disadvantage those residents and communities who do not have easy access to the internet or the technology.  In Hackney Council’s experience this will disadvantage more vulnerable groups: children and young people, the elderly and economically disadvantaged families. The planning system needs to retain at least a backup non-digital system for individuals and groups  who would be disadvantaged by a planning system entirely reliant upon virtual technologies.

5.5              Hackney Council seeks to illustrate its position with reference to its recent experience during the preparation and production of its draft Child Friend Places Supplementary Planning Document (SPD).  A key objective in preparing the SPD is to improve how Hackney Council engages with and involves children and young people in the planning process to ensure that their specific needs are considered and met within new developments. Within the document there is a specific chapter on guidelines for engagement and consultation with children and young people, supported by case study examples of best practice. This chapter could support addressing the democratic deficit arising out of government proposals over time. Hackney Council could seize upon this chapter to support and justify its future initiatives.  In addition to an explicit chapter, the lessons learnt through the engagement process on the SPD will inform an update to the Council’s Statement of Community Involvement.  That document outlines the Council’s standards for involving and engaging with the community, including children and young people, in the planning process (both in plan-making and planning decisions) and identifies the tools for how this will be achieved.

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

6.1              The English Planning System already provides adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance.  The existing systems use of heritage assets, landscape, ecological and habitat designations provides a clear and transparent mechanism for protecting these key elements and factors that contribute towards making our nation’s places unique and special.  It is highlighted that the existing system is already supported by sound evidence and assessment methodologies.  In that context, the White Paper’s proposals for the identification of protection zones is unnecessary.

6.2              The planning system, and in particular Listed Buildings need to remain under the control of the Local Authority and Hackney Council rejects the suggestion that suitably experienced architectural specialists could have autonomy from the listed building consent regime.

6.3              The designation of a building as listed or an area as a Conservation Area is a legal infringement on private rights in land, which is only acceptable because such an infringement is in the public interest to protect the national and local asset of heritage: patrimony trumps ownership to some extent. It is essential that the limitations and controls which the designation of heritage assets brings are exercised for the public good by a public authority. In practice, the attempt to privatise this process would be corrupting, with the rapid development of a private market in consultants who will “go easy” on owners and harm significance in the interest of their paying client rather than the national heritage interest. The Grenfell tragedy demonstrates all too clearly how the privatisation of regulation results in the reduction of safety standards: this model of regulation should not be extended to heritage.

6.4              It is unclear how the planning framework for listed buildings and conservation areas is proposed to be updated to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing change to support their continued use and address climate change.The existing framework is not about preventing change, it is about managing that change to ensure the elements that are “special” are preserved for future generations. Each Listed Building and historic area is unique and has different features and a different level of preservation of historic features. The planning system needs to reflect that there is no such thing as “routine” listed building consent or one set of rules that applies to all. The concept that there can be one set of catch-all rules demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the conservation of historic buildings and areas.

6.5              Hackney Council recognises the valuable role of enforcement and welcomes the strengthening of relevant powers and sanctions. However, there needs to be greater resources, faster appeals and additional government support for rarely used powers such as compulsory purchase.

6.6              It is unclear how the setting of Listed Buildings will be protected with relation to the recent Permitted Development Rights and any future zoning, in particular Renewal and Growth Areas. Listed Buildings cannot be seen in isolation and its wider setting will often contribute to the building's significance. Listed Buildings are found throughout the Borough and may not always be within Conservation Areas so the concept of “Protected Area” will not provide any form of protection to the setting of these irreplaceable heritage assets. Moreover, the setting of a Listed Building is not a fixed entity and depends on a building by building basis.

6.7              The planning system needs to ensure that there are an adequate number of suitably trained conservation specialists to ensure the areas and buildings of environmental, historical and architectural importance are protected. From 2006 to 2018 the number of conservation specialists has fallen by 35% and yet the number of Listed Buildings, and Conservation Areas has only increased.[2]

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

7.1              Hackney Council has no comments to make on this matter.

8.                  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?

8.1              CIL has functioned as a form of land value capture to a certain extent, in that some land is captured in a manner that provides a degree of certainty to local authorities when planning for infrastructure delivery to mitigate and support growth.  However, the amount captured does not make a genuinely meaningful contribution to the costs incurred.  The Council recognises that any amount is valuable but such a Levy should be more proportionate to the costs it incurs.

8.2              The proposed Levy or any alternative to the current system proposed should capture more. Developers are deft at using viability appraisals, and in particular EUV, to argue for their inability to comply with policy and associated obligations despite Area Action Plan viability assessments and determination of the CIL Schedule which has undergone inspection at EiP.  Hackney has a good record of carrying out robust scrutiny of viability appraisals against developers’ claims of poor viability but the planning system is still structured in their favour to permit them scope for minimising obligations.  The new proposal will not resolve these issues but instead replace viability issues  with valuation issues exacerbating the lack of infrastructure and affordable housing delivery and delaying development. 

8.3              In addition to valuation issues and the risk of gambling on the future performance of the property market, there is also the complication of the time lags and market performance between valuations at permission, on completion and occupation on top of the UK’s economically inherent boom-bust cycle. Developers could take advantage of this, particularly in the event of an economic crisis or market crash, to protect cashflow leaving any local authorities who  might have borrowed against predicted receipts with huge debts and associated rising interest payments and a larger proportion of the electorate in a housing crisis. We have seen several boom-bust cycles in the last 30 years with recovery from each not reaching previous levels. Such cycles would fail to  provide for infrastructure for sustainable development.  Forward-funding is already available to councils for various initiatives but has not been taken up on a wide basis precisely because of the level of risk.

8.4              The government will need to legislate for the enforcement of build-out and occupation within a timescales which does not leave local authorities exposed to financial risk.  Proposals should aim to enforce policy compliance and make planning obligations truly obligatory having been tested and examined by the Planning Inspector during plan-making.  Delays in build-out and occupation should incur financial penalties. 

 

October 2020

 

 


[1] Source - LDD Housing approvals  database  covering the period 01/04/12 - 31/03/19.

[2] The Tenth report on Local Authority Staff Resources, Produced by Historic England, the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation October 2018.