Written evidence submitted by Savills [FPS 101]
On behalf of Savills UK Ltd (“Savills”), I am pleased to provide our response to the call for evidence in respect of the Inquiry into The Future of the Planning System (“the Inquiry’).
Introduction to Savills
Savills is a FTSE 250 leading real estate company, providing a range of agency, property management, investment management and consultancy services. Savills employs over 39,000 staff and operates from over 650 offices worldwide.
Savills is the UK’s largest planning consultancy, with over 180 chartered town planners covering every land use sector and region of the country from a network of 18 offices. The company is involved in all aspects of the planning process for both public and private sector clients. As a result we are deeply interested in achieving a first-class planning system and are well placed to submit this evidence.
Our response to the Inquiry builds upon our responses to consultations undertaken by the Government on Planning for the Future: White Paper, August 2020 and Changes to the Current Planning System:
Consultation on Changes to Planning Policy and Regulations, August 2020. A copy of these responses can be made available upon request.
The views expressed in this evidence are those of chartered town planners at Savills pertaining to the planning system in England only.
Our response follows the issues set out in the Call for Evidence.
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?
Answer to this question depends on what the responder considers the current planning system is intended to achieve.
The National Planning Policy Framework states that the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and it provides a definition of sustainable development.
We consider the planning system should provide a clear and user-friendly framework to regulate the use of land in town and in country under an umbrella objective of sustainable development.
We consider the current system is effective in ‘rationing’ land for development which in the main has avoided urban sprawl and it has afforded statutory protection to land. Some of the great successes of the planning system include protectionist policies such as the Green Belt and bringing into land-use regulations national designations of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, etc.
The planning system operates at various levels but is in the main a top-down system with policy and guidance set at the national level, to be followed by many stakeholders at regional, sub-regional and local levels of society.
The planning system can be characterised as nationally-significant development, plan-making for development and decision-making on development.
There has been an erosion of strategic-planning which has led to uncertainty for land-use planning that is strategic in nature including large-scale development and development which presents cross-boundaries issues for local authorities and wider stakeholders. This is an area that needs mending as the duty to cooperate is not working. This potentially could be addressed by requiring more joint plan making, which would have the additional benefit of reducing the number of local plans being produced that often gives rise to duplication of both effort and outcome.
There has been an emphasis on speed of decision-making which we see as frequently over-shadowing the quality of decision-making. There is a need for greater resourcing of planning and good design.
There have been frequent changes focussed on loosening control over certain types of development seemingly with the aim of increasing delivery of development which has not necessarily resulted in good quality development. The increased scope of permitted development rights is an example of this. For there to be public trust in the planning system it needs to be shown to be working effectively and part of that is ensuring high quality outcomes in the physical environment.
There has been an erosion in the perception of the planning system, the status of planning practitioners especially in the public sector and a reduction in resources within local authority planning departments which has affected morale and efficiency and effectiveness of the system. Delays to plan-making and decision-taking frustrate development and create uncertainty, which can be unsettling for local communities.
Changes to the planning system that would help address these matters include:
The Government’s proposals comprising the two recent national-level consultations identify problems with the system but we do not agree with the full extent of proposed changes. This is explained in our responses to these consultations.
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?
This is a complex area without a simple answer however on balance we consider the planning system is not the greatest obstacle to delivery of housing in England. The planning system is capable of delivering planning permissions at such scale that will provide the platform for delivery on the ground.
This is evident in the number of dwellings granted permission each year, which exceeds the Government’s national housing target.. The issue is whether these dwellings are in the ‘right place’ (to reflect market and affordability) and whether sufficient development is being planned in up to date local plans. A greater emphasis on fewer, faster produced and more strategic/ visionary local plans is required. This will require the sign-up of many agencies and stakeholders, to ensure shared objectives are best achieved.
Constraints to delivery of housing in England covers a range of considerations bearing in mind there are regional and sub-regional differences in the market for development land and for housing.
An area of constraint is the range of delivery providers where increasing the number of house builders (private and public) and the trades needed for delivery will help increase the volume of delivery.
3. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?
Resourcing is needed of plan-making and decision-making authorities especially local authority planning departments, meaning training of relevant professionals and enhancement of the status of urban design practitioners. This comprises wider stakeholders beyond local authority planning departments to include the Planning Inspectorate and relevant Government Departments.
There is no standard measure for beauty in the built environment. This is all about context which of course varies massively within town and country and form place to place. Context is very important and tools such as pre-application discussions and design and access statements help in this regard.
National-level development management policies can provide consistency in approach albeit there may need to be some local variations.
Overall the planning system should retain the ability to ‘say no’ to development that is not beautiful or fit for purpose. Beauty should not be a ‘trump card’ that overrides other considerations that are relevant in the planning balance. Our response to the White Paper provides further commentary in respect of the proposals for Building Beautiful.
4. What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?
We have provided our comments on this matter to Government in our response to Changes to the Current Planning System: Consultation on Changes to Planning Policy and Regulations, August 2020.
In May 2020 Savills published our proposals for a revised Standard Method (a copy of which can be provided). Our two main conclusions were that:
In relation to two specific elements of the revised Method, we consider that improvements can be made.
1. The use of 0.5% of existing stock as one of the two methods of arriving at a baseline figure continues to give too much weight to the volatile household projections, which would continue to form the baseline for three-quarters of the country, and would not be as agile and stable as required by the first and third of the Government’s objectives.
Raising the starting point to 0.75% of existing stock would reduce the weight placed on the household projections and provide a more stable baseline.
2. London needs to be treated differently. The reality is that high levels of existing stock, high levels of projected household growth, and high affordability ratios, and a Standard Method that is based on these, inevitably produces a very high level of Local Housing Need in London.
Consequently, we consider that either a) the revised proposed Standard Method should not be applied to London and instead a SHMA-based approach should be continued (currently 66,000 homes per year); or b) the revised Method should be applied but with the current 40% cap retained (which would be 72,800 homes per year).
If these two amendments to the proposed revised Standard Method were made, the Local Housing Need across the country would be approximately 340,000 to 360,000 new homes per year, would have a more agile yet stable baseline, and would achieve a better distribution of new homes, whilst addressing both existing and worsening affordability.
We do not support a ‘policy-on’ approach to the Standard Method. Instead Standard Method 2 should be implemented as soon as practicable. It should then be retained for a period of at least five years, albeit acknowledged as the ‘starting point for setting housing targets, to provide the industry and local authorities greater certainty in plan making.
5. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?
It is essential that the public consider that they have a fair opportunity to influence decision-making in the planning system if it is to have legitimacy. This does not mean that decisions are held solely in the hands of the communities directly affected. This requires a balanced approach and one that needs to be constantly reviewed as new technologies are adopted by society at large; the planning system needs to demonstrate it is ‘keeping up’ with modern means of communication. .
Greater use of digital technology has commenced, accelerated by the Covid experience, and more can be done in terms of access to plans and applications. A greater emphasis on engagement at an early part of the planning process will help including preparation of development plans for example local plans and neighbourhood plans.
Digital technology provides the opportunity to democratise the planning system and encourage wider engagement with the through the plan-making and planning application stages. Local authorities need the resources to conduct digital engagement in an inclusive and efficient manner. Savills supports the greater use of digital technology in planning.
The is also a challenge in relation to the overall image of planning for development and place-making. This needs to be improved such that it is more recognised as a valuable and rewarding career and an important statutory role of local government and other statutory undertakers, particularly in light of the key role it plays in addressing the environmental challenges faced by society and the world, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. This will need a multi-agency approach and resourcing.
6. How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?
The current system provides adequate protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical and architectural importance through the National Planning Policy Framework and statutory development plans.
The interaction of existing historic buildings legislation such as Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas needs to be reconciled with the Government’s proposed Renewal and Protection allocations, notably in town centres.
7. What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?
In planning policy terms, Green Belt is at the top of the tree when it comes to protection of land. However, it is important to distinguish between Green Belt, as a planning tool for shaping the growth of urban areas, and other policies which give protection to our most important and sensitive places e.g. Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Equally, not all Green Belt land has the same characteristics and generally speaking Green Belt can include locations which are accessible in commuter terms and therefore present opportunities more sustainable opportunities for growth than some non-Green Belt locations.
Importantly, Green Belt should not be inflexible, it should be subject to the same test as other policies and decision-making within the planning system i.e. does it lead to more sustainable patterns of development. The emphasis is therefore on the circumstances which lead to a review of the Green Belt and potential amendments to the Green Belt. The ‘exceptional circumstances’ test under the NPPF is considered appropriate as a technical exercise but all too often we see development plans being delayed and growth targets not met due to the political and community pressure to retain every inch of Green Belt in all circumstances (sometimes even where land is wrongly thought of by a community as being Green Belt when it is not).
In reality, most if not all local authorities with Green Belt need to engage the exceptional circumstances test when preparing a local plan, and thus Savills questions why a national or sub-national review of Green Belt, or requirement for a Green Belt review is not undertaken.
Strategic development to be guided by strategic policies in development plans should be considered on a regional or sub-regional basis which will help to provide some oversight of growth requirements, patterns of development, protection of land from development and delivery of infrastructure. This level of consideration would allow for balanced and evidenced-based approach to decisions to remove land from the Green Belt in areas where this is required to meet acknowledged needs. In such cases, the ‘exceptional circumstances’ case can best be demonstrated when a clear strategic case has been established i.e. one that extends over more than one local authority area. This is exemplified by the work undertaken by the Oxfordshire Growth Board, which has effectively formulated plans to meet the housing needs of Oxford through a coordinated approach with adjoining authorities and which has involved Green Belt review.
As outlined in our response to the White Paper, Savills considers:
In respect of Garden towns/villages/communities, Savills considers that national policy should be strengthened to allow these to come forward, where designated, in the Green Belt – notably where there is an ‘out of date’ local plan. The use of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Process (NSIP) should be considered to facilitate the consenting of such proposals.
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?
The current planning system does not seek to capture land value. This system seeks to mitigate the impact of development through planning conditions and planning obligations. There is no explicit link to the increase in land values brought about from a change in the planning status of land.
We consider a reform of the Community Infrastructure Levy is needed as this is complex and restrictive. We support the retention of S106 planning obligations (and the potential use of S106 ‘tariffs’), as the primary method to secure infrastructure, and mitigate the impact of development where necessary. We are cautious at best, with respect of the proposals for an Infrastructure Levy.
We do not support capturing of land value through the planning system. We consider this is a matter of taxation and not planning.
We are grateful for the opportunity to provide our evidence for consideration by the Committee. We are willing to expand upon our evidence and to attend a sitting of the inquiry to address any questions.