Written evidence submitted by Stonewater [FPS 103]

 

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?

 

Proposed changes to the planning system

Stonewater is supportive of simplifying Local Plans in order to encourage sustainable housing development of all tenures. Local Plans are often large and unwieldly documents that are difficult to navigate and interpret.

 

More detail is needed on how the proposals will actively encourage growth. Many areas have a complex geography or make up, so it may be difficult to clearly identify areas of Growth and Renewal due to lack of available land. We would like to see measures introduced that hold Local Authorities to account and ensure that have fully considered all potential areas of growth and renewal – including where difficult decisions are required, such as taking land out of the Green Belt where it is suitable for development.

 

Additionally, there are often heritage constraints in areas that would be suitable for sustainable growth and we would wish to ensure that protectionist Local Authorities have to explain why a constraint could not be overcome rather than it being used as a tool to prevent growth or make decisions that might be political, rather than practical.

 

Stonewater agrees with a principle of identifying ‘Growth’ areas and granting an automatic permission in principle for these as it has the potential to provide more certainty for developers, including developing Housing Associations.

 

However, more clarity is needed on what is the value/weight of a permission in principle compared to the existing Outline planning permission category. For example, just because a site has Outline permission now, it does not mean that the principle of development is accepted by local councillors. Clarity is needed around this as it will have an impact on the funding available to developers such as SMEs and Housing Associations.

 

Delivery of affordable housing

Stonewater is supportive in principle of the proposal to replace the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 planning obligations with a new consolidated Infrastructure Levy, but it is fundamental that to the speed that housing gets delivered that there is a diverse mix of tenures.

 

More detail is required by Government on how this proposal will guarantee that at least as much affordable housing is delivered as now.

 

The proposed Infrastructure Levy should capture the same amount of value overall as a minimum, if not, a greater value than what is currently delivered if it is to replace Section 106 agreements. Section 106 agreements do more than just secure payment of contributions and delivery of affordable housing. They can secure affordable housing in perpetuity by legally binding the land and can give local people priority in taking an affordable dwelling. They can secure sustainable travel methods, encourage the employment of local people in development construction jobs, provide retail units at an affordable rent and secure on-site facilities such as open space, schools, doctors' surgeries and community facilities.

 

In addition, they can also secure mitigation which cannot be conditioned by a planning permission. It is not clear if the Government has accounted for all these benefits in the White Paper. Stonewater would like to raise that reform should not be made at the expense of the loss of this useful planning tool, otherwise the Government's aim of delivering beautiful sustainable places may fail at the first hurdle.

 

Local Authorities will welcome the flexibility to ensure that they can direct the Levy to the most appropriate place to ensure sustainable development in their areas. However, LAs must be held accountable for their expenditure and transparent accounts of expenditure should be publicly accessible.

 

As an Affordable Housing Provider Stonewater are keen to see affordable housing ring-fenced. There must be clarity about what level and types of affordable housing are to be required on site in order for housing associations and other developers to be able to assess viability and to deliver the homes.

 

The delivery of a range of tenures is fundamental to the Government’s mission to deliver at scale. Understanding the absorption rate for a range of tenures is a crucial part of this, so that there is not an unnecessary focus on one particular tenure when there is local demand for another.

 

With this in mind, Stonewater is opposed to the Government’s proposals to change the site size threshold for affordable housing.

 

On average 20% of affordable homes delivered are through small sites like this, though the impact on rural and semi-rural areas will be significantly higher. The proposal will also impact the ability to deliver mixed and balanced communities and will result in higher land values and no more delivery for SMEs. This is an area where registered providers of social housing and SMEs have been particularly successful in delivery to date, securing sites in partnership and delivering truly mixed, sustainable, and affordable communities. Removing affordable housing from these sites only pushes up the aspirations of the land owners, increases the land value and means we could end up with lots of ‘executive estates’ with no affordable housing when what is needed is a mix of homes and diverse communities.

 

There are examples of sites being artificially split to get around the smaller site threshold already.

Raising the small sites threshold is also unlikely to make these sites more viable for SME developers, as it is more likely to push up land values, benefitting landowners more than SME builders.

This policy may also stall development, as developers with sites with an existing consent that includes affordable housing could resubmit for planning without affordable housing.

 

We are currently successfully delivering on these sites with SMEs and can only see that this policy will jeopardize this delivery, push up land values and not help with viability.

 

Infrastructure

There appears to be a disconnect with national planning and infrastructure. The Local Plan led system will potentially drive economic development without paying due heed to national infrastructure in place.

 

The Ox-Cam Arc is a good example of economically driven development where the location was chosen before the details of how to connect infrastructure such as transport and water has not been carefully considered. This should be resolved as part of these proposals

 

Production of Local Plans

Stonewater wholeheartedly support proposals which will shorten the amount of time for the production and adoption of Local Plans. We believe that the standardisation of development management policies will help to shorten at least the examination process. However, the proposed 30-month period may be an unrealistically short time scale for a robust and sustainable Local Plan which is to have a lifespan of 15 years and only be reviewed every 5 years.

 

The volume of work that is to be front loaded into the production of a Local Plan seems unrealistic and unsustainable for all parties involved, especially the planning officers, landowners, developers, and consultees given this short timescale. We are concerned that the level of documentation required to secure an allocation in the Local Plan will be synonymous with the level of documentation currently required to support an Outline planning application. Developers, promoters, and landowners will be expected to put this level of time and financial investment to a scheme with no certainty of an allocation at the end of it.

 

Local Planning Authorities have been historically under-resourced and already struggle to cope with the applications that filter in through the life of an existing plan. The proposals to simplify the granting of planning permission may address resource issues in the longer term but the Government must ensure that Local Authorities have resources in place at the Local Plan making stage – particularly if it is to require significantly more intense consultation.

 

The proposed statutory timescale provides only one opportunity for landowners to promote their sites at the six-month call for sites stage. Land promotors are currently able to decide what strategy on which to promote their land and the level of time and financial investment accordingly. Having one bite of the cherry may deter landowners from coming forward.

 

There is a danger of average sites gaining preference over very good sites that have not been as well promoted as Planners endeavour to plough through their workload.

 

 

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?

 

Stonewater currently aims to develop 1,500 homes per annum and operates currently across 132 local authorities. The potential multitude of Local Plans, often containing hundreds of pages of local development management policies, can be time-consuming and difficult to interpret as there is no common language. These policies can often be perceived as ‘tripwires’ for developers like Housing Associations and SMEs who do not employ in-house planners. This can be a hindrance and cause delays as we need to navigate the individual policies contained within Local Plans.

 

Delays interpreting each Local Plan policies can result in delays to actually obtaining permission and getting on site to build. Stonewater hopes that this proposal would reduce time spent at Local Plan examinations, and also shorten the time it takes to progress an appeal, where often the interpretation of local policies for individual schemes is under dispute.

 

There is very little in the Government’s Planning White Paper on how the new system will support the actual build out of developments. This detail is key, and reforms cannot proceed without this.

 

 

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

 

Model design codes and revised manuals for streets have not been published to date. As we understand it, these will guide the design and code, so this lack of information restricts our ability to comment fully on the merits of this proposal. However, Stonewater does broadly support measures that will ensure high quality, well designed places and communities are delivered and we will embrace the opportunity to contribute to the design guides.

 

Design codes and guides will be useful in the design of locally distinctive buildings and places and should be a benchmark for quality, not misused to force designers down a particular route will could result in everyone building the same thing in areas.

 

Design guides and codes may have the unintended consequence of narrowing the house building business model if not applied correctly. There are currently a variety of products at different price-points and aimed at different markets. Design codes must not be used to preclude variety of development or innovative design. They must also not be overly rigid as high cost designs and materials will impact upon the viability of developments which could result in consequences such as loss of affordable housing and SMEs being constrained by the design codes.

 

The focus on beauty and quality seems mainly to be on outward appearance and does not consider criteria such as space and accessibility standards. Increased working from home, aging population and adult children living at home for longer should have pushed internal space and accessibility higher up the agenda. We would argue that the White Paper makes few references to other countries but does not respond to the fact that we have some of the smallest homes in Europe.

 

We believe that proposals to allow a fast-track for beauty conflicts with having clear design codes in Local Plans. Everyone should be adhering to a minimum standard of design and there is no reason for that minimum standard to be low. Timescales are there, and all applications should be determined within those agreed timescales.

 

 

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

 

The idea of taking the debate over housing numbers from the planning process is welcomed, and this will avoid the numbers being artificially compressed at a local level.

 

However, a significant challenge will be in how the targets are calculated. For example, who will make the judgments on how to reflect the constraints?

 

The Government’s proposals to amend planning practice guidance to specify that the appropriate baseline for the standard method is whichever is the higher of the level of 0.5% of housing stock in each local authority area OR the latest household projections averaged over a 10-year period are too simplified. They appear to be simply to support reaching the target of building 300,000 homes per annum – rather than focusing on what can be developed sustainably and where.

 

While a simple principle for calculating local housing need would be welcomed, it should rely on an understanding that local constraints are best dealt with at a local level rather than a top down approach.

 

There are concerns on how homes will be delivered in a sustainable way in areas that have high need and have the greatest constraints. Many constrained areas that historically have been performing well will be given unrealistic inflated targets with little ability but for LAs to plan in unsustainable locations. Meanwhile, other areas that have been underperforming will have a much-reduced target, basing household formation projections on existing stock does not work to deliver homes where they are needed, in sustainable locations, and considering local constraints.

 

There are also questions about how this would support the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ ambition, with more homes being required in areas that are already in high demand, rather than those which require new investment.

 

With the Duty to Cooperate removed, we also need to look at how we can ensure housing is planned in a joined-up, sustainable way. There will be areas where this will be difficult as they rely on being able to work with neighbouring authorities to meet their need. Areas with large quantities of Green Belt land, for example, but which are in high demand areas will struggle to meet their targets, and it will be difficult to get a joined up/cross boundary approach if this is not a requirement. This will have the knock-on effect of pushing delivery into unsustainable areas where there are constraints.

 

 

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

 

The digitalisation and automation of applications is also an efficiency in the system that we would welcome but the technological solutions should be carefully chosen, however it is important that there is not a ‘computer says no’ approach to plan making!

 

The proposal to move from a documents-based system to standardised published, open data system for Local Plans is welcome.

 

The digital Local Plans and related data must be in a consistent format and common language across the country which will make the system easier to access and engage with by a variety of stakeholders, including SMEs and communities who have traditionally found the planning system difficult to navigate.

 

We support the opportunity to be able to access the published data, which must be accessible in a way that allows people use it how they want and combine it with other data sets. This will allow the Local Authorities to explain their policies but also allow organisations such as Housing Associations to be able to use the data and combine with their own to present the information in a way which is better understood by their own stakeholders.

 

Stonewater supports a map-based Local Plan and would welcome the use of technology such as 3D modelling in the plan making process.

 

Clarity from Government that local authorities understand what data sets and formats are required.

 

 

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

 

The Green Belt should be reviewed as part of any future policy change process. Not to do so would be a missed opportunity to review a concept that has remained unchanged for seven decades. Due to other development, and often quirks in boundaries, there is often a misunderstanding of what is and is not land that should be developed, which can lead to a general opposition to development of land that is right for development, but has always been ‘Green Belt’. We would want to see a review that protects land that should genuinely be protected, while freeing up additional land that should be developed.

 

Edge of settlement developments, for example, are important for SMEs and developing RPs. We can still apply for planning permission, but under the new proposals it will be an uphill struggle which neither SMEs nor RPs will have the capacity to achieve.

 

 

 

About Stonewater

 

Stonewater is a leading social housing provider, with a mission to deliver good quality, affordable homes to people who need them most.

 

We manage around 32,500 homes in England for over 70,000 customers, including affordable properties for general rent, shared ownership and sale, alongside specialist accommodation such as retirement and supported living schemes for older and vulnerable people, domestic abuse refuges, a dedicated LGBTQ+ Safe Space, and young people’s foyers.

 

Our ambitious house-building programme aims to build a minimum of 1,500 new homes a year from 2022/23 and we have a good pipeline of development to achieve this, driven by our vision of everyone having the opportunity to have a place that they can call home. We plough our surplus into building new homes, improving our existing housing stock and investing in customer services. Our 800+ employees embody our values – being ambitious, passionate, agile, commercial and ethical. For the second consecutive year we achieved a ‘One Star’ rating in the 2020 Best Companies Top 100 best not-for-profit organisations to work for and made the list for the top 25 best housing sector organisations to work for in the UK.

 

With an annual turnover of around £191 million and £1.8 billion in assets, Stonewater is a strong, dynamic and well-managed social business, with a long-term rating of A+ by independent credit ratings agency, S&P Global Ratings and a top G1/V1 governance and viability ranking from the Regulator of Social Housing.

 

For more information, visit our website at www.stonewater.org

 

 

October 2020