Written evidence submitted by the City of London Corporation [FPS 148]
Submitted by the Office of the City Remembrancer

 

Introduction

 

 

 

 

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

 

1.1               The consultation indicates that the Government believes simplifying Local Plan processes will release resource to deliver other planning priorities. That is not a safe conclusion to draw. Many local planning authorities have limited resources to allocate to Local Plan-making. Furthermore, if proposals related to the nature of Local Plans are brought into force, the greater weight and faster timescales are likely to require more resource for Local Plan preparation, rather than less. Further resources will be absorbed if proposals on local design codes are implemented.

 

1.2               The present arrangements which support and protect the geographical area of the City of London as a commercial centre of national economic importance work well and should be incorporated into any future methodology. The City’s Local Plan contains specific protection, which should be retained, against the loss of suitable office space and resists residential development inappropriate to the City’s commercial character, whilst providing a contribution to meeting housing needs. This approach was endorsed by the Planning Inspector appointed to consider the compatibility of the Local Plan with national policy. The London Plan, meanwhile, specifically acknowledges that the balance between homes and offices should be adapted “to sustain strategically important clusters of commercial activities such as those in the City of London” and that residential development is inappropriate in the commercial core of the City.

 

1.3               This approach requires the ability to set policy locally and to not be constrained by a one-size-fits-all national policy. As a minimum, any nationally derived targets must be susceptible to local challenge to ensure that local priorities and local needs can be properly factored into the housing need consideration. A separate consultation should be arranged on the detail of the new methodology before it is introduced, so that the impacts are properly understood.

 

1.4               The requirements for CIL and s106 in the City are well known and understood by most developers. Taking into account the recent removal of the restriction on the mixing of CIL and s106 to fund infrastructure, the current approach to CIL and s106 planning obligations works well. This is likely to allow more effective infrastructure delivery in the future. These arrangements should, in broad terms, be retained. The current use of s106 value to deliver site-specific mitigation and non-financial mitigation, such as contributions towards training and skills provision, is useful and should be retained. Wholesale replacement with a new system would be a retrograde step. Evolution and refinement would provide continuity and certainty.

 

1.5               Proposals in the White Paper that could be usefully be incorporated into the existing system are the potential to borrow against future Levy receipts and greater flexibility on how the Levy could be spent to fund necessary infrastructure, rather than wider council services. A link between development and infrastructure improvements might mitigate the impact of development, and make development acceptable to local communities.

 

1.6               The Government’s proposed approach to allow the Levy to be applied to permitted development, where there is no uplift in floorspace, would help to address a gap in current CIL guidance and ensure that impacts on infrastructure delivery arising from such changes can be addressed.

 

1.7               The proposals fail to refer to important classifications of green space. For example, no mention is made of the future importance of SSSIs, SACs or Special Protection Areas (SPA). Metropolitan Open Land is of special importance in London, yet the White Paper fails to mention this classification. The importance of ensuring MOL is expressly included in the scope of Protected areas is underlined by Hampstead Heath being almost entirely designated as MOL. The Heath is an example of very important green space that provides valuable biodiversity in the centre of London, and contributes to the Londoners’ wellbeing. In addition, the Heath has significant cultural importance.

 

1.8               At present, designation of land as MOL is rooted in Local and Regional Plans. The explicit inclusion on MOL in the Protected category proposed in the White Paper is important because, in the context of the changes in the White Paper being geared to national designations, MOL as a London policy designation would be at risk of losing the significant protection they deserve. Possible risks to MOL in relation to proposals about Local Plans are explored further in section 6, below.

 

1.9               The proposals should include ancient woodlands and ancient trees within the scope of Protected areas. As guardian of some of the largest areas of ancient woodland in the country, the City Corporation is very concerned that the White Paper makes no reference to these areas. Ancient woods and trees, by their very nature, are irreplaceable habitats. Ancient trees outside woodland are also vulnerable as they would not fit easily into the framework proposed in the White Paper of strict area zoning. Ancient woods and trees also require buffering by Protected land around their current boundaries.

 

1.10           The indication, at a ministerial level, that the housing formula would be revised to recognise existing constraints on building (such as Green Belt designation) is welcomed. The ministerial indication should be followed up by specific reference in the Government’s response to the White Paper. It is recommended that further protection should be offered by framing the housing formula as guidance, so that it can be interpreted locally, rather than as a prescription. Green Belt and other sites such as SAC and SSSI would be better protected if buffer lands, adjacent to such sites, were recognised as constraints on building.

 

 

  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?

 

2.1               The Government’s proposals hinge on the assertion that local planning authorities should have a wider role in delivering development beyond the granting of permission. Delivery of buildings is, however, a matter for the property development industry, not the local planning authority. The Local Government Association has published data showing that in the 10 years from 2009/10, 2,564,600 homes were granted planning permission, yet only 1,530,680 were built. Any new planning system should specifically acknowledge that local planning authorities are not responsible for property development; authorities should not be penalised if developers do not deliver the development required.

 

2.2               The suggested approach for substantial development sites reflects the findings of the Letwin Report and would assist delivery on the larger residential sites. It should be noted that this approach is not suited to larger commercial sites.

 

 

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

 

3.1               The City Corporation supports the principles underpinning the ‘fast track for beauty’ and the suggested approach based on guidance in local design guides and codes.  In addition, the requirement that schemes demonstrate compliance with wider Local Plan aspirations for an area or site is welcomed. Clarification should be provided, however, that compliance with design guidance would not be the sole avenue for determining the acceptability of a development proposal.

 

3.2               Emphasising local design solutions, prepared and agreed with local communities will help to provide more beautiful buildings. The proposed national design guide, national model design code and the revised manual for streets could provide a framework for local decision making but should not provide an inflexible framework.  National level guidance is not, in most instances, able to properly reflect specific local circumstances or the needs of local communities – vernacular building styles reflect local traditions and should be encouraged as part of a push to improve the beauty of buildings, for example.

 

3.3               The proposal to create a new body to support the production of locally-backed design codes may improve the beauty of buildings. It should be noted, however, that an announcement has already been made (on 22 September 2020) that these proposals will be taken forward in advance of the close of the White Paper consultation.

 

3.4               Some local planning authorities will not have the capacity to prepare such guidance and codes. Authorities will require external support. The national design body should provide that support.

 

3.5               The City Corporation supports the intention to require the appointment of a chief officer for design and placemaking. This will give additional weight to the work of planning departments.

 

3.6               The Government’s focus over-concentrates on housing. Proposals to create a more beautiful built environment should include a wider range of guidance which covers all forms of development and open spaces. 

 

3.7               The proposal that a masterplan and site specific design code prepared by the local planning authority will be required for sites within growth areas is supported. To ensure certainty, the Government should set out a requirement that these additional plans and codes are prepared alongside the Local Plan. This should, in turn, guide the timescales for Local Plan preparation, which should be longer than 30 months. Scrutiny of the detail in masterplans at the Local Plan examination will be essential to deliver local community support for larger scale development.

 

3.8               A further extension of permitted development rights would not support the development of more beautiful buildings because it would remove the ability of a local planning authority to manage development and transport in an area and ensure development is compatible with local community ambitions.

 

3.9               The commitment to conserving and enhancing heritage assets is welcomed. The intention to allow for sympathetic change, particularly to address climate change, is also supported, provided that measures retain an emphasis on retention of the heritage value of assets. A further consultation will be required regarding the development of further guidance, which should involve Historic England, other heritage organisations and local planning authorities.

             

 

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

 

4.1               City Corporation is sympathetic to the need to deliver more housing. Indeed, the Corporation recognises housing as one of the most pressing issues facing London’s economy. To this end, the City Corporation provides thousands of housing units across inner London, outside of its geographic boundary. Limited housing development may be possible within the City, but only on smaller sites in carefully defined areas away from core commercial activity.

 

4.2               The Government’s drive to improve the supply of housing is laudable, but it is important to make sure that the White Paper’s proposals do not inadvertently undermine the protections in place for commercial areas such as the City.

 

4.3               It is understood that the current arrangements under which affordable housing may be provided off-site will be continued under the proposed Infrastructure Levy would continue the current arrangements. This continuity of approach is welcome.

 

 

4.4               The City Corporation does not support the retention of the Housing Delivery Test. This Test is a backward-looking assessment of housing delivery over a 3 year period which does not address long term future trends. For areas such as the City of London, where housing delivery fluctuates from year to year within the context of meeting targets over a longer plan period, a focus on short term delivery gives an inaccurate picture of progress in meeting housing needs.

 

4.5               In this regard, an approach based on local determination of delivery, with weight attached to the national calculation, should be taken forward. The requirement for local planning authorities to justify departure from the national calculation would be retained and would allow for legitimate local constraints to be incorporated. The retention of a 5 year land supply requirement would provide greater certainty of housing delivery. A strictly nationally set scheme, binding on local planning authorities, would not be helpful to housing delivery and not allow for legitimate local circumstances and variation.

 

4.6               Overall, the White Paper over-concentrates on housing. Other forms of development are in danger of being overlooked, for example development necessary to support economic growth, social and community facilities, open and green space and mitigating and adapting to climate change. This approach requires careful drafting, with potential unintended consequences borne in mind and suitable flexibility incorporated where needed.

 

 

  1. 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 City Corporation supports the continued role for neighbourhood plans within a reformed planning system but is concerned that little information and detail on the role of neighbourhood plans is provided in the White Paper. The potential for expanding the scope of neighbourhood plans is mentioned. If this is taken forward, additional pressure would be placed on local planning authorities who have a statutory duty to support the preparation of such plans.

 

5.2               Demonstrable independence of the planning system would help to ensure public confidence and engagement. Funding for Local Planning services should continue to come principally from a combination of application fees and general taxation/local authority funding to ensure retention of the independence of the planning function.

 

5.3               Local relevance is key to ensuring public engagement in the planning system. Much of the White Paper concentrates on nationally-set targets and codes. A wholly national approach cannot, however, reflect specific local circumstances, or the ambitions and aspirations of local people expressed through Local Plans. In any revised planning system, an option should be available for the local planning authority to reflect locally specific issues, even where these are not in alignment with national policy. Local interpretations would be subject to explanation in the Local Plan and accepted, if appropriate, by an Inspector through examination.

 

5.4               The proposed approach assumes that engagement and consultation on sites would take place at the plan-making stage, removing much of the need for detailed engagement at the application stage. While this may be appropriate for very large sites, for smaller urban infill or redevelopment it is impossible for this early stage consultation to reflect potential local impacts which may not become apparent until detailed proposals are submitted. The many examples of such impacts include the effect on daylight and sunlight, freight access and servicing considerations. The ability for local communities and elected Members to engage with development proposals at the point of application should be retained.

 

5.5               Concerns over the speed of planning and decision making and the need to provide certainty to the development industry, as expressed in the consultation, could be achieved by reform to the present planning system so as to give greater weight to Local Plan allocations. A site allocated for a particular form of development in a Local Plan, or an area identified as suitable for a particular form of development, could be under a general presumption in favour of that form of development, subject to compliance with other detailed provisions of the Local Plan. Such an scheme would give greater certainty to developers, whilst allowing for local policy considerations to be considered. The advantage of this approach is that it would facilitate local community engagement, for example regarding local environment and amenity, through local plan development. In effect this would strengthen the current policy that planning applications should be determined in accordance with Local Plan provisions.

 

5.6               The White Paper makes proposals on technology and data. Moves to ensure that plans are accessible in a range of formats, including on a smartphone, are supported. Local Plans should be easy to read and understand, and not based around a single pdf document online. However, digital accessibility is not the same as accessibility for all communities. Provision for plans and consultation on plans to be available in hard copy should continue.

 

5.7               Moves to simplify and shorten the amount of information required to enable the determination of a planning application are welcomed. Greater standardisation of data requirements and formats and a simplification of current assessment requirements (such as for Environmental Impact Assessments) would be beneficial.

 

 

 

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

 

6.1               Protection of green spaces is important in the context of the contribution to carbon sequestration and support for a healthy environment. The City’s careful stewardship of green spaces, from forests to commons and green belt to public gardens, contributes to environmental improvements.  

 

6.2               Improvements to energy efficiency help to protect the environment. The City Corporation welcomes the national net zero target of 2050 and has recently committed to a plan that will make the Square Mile net zero carbon-emission by 2040, 10 years earlier than the Government’s goal. In the City, sustainable buildings will be encouraged through the inclusion of green roofs and walls. New developments will include carbon reduction plans in their designs. In addition, the City supports new open and green spaces for nature and people.

 

6.3               Taking the proposals as a whole, there are some aspects which may undermine existing protections for open and green spaces, and may weaken the proposals to create a Protected category of land. One example of this may be seen in the context of funding. The White Paper indicates that, in the future, much of the cost of Local Plan preparation and design guidance preparation would be met through the Infrastructure Levy. This proposal may have a negative impact in areas where there is little development or where there is a significant amount of Protected space, because such areas would have little income from the Infrastructure Levy. If planning functions become dependent on funding derived from granting development, risks could arise that that inappropriate development would be permitted so as to generate continued funding, that planning decisions become influenced by financial matters, or that Local Planning services are perceived as being too closely associated with the development industry to the detriment of the local community. This approach would be a particular concern if development value uplift were used to fund the preparation of Local Plans which, in turn, would grant permission in principle for new development. A further risk might arise from the nationally set housing targets not taking into account local variations in need. A green or open space might be important at a local level but not have statutory or regional protection – a combination of a nationally mandated target and funding pressures might lead to intrusions on open and green spaces.

 

6.4               A third issue relates to the oversimplification that might arise from the proposals. In locations such as the City of London, classification of land is extremely complex as there are multiple, overlapping planning, heritage and environmental designations, often on individual sites. In the Square Mile there are 27 conservation areas, over 600 listed buildings and strategic and local views protection policies. Allocating land to one of 3 designations (Growth, Renewal, Protected) in an area such as the City of London is likely to present substantial problems and has the potential to put environmental, heritage or architecturally important sites at risk. The proposed simplification of land use allocation is particularly unsuited to areas with complex heritage and other constraints. It seems likely that most urban and rural areas will face the same difficulties.

 

6.5               The Government should clarify what measures it will take to ensure local designations of open and green spaces, for example those without statutory or nationally protected designation, are protected during the transition from the current arrangements to the proposed designations. Such spaces include gardens and greens maintained by local authorities, and local Conservation Areas. Consideration should be given to automatically designating such sites as Protected areas, without the need for any local reappraisal, change in designation or attribution in a Local Plan.

 

 

November 2020