Written evidence submitted by the Highgate Society [PDR 069]
The Highgate Society is the Civic Amenity Society for the wider Highgate area, with some 1,400 members. We were established in 1966 to oppose proposals for a motorway through north London and the heart of our village, which attracted national attention and was successful. Our remit is To Make Highgate a Better Place to Live and Work. We were members of the Civic Trust and are now members of its successor body, Civic Voice. We are active on the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, an umbrella group for over 100 amenity groups in Greater London; the Chair of its planning committee is a former senior planner at CLG. For our 50th anniversary in 1966 we published a history of the Society and its achievements in the town planning and other fields. We examine several hundred planning applications a year, make detailed comments about 10% of them, which our local authorities tell us are of significant value to them, and have given evidence at numerous Public Inquiries, including that over the development at Athlone House, Highgate, which took 18 years to conclude and was successfully resolved only after two public inquires and a High Court case, the outcome setting an important precedent for S.106 Agreements. We are also represented on such bodies as the City of London’s statutory Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee. In normal times we run a weekly Town planning advise surgery for members, to which outside members of the pubic also often come to seek our help, and we maintain a substantial file of messages of thanks from them; this underscores the value of strong community representation to local people, an element of local democracy which will be irretrievably lost if the Government’s current proposals on PDR and the anticipated Planning Bill come to pass.
Over this period, we have engaged actively in the town planning system, making constructive comments on local, regional and, where appropriate, national town planning issues. Our remit covers parts of four London Boroughs – Haringey, Camden, Islington and Barnet. We were instrumental in securing an amendment to the Localism Act 2011 to ensure that Neighbourhood Forums could be cross-boundary, which the original draft precluded. We were responsible for the establishment of our local Neighbourhood Forum and for producing its Neighbourhood Plan – the firs, we believe, in London.
Our Town Planning Group covers planning, development, heritage, environment, traffic and transport, open spaces and ecology issues. Until his death, our planning group included one of the world’s leading Urban Planners, Walter Bor, and still benefits from the imput and experience of a range of practitioners with relevant professional skills.
In 2020, we made a 19-page submission to the Government’s Planning White Paper Consultation. We also made a submission to the Select Committee’s call for evidence on the Planning White Paper, and were honoured to be one of 50 groups and individuals called to give oral evidence.
What role should permitted development rights (PDR) play in the planning system?
The original intention of PDR was to relieve local authorities of the burden of devoting scarce resources to minor works which would clearly have no appreciable impact. This was eminently sensible, and enabled people and businesses to carry out minor improvements without unnecessary bureaucracy. The ability to impose Article 4 directions in special cases, or in sensitive areas such as Conservation Areas (of which Highgate is one) was an extra safeguard against damage being caused, either unwittingly or intentionally. At its most basic, this enabled the “Planning” system to perform its function - of Planning.
What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?
There is a desperate need for affordable housing in Highgate, which is a very high-value area. When formulating our Neighbourhood Plan, the Highgate Society proposed 27 sites for affordable and social housing. The examiner allowed only five of these.
In Highgate, where there is immense pressure for luxury housing, and little land available for affordable and social housing, permitted development is contributing nothing to the real need other than to inflate prices even further. Conversions of houses and shops to flats, notably in the Archway Road, under permitted development or prior notification has resulted only in substandard units.
It is our understanding that the provision of affordable housing nationally under PDR has been negligible, and it is our opinion that it will continue to do so. This is particularly regrettable since the main shortage of, and need is not for market housing, but for social and affordable housing.
What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?
The Planning system exists, in theory, to enable local authorities and their communities to Plan for the appropriate development of their areas. Since PDR precludes the provision of infrastructure or the requirement for developer contributions, it is self-evident that its impact will be to make it impossible to plan holistically for those needs not supplied by the market, but which underpin he whole liveability of a community.
Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?
It is entirely consistent. From their relentless piecemeal assault on the planning system, which is making it progressively more complex, it is clear that the Government’s intention is to emasculate the ability of local authorities and communities to have meaningful involvement in the planning system.
The Planning White Paper (PWP) and other announced policy intentions (e.g. the virtual removal of the ability to impose Article 4 Directions) makes it clear that the power of local authorities, and of their communities, to have any meaningful input into the future of their areas is to be severely curtailed and left almost entirely to the vagaries of market forces.
What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?
It is self-evident that the widening of PDR on the scale proposed will effectively make it impossible for local authorities to do so. The worst impact will be on areas of low land and property values, which are also those of greatest deprivation, where no housing will be built – affordable or market – because prices will not be high enough to prompt developers to build private housing, and without the contributions which appear to currently be the main source of funding for affordable and social housing, none of the latter will be built, in the areas where they are most needed. In the face of these economic forces, merely designating them “Regeneration Zones” will be little more than a sticking-plaster
Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?
No: they are grievously mistaken. Planning supports business and growth, by fostering a holistic approach to local and national needs. PDR will ensure only that the highest bidder wins, regardless of its appropriateness. This will be most evident in nearly all town and village centres, where, from August, any shop of less than 1,500 sq.m. can be turned into residential without planning permission.
Outside major shopping centres, there will be few, if any retail premises larger than 1,500 sq.m. potentially, therefore, every shop in a high percentage of high streets could be turned over to much more valuable residential space.
It is difficult to imagine a more misguided policy. As Sir Simon Jenkins worded it in his letter to The Times, it “beggars belief”, while such bodies as the RIBA, the National Trust and the Town and Country Planning Association have condemned it. Even the British Property Federation and 28 other professional and community groups wrote to Minister Robert Jenrick urging him to abandon the proposals which would exacerbate the decline of high streets. The letter remains unanswered.
What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?
As covered in the previous section, local communities would be powerless to prevent the destruction of their high streets.
The historic right of communities to be closely involved at all stages of the planning system is a critical one, and has been shown on innumerable occasions to be essential not only for harnessing the detailed skills and local knowledge which these groups possess, but for averting bad developments and for optimising local strategic planning. On not a few occasions, the Highgate Society has persuaded local authority Planning Committees (which the Goverment appear to want to abolish) to reject bad applications – sometimes over officer recommendations of approval – and these refusals have been upheld on appeal.
These vital democratic safeguards for the local community and for good planning will be lost, since the PWP proposes to withdraw this historic, and critically important, right of communities, local groups and individuals, to comment on individual planning applications, replacing it with a meaningless “best in class” right to be involved in preparing local plans – a task which would be a huge burden for all communities, even those experienced in engagement with the planning system, and which would still leave the final interpretation of whether an individual development was in accordance with local and national policy – and, dismayingly, whether it was “beautiful” – to the local authority and the developer. The local community would have no power to look at the actual detail of individual applications and decide whether they were acceptable, appropriate or necessary.
The outcomes would, we are convinced, be disastrous; yet the Government makes the Orwellian assertion that they are giving local authorities and local communities greater powers than ever to determine the future of their areas.
Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?
Yes. It should abandon the current proposals, suspend their coming into operation on August 19th, and enter into a meaningful national consultation with local authorities, professional organisations and communities as to the future of PDR. Indeed, it is unacceptable that these far-reaching and damaging changes should have been introduced by statutory instrument, without full Parliamentary debate. As opined earlier, permitted development should revert to its original intention; as the heavy-handed Planning Tool which the Government envisage, its impact, we believe, will be adverse, and irreversible.
In our view this should apply with equal force and justification to the Planning Bill, given the damage it is widely believed will result from its introduction without significant changes from the White Paper. We believe that our fears reflect those of the wider community sector, and urge the Select Committee to make every effort to persuade the Government to reconsider, and to actually listen.
In addition, written submissions may touch on any other matter relevant to the government’s approach towards these kinds of permitted development.
In summary, we consider the government’s proposals to be not only as damaging as they could possibly be, but completely illogical. The uncontrolled development of anything, anywhere which it will unleash is the antithesis of “Planning”, and the ending of community rights to involvement in the planning of their local areas which will accompany it will not be readily forgiven.
We think that we have sufficiently articulated our extreme doubts about the Government’s destruction of our planning system, and the damage we believe it will do. If any of the terminology we have used appears to be overstated, it is only a reflection of our belief – based on our decades of close involvement in the planning system on “the front line”, shared, we know, by many others – that the impact on communities, housing and planning nationwide will be incalculable.
You may recall that, during 2019, well before the Planning White Paper and the latest announcements on PDR, Civic Voice published a survey, in partnership with no less a body than the Grosvenor Estates. This inter alia, revealed that, while 83% of the public had no confidence in their local authorities, 97% had no confidence in developers. Yet the current PDR and other proposals will effectively place the entire future of our communities in the hands of developers.
We hasten to add that our intention is not to indulge in “developer-bashing”. On the contrary; they are an integral part of the system, many are entirely responsible, we have had good working relations with many, and we endeavour to engage in pre-application discussions with them locally, usually very positively. We still cherish a letter from one developer thanking us for our input and expressing the view that his development was a better one as a result.
However, a strong, well-regulated and, essentially, democratic planning system is essential to achieve the best outcomes both for business and the community, and to ensure that local communities’ futures are planned on a holistic basis. The government’s proposals will achieve the complete opposite.