Friday, 6 July 2018

The GMSF. Pause For Thought.

"But this is Manchester, we do things differently here", said Anthony H Wilson to Iggy Pop on So it Goes in 1977. It is a quote that companies moving into Manchester like to put on meeting room walls to appear edgy and authentic. It is also a quote that could have been used to announce the news in August 2014 that the ten LPAs in Greater Manchester (GM) had agreed to prepare a joint Development Plan Document (DPD) to set out their approach to housing and employment land for the next 20 years. The Greater Manchester Spatial Development Framework (GMSF).

In November 2014 the first GM devolution agreement was agreed and provided for an elected Mayor with responsibility to produce a spatial strategy with the unanimous (an important word) support of his or her Cabinet (the ten leaders).  The GMSF was different because in the post-Regional Spatial Strategy world there were no greater-than-local or sub-regional plans afoot. The GMSF, the development industry hoped, would be a more practical response to the cross-boundary issues that were delaying local plans in places like Bury than the wishy-wishy and now largely discredited ‘duty to cooperate’. The GMSF would mean a couple of years’ hiatus, it was accepted, but, it was hoped, would lead in exchange to local plan coverage across GM sooner than ten LPAs rowing their own boats.

Politically, the GMSF and the first ‘Devo-Manc’ deal put Manchester at the front and centre of the emerging devolution agenda. When George Osborne launched the Northern Powerhouse initiative in June 2014 he described the cities of the north as “individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts”. With the Richard Leese / Howard Bernstein axis maintaining an outwardly cosy consensus across ten town hall top tables, that was not an accusation that could be levelled at GM. 

Back in 2014 it was hoped by AGMA (the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (now the GMCA)) officials that the GMSF would be adopted in 2018. The housing package agreed between GM and Government and announced by Andy Burnham as far away as March 2018 stated that the second draft of the GMSF would be published in June 2018, with publication of the plan in early 2019, submission in summer 2019 and adoption in late 2020.

Something must have happened between March and June though because it was confirmed recently that Mr Burnham’s ‘radical rewrite’ of the first GMSF would not now emerge until October. The reasons for the delay are likely to be numerous, but the stated reason, that ‘it would be daft to publish the GMSF if new population projections suggest a lower number of houses will be required’, points to the practical and political realities of maintaining whatever consensus there was four years ago.

Something that changed between March and June was May’s local elections, which saw new leaders in Trafford, Oldham and Wigan, in addition to a new leader in Tameside in January 2018. In fact, the political leadership across GM that is now tasked with nursing the infant GMSF is very different to that which brought it into the world in 2014. Of the ten leaders at that time only Richard Leese remains. Further Manchester has a new Chief Executive and Salford has a mayor that is striking a different tone on new housing in Manchester and Salford than the previous one. As the new leader of Oldham has observed recently, the dynamic of GM politics has shifted very quickly.

Making progress with any development plan document is hard enough, but the mayor’s spatial strategy, remember, requires the unanimous support of his or her cabinet. In addition to the changes of council leaders since 2014 there is, of course, the arrival of Andy Burnham himself. Mr Burnham and Tory mayoral candidate Sean Anstee did not appear too far apart on issues like skills, transport and the digital economy during last year’s mayoral election, but they were a ship canal apart on the GMSF and it’s proposed Green Belt allocations, which, it seems, has now come to dominate the entire GMSF debate. Anstee was unashamedly pragmatic on the issue, whilst Burnham’s ‘radical rewrite’ pledge was born out of a clearly expressed desire to see a ‘substantial reduction in the loss of Green Belt’. That is typically achieved by sweating urban supply as intensively as possible, setting higher density requirements, or reducing the overall requirement.

The March 2018 housing package states that the GMSF will deliver 227,200 homes by 2035. This figure is not too far from that included in the first draft GMSF and is approximately 6% more than the new standard Government calculation for housing need that will be introduced later this year. The standard calculation for assessing housing need is based upon household projections, which are themselves based upon population projections. The ONS has recently published it’s latest forecast of population projections and this points to a downward trend. Putting aside the myriad technical reasons why the population projections should only ever be a starting point for assessing housing need, it is fair to suggest that the credibility of GM as the ambitious beating heart of a Northern Powerhouse economy and the flagship for joint working and devolution is being undermined by the GMSF’s slipping timescale and seeming reluctance to allow a housing requirement to be a corollary of economic ambition rather than the other way around.

There is no doubt that some Green Belt will have to be built on to meet even GM’s bare minimum future housing needs. A Green Belt that, it should be pointed out, is 45% larger than GM’s urban area and which could accommodate 50,000 homes with ten minutes’ walk of existing train stations. If 1000 homes were built on GM’s Green Belt every year it would take 900 years for half of it to be built on. These though are not attractive campaign slogans and there is always a local election on the horizon.

As can be typical, when the first draft GMSF emerged it raised the hackles of placard-waving residents who became a misleading proxy for public opinion. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey released by Government, in contrast, finds that 55% of people are supportive of new homes in their local area, compared to 28% in 2010. Only 21% of people are opposed to new homes in their local area, compared to 46% in 2010. Research by Ipsos MORI in 2017 into the housing experiences and aspirations of GM residents provided more evidence, if any were needed, that younger people in GM are suffering disproportionately from the housing crisis. Interestingly, 52% of 18-34 year-olds’ support building on a small proportion of the Green Belt if it generates investment in services and infrastructure. If only those people organised a march into Albert Square to say so.

There was a pre-World Cup documentary on BBC2 recently about ‘the toughest job in sport’: Managing England – The Impossible Job. The officers and executives responsible for the GMSF probably have the toughest job in planning: a voluntary DPD with no statutory basis that requires the support of ten council leaders and a mayor. Is it impossible? It is not, but it is a high bar to get over (note how news of the delay was received in Bury's town hall) and anything above the lowest common denominator needs direction and ownership at the highest political level. #GarethSouthgateWould has been trending on Twitter this week. I think that Gareth Southgate would get the big decisions out of the way early, and then focus on achieving his long-term objectives. He would say that, yes, some Green Belt development is required as part of the response to an emerging GM housing crisis, but the GMSF is the best way of coordinating planning across the city region and achieving more as a team than 11 individuals can.

Back in the real world, it is the case that the GMSF might still achieve more and in a shorter period of time than, looking back to 2014, ten local plans would otherwise of done. If it does not though then Manchester will not have done anything differently at all.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The mystery of the missing garden city principles

Garden cities. Who doesn’t like garden cities? Or garden towns? Garden villages maybe? The same thing, but smaller and smaller again. Garden cities are the town planning equivalent of a Sunday evening television programme in which the star of a sitcom from days-gone-by, travelling by something slow and quaint, explores the part of Britain that you holidayed in as a child. Garden cities are comfortable, reassuring and unthreatening, and hark back to a time when public policy was informed by a sense of social justice.

Politically, as a result, it should not be possible to lose with garden cities. Free childcare, less bureaucracy for the brave bobbies on the beat, and a new generation of garden towns and villages. Sensible policies for a happier Britain. How could that not poll well in a pre-election focus group? A majority surely beckons.

Uh oh! The unelected quangocrats at the Planning Inspectorate are going to find the our local plan unsound if we don’t allocate another 4000 homes. No problem! Some speculative developers were threatening to JR the plan anyway so let’s just allocate a garden village on the former airfield that they have been promoting! Disaster averted. Control of the Council retained.

Everybody wins with garden cities.

It is a more than a little surprising, therefore, that reference to garden city principles has been dropped from the revised draft of the NPPF.

Paragraph 52 of the NPPF currently says that: 

“The supply of new homes can sometimes be best achieved through planning for larger scale development, such as new settlements or extensions to existing villages and towns that follow the principles of Garden Cities. Working with the support of their communities, local planning authorities should consider whether such opportunities provide the best way of achieving sustainable development."

Paragraph 73 of the draft revision says that: 

The supply of large numbers of new homes can often be best achieved through planning for larger scale development, such as new settlements or significant extensions to existing villages and towns. Working with the support of their communities, and other authorities if appropriate, strategic plan-making authorities should identify suitable opportunities for such development where this can help to meet identified needs in a sustainable way.

The omission prompted a statement from the TCPA and 63 others (including councils, professional bodies, trade associations, charities, planning consultancies, architects and developers) that expressed concern about the possible implications.

In response an MHCLH spokesman told Planning Resource that:

"Ministers have been clear that garden towns and villages remain a vital tool to delivering the transformational housing growth this country needs. "We have already backed 24 new garden cities, towns and villages which have the potential to create 220,000 new homes and are committed to supporting the introduction of more."

That is not much of an explanation and actually begs the question, if garden towns and villages are so vital and if the government is so committed to supporting more, why remove their reference in the nation’s planning policy framework?

Perhaps the government thinks that the principles of high quality design, walkable neighbourhoods, and so on, should underpin all forms of new development. It is fair to say that design has been given greater prominence and emphasis in the proposed revisions, but there would be no harm in retaining garden city principles as a benchmark for the quality of major residential developments.

Perhaps the government does not actually want any more garden town or village proposals because of the public funding implications. Perhaps sufficient funding has been secured for the quick(ish) wins that might offer a political payback before the next general election and that any further discussions with the Treasury or Homes England about budgets for more can wait until the next Parliament. Such short-sightedness cannot be ruled out, but why remove the garden cities reference all together?

Perhaps the government has come to the view that without any desire on it’s part to lead for the nation on the development of what planners would see as true garden cities in the mould of Letchworth and Welwyn that it is disingenuous for the principles to be included in the nation’s planning policy framework.

As you can tell by my tone, it is easy to be cynical about the most recent ‘wave’ of garden towns and villages. Many are long-standing local plan commitments that provide no additionality in so far as boosting the overall supply of housing is concerned. Most adopt something of buffet-style approach to the garden city principles and you are more likely to see references to comprehensive green infrastructure networks in promotional and marketing material than you are commitments to community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets. Many of the ‘wave’ might not actually be the most sustainable form of development when weighed against other reasonable alternatives, but it might be politically expedient to pursue the ‘all-eggs-in-one basket’ spatial strategy and direct development to the most uncontentious part of a district.

Oh yes, it is easy to be cynical, but it is also the case that the scale of new settlement development is more likely to facilitate a commensurate scale of infrastructure provision than smaller-scale development and more dispersed spatial strategies. It is also case that whilst they might never be (and arguably never can be) wholly locally-led, the path that leads to less resistance from the public is also the path that leads to faster local plan adoption.

Beyond the politics and the cynicism though the garden city principles did at least point to some of the outcomes that planners and the planning system should be trying to achieve. When faced with promoters who might want to adopt a buffet-style approach to incorporating garden city principles a LPA might previously have felt emboldened to push for something special knowing that government policy supported them. With no reference now at all it could be demotivating for the LPAs that are contemplating or already proposing such projects to see explicit government support dropped.

The omission is peculiar one because it is hard to see who benefits from it. Nothing is gained, but something is lost, which is a bit like the Conservatives at the 2017 general election. Interestingly garden cities were not mentioned in their manifesto. A majority would surely have beckoned.

Monday, 12 February 2018

TV Review. The New Builds Are Coming Part 2.

Placemaking. Who does it, and who do they do it for?

Communities. Are they created? If so how, and by whom?

These were the weighty questions that came to mind as we watched the second episode of The New Builds Are Coming last week.

The first episode was about a draft allocation bomb being dropped upon an unsuspecting rural community. The second episode focused on new communities: from their inception and design to the people who live there. In the ‘frenzy of construction of Oxfordshire’, it was asked, who ‘creates the foundations of community?’

The programme featured two fairly typical urban extensions on the edge of market towns and a smaller scheme on the edge of what planners might call a ‘main rural centre’.

Longford Park, Banbury, according to it’s website (, is about “far more than new homes, it is a community in the making and a place that people will be proud to call home”. It is being built by Taylor Wimpey, Bovis and Barratt and as far as I can see was promoted through the Cherwell local plan by that consortium.

When development started in 2013 Michael Gibbard, lead member for planning at the Council, said that the Council ‘have always included this development in both the local plan and land supply figures so the delivery of these houses will not impact upon either’.

Kingsmere, Bicester, according to it’s website (, is a new village community. It is being built by Bellway, Bovis, Linden and Persimmon, with Countryside appearing to have been the promoter and masterdeveloper (perhaps instating the roads and sewers, and disposing of clean development parcels). It appears to have been a draft allocation at the time that outline planning permission was granted. The programme highlighted the Brewers Fayre and Premier Inn at the scheme’s entrance, and the space left vacant for a future community centre.

The third scheme to be featured was an extension to the village of Long Hanborough being promoted by Pye Homes. It would appear that quite a few extensions to Long Hanborough have been proposed of late and none appear to have been too popular (

I tried to find some details about the application online, but have struggled. The programme suggested that it was approved at Committee; the West Oxfordshire’s website suggests that a decision is pending; and the applicant’s agent’s website suggests that an appeal was upheld. I suspect, regardless, that the scheme was not plan-led and that the planning case for it was influenced heavily by the absence of a 5YHLS.

The residents of the larger urban extensions complained of ‘fleeting, dormitory communities’ with ‘no culture’. When campaigning for post-boxes and a road crossing they complained about a ‘lack of joined up thinking’.

It was interesting that some residents had founded their own association, perhaps with the aim of fostering a sense of community. There were no discussions about street parties or sports clubs though. Just objections about bins and parking.

The programme showed the attempts being made by Pye Homes’ masterplanners to develop a scheme that respected it’s edge-of settlement context. There was much earnest discussion about the key view analysis, consideration of key gateways and reflective detailing closer to the settlement edge. In the end, to secure officer support, units were lost for more green space and an offer of 50% affordable (above the policy requirement presumably) was made.

The representatives of Pye Homes complained about the pointlessness of pre-application meetings; of planning being a lottery and the application process being a ‘rollercoaster’. The masterplanner revealed that she would not live in a new house.

The programme, for me, shone a light into the gap between what the planning system could be doing to foster placemaking and new communities, and what it actually does.

Villages like Long Hanborough should grow. The relatively small scheme that will ultimately be built there will, I’m sure, look very nice; 50% affordable housing will make a significant contribution to local need; and new residents will move into their dream home and start drinking in local gastro pubs. Existing residents will get over the loss of their view and be glad that school places can be filled. There must be though a better, less confrontational, less rancorous way of getting there. That process should not be a rollercoaster. That kind of scheme in that kind of place absorbs a disproportionate amount of the time and energy of everybody involved.  

Towns like Banbury and Bicester should grow too, and they should grow at a scale, like Long Hanborough, commensurate with the potential of the place. It is at that scale where the place-makers and the community-builders are needed. The planning system here will allocate the land and determine the application, but, and here is the thing for me, it is for the most part there that involvement ends. That 2013 quote from Michael Gibbard is striking because it speaks to the numbers game that much of policy planning has become. It sounds as though he saying that ‘we have got a plan in place. We’ve got a defensible 5YHLS. Job done.’ Well, not really. These schemes need time and energy way beyond the decision notice being issued.

It is in everybody’s interests for those places to succeed, but it seems to me that despite no doubt good intentions on everybody’s part the framework within which they are operating is just not conducive to joined-up thinking. There are too many cracks for seemingly innocuous things like post-boxes to fall between. They probably rang the Council and were told to speak to the builders. They probably rang the builders and were told to speak to the Royal Mail. They probably rang the Royal Mail and were told to ring the Council. That probably went on for months…

Who should they have called? Who is responsible for building that community centre at Kingsmere? It is obvious who is building those places and it is obvious at any point in time as to who is living in them. Who owns them though? There will be generations of families in Long Hanborough who provide a golden thread (in planning speak) between the past and the future. Who in those urban extensions will do so though? The efforts of that resident’s association are a green shoot, but they cannot be expected to grow these kinds of roots by themselves.

Good builders build good houses and create good places, but cannot be expected to take on responsibility for the stewardship of a new place. The masterdeveloper has a stewardship role, but it is not an entirely altruistic one because a key focus will be ensuring that the early success of a scheme generates value for the later phases. The CLG Committee is looking at land value capture, which might mean, a little further down the line, a greater role for Homes England in the planning and delivery and major new developments. An organisation like that is perhaps best placed to consider value in all of it’s senses.

Weighty questions indeed. Perhaps too weighty because my running commentary on no doubt contributed to my wife falling asleep before the end the programme. Questions though that hopefully, amongst the ‘frenzy of construction’, planners will at some point have time to sit down and contemplate. It struck me at the end of the programme that they would have more time to spend thinking about the projects that they do want to support if they were not spending so much time fending off the schemes that they don’t.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

TV Review. The New Builds Are Coming.

It is not often that my wife and I watch television together, but last night two of our interests aligned (hers: fly-on-the-wall docu-soaps, mine: concreting over green fields) and so we watched The New Builds Are Coming.

(As an early aside, when planning was in the limelight previously the series was called The Planners Are Coming. I wonder why producers feel the need to associate the subject with an impending sense of doom?)

There was a discussion about it in the office yesterday morning and I simply expressed a hope that it would feature a plan-led proposal in the hope that this would show the planning system in a better light than a 5YHLS ‘smash and grab’. I also expressed a hope that it would be fair, in that it would portray each actor within the five act play that is the local plan process in the light that they deserve to be.

Of those actors, firstly, the developer, or promoter, and the landowner. Neither wanted to engage with the programme, we were told, which could be understandable if they, whoever they are, felt it was likely to be hatchet job, but what I find strange is that neither wanted to engage with the community either before or after the draft local plan had been published. Somebody had prepared an illustrative masterplan because the couple with the house in the middle of the proposed allocation had one, but there was no mention at all of any attempt by the backers of the project to engage with the community.

I have just had a quick google to try and find a website for the project that might have some details about it, but I can see nothing. Putting aside the need to demonstrate that the proposal is a deliverable one, which the promoters of non-preferred sites will be looking to exploit come the examination, the narrow interests of the project would surely be better served by it’s backers openly advocating it. It’s passage through the local plan process would also be smoothed if somebody took the time to identify possible supporters and draw the sting from potential objectors. The opaqueness around the project does neither it, or those who want to promote development projects properly, any favours.

Our second actor, the LPA. I do not know South Oxfordshire as well as I do some areas of the country and so am basing these observations on the programme alone, but if the promoters and owners of the project were not going to take the lead in preparing the ground locally for the draft local plan then the LPA should have done more to do so. It should not be the case that communities find out about development proposals ‘in the pub’ (which was the clip from The Archers featured in the programme and the implication here), but it is even more remarkable that the owners of land within draft allocations do not find out about it until the plan is published.

The vacuum where the right kind of information should be can be filled by misinformation and here we had the textbook ‘hastily organised public meeting’. I say ‘the right kind of information’ because, of course, the residents were provided with lots information, but what use is a Sustainability Appraisal and other ‘massive’ documents to a music teacher who has just found out that the Council is proposing 3500 homes half a mile away? Months later, after rumour and resentment were allowed to build, the Council Leader himself, not an officer, finally went to another public meeting and said that ‘we need to build 10,000 homes and they have to go somewhere’.

As I said I do not know South Oxfordshire, but land adjacent to a major commercial site and a railway station, and with what looked like the cooling towers of a power station within it’s visual envelope, looks like a fairly reasonable place to consider Green Belt release. The Leader of the Council actually said to the camera that the consultation is not a referendum on the local plan and that there are planning reasons for the decisions being made. That is the message that, delivered clearly, concisely and confidently, should have been better communicated to residents a lot earlier. It might have prevented the feeling that residents needed to ‘take on officers and developers at their own game’. ‘We had to become angry’ said the couple with the house in the middle of the proposed allocation. ‘We were worried that they were just going to bulldoze the house’.

Most objectors object, in my experience, because of the surprise factor: because they just did not know that something was going on. That anger can be amplified by a sense that what was going on is, in fact, going to happen anyway. The fait accompli. I thought then that ‘my heart goes out to you’ was a peculiar turn of phrase from the chairwoman of whichever committee had just endorsed the draft local plan.

Thirdly, and finally, the residents of Culham, which, it seemed to me, divide into the three categories.

The first is the silent majority because when you take the two dozen or so objectors in the residents group and the two people of whom more shortly from Culham’s population of 453 you get a number much higher than the people featured in the programme. They might like it a little or dislike it a little. We do not know.

We do know though that the second group, the two dozen objectors who attended the public meeting at the school (I could spot at least two metaphors when they squeezed themselves into the children’s chairs) very definitely do not like it. I wanted to be fair to them both at the start of the programme last night and when I started writing this piece by calling them objectors, but since the public meeting kicked off with the familiar refrain of ‘we hear about the need for houses, but we don’t need houses here’ I think that it is fair to call them what they are, which is NIMBYs.

I would probably not have likened their outlook to the instinct of chimpanzees to preserve their territory, as the husband and brother-in-law of two of the major landowners did, but I was tickled by two insights into NIMBY behaviour that came across in the programme. I liked the fact that the two dozen or so cared enough to arrange and attend a public meeting, but nobody cared enough to want to lead the group in plotting their resistance. I also liked it when Guy, the property developer (of course he was) who had ‘moved from London’ revealed without a hint of self-awareness at the end of the programme that ‘ultimately we are country people’.

The third category of resident is the two people interviewed in front of what looked like their post-war, former Council houses. They were for the proposed development. I liked them. One of them suggested that the objectors were ‘more concerned with house prices than they are ecology or heritage’. I liked him more.

(As a second, later, aside this reminded me of the residents group in the village where we used to live in. There was one occasion when very briefly and very accidentally the chairman let slip that the group was less about winning Village In Bloom awards and more about protecting house prices.)

The couple with the house in the middle of the proposed allocation were left pondering the price of their house for a different reason because an offer for it had finally been received from the mystery developers. Having revealed in the programme that £10k per acre of farmland might be worth £1m per acre with a planning permission, that offer is probably substantial. Would they trade their memories for cash? ‘Surely you would be doing the same if you owned this land?’ is a question I like to throw back at objectors who do not like the idea of their neighbours spending the rest of their lives somewhere hot. I would wager that the couple will sell. I would and I bet that you would too.

For me the programme was like seeing my working life on screen and, helpfully, my wife now has some idea about what I do all day. We learned that the planning system is ripe for a docu-soap because of the human drama involved and the producers are probably right with their doom-laden programme title.

(NB. I have adopted a slightly flippant tone, as is my want, but to see a single mother losing housing benefit because she had gone into full-time work was very distressing. That though speaks to another area of government policy and it is the planning system that is my interest).

I was struck by the almost contiguous references on one hand to the government allowing housing around major cities and on the other hand to Oxford not building enough houses. The politics of planning in Oxfordshire is amongst the most acute in the country, but what was not said is that South Oxfordshire and the other Councils are trying to solve unilaterally a County-wide issue.

As this image from Lichfields shows local plan progress is slowest around major cities, where there are often issues about exporting housing to neighbouring authorities and the need for Green Belt release. This is a hobby horse of mine obviously and you would have been surprised if I had not taken the opportunity to crowbar in a reference to strategic planning, but the debate about Culham would have been completely different if it was framed as a response to an Oxford or an Oxfordshire issue rather than a local, South Oxfordshire issue. 46% of people, remember, think decisions to site new towns and major housing projects should be taken at a regional level.

What the programme highlights to me is the need to take a serious look at how we engage with people. That’s we, ‘the Council’ and we ‘the developer’. What did the people of Culham think of planning and development at the start of that exercise and what did they think of planning and development at the end of that exercise. People heard second-hand that an amorphous organisation called the Council, given a face only when the Leader himself (who was re-elected during the course of the programme) got involved, wanted to build houses near to theirs from which some shadowy developers and some mysterious landowners would make a lot of money. After all of that brouhaha they probably still think that. The objectors probably thought that they had a greater chance of stopping the scheme from appearing in the next draft of the local plan than they did actually have and so are more disillusioned with the planning process as a result. They think that because people in other parts of the District believe that development at Culham is a good idea (better, certainly, than development near them) that the ‘figures were manipulated’. Despite that, or rather because of that, they are ‘determined to continue to fight’.
The local plan will probably be submitted alongside a Statement of Community Involvement, but those residents were not engaged with in any meaningful sense of the word and their reactions are perfectly natural and understandable. This is a real shame because the reactions of people in a village like Culham to a scheme on it’s fringe granted at appeal and the reactions to a scheme promoted through a local plan should be very different.
We saw the new (they are always new…) Housing & Planning Minster, Dominic Raab, on Good Morning Britain this morning talking about tackling NIMBYs by ‘taking the community with us’. I hope that he saw the programme last night because what was shown was a tutorial in how not to take a community with you.
As it turned out I think that the programme did portray each actor in the local plan process as they deserve to be. Nobody really emerged with much credit because, frankly, it is often the case that nobody does emerge with much credit from the local plan process.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

How might Green Belt policy be changed?

What is to be done about the Green Belt? Most planners, I suspect, have recognised for a while that housing need has become an irresistible force and that hitherto immovable Green Belt boundaries on the edge of most major cities need to start moving. That though has not been and is still not likely to be a feature of many local or national election campaigns because, according to this Ipsos Mori poll from 2015, even though 70% of the public claim to know little or nothing about it, 65% of people know that it should not be built on.
There are though some faint signs that public opinion might be shifting. Another Ipsos Mori poll for campaign group Housing The Powerhouse found net support for Green Belt release across Greater Manchester where this would result in investment for infrastructure and services. Further, in the build-up to the November 2017 Budget a number of newspapers trailed the possibility of Green Belt reform and hinted that the Chancellor was prepared to more bullish than the more cautious Prime Minister. In the end the nettle was not grasped, but the episode could be a sign that somebody at Conservative Party HQ has their political calculator out. At some point the gap between house price and wage growth, minus support from the younger voters, multiplied by a softening of public attitudes towards Green Belt might equal reform.
Something needs to be done about the Green Belt then, but what? When reform does come what form might it take? I think that there could be four kinds.
The bold option.
Allow me to tantalisingly place on the table, but take off immediately, any prospect of bold reform. This could be a complete re-imagining of the role of Green Belt linked to a parallel plan for the growth of our cities over a, say fifty, year period. A multi-generational boundary change that would identify both high quality green space (to be brought under public control if not already) and developable areas (from which value could be captured over the very long term to fund intra and inter-city transport). That, however, is not going to happen. Even a ‘Royal Commission on the future Green Belt’, which would make the Planning Minister of the day sound bold and visionary, but would, in effect, kick the nettle into the long grass (so to speak), is not going to happen. Forget that I mentioned it.
The path of least resistance option.
It will not be a single blow from a planner’s axe that does for current Green Belt policy, but rather the thousandth cut from a tinkering civil servant’s scissors and the smart money should be on the first incision being made to land around railways stations. This concept was given prominence by the ASI in 2015 and was included in some of this year’s pre-Budget commentary. It could be relatively simple to implement. The Housing White Paper proposes that LPAs amend Green Belt boundaries only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options. Once this threshold has been reached then land around railway stations could be introduced as the first port of call. It is, superficially at least, an attractive policy that could appeal to both planners and politicians and soften objections from the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby by, on the face of it, being a ’sustainable’ option that supports infrastructure investment.
The technocratic option.
Another ‘could happen’ option, albeit very much less likely, is a technocratic one that the technocrats would like, but that would open the gates of tabloid hell for any Planning Minister. At the stroke of a pen, the Secretary of State could level the playing field upon which housing need and the Green Belt are competing. At present the absence of a five year supply of deliverable housing land (5YHLS) does not, of itself, represent the special circumstances required for a LPA to support a planning application for new homes in the Green Belt. What if it did though? What if Green Belt was a ‘policy for the supply of housing’ that was rendered out of date if a LPA could not demonstrate a 5YHLS? What an incentive to maintain a 5YHLS that would be…
Similarly, meeting housing need does not of itself provide an LPA with the exceptional circumstances to amend Green Belt boundaries through the local plan process. It could though, and it would take about fifteen minutes for somebody at DCLG to include those revisions in the next draft of the NPPF (including the removal of Green Belt as a ‘footnote 9’ designation). That fifteen minutes would, however, generate about two weeks’ worth of headlines and an electoral cycles worth of opposition ammunition. “Greedy Builders cash in on Green Belt free-for-all!”. Or similar. It would not be a free-for-all, of course, because the Green Belt would only be released through the development control process if there was not a 5YHLS in place and if the proposal accorded with the rest of the NPPF when taken together. The decision-making balance would be tilted towards (the greedy builders would say) equilibrium, but, let us face it fellow technocrats, that is not going to happen to either.
The politically astute (if I do say so myself) option.
So, with all of that being said, how might it be possible to achieve planning reform that is both politically palatable and technically sound. Well, dear readers, like the Centrist Dad that I am I would like to propose a middle way.
There are, as regular readers will know, five purposes to the Green Belt and now might be the time, if not to reimagine them, but to at least think about the whys and wherefores. The five are:
  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
Despite what the CPRE might have us believe, therefore, the Green Belt is not ‘to provide fresh air and open spaces for 30 million people’. Nor are they ‘places to exercise, take part in hobbies, relax and appreciate nature’. It is almost their purpose though because the NPPF states that ‘once Green Belts have been defined, LPAs should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; to provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; to retain and enhance landscapes, visual amenity and biodiversity; or to improve damaged and derelict land.’ Given the other pressures on LPA time and resource I wonder how much positive planning goes into this activity?
At the minute then the Green Belt is actually a bit like the first Arctic Monkies album. Whatever people say it is, that’s what it’s not. So rather than having to keep arguing about what it is not why not just agree with what it is? Visual and recreational amenity are legitimate factors to be taken into account in the planning of good places, and in the public’s mind what the Green Belt is for already, so why not factor them into the housing crisis / Green Belt equation.
Introducing landscape and recreational amenity as a purpose of Green Belt is not a major step on from encouraging LPAs to ‘plan positively’, but it would resolve at a stroke the toing and froing that goes on in the process of preparing a local plan about whether they should be. This toing and froing builds only mistrust, confusion and resentment and, either directly or indirectly, elongates the entire planning process. The Green Belt is a minefield, but there might be a way here for all involved to navigate their way through with everything important to them intact.
Whilst on the face of it affording Green Belt more potential purposes might make it harder for individual parcels to be released, this approach could actually make it easier, as well speeding up the local plan process by constructing an evidence base upon which there was less scope for disagreement. 37% of London’s Green Belt, according to the ASI, is, for example, intensively farmed. Farmland with no landscape or recreational value would score proportionately better if new tests were introduced because, whilst they might be ranked, say, moderate/high under five tests, they could be ranked moderate/low under, say, seven tests by scoring nothing more in the new ones. Any parcels that do have landscape or recreational amenity value and that would score proportionately better in any new test might be covered by another restrictive designation anyway (and probably should not be being promoted).
For the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby the places where people do exercise, take part in hobbies, relax and appreciate nature would find it more difficult to make it into draft local plans, but by the same token they would find it more difficult to object to sites where people are not exercising, taking part in hobbies, relaxing or appreciating nature because full assessments against those criteria would have been made.
For the LPAs (and PINS and the Secretary of State), if the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby, as well as the landowner and development communities, are not objecting to draft local plans then it should be easier for those drafts to work their way towards adoption.
This middle way is not, therefore, a firm grasping of the nettle, but rather an attempt to delicately position two fingers on the stem and give it a little shake. It is a little bold, and a little bit technocratic and it could get those currently community through the Green Belt a little closer, literally, to where they need to be.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

On Alok Sharma's In-Tray

This is a piece that I contributed to the RTPI's Blog.

Which position is the most precarious? Housing & Planning Minister or football manager?

This image, which I came by via @NobleFrancis on Twitter, reveals that Alok Sharma is the fifteenth Housing Minister in twenty years, with the average tenure being just sixteen months.

According to this piece the average tenure of a football manager is also sixteen months.

An incoming football manager can typically expect to inherit a squad that is bereft of form and confidence. An incoming Planning Minister can typically expect to inherit decisions that were just too complicated and policies that were just too difficult for their predecessors to deal with. Alok Sharma’s in-tray seems particularly full, but helpfully for him a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper on Planning Reform Proposals sets out proposed changes that are still yet to be made. These include (in the Briefing Paper’s order):

  • Section 106 contributions
  • Community Infrastructure Levy
  • Local plans and housing requirements
  • Housing delivery test
  • Fixing housing land supply on an annual basis
  • Requirement to plan for housing and strategic priorities
  • Incentive to put in place a Local Plan
  • Duty to cooperate
  • Housing on commuter hubs and commercial land
  • A standardised approach to housing requirement calculations
  • Upward extensions
  • Rural areas
  • Release of land for starter homes
  • Affordable housing: change of definition
  • Consultation on planning and affordable housing for build to rent
  • Presumption in favour of brownfield land
  • Cutting red tape review
  • Roads and infrastructure requirements
  • Protected species
  • Utility connection to new homes
  • Changes to planning application fees
  • Garden cities, towns and villages
  • Completion notice reform
  • Secretary of State planning decisions: time limit
  • Fees for making a planning appeal
  • Green Belt
  • Neighbourhood planning
  • Developer’s track record
  • Sustainable development and the environment
  • Basement development
  • Designation for poor performance
  • Draft airports national policy statement
Some big things and some less big things, but they were worth listing in full, I reasoned, because in one way or another something in that list will be significant to everybody involved in the planning process, and the planning for new homes particularly. Waiting for these changes to be made, or not to be made, is influencing, to a lesser or greater degree, how planners are going about their business. Leadership is sought.

A number of the proposals, for example, will influence how people will bid for land. If bidding on a subject-to-planning basis the bidder has to anticipate what the policy regime will be when consent is granted, which might be eighteen months away. Does the bidder adopt a ‘worse case scenario’ and risk losing the site with an uncompetitive headline offer? Does the bidder adopt a ‘best case scenario’ and present, in headline terms at least, the best offer, but risk either having to ‘chip’ the purchaser when the policy requirements finally emerge, or wrangle with the LPA over what then, to them, is viable.

A number of these proposals, for example, will influence how people will promote a local plan. The planning policy manager might be prepared to trust in the evidence base, build in as much flexibility to emerging policies as possible, and try to convince an Inspector that there is no future problem so serious that an early review cannot remedy it. The Leader of the Council though, perhaps faced with local elections next year, might adopt a more circumspect approach. What if? What if the draft standard OAN methodology is adopted and does mean we can reduce our housing targets? What if the large strategic sites policy falls foul of a housing delivery test? Our fragile pretence of a 5YHLS will be shattered for good. Let’s just wait and see. There is an irony, of course, in one of the proposals being focussed on incentivising the production of local plans.

The pond of planning policy and guidance is seldom still, but in the recent past the sector has had to anticipate the waves from the Housing & Planning Act 2016, tossed in by the Cameron and Osborne Government, and the waves from this year’s Housing White Paper, which signalled the change of direction being attempted by May and Javid. What hope for a period of tranquillity? Philip Hammond has suggested that the Budget might again include planning reforms, which would be in addition to the revised draft NPPF, expected early in the New Year and the Green Paper on Social Housing that Sajid Javid has announced. Even more for the Minister’s in-tray.

Mr Sharma has noted that Planning Ministers are a bit like Doctor Who and that he is the latest incarnation, but has said that he “hopes to be in place for a decent length of time and to see through many of the reforms that are laid out in the Housing White Paper”.

“We need an evolution over a period of time”, said Crystal Palace Chairman Steve Parish in June when announcing the arrival of manager Frank De Boer. De Boer was sacked after 77 days and 4 matches.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Devolution & The Birmingham Shortfall 3

I first wrote about the Birmingham shortfall in June 2015. Mike Best of Turley provides the background to it’s emergence through the Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) here, but by June 2015 it was becoming clear that the challenge presented by accommodating some 38,000 homes beyond the city’s administrative boundary and across a housing market area (HMA) represented by 13 other LPAs would not be met by the Duty-to-Cooperate (DtC).

The mechanism introduced into the BDP (late in the day as a main modification) is little more than a commitment on behalf of Birmingham’s neighbours to either review already adopted plans or have regard to the shortfall and the DtC in the preparation of new plans. Birmingham, for it’s part, is to review the BDP if the expected rate of progress is not being achieved.

What else could have been done about it though? As the BDP Inspector himself put it, “I see no other way of proceeding that would achieve a faster result”, but the optimist in me wondered in June 2015 whether the joint working that at that time was going in to the GBSLEP’s Strategic Housing Needs Study and Spatial Plan might, one day, create a framework for joint working that might, one day after that, provide the platform for a statutory development plan for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). Whilst there was no other practical solution available to either the officers preparing the BDP or the Inspector examining it, I optimistically speculated that the fast-evolving devolution agenda might provide the leverage for cities to grapple with cross-border challenges in a faster, multi-lateral way, rather than, as is the task facing Birmingham now, on a bilateral, local plan by local plan basis.

I revisited the Birmingham shortfall again in August 2016 when little had changed. The BDP had not actually been adopted because an intervention by Andrew Mitchell MP, concerned about the loss of Green Belt around Sutton Coldfield, had resulted in a DCLG holding direction. An agreement had not been reached on the distribution of the shortfall across the HMA, but since discussions between LPAs were being held behind closed doors it was difficult to know. What was becoming clear by then was the practical implication of the shortfall. With a recently adopted Core Strategy (CS) in place Lichfield, as an example, was faced with a choice between identifying allocations pursuant to the CS with a commitment to an early review of it once the situation with Birmingham was clearer; or reviewing the CS now, either partially or fully, to deal with both the allocations and Birmingham’s housing need. The Council went with the first option.

What had changed at that point though was the formation on the horizon of the clouds of the next housebuilding storm. The WMCA had published a Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) ("to complement and support" the SEPs of the SEPs of areas three LEPs) and it’s economic vision assumes “a higher level of housebuilding than is currently provided for in development plans, or is being delivered across the area’s two strategic housing market areas.” So even before the current shortfall had been worked through a further round of future housing need was being prepared for layering on top.

I resolved last year to revisit the situation in twelve months’ time, which is now. So here we are. August 2017.Twelve months on there has been both lots of change and no change at all. 

The West Midlands Land Commission Report has been produced on behalf of the WMCA and considers the identification and delivery of suitable land to meet housing and employment needs. It has been produced to inform decisions by the WMCA as to the nature of possible interventions required by the CA and it’s partners. The first of the Commission’s ten recommendations was that WMCA Board develops a Spatial Framework for the West Midlands, initially on a non-statutory basis, but the WMCA is still giving due consideration to the outputs and recommendations of the Land Commission Report, which was published in February.

Also in February came news that Birmingham City Council, on behalf of it’s HMA partners, was to tender for what was initially called a ‘Strategic Growth Study’ (SGS) (now a ‘Strategic Locations Study’, but let us not read too much into that). 

The brief set out that the study should build upon the GBSLEP Strategic Housing Needs Study, which ‘explored spatial options for meeting the shortfall’, by considering:
  • The level of HMA need and shortfall compared with the supply already identified (and the potential for greater density upon it) in adopted and emerging local plans;
  • The housing implications of the growth proposed in the WMCA SEP;
  • The potential supply from land outside of the Green Belt;
  • The development potential and suitability of any large, previously developed sites within the Green Belt in sustainable locations; and
  • Undertaking (where the inevitable shortfall remains) a full strategic review of the Green Belt within the HMA, taking into account ‘market capacity to deliver’.
It has been confirmed subsequently that GL Hearn, which won the instruction, will include shortfalls identified elsewhere in the HMA. This includes Tamworth’s shortfall, which is small, and the Black Country shortfall, which is not small. The recently published Black Country Joint Core Strategy Issues & Options document identifies a shortfall of 22,000 homes. 

What this study will do then is to provide:

Clear recommendations on the broad locations for growth, a range of potential housing capacity from each growth location and an indicative delivery timetable. The merits of these growth locations will then be tested through the Local Plan process.

What this study will not do then is result in the apportionment of the now 60,000 home shortfall, plus the implications of Super SEP-level growth, across the 14 LPAs. There will remain no clear path between the recommendations on the broad locations for growth and the proportion of the shortfall that each LPA will test through it’s respective local plan review. Given that a GBSLEP Spatial Plan is still a stated aspiration, and given that the Black Country Core Strategy, which is aligned with the South Staffordshire Core Strategy review, is likely to draw in more LPAs than the current 14, and given that Stratford upon Avon and North Warwickshire also straddle the Coventry & Warwickshire HMA, this path will be a very difficult one for LPAs acting in isolation to navigate.

If you are a glass half-full kind of person, just reaching an agreement across the 14 LPAs to commission the SGS represents a positive step forward and it could provide a firm platform for discussions about the capacity for development in each LPA. If you are a glass half-empty kind of person though then anything other than a definitive piece of work published punctually and with the public endorsement of 14 Council leaders could give the impression of a can with Green Belt written on it being kicked down the road.

Another thing that has changed in the past twelve months is the election of Andy Street to the West Midlands mayoralty. Is Mr Street the man to grasp this nettle? Whilst acknowledging that Mr Street is still new to a new role within a new organisation that has been placed atop an already complex web of public administration (see graphic from Turley below) the early signs are not encouraging. Mr Street spoke during his election campaign of the need for ‘a joined-up approach to housing across the West Midlands region’, but has stopped short of endorsing the recommendations of the WMCA Land Commission. He also campaigned on the basis that Green Belt is a development option of last resort.

Mr Street also spoke during the election campaign of ‘knocking heads together where there are obstacles.’ In so far as the shortfall is concerned, since two of Birmingham’s 13 HMA neighbours, Stratford and North Warwickshire, have signed agreements with Birmingham to take a total of 7,090 homes, it is the heads of the eleven other Council leaders that need knocking. An important head to knock, so to speak, will be that of Solihull’s leader Bob Sleigh. Solihull Council raised eyebrows in November last year when it’s draft Local Plan proposed to ‘test’ only a 2000 home contribution to the shortfall, which the development community and eight of Solihull’s HMA neighbours believe to be too much too low. Mr Street has appointed Mr Sleigh as his deputy.

Mr Street will mark his first 100 days in office on 12 August and will be buoyed by the recent announcement about second Devo Deal for the West Midlands, which could be announced in the Budget towards the end of the year.

It is almost inconceivable that brownfield land reclamation and new measures to bring unoccupied homes into use won’t be two of Mr Street’s ‘asks’, but whilst he may be moved privately to acknowledge that knocking heads together will not solve the shortfall dilemma, it is equally inconceivable that he would request statutory, region-wide spatial planning powers in order to deal with it. The mayor’s current powers are extremely limited for a reason, which is that councils did not and will not want to pass powers, and controversial decisions about Green Belt, upwards. What chance though of a solution to the shortfall being a condition of Devo Deal II. Whilst a recommendation of LPEG, and whilst ministers may be moved privately to acknowledge that the Duty to Cooperate will simply not address these issues, will anybody in Government be so moved by the significance of the shortfall to local plan progress in the West Midlands as to make resolving it a condition of a new devo deal? Perhaps one day.

Oh, one final thing that has changed in the past twelve months is that the BDP was adopted in January, which means that the clock is now counting down towards the three year deadline within which the BDP expects the shortfall to have been distributed within replacement or revised Local Plan that have been submitted for examination.

When I write about the shortfall again in twelve months’ time that deadline will be 18 months away.