Friday, 31 January 2014

HCA Housing Market Reports

The HCA has published it's latest reports on regional reports.

Some interesting headlines as far as the North West is concerned:

  • The average median valuation of a dwelling in the North West OA is £114,000 in October 2013 (Calnea). This valuation is unchanged from the previous year.
  • Housing transactions totalled 74,828 in the North West over the twelve months to September 2013. This was a 5% increase from the previous year.
  • Average median private rents were £495 per month in the North West SSR. This is the same rental amount as the previous year.
  • The number of households facing mortgage possession action in court is 2,428 in Q1 2013. This is a decreased of 11.9% compared to this quarter in the previous year.
  • House building starts were 3,620 starts in Q3 2013 in the North West OA, which is a 19.5% increase compared to this quarter in the previous year.
  • The HCA official statistics for 1 April – 30 September 2013 show 1,385 housing completions and 2,204 starts across the North West. This is a decrease of 23.9% and an increase of 150.2%, respectively, compared to this period in the previous year. There were also 704 Help to Buy completions.
  • Households accepted as homeless totalled 898 in Q3 2013 in the North West. This is a 13% decrease compared to this quarter in the previous year.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The examination before the examination.

In the tried and tested way of beginning a speech this post begins with a definition. Two definitions in fact.

The dictionary definition of examination is a detailed inspection or study.

In relation to local development documents, the legal definition of examination could be that it determines whether a plan both satisfies the requirements of plan preparation and is sound. 

Armed with that knowledge, and imagining that we are local campaigners objecting to a proposed urban extension, let us consider this statement from Mr Pickles to the Communities & Local Government Select Committee:

"We’ve had informal discussions with the Inspectorate, we’re going about it in a proper way, but I do not anticipate many rejections from those that are already submitted."

It was apparent early in the LDF regime that the Examination In Public (EIP) was not as forensic a process as the former local plan inquiries. Since the publication of the NPPF though there have been occasions where it has been difficult to distinguish an EIP from a rubber-stamping exercise because the starting point of most inspectors appears to be that the plan before them is sound unless there is a very clear and very obvious reason why it isn't.

The implication of this is that the real examination of a local plan is taking place before the actual examination. Consider this from the Inspectorate's own procedural guidance:

"The Planning Inspectorate is doing all it can to ensure that plans do not go fully through the examination process only to be found unsound and incapable of being made sound through main modifications."

I posted an update recently on the Bury Core Strategy and an exploratory meeting called by an inspector to discuss issues identified during his 'initial assessment'. One imagines that if these issues are not found to be significant the plan will proceed to examination and will be sound. One also imagines that if these issues are found to be significant the LPA, Bury, will request to either withdraw the plan or postpone the examination to deal with them.

The implication of this approach to participants in the process is quite clear. The examination is actually happening before the examination and so anybody expecting to turn up at the EIP to influence proceedings is likely to go home disappointed. All of the material to either support or object to the LPA's position needs to be submitted at the Publication draft stage if it is going to have any influence on the inspector.

This has been clear to professional participants in the process for a while and Mr Pickles' remarks serve to reinforce that, but how would our imaginary campaigners feel to see their urban extension effectively rubber-stamped? I have blogged previously on the promotion of localism in planning and an examination process that the public find really isn't a 'detailed inspection or study' further widens the gap between rhetoric and reality.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Limits Of Localism

"This government is committed to localism and greater local decision-making in planning", said Eric Pickles in March 2013. Recent figures from Planning Magazine though show that he subsequently went on to approve almost as many major housing proposals between April and December 2013 (21) as he did in the entire three year period between April 2010 and March 2013 (26).

In the North West alone Mr Pickles approved 1,760 homes of the 1,963 that he considered (90%) in that nine month period last year.

How can this be so? Why is the great champion of localism, the man who saw off the ‘top down, regional strategies’ and the ‘centrally imposed building targets’ now commanding so much from his Whitehall bunker?

Well as the Conservatives soon discovered, and their current Labour shadows are illustrating, localism is the policy of opposition. It is the policy both of opposition Governments, and, more often than not, localism manifests itself as opposition to development from residents in the immediate vicinity.

The tangle that planners are likely to remember this Government for (and the lesson that Labour have either not yet learned or are choosing to ignore…) is that it sold, and continues to sell, 'local decision-making', when it should have sold 'local decision-making provided that you have a Local Plan that meets objectively assessed housing need and makes provision for a five year supply'.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with how the planning system should operate, but the planning system I see is different to the vision that Mr Pickles paints for his constituents. A local plan identifies a Borough-wide requirement and the quantum to be directed to individual settlements, but whether or not that requirement comes from a regional strategy or an Inspector’s definition of objectively-assessed need it is wrong to suggest that there is local control over this process.

For as long as we have a plan-led system, therefore, any government commitment to localism needs to be qualified by the fact that development will, to one extent or another, have to be imposed upon communities. Where local plans are not in place, and Mr Pickles has said that only 65% of planning authorities will have a plan come April, the current presumption in favour of sustainable development makes it more likely that planning applications will be allowed at appeal.

Where there is local control is in the less vaunted, and consequently much under-utilised, provision for Neighbourhood Plans, which can guide that quantum of development to the most appropriate sites with a settlement and allow communities to maximise the benefits from it. Their introduction does provide greater local decision-making in planning, but, fundamentally, this control is about where development occurs not whether development occurs. Whilst becoming more popular, it is two years since the Localism Bill was enacted and only seven neighbourhood plans have been subjected to a public referendum.

It has been suggested that Mr Pickles’ more interventionist role is so that voters can see that the government is attempting to support housing growth in advance of next year’s election. Mr Pickles might see a pile of planning application files on his desk as a political opportunity, but planners will hope that the next he has cause to champion the localism agenda he reflects on that pile as a reminder of its limits.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Housing Minster's Two Hats.

There is a particularly interesting line from Housing Minister and Keighley MP Kris Hopkins in this piece from the Bradford Telegraph & Argus that neatly sums up the conflict faced by politicians involved in housing and planning.

I do not know enough about the Bradford's Local Plan to have a view on the assertion that the Borough's housing requirement can be wholly accommodated on previously developed sites, which is interesting enough, but it was this line that caught my eye: 

Taking my ministerial hat off and putting my MP’s hat on, some of the figures they’ve talked about across Keighley and Shipley are outrageous.

The "of course we need new homes, but they need to be in the right place and this is not the right place" line is a familiar one from opponents to new homes, but we should surely expect more from the Government's housing champion.

Pick a hat, Mr Hopkins.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Bury Core Strategy in danger of being found unsound. Again.

A Planning Inspector appointed to examine Bury’s Core Strategy has again raised doubts about it's robustness. The Core Strategy was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate on 6 December 2013, but in a letter dated 14 January 2014 the appointed Inspector raises concerns about three key areas.
The news will be a blow to Bury Borough Council, which was forced to withdraw a previous version of the Core Strategy in 2011.
In the letter to interested parties the Inspector raises concerns about the assessment of the Borough’s housing need and the reliance on neighbouring authorities to meet some of that need, as well as the intended approach to employment development in the Green Belt at Gin Hall.
It is emphasised that the Inspector is yet to reach a conclusion as to whether or not the Core Strategy is “sound”, but “wishes to explore his concerns by asking questions of representatives of Bury Council and the relevant neighbouring authorities at this initial stage, rather than involving all participants to the Examination in the time and effort of preparing for and attending hearing sessions if there is little or no prospect of the document as a whole being found sound.”
The Inspector’s concerns come as little surprise to those following the Core Strategy’s progress. The number of homes that the Council intends to promote is based upon the number that can be built without amending the Green Belt boundary, rather than the amount that will actually be required. If the Council can demonstrate that the Green Belt really is not the most sustainable location for new homes then it also needs to demonstrate how neighbouring authorities will accommodate the remainder of the homes required. The Inspector currently appears to share concerns that to date the Council has made neither case.
An Exploratory Meeting in to the Core Strategy will be held at Bury Town Hall on 25 February 2013.

19 June Update: The Examination opened this week and I understand that already the Core Strategy is in danger of being found unsound. The Council's position not helped by an acknowledgement, apparently, that it's housing need evidence is wrong. News is expected next week on how the Inspector wishes to proceed.

Is the Government really pushing the 'nuclear' planning reform button?

In typically florid language the Daily Telegraph has reported ( that the Coalition is preparing to mount a “fresh assault” on planning laws by giving developers the power to “push though applications without the need for council approval or environmental assessments".

To make sure that the attention of readers is well and truly grabbed the Head of Policy at the RTPI is quoted as describing the move as a "nuclear option". I wouldn’t be so forward as to describe myself as a planning expert (I’ll leave that to others…), but as a practicing planner I take a more measured view.

Firstly, it is proposed that applicants will be allowed to “ignore” local authorities if they delay the approval of details that have been submitted to satisfy the conditions that have been attached to the grant of planning permission. The use of conditions has grown exponentially over the thirteen years or so of my career as, for one reason or another, mostly though the introduction of targets for the determination of applications, the approval of details has been back-ended in the application process. Typically if a LPA is agreeable in principle to a development and details can be left for later approval without affecting that principle, it is mutually beneficial to both applicant and local authority to deal with most details in this way.

If those details are of fundamental importance to the development (whether they relate to highways improvements, landscape creation, noise barriers, or similar) then they should be requested prior to determination. If they are not fundamental, but simply important and need to be considered prior to the commencement of development, then it is not unreasonable for applicants to expect that a planning officer will be available to consider those details. Rather than applicants being given license to “ignore” local authorities, more attention should be given to the reasons why a local authority cannot deal with applications to approve details that they themselves have requested.

The second initiative is to increase the threshold at which applicants are expected to submit a formal Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in support a development proposal. The new measure, it is said, will “reduce the need to assess the impact of large scale developments on the countryside” (though, of course, it will apply equally in urban areas). At present, as the Daily Telegraph notes, developers have to consider carrying out an EIA “when a development such as a new housing estate, shopping centre or cinema covers more than an acre of land.” The proposed legislation would, however, “raise the threshold to a significantly higher level than an acre, exempting thousands of developments from the need to have an environmental assessment”.

George Osborne first mooted these changes in his December 2012 Autumn Statement and a statement from DCLG at the time recognised that "some local authorities require detailed assessment of all environmental issues irrespective of whether EU directives actually require it; similarly, some developers do more than is actually necessary to avoid the possibility of more costly legal challenges, which adds delays and cost to the application process".

There is certainly something to be said for reform in this area because the voluntary submission of an EIA by applicants, and the defensive request for EIA by local authorities, has become a familiar response to the increasing threat of a speculative judicial review (JR) challenge from competitors promoting alternative sites. The Coalition has moved to reduce the ability to make such speculative JR challenges and EIA reform is consistent with this, but it should be noted that any EIA reform also needs to be consistent with the European legislation that underpins our processes, as well as requiring a change to legislation. It should also be noted that even if a development is not formal EIA development, it is beholden on a local authority to have an up-to-date plan with policies for the protection of the natural environment and, where the local plan is not up-to-date, to refuse planning applications where the adverse impacts would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. Whilst perhaps not a formal EIA, a proper assessment of environmental impact would remain a part of the planning process even if the threshold was lifted.

So. A “nuclear option?” Not in my view, but then “Government to revise further planning guidance” is probably a less exciting headline.