Friday, 28 February 2014

The Planners is enjoyable, but should more be expected of the BBC?

'The Planners' is one of very few programmes that my wife and I watch together. She enjoys the human interest and drama at the heart of each application and I enjoy the novelty of seeing what I do on a daily basis being processed as prime time 'docu-soap'. (We both enjoy playing the 'approved or refused' guessing game half way through each programme.)

Since my wife has no idea about the planning system the programme also helpfully explains to her what I do between leaving in the morning and getting home at night. It is, I tell her, a pretty accurate reflection of my world. The individuals that are featured generally reflect the officers, members, nimbies, architects and consultants that I come across and work with (though I have to tell her that it is not typical for officers to visit objectors to explain recommendations...).

Since though I do have an idea about the planning system I do not, as my wife does, take the editorial tone and narrative of the programme at face value in the way that she does. She has a theatrical background so I tell her that she is seeing scenes in a play and not the whole performance. Her opinion of the planning system, and for sake of this point let's say most of general public, is being informed by the programme.

As hard as I tried not to interrupt Wednesday night's programme I could not help myself pausing a few times to explain some facts and figures and some points of policy and procedure (the fun never stops in the Stafford house...) because of what I felt was misinformed and misleading commentary.

For example, it is stated in the introduction to the programme that "in a drive to boost the economy the Government has relaxed planning laws." The NPPF was fundamentally a consolidation of guidance. It retains both the primacy of the development plan and a presumption in favour of development. It places greater emphasis on development where development plans are absent, silent or out-of-date, and where a LPA has no short-term supply of housing, but development still has to be sustainable. The questions posed in the programme are around why developments are being forced upon unsuspecting councils and communities, but the real question (as I said to my wife) is why LPAs do not have the development plans in place that would allow greater local control.

As another example, it was also stated in Wednesday's introduction that "across the UK there are 60,000 acres of derelict land that could accommodate 100,000 new homes." What also needs to be said is that, by common consensus, the country needs well over 200,000 new homes every year to house the growing population. Greenfield sites will have to be developed. That is simple fact and yet, by making reference to "cheaper" greenfield land (I will not get into development economics here, but suffice to say that that is gross simplification) that "appeals not just to the eye, but also to the pockets of developers", the balance of the programme is distorted from the outset.

I actually felt sufficiently compelled to look up the BBC Trust's guidelines on editorial content. Some extracts:

Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.  We are committed to achieving the highest standards of due accuracy and impartiality and strive to avoid knowingly and materially misleading our audiences.

Impartiality lies at the core of the BBC's commitment to its audiences.  We will apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole, over an appropriate period, so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented.  We will be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts.

We seek to report stories of significance to our audiences.  We will be rigorous in establishing the truth of the story and well informed when explaining it.

Our output will be based on fairness, openness, honesty and straight dealing.

A degree of sensationalism should, of course, be expected. Planning is sexy to those of us who know and love it, but I can see the need to 'sex it up' to generate public interest (alert - tongue in cheek). There's generating public interest though and acting in the public interest. The following are also extracts from the programme's introduction...

"Planning battles are raging across Britain."

"Developers are cashing in."

"Objectors are going to war."

 Deciding who wins are Britain's planners."

Impartial? Fair? Rigorous? Open-minded?

The programme is obviously enjoyable and the human interest and drama at the heart of every planning application does make for compelling viewing. I cannot help but feel though that it could, and probably should, offer more. There is a consensus across the political spectrum that the country needs new homes so the BBC would not be acting impartially for this to be the programme's starting point. The opportunity that the programme misses is to make the need for new homes a national rather than a local issue. More than that is the concern that by presenting the question of new development as us versus them the programme perpetuates what is already too much of an adversarial system.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Planning for flood plains

There is coverage this morning of an open letter from seventeen professional bodies calling for 'a major rethink of how Britain plans both its towns and the countryside to prevent homes and businesses flooding in future.' In the Telegraph David Cameron is urged to lead a 'planning revolution'.

The letter can be read here.

From a planning point of view, calls to fit sustainable drainage systems (SUDs) for new buildings and making all new housing on flood plains resilient when built do not require a planning revolution. They are consistent with existing policy and within the gift of individual local planning authorities (though I'm not sure, practically, how you would go about fitting SUDs for existing buildings)

What drew my eye in particular though are the calls to look at how forestry, land management and soft-engineered flood alleviation schemes can hold back water in the upper reaches of rivers, and to foster co-operation between landowners, professions, water companies and local and national government.

How to achieve this (and it is interesting that the RTPI is not one of the signatories to the letter) in the absence of either a national or regional planning framework? The closest mechanism we have currently is the duty to co-operate, but if, as is often demonstrated, local authorities cannot work together to plan for homes, how should they be expected to plan for flood plains? A national plan certainly would be revolutionary, but regional plans are not new. In fact we had them at the start of this parliament...

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Save The NPPF

An e-petition has been launched seeking to "amend the NPPF" before "irreversible damage is caused to our communities."

The petition goes on to state that:

We the undersigned support the principles of the NPPF but believe that its implementation has led to unanticipated consequences. Opportunist planning applications are being lodged around the country where planning authorities have not adopted their Core Strategy nor have a 5 year housing land supply. In these cases, all planning rules seem to be abandoned including many of the core planning principles in the NPPF. We believe that such large scale development risks massive, irreversible damage to our villages and the surrounding countryside. We do not believe that this was the intention of the NPPF and ask the Government to urgently introduce three specific amendments:
  • to allow decision makers to take into account the cumulative effect of development as a material planning consideration;
  • to allow planning authorities an extension of time to adopt a new Core Strategy; and
  • to require a sequential test to be applied to encourage the effective use of brown field land.
Where to start. The specific amendments perhaps.

The promoters of the e-petition would presumably like a LPA to have the ability to refuse (in situations where it has neither a Local Plan or a five year supply of housing), say, the third application on the edge of, say, a market town on the basis that applications one and two bring to capacity, say, the road network or social infrastructure such as schools and doctors.

In 'The Planning System: General Principles' document (2005) it is stated that a proposed development could be refused if it would be so substantial, or where the cumulative effect would be so significant, that granting permission could prejudice an emerging DPD by predetermining decisions about the scale, location or phasing of new development.

In the example above then if application three cannot provide for measures to mitigate it's impact, then the LPA could legitimately refuse it, and hope to be supported by an appeal inspector on the basis that the impact, to be addressed through the development plan, outweighed the need for new homes.

The first draft of the NPPF included no transitional arrangements and the inclusion of a twelve month period in the final draft was one of changes championed by, amongst others, the CPRE and National Trust. As the second anniversary of the NPPF approaches it is worth noting that Local Plan coverage remains poor. Of the 39 LPAs in the North West, for example, 19 have adopted Core Strategies, though many of these were put in place before the NPPF and the requirements to identify objectively assessed need. Would more Local Plans be in place had transitional arrangements not been included in the NPPF? That's obviously difficult to answer, but the fact that coverage remains so low is a reason not to allow further extensions.

The NPPF already encourages "the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (provided that it is not of high environmental value) as a core planning principle and n inspector considering the Reigate Core Strategy recently endorsed an approach to only allow greenfield sites when necessary to maintain a five year supply on the basis that introducing them at an early stage risked undermining an “urban areas first” strategy. 

"We support the principles of the NPPF but believe that its implementation has led to unanticipated consequences" sounds very much like the standard NIMBY refrain of "we support the need for new houses, but they have to be in the right place and this isn't the right place".

If the promoters of this e-petition really support the principles of the NPPF then they will support the delivery of new homes via a plan-led development control system. Further NPPF reform, and it's worth again noting that the CPRE and National Trust garnered plaudits for the revision that were secured to the final draft, will only serve to delay progress with Local Plans and, contrary to what this petition is trying to achieve, will result in more applications being determined by inspectors in accordance with the NPPF and the presumption of sustainable development.

Where to finish. Well as a counterpoint to those seeking to reform the NPPF I have created an e-petition of my own. 

Save the NPPF.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Trafford CIL Recommended For Approval

Trafford Council made the Examiner’s final report into it's Draft CIL Charging Schedule public this morning. The report recommends, subject to modifications, that the Charging Schedule be approved. The next stage will be it's adoption, but a timetbale for that process is not yet known.

The final proposed Charging Schedule is below, and further details can be found at:

Proposed CIL charge (per sq.m)
Private market houses in:

Cold charging zone
Moderate charging zone
Hot charging zone
Apartments in:

Cold charging zone
£10 £0
Moderate charging zone
£10 £0
Hot charging zone
Retail Warehouses
Supermarkets outside defined town centres
Supermarkets within the defined town centres of Altrincham, Sale, Stretford and Urmston
£225 £0
Public/Institutional Facilities as follows:
education, health, community & emergency services, public transport
£10 £0
Industry and Warehousing
£10 £0
All other development
£10 £0