Monday, 31 March 2014

Designing a joined-up government

In a fantastic example of joined-up, cross-department government thinking, the Farrell Review, an independent review of architecture and the built environment, will report today, barely three weeks after the publication of national planning policy guidance (NPPG).

Sir Terry Farrell was commissioned by Culture and Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey in March 2013 with the intention of 'helping the Department for Culture, Media and Sport develop its thinking about the role for Government in the achievement of high quality design to better influence and shape policy across government'.

In terms of influencing planning policy though that horse has probably bolted. The NPPG, in the spirit of the NPPF consolidates the 100 pages of guidance in 'By Design: Urban Design in the Planning System' (2000) and 'Better Places to Live By Design' (2001) with 18 pages, emphasises what good design is and why it is important, but provides little by way of practical examples of how good design can be embedded in the planning system.

Whilst the consolidation of guidance was largely welcomed by practitioners, it is telling that RIBA's Head of External Affairs Anna Scott-Marshall described the housing design section as 'inadequate'.

If the Telegraph's reporting of the Farrell Review is accurate then it's conclusions sound laudable.
  • Nominate 'civic champions' within LPAs to 'improve design quality';
  • architecture and design on the national curriculum in schools;
  • basic design training for councillors who vote on planning decisions; 
  • more 'design literate' planners;
  • making the process of listing buildings more democratic and transparent; and
  • cutting VAT on renovation and repair of private homes to 5%.
The first thought that came to my mind though when hearing of the review's launch this morning though was that this is the same government that in 2010 withdrew funding from CABE.

CABE was the direct successor body to the Royal Fine Art Commission and was established in August 1999 following Richard Roger's Urban Task Force in 1998. Some of CABE's functions, including design review and localism and planning, were merged with the Design Council in 2011, but it's worth noting that the Design Council charge £4,000 for a preliminary design workshop and £3,500 for planning application review. 

At a TCPA conference in 2012 Planning Minster Nick Boles "struck out once again at the poor design of housing estates arguing that the key to overcoming opposition to development is to make it more ‘beautiful’."

The Farrell Review might help contribute towards that aim, but it's timing doesn't speak of a government committed to the cause. It does though support another of the Farrell recommendations, which is a chief architect reporting to both DCMS and DCLG to 'connect government departments and ensure a consistency of approach'...

Monday, 24 March 2014

Community Control, Countryside Chaos & Comfortable Nostalgia

It is apposite that on the day the BBC is covering a poll from Populus that reveals the segments of the British electorate, the CPRE has published a report on the impact, two years on, of the NPPF entitled 'Community Control or Countryside Chaos'.

It is apposite because one of Populus' six segments of the electorate is 'comfortable nostalgia' who 'tend to be older, more traditional voters who dislike the social and cultural changes they see as altering Britain for the worse'. Apparently 20% of Conservative voters in 2010 fell in to this category and one could legitimately speculate that many also subscribe to the CPRE, National Trust and Daily Telegraph.

To illustrate the point the Telegraph's coverage of the CPRE report alerts readers to 'traditional English village life' being 'under threat because of plans for 700,000 new homes in the countryside'.

Let's put aside though the thought that if the countryside was not under threat our comfortable nostalgics would not need organisations to help them protect it and consider the planning merits of the seven CPRE recommendations.

Amend the NPPF to stress that previously-developed  land should be prioritised and that LPAs can enforce such a policy approach through a phasing policy.
There is no reason why a local plan could not include an ‘urban areas first’ strategy and the early release of greenfield land only if required to maintain a five year land supply.
Put a greater burden of proof on developers to show, when they apply for planning permission, that proposed developments are socially and environmentally, as well as economically, sustainable.
Notwithstanding the fact that most applicants would, I imagine, be keen to highlight the social and environmental benefits of development anyway, it is for LPAs to determine an application in accordance with the NPPF as a whole. The real burden here is the administrative burden of further validation requirements, perhaps designed to further slow the process and provide more opportunities for objections and challenge.
Remove the automatic presumption in favour of granting planning permission where a LPA is unable to demonstrate a five year land supply. It should be made clear in these cases that developers should still be expected to meet local policy objectives, for example where a local authority seeks to use brownfield sites before greenfield.
The NPPF does not include a presumption in favour of granting permission where a LPA is unable to demonstrate a five year land supply. It states that relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the LPA cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites. It also states that housing applications should be considered in the context of the presumption in favour of sustainable development.
Revise the NPPF so that land that already has planning permission is clearly considered as being part of the five year land supply, and that this should not normally be challenged.
It can only be right for land with planning permission to be included within a five year supply if it is capable of being delivered within a five year period. By the same token, land without planning permission can be included within a five year supply if it is capable of being delivered within a five year period.
Drop the requirement in the NPPF to allocate an additional 20% ‘buffer’ of ‘deliverable’ housing sites.
The NPPF makes clear that buffers are not additional homes, but homes moved forward from later in the plan period. The reference to ‘providing a realistic prospect of achieving the planned supply’ in paragraph 47 is perhaps a reference to LPAs who might in the past have included land within a supply that had no realistic prospect of being delivered within a  five year period.
Issue further guidance stating that development in and around villages should be properly considered through either the Local Plan or neighbourhood planning process. Building outside settlement boundaries should only happen in exceptional circumstances, and full consideration should be given to cumulative impacts of developments on the character of the countryside and rural settlements.
If development in and around villages is only considered through either the Local Plan or neighbourhood planning process, and not considered through the development control management process, then in many parts of the country there would be no development in and around villages. Hang on...
Give greater scope for planning applications to be refused on grounds of ‘prematurity’, in order to allow suitable time and space for local authorities and neighbourhoods to develop robust plans for the future of their area.
It has been two years since the NPPF was published and local plan coverage remains poor. Further time or 'transitional arrangements' would mean that in many parts of the country there would be no development in and around villages. Hang on...

Whilst in this writer's view then the report offers little of practical significance it will add to body of material to be read by the planning students who come to study the 2010-2015 period in the future.

If those planning students of the future come to discover this blog I'll highlight for them this from Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of CPRE, who said that today's report ‘provides firm evidence from across England that the Government’s planning reforms are not achieving their stated aims. Far from community control of local development, we are seeing councils under pressure to disregard local democracy to meet top-down targets'.

This is an extract from the Plain English Guide to the Localism Act: 

Instead of local people being told what to do, the Government thinks that local communities should have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live. The Act introduces a new right for communities to draw up a neighbourhood plan. 

So is this: 

Provided a neighbourhood development plan or order is in line with national planning policy, with the strategic vision for the wider area set by the local authority, and with other legal requirements, local people will be able to vote on it in a referendum. If the plan is approved by a majority of those who vote, then the local authority will bring it into force. 

When the planning policy of this Government is studied in the future the NPPF should be recorded as a bold consolidation of guidance and the Localism Act recorded as a tentative, half-hearted attempt at decentralisation. 

When the politics of this Government's planning policy is recorded in the future the reality, as illustrated in that summary of the Localism Act above, will be shown to have been hoisted on the petard of rhetoric. A localism genie was let out of the bottle in the optimistic early-parliament dawn and attempts to impose a will from the centre in the world-weary late-parliament dusk were used by the CPRE and others to portray a taking back of powers that were never really offered in the first place.  

In launching the report the CPRE welcomes 'recent signs that Ministers are willing to do more to promote brownfield development and protect the Green Belt', but then state, without a trace of irony, that 'much more needs to be done to protect the countryside, put communities back in the driving seat, and build the new homes the country needs.’ 

Irony is an oft mis-used term, but I have just reminded myself of its definition and it only partly applies to the CPRE's position. 

Irony. A state of affairs that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.

The outcome contrary to expectation applies (especially since the amount of Green Belt has increased since 1997), but it is not wryly amusing that development is being planned for by planning appeal rather than through a forward planning process. This is a state of affairs influenced by the warnings from the CPRE and others that the countryside and 'traditional English' village life is being destroyed and the direct impact that this has on Local Plan progress.

It is also not wryly amusing for communities to be more likely to use neighbourhood plans to stifle development.

And it certainly is not amusing for the country to be building no-more than half of the homes it needs. 

On the plus side though, the comfortable nostalgics will be pleased...

On locally-led Garden Cities

If a Garden City or two is to form part of the solution to the country's housing crisis then it would appear that a future Government of the current hue (and given Labour's embrace in opposition of 'localism', any hue) will not be yielding any influence on bringing them to bare.

The Telegraph reported in January that 'a secret Whitehall report recommending that two new cities are built in southern England to combat the housing shortage is being suppressed by David Cameron', but a FOI response issued by DCLG states that it 'holds no such report' (another Government department might though of course...).

Attention is instead directed to an answer by Housing Minister Kris Hopkins to a Parliamentary Question, which outlines 'the work of the department on supporting locally-led development'. Specifically, the answer states that 'my department has absolutely no plans to impose new towns on any part of the country'.

This language is consistent with that used most recently by the Chancellor in the budget, which said that 'the Government will publish a prospectus by Easter 2014, setting out how local authorities could develop their own, locally-led proposals for bringing forward new garden cities.'

Local government is, of course, home to vision, leadership and community engagement, but is it home to the strength of vision, leadership and community engagement required to deliver a garden city? Even if it is, is local government alone capable of capturing land value and putting community ownership at the heart of long-term stewardship?

Paragraph 52 of the NPPF already states 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.' Two years on and, Ebbsfleet aside (which, as GVA's Head of Planning Gerry Hughes notes here, is a a 'low-hanging-fruit opportunity'), it is fair to say that the embedding of support for Garden Cities in national guidance has not ignited interest.

The difference between 'large-scale new development' and Garden Cities include the core values above that the Government has to have a hand in nurturing. We shall obviously have to wait and see wait the prospectus itself says, but if it only goes as far as to say that 'Garden Cities are a good idea and local authorities should work with communities to explore their creation' then the next Garden City or two is probably still another generation away.

The planning system as Eric Pickles' JCB

Bare with me, but inspired by a recent trip to Diggerland, it occurred to me that the latest round of consultation from DCLG might best be described as a metaphor in which the planning system is a JCB operated by Eric Pickles.

Close your eyes and enjoy picturing the scene. Mr Pickles is trying to manoeuvre the system in a way that 'ensures further progress on decision making and housing delivery'. He has in his hands two levers: one for the development industry, a carrot, and, one for local government, a stick.

The carrot in this consultation is a proposal to 'aid the delivery of small scale housing sites' by introducing a 10-unit and 1,000 gross floor space threshold for affordable housing contributions through section 106 planning obligations.

The stick is a proposal to increase the threshold for designating LPAs as under-performing, based on the speed of deciding applications for major development, from 30% to 40% or fewer of decisions made on time.

Less of a regulatory and financial burden on the developers of new homes, therefore, and an increased likelihood of LPAs being bypassed.

It is worth reminding ourselves that in June 2010, in the optimistic early-parliament dawn, Mr Pickles said in a speech that implementing a "localist" agenda would be the most important objective for his new department.

This consultation, coming in the world-weary late-parliament dusk, represents the contradictory, centralist localism that this Government might be remembered for. In that respect, the image of Mr Pickles' JCB burying that 2010 speech is perhaps an apt one.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Planners plan. Politicians adopt

Statistics this week that may or may not be related....

The Conservative Home website features the results of a survey last week that asked Conservative members to prioritise various policies ahead of the budget.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, on a scale of 1 to 10 the allocation of more land for building scored 5.12 and is firmly in the 'low priority' category.

In other news, Local Plan coverage remains poor. Nick Boles confirms here that still only three quarters of LPAs have published a Local Plan and only 'over half' have adopted one.

A reminder that whilst planners prepare a plan, it's the politicians that adopt it.