Saturday, 29 November 2014

How to solve the housing crisis

How to solve the problem of more new households than new houses?

Sir Michael Lyons' report of his independent review of housing for the Labour Party makes 39 considered and sound enough recommendations.

Planning Minister Brandon Lewis has summarised the Government's "wide range of measures" as including neighbourhood planning ('putting power back in the hands of local communities'), investment in the Affordable Homes programme, and the stimulation of demand (like 'Help to Buy').

Shadow Communities Minister Roberta Blackman-Woods has spoken of "tweaks" to the NPPF to reflect a 'brownfield first' policy (and also a common methodology for objective assessments of housing need), sentiments also expressed by Brandon Lewis in response to a recent CPRE report.

Whilst the Lyons' report mentions "housing as a priority for Government", regardless of who forms the next Government the smart money (I'd hesitate to say my money, but, you know...) should be on some light-touch tinkering rather than heavy-handed reform. Labour, who one might expect to be the most reformist, talk of a national spatial assessment, but that is not a national development plan. Labour talk too of a Strategic Housing Market Plan, but that is not regional (or sub-regional, or city-regional, or structure) plan. Nobody is talking about doing to planning law what the NPPF did to planning guidance.

Guess what though? That is alright because do we really want more heavy-handed reform? The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012 mean that LPAs can prepare a single local plan rather than the ill-conceived two-stage Core Strategy and Allocations DPDs, which was arguably more significant to planning and plan-making than the NPPF. The NPPF itself was a successful consolidation that, with the Planning Practice Guidance, needs only time to bed in further.

In contemplating though how the planning system can deliver more homes, all of the suggested tweaks and all of the suggested tinkering boil down to two simple things. We need more land allocated in more development plans, and more planning applications approved more quickly. This, fundamentally, comes down to two more simple things: reducing public resistance to the allocation of land and the approval of planning applications, and having LPAs with the ability to put development plans in place and approve planning applications. If housing really is to be a priority for the next Government then it is in these two areas where attention being directed.

'How though, Sam?' I hear you cry. How can the Government reduce public resistance and strengthen LPAs. Well, in regard to the former, politicians could show real leadership and tell the public what they need to know about the need for greenfield sites and Green Belt review, rather than want they want to know. I have written on this topic before...

In relation to LPA resources, a report by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office has shown that Council planning and development services have been subjected to the deepest local government cuts between 2010 and 2015. I highlighted in this piece back in May that over 100 planning positions have been lost across the North West since 2010 and, at a time when development activity is increasing, this situation will only worsen. Tony Travers of the LSE predicts a further 57% reduction in spending by locals authorities on planning over the next five years.

The Lyons review again asserts (tinkers) that LPAs should be able to set planning fees locally on a full cost recovery basis, but this idea has been consulted upon by the current Government has not gone anywhere.

Most telling of all though is Lyons' suggestion that all LPAs be required to submit a local plan to PINS by December 2016. Compulsory local plans? Has it really come to this? For a LPA to have not submitted a plan since the 2004 Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act is evidence of either an absence of political will, or an absence of appropriate skills in the planning department. Both things that a Government of whatever hue could do something about it really wanted.

So. In conclusion. Tweaks and tinkering in planning are as inevitable as the political pendulum swinging first one way and then the other, but they will not result in any more new homes being built. For that to happen two things need to change things:the rhetoric and the resourcing.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Planning In The Thick Of It

We are in election season, which means that planning policies and pronouncements are more prone than usual to the pie charts of public opinion. It occurs to me, therefore, that planning is ripe for satirical send-up, so this blog, therefore, is meant for Armando Iannucci, who will hopefully at some point in the future consider a fifth series of The Thick Of It, the razor-sharp, foul-mouthed satire that pricks at the Westminster bubble.
If, and hopefully when, Mr Iannucci does contemplate that new series, he will hopefully stumble across this piece and my suggestion that Nicola Murray, the tragi-comic Minister whose sole ambition in politics is to avoid the ire of tyrannical spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker, finds her way from DoSAC to the new Department of Places and the Environment where she has accepted the crucial role of Planning Minister.
To assist Mr Iannucci yet further, I have also taken the liberty of sketching out a planning narrative for the series, around which political and personal plotlines can be based.
Episode 1.
In the warm glow of an election victory, Nicola Murray begins to formulate the policies that will deliver the manifesto commitments on housing and planning, which included a step-change in housing delivery, a faster, fairer planning system, support for self-builders, and a commitment to put communities at the heart of the decision-making.
Episode 2.
The publication of disappointing official statistics on housebuilding means an early morning call to Nicola from Malcolm, who reminds her of the Prime Minister’s own pre-election promise to ‘Get Britain Building. Nicola agrees to work with Treasury officials on a temporary policy to expedite the development of absolutely anything absolutely anywhere.
Episode 3.
The juxtaposition position between pledges to oversee both a step-change in delivery and a revolution in local-decision making is brought sharply in to focus for Nicola when a planning application is submitted for an urban extension to the market town in which her constituency office is located.
Episode 4.
Having attended a public exhibition about the urban extension, and heard about both the benefits of the scheme and the future affordability crisis in her home town being precipitated by the failure of the local authority to start reviewing it’s local plan, Nicola is minded to support the application until Malcolm advises her that her local association will refuse to match fund her pre-election leafleting campaign if she does.
Episode 5.
The need for Nicola to make a difficult decision on the urban extension is averted when a well-informed residents group (that includes a planning barrister that Malcolm went to University with) spots a flaw with the application's EIA process, forcing it be restarted. During the delay the residents group is able to prepare the first draft of a neighbourhood plan that includes the development of a smaller brownfield site within the town when the factory currently on it finally closes.
Episode 6.
With another general election on the horizon, more disappointing housebuilding statistics, and Malcolm calling for more manifesto commitments to the Green Belt, brownfield sites and community control, Nicola accepts an exciting role at the Department of Schools and Skills…
You keep the Bafta, Mr Iannucci. I'll settle for a co-writing credit...

Monday, 24 November 2014

As sure as night follows day, brownfield promotion follows Green Belt protection

Morecambe and Wise. Shearer and Sheringham. Green Belt and Brownfield. Partnerships that are famous because you cannot think of one without thinking of the other.

Having reinforced the Government's commitment to the Green Belt last month, it was perhaps inevitable that this month would see a similar commitment from Housing & Planning Minister Brandon Lewis to brownfield sites, the supply of which, as I heard recently, becomes more elastic the closer time gets to a general election. Sure enough, Mr Lewis lent his name to a CPRE press release about it's 'Wasted Space' campaign.

Labour too is keen to emphasise it's pre-election brownfield credentials, and I recently heard Shadow Minister Roberta Blackman-Woods reinforce a 'brownfield first' message that was first aired by Hilary Benn some time ago. 

Nobody would disagree that brownfield sites should be developed before greenfield ones, but this, unfortunately, is where the public pronouncements of our politicians stop because neither Mr Lewis or Dr Blackman-Woods will go on to highlight the simple fact that brownfield sites simply cannot deliver anything like the number of homes required to meet the national shortfall.

Tellingly, Michael Lyons, the man commissioned by the Labour Party to provide an independent review of housing policy, is not a big fan. His report states...

" being available for development does not necessarily mean that it can be built on or that it is in the right place to meet housing need. If the costs involved in purchasing the land, remediation and preparation, the costs of infrastructure and the construction of the homes outweigh the receipts from selling them, brownfield land will not be economically viable. Therefore undue emphasis on what can be achieved with brownfield alone is always likely to be an over simplistic response to the land supply question."

He goes on...

"The review is clear that the principle of brownfield first is right and should continue with a sequential test that ensures that such sites are considered first for new development, but the experiences of unintended consequences of national brownfield policies illustrate the importance of a more tailored approach which can respond to local circumstances and address the particular barriers to unlock development on stalled brownfield sites."

Mr Lyons states that tackling the housing crisis will require strong leadership. That means that Mr Lewis and Dr Blackman-Woods need to tell the public what  they need to know (and what I heard Mr Lyons tell Paul Miner of the CPRE at this year's TCPA conference), which is that brownfield sites are not enough and that greenfield sites (and in some areas Green Belt sites) will need to be developed. Getting local plans adopted and planning permissions approved will remain that bit more difficult than it needs to be until they do.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Housing the 'Northern Powerhouse'

If the general election of 2010 was about localism, the 2015 election promises to be about devolution. If it’s not on the lips of everybody then it’s certainly on the lips of the metropolitan, liberal elite that concerns itself with the future of regional governance. The Conservatives’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’; the five cities’ ‘One North’ plan; Nick Clegg’s ‘Northern Futures’ project; the City Growth Commission’s ‘Unleashing Metro Growth’ report; Labour’s plans for an English Regional Cabinet Committee; and David Higgins’ ‘Rebalancing Britain’ report, are all evidence of a devolution arms race.

"New transport and science and powerful city governance", said George Osborne.

"Better connections between people and jobs is crucial if we want to rebalance the national economy", said Keith Wakefield.

"The next phase in our drive to generate the best ideas for stronger local growth", said Nick Clegg.

'Granting more powers to cities should form an essential part of a new deal for the north', said Jim O'Neill.

"Labour has a radical plan for spreading power and prosperity across England’s city and county regions", said Ed Miliband.

"Improving connectivity is one key factor essential in addressing that gap by raising our productivity, and prosperity, as a country", said David Higgins.

Jobs and growth. Transport and infrastructure. Power and prosperity. There are constant themes here, but something is constantly missing as well, which is mention of the new homes to support the jobs and the growth and the transport and the infrastructure and the power and the prosperity.

'But hang on, Sam', I can hear you say. 'Hasn't Greater Manchester just published "an overarching plan within which the ten local authorities identify and make available land to deliver ambitious strategic priorities?"'. Well, yes, Reader, that is very true, but I am not sure that the word ambitious can legitimately be used to describe the proposed housing requirement.

'But hang on, Sam', I can also hear you say. 'Doesn't the 10,700 homes per annum included in the Spatial Framework represent 1,083 more homes per annum (or 11%) than the cumulative former RSS target?"'. Well, yes, Reader, that is also very true, but historic RSS targets have long-since been confirmed as obsolete in planning terms.

Here comes the science part. The NPPG clearly states that household projections should provide the starting point for housing need. Plan-makers may then consider sensitivity testing, specific to their local circumstances, based on alternative assumptions in relation to demographic projections and household formation rates, migration levels, job numbers and market signals (land prices, house prices, rents, affordability, rate of development and overcrowding).

The assessment of housing need in the Spatial Framework is based solely on the translation of the 2012 Sub-National Population Projection data into households and dwellings. That's it. There is no adjustment is to reflect demographic data, economic evidence or market signals. This despite evidence that supply across Greater Manchester has failed to keep pace with demand and that there are increased levels of over-crowding, rental values and affordability ratios.

In contrast to the narrow assessment of housing need, the consultation document does introduce a range of economic forecasts, but again, analysis of historic job growth, the ambitions of Greater Manchester and the pipeline of major development projects highlights that consideration should be given to more aspirational levels of job growth. Modelling undertaken by NLP indicates that to realise the level of job growth based on the Experian job growth figures (set out in Section 5) would require over 15,000 new homes per annum.

With pantomime season approaching I am going to attempt a tenuous metaphor. It looks as though jobs and growth, the ugly sisters, are going to the 'Devolution Ball', but poor housing looks like being left home alone. The suppression of requirements relative to the number of new jobs being targeted might be expected in more, let's just say, rural, authorities, like Cheshire East, where the priorities are perhaps more, let's just say, local, but the ambition for Manchester, as stated in the Greater Manchester Strategy, is for the city "to become one of the most successful cities in the world".

I would hazard a guess that the most successful cities in the world, if they do undertake any kind of spatial planning, do more than the bare minimum necessary to meet demographic needs. So, if the Spatial Framework is to be, as it could be, a once in a generation opportunity to drive real change, then there should be some genuinely ambitious targets behind the rhetoric.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The political posturing around Green Belts

In a Telegraph piece today (10 November) Redrow Chairman Steve Morgan bemoans the "political posturing ahead of next year's General Election (that) is already having a detrimental impact on the time taken to grant planning permissions in many parts of the country."

To what might Mr Morgan be referring to? Well last month ministers "underlined the government’s commitment to protect the green belt from development" with 'new' guidance and, predcitably enough, two Surrey councils have already shelved plans for a Green Belt review.
Practioners though are seeing through the smoke and mirrors. This is an extract from a piece by Stephen Ashworth at Dentons.

In substance, neither additional paragraph makes any real contribution to our understanding of the policy in the NPPF. However, the ministerial statements that introduce the additions to the NPPG have given the impression that green belt policy has been tightened and that greater favour is now being given to brownfield land. That is wrong. There is no change of policy. Ministers should stop pretending that that is the case.

Down in Surrey Mole Valley councillor John Northcott said he could rule out any building in the green belt in the short term, but "in the longer term, who knows?" he said. I do not know Guildford and Mole Valley that well, but I do know that a third of Mole Valley's councillors and all of Guildford's councillors are up for re-election in May, so would hazard a guess at what happens in the long term. The Green Belt review will be revisted somewhere near the middle of the next electoral cycle and a local plan will includea redrawing of its boundaries.

The outcome will be the same and so will be the people in charge, which explains the political posturing around Green Belts...

Monday, 3 November 2014

The first item in the Manc Mayor's In-Tray

Of all the challenges awaiting the first directly-elected mayor of Greater Manchester in 2017, and there will no doubt be plenty, the one that drew my eye amongst the 'devo-manc' coverage (3 November 2014) was the need for the Spatial Framework to be approved 'by a unanimous vote of the Mayor’s Cabinet' (here). John Geoghegan at Planning Magazine has been told by Eamonn Boylan at Stockport Council (here) that the Cabinet would retain the GMCA model, which means that it will comprise all ten Council leaders.

According to the Spatial Framework consultation material, 2017 should herald a 'publication' draft of the new statutory document, as well as it's submission for examination. Even without a unanimous cabinet vote that is an extremely ambitious timetable because it means plan publication either before or very soon after an election in May, cabinet consent to the submission of the plan in the summer, and an examination by Christmas. The need for unanimity though means that just one dissenting voice around the cabinet table could delay progress on a plan already three years in the  making. In other words, the Mayor, who themselves may (depending upon the successful candidate,) have had little involvement in the plan-making process, will have to convince all ten leaders, perhaps themselves new in post, that the plan satisfies all of their interests. Interestingly, other Greater Manchester strategies will require just a two-thirds majority at the new Cabinet.

This matters because any delay to the Spatial Framework matters. This is an extract from a paper presented to Stockport's LDF Working Party on 4 November 2014:

It should not be necessary to wait until at least 2018 and the projected DPD adoption before the Council can proceed with work on its own local plan (in whatever form that might be) because work on that can take place concurrently with the GMSF document. Nevertheless, clearly this work will result in a delay to the adoption of relevant planning documents.

Stockport's Core Strategy pre-dates the NPPF and includes an RSS-based housing requirement. As the Working Party paper states... If it is assumed, for the sake of simplicity, that 480dwellings dpa is the current net housing requirement in Stockport, taking a 10% split of the OAN figure as the comparable figure that could emerge from the GMSF equates to a figure over double the current target.

The use of the word unanimous was perhaps a deliberate attempt to allay fears about control being taken from LPAs rather than given to them, but when dealing with matters as controversial as the proportion of a housing requirement being directed to one or other borough, that bar does instinctively feel like a high one for the new mayor to jump over.