Friday, 20 February 2015

Green Belt. Sacred Cow.

Let's play a little word association game. A bit like Mallet's Mallet (for the readers who need to realise that knowing what this is makes you almost old...). Sam's Stick. Stafford's Staff. Anyway. You get the idea. I write a word, or words, you read it, and then lodge the first word, or words, that come in to your mind. Ok. Here we go.

The Premier League...
..., ok...
What did you think? Over-paid and over-hyped? Unmissable? Too many foreigners? Great brand?
There is, of course, no right answer. Football is a game. A sport. It means lots of different things to lots of different people.

Another one.

The Turner Prize...

..., ok...

What did you think? Cutting edge? Experimentation? Boundary-pushing? Indulgent nonsense?
There is, of course, no right answer. Art is a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, usually involving imaginative or technical skill (at least according to Wikipedia). It too means lots of different things to lots of different people.
One last one...
Green Belt.

..., ok...

What did you think? Cricket matches taking place on a village green in front of a thatched cottage? A ruddy-cheeked farmer stacking hay bales in the sweet-scented aroma of a newly-mown meadow? Sunday morning rambles with children through an ancient woodland, stopping for a game of poohsticks before lunching in a listed coaching inn turned michelin-starred Gastro-pub? These are, of course, all wrong answers.
If you got one or all of the following (all would be impressive...) you would be right:
  • checking the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; 
  • assisting in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; 
  • preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and 
  • assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
The Green Belt is a policy designation that serves these purposes. It is one of the environmental and policy considerations to be taken into account by a Local Planning Authority when considering whether full, objectively assessed housing need can be met by a local plan. These should be pretty dry, binary, back and white discussions, but because the Green Belt is increasingly being both used and understood almost interchangeably with the word 'countryside', and a romanticised view of a particularly English countryside at that, these dry, binary, back and white discussions are becoming less and less frequent within the local plan process. The words Green Belt are becoming laden with the emotive senses of both a golden past and foreboding future, and the politics of the Green Belt is having a greater and greater influence on the planning system and it's ability to deliver new sites for new homes.

The NPPF states that "the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence". There is no reference to ecological, landscape or leisure value there at all. Just openness and permanence (permanence in the twenty year sense not the two year sense). The Green Belt relates to settlements because it protects them from merging; protects their setting (if they are historic), and promotes their renewal (if they contain derelict land). The Green Belt also relates to the 'countryside', in so far as protecting it from encroachment is concerned. It could be argued, therefore, that the Green Belt is designed to protect land on either side of it rather than the land covered by it (Barney Stringer of Quod Planning has analysed the role and function of London's Green Belt, which makes for interesting reading). It is a very local designation, with it's width in any given location related to specific circumstances. It's use, application and meaning though, have taken on a wider national significance.

There is a parallel here with another of our national institutions: the NHS. Both were conceived in that golden post-war period when Britainnia still ruled the waves, when you could go to the village shop and leave your front door open, and when people cared more for each other than for themselves. The NHS is now so embedded within the national consciousness that the very thought of managing principles other than those adopted by Aneurin Bevan are treated as almost treasonous in some quarters. The public's attitude towards the Green Belt appears to be heading in a similar direction.

"Hang on, Sam." I hear you cry. "You work for a major home builder, of course you want to concrete over the Green Belt." Thank you for giving me that much credit. Like most town planners I subscribe to the Centre For Cities' three-pronged approach to the housing crisis, which can be summarised as greater urban densities through taller buildings and estate-renewal; the return of regional / sub-regional planning to address cross-boundary issues; and appropriate Green Belt release where needs justify it (new, or greatly expanded, settlements will also have to play a role).

The politicisation of Green Belt policy is making the prospect of sensible discussions about it harder and harder to achieve, which will mean that, as a direct result, building enough homes will become equally harder and harder to achieve. When I hear the words Green Belt two words instinctively lodge in my mind... Sacred cow...

Monday, 16 February 2015

OAN - The Numbers Game

This piece by Simon Coop at NLP very nicely anticipates the publication next week of the 2012-based sub-national household projections (SNHP), which, as Simon states, are expected to demonstrate a lower level of future household change when compared to previous projections.
Given that the SNHP will project forward the demographic and household formation trends that were experienced between 2007 and 2012, this lower level of change should not surprise anybody, and Simon's piece makes the point that they should not be taken at face value.
In planning terms, the SNHP do not provide a definitive position in relation to future housing need, and the national PPG requires DCLG household projections to provide only the starting point for the assessment of housing need.
This is election season though and, whilst Simon makes the point that a lower level of change in the SNHP might 'threaten the abilities' of pro-development politicians to make good on a commitment to increase the supply of housing, I would be more concerned about anti-development politicians making the SNHP both the starting point and the finishing point for the assessment of housing need. 
Increasing the supply of housing is an easier thing for an MP on a national platform to commit to than a councillor on a local platform. Given that it is at the local level now where objective assessments of need are defined it is here where the numbers game is played out and I would wage that there will be more politicians pleased for an opportunity to keep a local plan in the long grass than there are politicians worried about their committment to increase supply.
In fact, the reaction to the SNHP will be a good test of the reality that lies behind political rhetoric. If you hear a politician, of any colour and at any level, acknowledge that that SNHP should not be taken at face value and are, in any event, just a starting point, then you will know that they a) understand the planning process and b) are comfortable with the idea of new homes being built in their area. If you hear a politician say that the SNHP mean that the LPA in their local area should take the opportunity to revise housebuilding targets downwards then you will know what they really think...

Friday, 6 February 2015

Speeding up the planning process

Would you like to guess how long it takes to get planning permission for a 50 home development? Have in mind that the target for major applications is 8 weeks, which increases to 13 weeks for EIA development.
Research undertaken in 2013 concluded that across the Barratt Group it took an average of 22 weeks to get an application approved by a Committee, with a further 20 weeks required for S106 Agreement negotiations and the satisfaction of pre-commencement conditions.
I could write a very extensive piece about the influences upon the submission and determination of an application, and would probably end up concluding that any procedural efficiencies would be offset by the diminishing number of experienced, talented planners to implement them, but will settle today for a couple of ideas that I might submit to the inevitable review that the next Government will undertake 'on speeding up the planning process'.
Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) are often touted as the solution to this problem, and they are a sound enough concept, but in my experience the agreement is solely with the planning department and are not an incentive themselves to other council departments, let alone external consultees, who the Development Control manager has little control over. More often than not it is the other council departments and external consultees that can hold up the application process. A PPA needs, therefore, to incentivise and obligate everybody involved in the process.

If those other departments and agencies cannot be incentivised then how about getting applicants to gather all pre-app consultation themselves and, provided the scheme in question has not changed, making that pre-app consultation time-limited (say six months) so that it can be used by the planning department to determine the application without the need to formally reconsult again. If the consultee, who would still be notified, wants to change their mind they can, but the onus would be on them to change their initial view rather than to provide one.

Sensible, practical and so probably unattainable.