Friday, 2 December 2016

A good planning system needs good planners.

I cannot remember exactly why, I may have been in a flap about a councillor or consultant giving me a hard time, but I remember being told by my principle officer and team leader to relax. ‘It’s only a game’, he said.

Now. Let’s be clear. Planning is clearly not a game. Late Victorian intervention into a laissez-faire market on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged was not a game. The need to rebuild the country after the great wars and to build homes for heroes was not a game. Looking back on my time in development control with ten years more experience myself I think that my former colleague was expressing a world-weary, cynical view that when you strip back the noble traditions of the profession and look narrowly at the ability of one person to get anything done, you have to play ‘the game’.

I was on the panel at a ‘Movers & Shakers’ breakfast seminar recently (check me out) and was asked what I would like to see in the Autumn Statement and much-trailed Housing White Paper. My answer, born out of optimism more than expectation, was that I would like to see more resources for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs).

Whilst the resource issue is seemingly on Minister Barwell’s radar…

… there was no recognition of it in the Autumn Statement and if it is to be recognised in the White Paper it will perhaps most likely be in the Government’s long-awaited position on locally-set planning application fees (which I will come back to).

As Primal Scream might have said in an early demo version of ‘Rocks’, dealers keep dealing, junkies keep scoring, Governments keep tinkering, and practitioners keep practicing. The White Paper will no doubt introduce another round of reform for planners to get to grips with and that will driven by what Simon Ricketts eloquently describes here as short-term political priorities. There ain’t no use in praying. That’s the way it’s staying. Baby.

Again, let us put to one side and return one day to the quite important question of what planning is for and how the system should be structured to achieve that purpose. Let us instead think about the system as it is presently constructured and how within it planners can get good plans in place and get good applications approved.

The tinkering does, without doubt, yield some benefits. The deemed discharge of planning conditions, for example, is sensible. But tinkering also has some unquantifiable opportunity costs because whilst planners are getting to grips with the practical implications of another ministerial missive (I also spoke at a Starter Homes conference recently (again, check me out) and, for example, two years after the concept was first trailed there are still more unknowns than knowns…) they are not progressing local plans or dealing with applications.

The case for planning is surely as strong now as it was in the Victorian or post-war eras. Consequently, the case for more LPA resource to get on and plan is surely now as strong as it ever was. In contemplating the merits of direct investment relative to further reform it is instructive to consider how many of the Government’s previous tinkerings are actually intended to remedy what good officers should be doing as a matter of course anyway.

The Housing & Planning Bill actually makes provision for applicants to choose whether it is the LPA or an alternative provider that determines their application. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill actually provides that a LPA cannot impose a pre-application condition without the written agreement of an applicant. Are we really now suggesting that even if applicants do have to make do with a LPA assessing their proposal they can be assured that, by law, an officer will at least be in touch about conditions prior to a decision? Yes. It has come to this and it is a real shame. Good officers know who is a good applicant, what is a good application, how to get good applications approved.

The reductions in local government and LPA budgets are well documented, and planning teams are clearly now tasked with doing more with less. Less well-documented though is the impact on the skills within planning teams. This is only a suspicion, but I would contend that more often than not the older, more experienced officers have either been offered early retirement or have been allowed to retire without their posts being filled. Junior staff have then been over-promoted and many development control officers may have progressed from being technical clerks with neither planning training nor practical experience.

This then contributes to a confluences of circumstances whereby ever-more complex applications are submitted by better trained, more experienced, better resourced (and better remunerated) planners into ever-more complex policy and political environments to be determined by less well trained less experienced, less well resourced (and less well remunerated) planners. The result, almost inevitably, is confusion and delay (as Sir Topham Hatt would say).

The average Barratt planning application took over a year to get from pre-application consultation to Section 106 Agreement in 2014/15. In fact it was exactly the same time that it was taking in 2013/14, despite the improvements to process made by the land and planning teams within the business and the previous Government’s attempts to ‘speed-up planning’. Again, this is only a suspicion, but perhaps those internal efficiencies and those previous reforms were simply cancelled out by fewer officers dealing with applications.

Anyway. I am nothing if not positive and pragmatic. The Government is not going to provide funds for LPAs to elevate the pay scales of planners to the extent that the bright, young things are not tempted by the bright lights of consultancy and the wise, old owls, who know how to oil and then turn the wheels, are tempted back in.

The Government might though tinker with application fees and allow LPAs the discretion to set their own. From what I can see the development industry will have no issue with the actual officer time required to determine applications being reflected in the application fee. This cost is deductible during land value calculations and there is no talk of the useful ‘free go’ provisions being scrapped.

I have some sympathy with the HBF view on locally set fees though, which is a concern that they will not actually result in an increase of the LPA’s overall budget. If a LPA currently raises, say 50% of it’s budget from application fees and the other 50% from the Council budget, and then raises another 20% in fees, will it not follow that the Council will expect the planning department to find 20% of savings?

The mythical Planning Performance Agreement (PPA) could be a way of getting funds directly into frontline development control service, but the thresholds for the use of such are typically quite high and so catch relatively few applications. Perhaps organisations, like housebuilders, that submit, over time, multiple applications that would cumulatively go over the PPA threshold could be afforded their own company-wide PPA by an individual LPA. A binding commitment on one side to issue permission by a certain date could be reciprocated by a binding commitment to start on site by a certain date. Perhaps PPAs could be created on an industry-by-industry, sector-by-sector basis. The promoters of, for example, city-centre PRS schemes or logistics schemes could make a joint contribution to the LPA that would allow department heads to identify officers with specialisms in city-centre PRS or logistics schemes. 

There is, in my humble opinion, nothing fundamentally wrong with the planning system and there are no fundamental blockages to good applications being approved. But it is hard work. At that Starter Homes conference somebody told me, for example, about a London borough that recently signed on the same day three different Section 106 Agreements relating to affordable housing and all three agreements were based upon different templates. No amount of tinkering will encourage the head of planning and the head of legal services to use a Borough-wide standard Section 106 Agreement template.

You may say that I am dreamer, but the planning system should not be confrontational. Good landowners, working with good developers and good consultants, should be working with good officers to get those good plans in place and to get those good applications approved. Let us be realistic though. Not everybody carries with them my moral rectitude, and the sometimes exponentially greater land value that the grant of planning permission confers can attract those seeking to game the system. This is the quasi-judicial regulatory process with private interest on one side and public interest on the other. As in any regulatory system, if your gamekeepers are not better than their poachers then your pheasants are going to get plucked.

Planning, to conclude, is not a game, but getting anything done, and working with the myriad of players and their multitudinous motivations within a multi-layered legal, policy and political framework, can make it feel like one. The Government of the day sets the rules of the game and, like Bernie Ecclestone sitting atop Formula 1, can tinker with them until the result is a satisfactory one. It seems to me though that for the time being leaving the rules alone and evening up the teams would make for a more rewarding spectacle.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The GMSF. Spatial planning in a non-spatial planning age.

How does one go about spatial planning at the city-region or sub-regional level in an era when there is no legislative and policy basis to do so? The answer, based upon the nascent Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) that is being prepared by AGMA / GMCA, is perhaps unsurprisingly 'with great difficulty'.

Progress with local plans speaks to the difficulty of even this enterprise. Evidence needs to be prepared, neighbouring authorities need to be engaged, the public needs to be consulted, the political party in control (if there is one - pity the Head of Policy in authorities with no overall control) needs to be supportive, and then finally, at the business end of the process, an inspector needs to hear more supportive voices around the examination table than there are dissenting ones.

The GMSF needs to harvest evidence from and on behalf of ten LPAs; it's neighbouring authorities account for a good proportion of the entire North West region; it's local population is over 2.7 million; and it's ten council leaders, each with very different political priorities, also each have the power of veto over it. This must be ten times harder than preparing a local plan, not ten times easier.

Oh, and whilst the GMSF is a joint local plan at the minute it is to become a Mayoral plan next year and the current favourite, Andy Burnham, has already expressed some doubt about the process undertaken to date. Oh yes, and the legislation required for a mayoral plan for Greater Manchester is not yet in place. 

What chance of more supportive voices being heard around the examination table than dissenting ones. The development community has already expressed concern about a perceived gap between the rhetoric around growth aspirations and Greater Manchester's role in Northern Powerhouse and the reality of the growth ambitions and what some consider to be suppressed housing and economic analysis. AGMA / GMCA would no doubt refute any suggestion that a politically palatable housing requirement was identified at the outset, but the publication in August of a paper on the preferred growth option, ahead of a Greater Manchester-wide SHMA, does little to dampen that suspicion.

On the other side of the coin, any GMSF housing requirement that results in an revision to Greater Manchester's thirty year old Green Belt boundaries will be unacceptable to some. Given that Green Belt release is inevitable it is also perhaps inevitable that the mayor of Salford, the MP for Bolton West, the MP for Denton and Reddish, the MP for Bury North and the MP for Hazel Grove..

...will be requesting a seat around the examination table.

The draft GMSF is now expected to emerge ahead of an AGMA / GMCA Executive Board meeting at the end of October and it is noticeable that ahead of that some 'pitch rolling' appears to be going on. Compare and contrast these two pieces from Platform, a new magazine-style website that has been launched to 'share knowledge and opinions on sustainability across Greater Manchester'.

In the first, dated 14 September 2016, Councillor Richard Farnell, Leader of Rochdale Council and new GMCA lead on housing and planning, states that:

Altogether we’re going to need up to 230,000 new homes by 2035, approximately 70% of this supply is on brownfield sites within the existing urban area. We’re going to work hard to make sure these are developed and you could call our approach ‘urban first’, but as we still have a shortfall we will also need to identify some limited areas of green belt to release for development.

In the second, dated 26 September 2016, Steve Conner of Creative Concern states that:

To help deliver on this aspiration, in the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework we’ve deliberately chosen to release fewer, but larger, sites that have the scale needed to create entirely new neighbourhoods that are of a high quality in their own right but that also bring some great benefits to neighbouring communities, too.

That is quite a leap to make in twelve days. From 'limited areas of Green Belt' to new 'Garden City Suburbs'. Either a bullet has been bitten in between and agreement has been reached to take a generational, transformational 'confident bite' out of the Green Belt, or, different messages are being given at the same time to those both supportive and against Green Belt development. Both scenarios illustrate the challenges that lie ahead for the GMSF.

Just getting to the examination table will be a major achievement for those involved.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Fewer objectors would be better than wealthier objectors.

Where to start with the news that “homeowners in countryside villages and towns could be given cash payments to offset disruptive developments in their communities”, which was reported in the Telegraph. The concept triggers so many thoughts and feelings...

The cynically-minded would highlight how little new there is under the sun, and that if you stand still long enough the world will come back around to meet you. Who remembers, for example, the ‘Boles Bung’. Former Planning Minister Nick Boles has floated this idea before and it got as far as a share of CIL being directed to parish councils with a neighbourhood plan in place, but not as far as payments directly households. It is easy to see the attraction to Tory wonks of announcements like this every now and then (when new ministers are in post, for example) because it is a policy that simultaneously appeals to both radical reformists and core Telegraph-reading voters. It is floated, it attracts the interest of both wings of the party, but after a consultation it gets filed in the ‘too difficult’ drawer. 

The legally-minded would highlight exactly why the policy is too difficult to implement. Planning lawyer Simon Ricketts has written about how such payments would be contrary to the 2010 CIL Regulations and about the practicalities of determining for legal purposes who would be disrupted by any given development. 

The philosophically-minded would write a polemic on what this idea tells us about society and the role that we see for the planning system within it. The Telegraph refers, for example, to people ‘affected by unwanted developments near their houses not being adequately compensated. It is hardly a positive reflection of our ‘one nation’ that even the idea that some could be paid to accept others as neighbours can be floated. How can an economy ‘work for all’, as is the new Prime Minister's aspiration, when those with a house and the equity accruing within it have their income supplemented further from a pot that would otherwise benefit the community more widely simply to remove resistance to accommodating people nearby who might currently be spending a greater proportion of their monthly income on housing costs.

Were I so philosophically-minded I would write about own planning being the mediation of private interests in the public interest. The recognition that doing some things together results in a better outcome for all concerned than would be case if everybody were left to their own devices. There is a system because it was, and is, a good idea to have one, and in exchange for placing trust in that system the individual is assured that no private interest is more important than another, and is certainly not more important than the public interest. Such a policy would undermine that interpretation of a planning system though because clearly some private interests would be more important than others. 

I would like to direct my remarks, however, to another train of thought, which was the first that came to my mind. That is why and how objectors to applications have developed such a role in, and influence over, the planning system that the idea of direct compensation can be raised as a policy option at all. 

There are no third party rights of appeal in the planning system and the consultation of neighbours to proposals is largely at the discretion of the LPA. The ownership of land is often not material to a proposal to the extent that you could apply to build a granny annexe in your neighbours garden as long as you served the right notice and filled in the right ownership certificate. Applicants are not actually that important either. A planning application can be submitted by a Isle of Man holding company courtesy of a P.O. Box (c/o an agent probably) should you so desire. 

The important elements in the consideration of an application are the proposal itself and the development plan that it should be considered in accordance with unless material considerations dictate otherwise. 

The Centre for London, sponsored by Barratt London, looked at opposition from local residents to new housing development, which it noted, where successful, restricts the supply of land available for building and, even where not successful, can delay development, add costs and reduce the number of units delivered. The report identified seven reasons that local residents oppose housing developments:
  • An increase in population will place a strain on local services; 
  • A decline in trust between residents, developers and local authorities;  
  • The local identity may be threatened by outsiders;
  •  New developments may change the character or identity of the place they call home;
  •  Planning debates could be hijacked for alternative agendas;  
  • A sense of powerlessness arising from a lack of genuine engagement; and
  •  The fear of noise and safety impacts from construction
The report argues that developers and LPAs must gain an accurate understanding of the types of local opposition to housing developments before trying to resolve them because consultation, neighbourhood planning, incentives, and Community Land Trusts, whilst helpful, cannot overcome every objection.  

All of that is sound and reasonable, but, to me, all of those reasons sound pre-meditated in that they could be raised even before somebody has gone online to view a proposal and considered it's compliance or otherwise with a development plan. A good, well-consulted upon proposal that is in accordance with a good, well-consulted upon development plan might minimise objections, but what strikes me about those objections is that they reflect an attitude towards new development that would mean objection to any scheme on any site. 

I was at a meeting of land and planning managers this week and we were discussing the most common objections to planning applications for new housing. Whilst there are always concerns about highways ('Have you seen what that junction is like at 8:30 every morning?!') and ecology and other genuine planning matters, there are also the other hardy perennials like a negative impact on house prices and the loss of a view. These are not planning matters, but they are allowed to come up time and time and time again... 

Come planning committee though what takes greater precedence? The planning officer's reasoned and balanced consideration of the planning balance, or the pitchfork-wielding, placard-waving, petition-signing local residents? Perhaps that depends upon when the application is being considered in the local election cycle, which in those third/third/third authorities will be an influence in three years out of four. 

Herein is the relationship between the public, their elected representatives and the planning system represented by officers, and the balance of power between the three. For example. Why are applications on allocated sites even reported to a committee at all? Why are reserved matters submissions reported to a committee? The principle of development has been established and the committee should be considering only technical matters. When such applications do go to committee, why are the thresholds for the number of objections required so low? Why should one objection mean that an application cannot be determined under delegated powers? Even at committee, why are non-planning objections even reported at all? Here is a big one. If a Committee does vote against an officer's reasoned and balanced consideration why can that commitee not be personally liable for an appeal costs award when an inspector finds that the reasons for reasons are not justified.  

Two things flow from this. Firstly, objectors object because they can, and they know, especially in bulk (the single agitator circulating a standard letter or a petition, for example, that the objections will be taken into account. That is fine and that is their democratic right. I would never try and stop somebody from objecting, but do objections have to be given so much weight in LPA standing orders? Secondly, councillors take objections into account because their electoral chances depend upon it. That is fine too and they would no doubt argue that they are 'reflecting the views of the community'. Fundamentally that requires a tipping point to be reached whereby the loudest and most influential voices in the debate are not the objectors but the supporters. The planning system can do something in the former regard, but it can do little about the latter. 

Putting aside all cynical, legal and philosophical thoughts, it seems to me the planning system would benefit from fewer objectors, not wealthier objectors.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Devolution & The Birmingham Shortfall 2

I wrote this last year about 'Devolution & The Birmingham Shortfall':

The Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) will ultimately establish the scale of housing need as the first step towards achieving an effective mechanism between LPAs in the housing market area, but ultimately that mechanism will not be able to go much further than a commitment on behalf of neighbouring LPAs to either review already adopted plans or have regard to the Birmingham shortfall and the ongoing Duty-to-Cooperate in the preparation of new plans, plus of course a commitment by Birmingham City Council itself to review the BDP if the expected rate of progress is not being achieved.

Let’s have a look at what’s changed.

The BDP has not been adopted (it remains on hold following DCLG intervention) and an agreement has not yet been reached on the distribution of the shortfall across Birmingham’s neighbours. This was expected (though discussions between LPAs are being held behind closed doors so it's diffcult to know) by the end of July, but may now be the ‘end of summer’ according to Solihull councillor Ken Hawkins.

The practical implications of these delays were illustrated by a decision at Lichfield Borough Council in June. With a recently adopted Core Strategy (CS) in place Lichfield was faced with a choice between identifying allocations pursuant to the CS with a commitment to an early review of it once the situation with Birmingham is clearer; or review the CS now, either partially or fully, to deal with both the allocations and Birmingham’s housing need. Lichfield is likely to accommodate ‘thousands’ of the Birmingham shortfall according to Ken Hawkins. The Council went with the first option.

What else has changed? Well even with these issues still outstanding the clouds of the next housebuilding storm might have appeared on the horizon. The nascent West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has published a Strategic Economic Plan ("to complement and support" the SEPs of the SEPs of areas three LEPs) and it’s economic vision assumes “a higher level of housebuilding than is currently provided for in development plans, or is being delivered across the area’s two strategic housing market areas.”

Tens of thousands of new jobs is clearly a laudable target and evidence to Government that the WMCA will be suitably ambitious in it’s outlook, but one can imagine the delight in the town halls of places like Lichfield at the prospect of the tens of thousands more people that these jobs will generate.

For those hoping that the West Midlands Mayor will be able to knit together this patchwork quilt of planning, economic and political priorities…

…the comments of West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson might extinguish any flames of optimism. He claims the limited powers proposed “have been framed to protect the control of council leaders rather than empower an elected mayor to tackle the issues that the people of the West Midlands will be voting on in 2017.”

Sion Simon MEP, Labour’s mayoral candidate, kicked off his campaign with a commitment to build 3,000 affordable homes a year, which is also a laudable (and uncontentious) target. It would have been something for his campaign to have kicked off with a commitment to deal with the Birmingham shortfall, the alignment of sub-regional housing and economic strategies, and a broaching of the dreaded ‘G’ word, but this is clearly not yet within the mayoral gift and, to be fair, unlikely to be a massive vote-winner...

Until those issues are political priorities for council leaders they can hardly be blamed for focusing on their local priorities and on their local plans, which means from a planning point of view that in the absence of a sub-regional framework that we are likely to lurch from early review to early review, with constant debates about who should be taking what and from whom.

Oh. Something else has changed since last year. The Resolution Foundation has reported that the proportion of the West Midlands population who own their own home has fallen from 70.5% in 2005 to 59.3% today.

Let’s pick this up again next year…

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Neighbourhood Plans. Power & Responsibility.

A wise man once said that neighbourhood plans (NPs) are the future and if today’s present represents that future then that prophecy has already come to pass. From inception in the 2011 Localism Act there are now, according to the Government, 193 NPs approved at referendum and nearly 2,000 groups involved, covering around ten million people. If those rates of participation continue neighbourhood plans will be today’s future as well as yesterday’s.

This is a good thing. Open Source Planning (2010) stated that “the creation of an open source planning system means that local people in each neighbourhood … will be able to specify what kind of development and use of land they want to see in their area. … a fundamental and long overdue rebalancing of power ….”. Public participation in planning is a good thing. A community identifying the best sites within and around it for development is a good thing. 

How though do local people identify how much development is right for their area? PPG states that ‘in most cases’ NPs will have to take into account the local council’s assessment of housing and other development needs in the area. What though if there is no local council assessment of housing and other development needs in the area? Well the PPG also states that NPs can come first, which clearly constitutes the rebalancing of power sought by open source planners, but the scales of local planning seem now to be tipping in favour of the local community's NP over the wider community's Local Plan (LP).

During the recent to-ing and fro-ing between the Houses of Commons and Lords about the Housing & Planning Bill (H&PB) the Commons rejected an amendment by the Lords to give neighbourhoods with plans in place the right to appeal applications for new housing. As initially promoted by peers, this would have extended to areas with emerging NPs as well as those with plans in place.

Following the decision by the House of Commons to insist on an amendment requiring planning authorities to take account of NPs policies, Baroness Parminter tabled a new amendment to introduce a ‘neighbourhood right to be heard’. Even in cases of NPs still emerging, the LPA would have been required to consult and where the decision of the LPA goes against the NP, the LPA would be required to consult the Secretary of State. However, as reported by the FT, after accepting Brandon Lewis’ desire to ensure that neighbourhood plans ‘enjoy the primacy that we intend them to have in planning law’, Baroness Parminter chose to withdraw the amendment. 

Primacy. That goes well beyond the PPG and well beyond the letter that Brandon Lewis sent to Sarah Richards, Chief Executive of PINS, earlier this year that asked that Planning Inspectors be made aware of the importance placed by Government on NPs (and the time volunteers put into crating them) and the emphasis in the NPPF that planning applications that conflict with made NPs should not normally be granted.

Just a few days after the H&PB received royal assent the NP side of the scales has been strengthened further by news of a Neighbourhood Planning & Infrastructure Bill, which will “further strengthen neighbourhood planning and give even more power to local people”. According to the Queen’s Speech this new legislation will make the local government duty to support groups more transparent and will improve the process for reviewing and updating plans.

As NPs grow in significance, and as, more and more, it is they and not a LP that will set out how much development will occur in an area, then it should surely follow that the scrutiny afforded to NPs to sure grow as well. The framework for examining the two is quite different. Neighbourhood plans are made, local plans are adopted and the difference between the two is explicit in the PPG. "When considering the content of a neighbourhood plan or Order proposal, an independent examiner’s role is limited to testing whether or not a draft neighbourhood plan or Order meets the basic conditions, and other matters set out in paragraph 8 of Schedule 4B to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended). The independent examiner is not testing the soundness of a neighbourhood plan or examining other material considerations."

This 'lighter touch' approach contrasts sharply with the NPPF’s requirements for LP preparation, as summarised by the Planning Advisory Service:
  • Has the plan been positively prepared i.e. based on a strategy which seeks to meet objectively assessed requirements?
  • Is the plan justified?
  • Is it based on robust and credible evidence?
  • Is it the most appropriate strategy when considered against the alternatives?
  • Is the document effective?
  • Is it deliverable?
  • Is it flexible?
  • Will it be able to be monitored?
  • Is it consistent with national policy?
Beyond these tests of soundness, there are also legal and procedural requirements on LPs, including the Duty To Cooperate, that do not apply to NPs. No doubt the Government would claim that the 'lighter touch' NP approach is working. It is certainly keen to promote the fact that plans for housebuilding are more than 10% higher in the first areas with a NP as opposed to only the council’s LP. That sounds wonderful, but what if that LP was out of date and a yet-to-be completed SHMA would have justified twice as many homes in those settlements? That 10% figure warrants further analysis.
Turley looked at NPs in 2014 and though this data is a little old it does shine a brighter light on how they are being used in pratice.
  • 73% of plans have been produced in authorities with Conservative-controlled councils. In contrast, only 9% have been produced in Labour-controlled areas;
  • 67% cover rural neighbourhood areas and 33% urban areas;
  • 46% have been published in the South East, followed by 12% in the South West and 11% in both the East and West Midlands; and
  • 75% of plans have been produced in the south of England [areas below the line linking the Severn and Humber estuaries] compared with 25% of plans in the north.
Taking the research as a whole, Turley conclude that “a key theme of 55% of all neighbourhood plans is the preservation and protection of that which currently exists, evidenced by policies that seek to place significant restrictions on new development”. “Of the neighbourhood plans published for consultation in rural areas, 63% contain ‘protectionist’ policies compared with 40% in urban area plans. Conversely, of the plans published for consultation in urban areas, 60% contain ‘pro-development’ policies compared with 37% in rural areas. This evidence suggests that a significant number of emerging plans, especially those in rural locations, have been prepared with the aim of protecting neighbourhood areas from new development”.

With great power comes great responsibility, but there is a gap emerging between the two in the planning system. The power to allocate land is lying more and more with the NPs, but the responsibility for significantly boosting the supply of housing (and to maintain a five year supply of housing land that might otherwise render a development plan out of date) lies with the LPAs. Having addressed the balance of power the Government might do well to address the balance of responsibility.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Devolution Convolution

“It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”, said the Manc Mystic, Ian Brown, in a warning, presumably, against allowing geographical ties to become barriers along life’s journey of self-discovery. That is all well and good for musicians with the means to move to North London and the time to read books about journeys of self-discovery, but, for most people, it is where you are from that matters.

Imagine, if you will, the ‘So, where do you come from?’ conversation at conferences and seminars whilst queuing for the buffet lunch. I would wager that the majority of people from eight of the ten Greater Manchester authorities would identify themselves as coming from their borough, rather than Manchester (the exceptions probably being Trafford and Tameside). It is hard to imagine anybody from the part of the West Midlands that is not Birmingham describing themselves as coming from Birmingham. University aside, I have only ever lived in boroughs that exist not as places but as instruments of statutory local government functions. Rushcliffe is an important part of Nottingham. I grew up near Nottingham. Calderdale looks east to Leeds and west to Manchester. I live near Halifax.

In the impending era of devolved powers to combined city-authorities this matters. In the absence of anything else to shape the devolution agenda, these issues of local identity will.

Before the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority was called the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority it was called the Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral Combined Authority. That probably raised a titter elsewhere, but whilst it was being discussed at one end of the East Lancs Road in April 2014 at the other end the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (established three years earlier) was discussing the first Devo Deal that emerged in November 2014.

This map, from the Centre For Cities, shows the city regions that will have an elected mayor in 2017. 

In the People’s Republic of Yorkshire, a pretty significant chunk of what you might expect a ‘northern powerhouse’ to be, there are no Devo Deals in place outside of the South. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has been pressing for a Leeds City Region deal covering themselves and some neighbouring authorities, which would build upon 2014's Growth Deal, but Conservative MPs in West Yorkshire along with North Yorkshire County Council (Conservative) and East Riding Council (Conservative) have been calling for a Greater Yorkshire deal covering all of the West, North and East.

The politics of devolution is messy. The wonkish, Whitehall-types are probably expecting civic-minded heirs to northern Victorian forebears to be seizing with relish any available investment and influence. The pragmatic, provincial Council Leaders are probably expecting, as they will have grown used to, a mandarin’s memo setting out what they need to do and by when. Neither is happening, so, authority by authority locally, and agreement by agreement nationally, progress is made in baby steps, but what is happening where and why is different in each case.

Why would Conservative MPs in Yorkshire be accusing the Leaders of the Labour-run West Yorkshire Council’s of a “power grab”? Why would Labour-dominated Manchester be nervous about the Mayoral strings that come attached to the Devo Deals? Why are the seven constituent council members of the West Midlands Combined Authority mostly Labour-controlled metropolitan authorities and why are the eight non-constituent council members mostly Tory-controlled and districts? Why politics, of course.

In terms of influence, every new power that a mayor gets is a power that a local leader either does not get or loses all together. In terms of investment, every pound that a mayor gets to spend on his or her priorities is a pound that a local leader is not spending on theirs. And to whom are local leaders ultimately accountable? Firstly, to their fellow local group of councillors, who rely on a successful leader for their own re-election. Secondly, and ultimately, leaders rely on the voters of their own ward for their own re-election.

The practicalities of devolution, for planning and development, are also messy. Since the two general elections in 1974, when, some unitarisation in 2009 aside, local government was last reorganised, there have been four swings of the Governmental pendulum and six Prime Ministers. In regeneration we have gone from Assisted Areas through Enterprise Zones and Regional Development Agencies to Local Enterprise Partnerships. In planning we have had Planning Acts in 1990, 1991 and 2004 and the Localism Act of 2011. Above the local planning authority we have had Regional Spatial Strategies prepared by Regional Assemblies and below local planning authorities we have Neighbourhood Plans prepared by Parish Councils. Layered on top of all of this now comes the combined authorities and Mayors that form the conduit through which powers will either be passed down or pulled up (depending upon your point of view).

The areas that make the greatest success of this era of devolution will be those with boundaries that align as closely as possible sensible policies and sensible politics. Greater Manchester, for example, is pursuing a joint Spatial Framework that will mirror closely its functioning housing market and economic area. Politically though it is telling that, whilst in all other matters of the 'Devo Manc' agenda a majority vote will be sufficient for progress, planning matters require unanimous approval. Will the leaders of the ten authorities be voting in Greater Manchester interests, their fellow group of local councillor’s interests, or their ward member’s interests?

The Greater Manchester picture though is one of blissful serenity compared to that in Birmingham. The Birmingham and Black Country housing market area of fourteen authorities, across which a voluntary agreement on distributing Birmingham’s housing shortfall of some 40,000 homes will one day be reached, currently includes one combined authority (with statutory and associate members), three LEPs and is encroached by one other housing market area (Coventry & Warwickshire), itself seeking to deal with a major shortfall emanating from Coventry.

This map is from Turley.

In Oxfordshire, where the need to resolve Oxford’s growth requirements is equally acute and contentious, the County Council published a report in 2015 on creating a single, County-wide unitary authority. Earlier this year the Leaders of Oxfordshire’s five district councils proposed the abolition of the County Council and the replacement of the five districts with four unitary authorities that would also include districts in Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire.

This map, also from the Centre For Cities, shows Oxford's Travel-to-Work area. 

It seems apparent that something, ultimately, will have to give, but from where will the pressure to change come?

It would take a bold council leader to say that there are too many councils and too many leaders. It is interesting that Buckinghamshire County Council chief executive Chris Williams expressed his regret that the county still has “archaic” two-tier government. Mr Williams may have felt this way for some time, or he may just come to that conclusion. He retires this week. 

The pressure from on top, from Government, is towards the acceptance of combined authorities and mayors rather than any fundamental redrawing of administrative boundaries (imagine how sensible it would be to look at parliamentry boundaries at the same time...). Interestingly, the Local Plans Expert Group recently highlighted that devolved powers will be less effective if they do not align with HMA and LEP boundaries (and vice versa). Another baby step perhaps.

Pressure from below? The issue, it is probably fair to say, is not upmost in the average shopper on the High Street’s mind. It is hard to imagine a candidate in the West Midland’s local elections being subjected to a tirade on the doorstep this May about why Greater Manchester is racing ahead in the devolution of criminal justice powers.

For those local leaders then who would like to mirror practical and political boundaries, the key will be not so much the desire of their local electorates to see change as local identity not being a barrier to standing in it's way. Put another way, therefore, the areas with people who are more likely to identify themselves as local first and regional second, and who care more about a perceived loss of identity, will benefit less from devolution because change will be harder to make. Put another way still, it will be harder to get hold of money to spend in the areas where who spends it is more important than what it is spent on.

As Ian Brown didn’t say, but I might start doing. It’s not where you’re from, it’s who empties your bins.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Revoke in haste. Repent at leisure.

"Baldrick, have you no idea what irony is?" asked Blackadder. "Yes, it's like goldy and bronzy only it's made out of iron".

As well as being a light-hearted way to start a blog this could also be a light-hearted way to start a conversation with Eric Pickles, which, all being well, I may get the chance to do one day, because I would very much like to ask him if he sees the irony inherent in the Housing & Planning Bill (H&PB) and it's objective of ensuring that all councils have local plans in place by 2017.

Back in July 2010, Readers will recall, within months of becoming the Coalition Government's Secretary of State (SoS) for Communities & Local Government, Mr Pickles revoked Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) on the basis that they represented 'Soviet-style planning' and 'Stalinist top-down regional targets' that must go in favour of 'more local decision-making'.

Little can Mr Pickles have imagined that a parliamentary term later a Conservative Government's response to stubbornly poor local plan coverage (65% in November 2015), would be a series of potential interventions in the local plan process that Joseph Stalin himself would be pleased with. Clauses 129–133 of the Bill, which receives its second reading in the House of Lords on 26 January 2016, include the following provisions:
  • Clause 129 would enable the SoS (or the Mayor of London and presumably the future Mayor of Greater Manchester) to direct a LPA to amend its, LDS, which sets out the DPDs that the LPA intend to produce and the timetable for their production.
  • Clause 130 would enable the SoS, in instances where someone has been appointed to conduct an independent examination of a LPA's development plan, to give directions to that person.
  • Clause 131 would enable the SoS to intervene in the development plan process and direct that the plan be submitted to him or her for approval.
  • Clause 132 supplements the powers that the SoS currently has to amend development plans where he or she believes there to have been a failure in the process of preparing the plan.
  • Clause 133 would enable the Mayor of London or a combined authority to prepare a development plan document for a LPA within their area where that LPA has not done so already.

Mr Pickles would have to agree that there is more in here for fans of the 'top-down' approach than for fans of the 'local' approach, but then he would hopefully acknowledge that the local approach is not working particularly well. NLP looked at local plans and housing requirements in March 2015 and concluded that:
  • Of 126 submitted or examined plans since the NPPF was published in March 2012, 20 of the 62 plans that have been found sound require an immediate or early review, the majority being to address issues of housing needs and supply.
  • Of 43 plans undergoing the examination process at that time 14 required modifications relating to housing numbers.
  • 21 of the 126 submitted plans were withdrawn, 12 because of issues relating to housing numbers and 7 because of a failure to meet the duty-to-cooperate (DtC).

They may not have been perfect (but then what is, dear Reader?), but RSSs, prepared by Regional Assemblies, identified housing needs and apportioned that need across market areas for approval by the SoS via the Planning Inspectorate and were then used as a framework for local development documents.

It would surely be better for these matters of housing need and cooperation to be dealt with at the outset of the local plan process by way of regular OBR forecasting and requirements set at the housing market area level (which accounts for two of the ten very good suggestions for increasing housing supply in England in this piece by Glen Bramley), but there is nothing to indicate that planning policy or guidance will be heading back in this direction. So what then chance of getting to 100% local plan coverage?

For the longer term it is encouraging that, slowly but surely, some of the regional and sub-regional frameworks for planning are being put back together. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework will, for example, help LPAs like Bury, Rochdale and Salford address the housing need and DtC issues that scuppered their respective draft local plans. These are bottom-up endeavours, though, and the influence of Mr Pickles over Whitehall can perhaps still be felt in the absence of an insistence that the devolution of powers and resources to city-region groupings be contingent on adequate planned housing numbers.

For the shorter term the recommendations of Brandon Lewis' panel of experts, tasked with examining 'measures or reforms helpful to ensure efficient and effective production of local plans', are awaited and are likely to consider housing need and improving the DtC. Will that though be enough to resolve issues like those in Birmingham and Oxford, where a large housing shortfall needs to be distributed across an administratively fragmented housing market area? It seems more likely than not that the SoS will be utilising Clauses 129-133 of the H&PB in these areas, and trying to resolve in months issues that a LPA and it's neighbours will have been debating for years.

All of which, after using a Blackadder reference to break the ice, could be the basis of a pretty good discussion with Mr Pickles, and as it drew to a close, and perhaps with his guard down after a G&T or two, I would ask him one more question. Were you wrong to scrap RSSs? I would suggest to Mr Pickles that local plan coverage would be higher now than 65% had they not been revoked. Mr Pickles, I suspect, would probably say that we shall never know.