Tuesday, 19 December 2017

How might Green Belt policy be changed?

What is to be done about the Green Belt? Most planners, I suspect, have recognised for a while that housing need has become an irresistible force and that hitherto immovable Green Belt boundaries on the edge of most major cities need to start moving. That though has not been and is still not likely to be a feature of many local or national election campaigns because, according to this Ipsos Mori poll from 2015, even though 70% of the public claim to know little or nothing about it, 65% of people know that it should not be built on.
There are though some faint signs that public opinion might be shifting. Another Ipsos Mori poll for campaign group Housing The Powerhouse found net support for Green Belt release across Greater Manchester where this would result in investment for infrastructure and services. Further, in the build-up to the November 2017 Budget a number of newspapers trailed the possibility of Green Belt reform and hinted that the Chancellor was prepared to more bullish than the more cautious Prime Minister. In the end the nettle was not grasped, but the episode could be a sign that somebody at Conservative Party HQ has their political calculator out. At some point the gap between house price and wage growth, minus support from the younger voters, multiplied by a softening of public attitudes towards Green Belt might equal reform.
Something needs to be done about the Green Belt then, but what? When reform does come what form might it take? I think that there could be four kinds.
The bold option.
Allow me to tantalisingly place on the table, but take off immediately, any prospect of bold reform. This could be a complete re-imagining of the role of Green Belt linked to a parallel plan for the growth of our cities over a, say fifty, year period. A multi-generational boundary change that would identify both high quality green space (to be brought under public control if not already) and developable areas (from which value could be captured over the very long term to fund intra and inter-city transport). That, however, is not going to happen. Even a ‘Royal Commission on the future Green Belt’, which would make the Planning Minister of the day sound bold and visionary, but would, in effect, kick the nettle into the long grass (so to speak), is not going to happen. Forget that I mentioned it.
The path of least resistance option.
It will not be a single blow from a planner’s axe that does for current Green Belt policy, but rather the thousandth cut from a tinkering civil servant’s scissors and the smart money should be on the first incision being made to land around railways stations. This concept was given prominence by the ASI in 2015 and was included in some of this year’s pre-Budget commentary. It could be relatively simple to implement. The Housing White Paper proposes that LPAs amend Green Belt boundaries only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options. Once this threshold has been reached then land around railway stations could be introduced as the first port of call. It is, superficially at least, an attractive policy that could appeal to both planners and politicians and soften objections from the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby by, on the face of it, being a ’sustainable’ option that supports infrastructure investment.
The technocratic option.
Another ‘could happen’ option, albeit very much less likely, is a technocratic one that the technocrats would like, but that would open the gates of tabloid hell for any Planning Minister. At the stroke of a pen, the Secretary of State could level the playing field upon which housing need and the Green Belt are competing. At present the absence of a five year supply of deliverable housing land (5YHLS) does not, of itself, represent the special circumstances required for a LPA to support a planning application for new homes in the Green Belt. What if it did though? What if Green Belt was a ‘policy for the supply of housing’ that was rendered out of date if a LPA could not demonstrate a 5YHLS? What an incentive to maintain a 5YHLS that would be…
Similarly, meeting housing need does not of itself provide an LPA with the exceptional circumstances to amend Green Belt boundaries through the local plan process. It could though, and it would take about fifteen minutes for somebody at DCLG to include those revisions in the next draft of the NPPF (including the removal of Green Belt as a ‘footnote 9’ designation). That fifteen minutes would, however, generate about two weeks’ worth of headlines and an electoral cycles worth of opposition ammunition. “Greedy Builders cash in on Green Belt free-for-all!”. Or similar. It would not be a free-for-all, of course, because the Green Belt would only be released through the development control process if there was not a 5YHLS in place and if the proposal accorded with the rest of the NPPF when taken together. The decision-making balance would be tilted towards (the greedy builders would say) equilibrium, but, let us face it fellow technocrats, that is not going to happen to either.
The politically astute (if I do say so myself) option.
So, with all of that being said, how might it be possible to achieve planning reform that is both politically palatable and technically sound. Well, dear readers, like the Centrist Dad that I am I would like to propose a middle way.
There are, as regular readers will know, five purposes to the Green Belt and now might be the time, if not to reimagine them, but to at least think about the whys and wherefores. The five are:
  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
Despite what the CPRE might have us believe, therefore, the Green Belt is not ‘to provide fresh air and open spaces for 30 million people’. Nor are they ‘places to exercise, take part in hobbies, relax and appreciate nature’. It is almost their purpose though because the NPPF states that ‘once Green Belts have been defined, LPAs should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; to provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; to retain and enhance landscapes, visual amenity and biodiversity; or to improve damaged and derelict land.’ Given the other pressures on LPA time and resource I wonder how much positive planning goes into this activity?
At the minute then the Green Belt is actually a bit like the first Arctic Monkies album. Whatever people say it is, that’s what it’s not. So rather than having to keep arguing about what it is not why not just agree with what it is? Visual and recreational amenity are legitimate factors to be taken into account in the planning of good places, and in the public’s mind what the Green Belt is for already, so why not factor them into the housing crisis / Green Belt equation.
Introducing landscape and recreational amenity as a purpose of Green Belt is not a major step on from encouraging LPAs to ‘plan positively’, but it would resolve at a stroke the toing and froing that goes on in the process of preparing a local plan about whether they should be. This toing and froing builds only mistrust, confusion and resentment and, either directly or indirectly, elongates the entire planning process. The Green Belt is a minefield, but there might be a way here for all involved to navigate their way through with everything important to them intact.
Whilst on the face of it affording Green Belt more potential purposes might make it harder for individual parcels to be released, this approach could actually make it easier, as well speeding up the local plan process by constructing an evidence base upon which there was less scope for disagreement. 37% of London’s Green Belt, according to the ASI, is, for example, intensively farmed. Farmland with no landscape or recreational value would score proportionately better if new tests were introduced because, whilst they might be ranked, say, moderate/high under five tests, they could be ranked moderate/low under, say, seven tests by scoring nothing more in the new ones. Any parcels that do have landscape or recreational amenity value and that would score proportionately better in any new test might be covered by another restrictive designation anyway (and probably should not be being promoted).
For the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby the places where people do exercise, take part in hobbies, relax and appreciate nature would find it more difficult to make it into draft local plans, but by the same token they would find it more difficult to object to sites where people are not exercising, taking part in hobbies, relaxing or appreciating nature because full assessments against those criteria would have been made.
For the LPAs (and PINS and the Secretary of State), if the CPRE / ‘Save the Green Belt’ lobby, as well as the landowner and development communities, are not objecting to draft local plans then it should be easier for those drafts to work their way towards adoption.
This middle way is not, therefore, a firm grasping of the nettle, but rather an attempt to delicately position two fingers on the stem and give it a little shake. It is a little bold, and a little bit technocratic and it could get those currently community through the Green Belt a little closer, literally, to where they need to be.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

On Alok Sharma's In-Tray

This is a piece that I contributed to the RTPI's Blog.

Which position is the most precarious? Housing & Planning Minister or football manager?

This image, which I came by via @NobleFrancis on Twitter, reveals that Alok Sharma is the fifteenth Housing Minister in twenty years, with the average tenure being just sixteen months.

According to this piece the average tenure of a football manager is also sixteen months.

An incoming football manager can typically expect to inherit a squad that is bereft of form and confidence. An incoming Planning Minister can typically expect to inherit decisions that were just too complicated and policies that were just too difficult for their predecessors to deal with. Alok Sharma’s in-tray seems particularly full, but helpfully for him a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper on Planning Reform Proposals sets out proposed changes that are still yet to be made. These include (in the Briefing Paper’s order):

  • Section 106 contributions
  • Community Infrastructure Levy
  • Local plans and housing requirements
  • Housing delivery test
  • Fixing housing land supply on an annual basis
  • Requirement to plan for housing and strategic priorities
  • Incentive to put in place a Local Plan
  • Duty to cooperate
  • Housing on commuter hubs and commercial land
  • A standardised approach to housing requirement calculations
  • Upward extensions
  • Rural areas
  • Release of land for starter homes
  • Affordable housing: change of definition
  • Consultation on planning and affordable housing for build to rent
  • Presumption in favour of brownfield land
  • Cutting red tape review
  • Roads and infrastructure requirements
  • Protected species
  • Utility connection to new homes
  • Changes to planning application fees
  • Garden cities, towns and villages
  • Completion notice reform
  • Secretary of State planning decisions: time limit
  • Fees for making a planning appeal
  • Green Belt
  • Neighbourhood planning
  • Developer’s track record
  • Sustainable development and the environment
  • Basement development
  • Designation for poor performance
  • Draft airports national policy statement
Some big things and some less big things, but they were worth listing in full, I reasoned, because in one way or another something in that list will be significant to everybody involved in the planning process, and the planning for new homes particularly. Waiting for these changes to be made, or not to be made, is influencing, to a lesser or greater degree, how planners are going about their business. Leadership is sought.

A number of the proposals, for example, will influence how people will bid for land. If bidding on a subject-to-planning basis the bidder has to anticipate what the policy regime will be when consent is granted, which might be eighteen months away. Does the bidder adopt a ‘worse case scenario’ and risk losing the site with an uncompetitive headline offer? Does the bidder adopt a ‘best case scenario’ and present, in headline terms at least, the best offer, but risk either having to ‘chip’ the purchaser when the policy requirements finally emerge, or wrangle with the LPA over what then, to them, is viable.

A number of these proposals, for example, will influence how people will promote a local plan. The planning policy manager might be prepared to trust in the evidence base, build in as much flexibility to emerging policies as possible, and try to convince an Inspector that there is no future problem so serious that an early review cannot remedy it. The Leader of the Council though, perhaps faced with local elections next year, might adopt a more circumspect approach. What if? What if the draft standard OAN methodology is adopted and does mean we can reduce our housing targets? What if the large strategic sites policy falls foul of a housing delivery test? Our fragile pretence of a 5YHLS will be shattered for good. Let’s just wait and see. There is an irony, of course, in one of the proposals being focussed on incentivising the production of local plans.

The pond of planning policy and guidance is seldom still, but in the recent past the sector has had to anticipate the waves from the Housing & Planning Act 2016, tossed in by the Cameron and Osborne Government, and the waves from this year’s Housing White Paper, which signalled the change of direction being attempted by May and Javid. What hope for a period of tranquillity? Philip Hammond has suggested that the Budget might again include planning reforms, which would be in addition to the revised draft NPPF, expected early in the New Year and the Green Paper on Social Housing that Sajid Javid has announced. Even more for the Minister’s in-tray.

Mr Sharma has noted that Planning Ministers are a bit like Doctor Who and that he is the latest incarnation, but has said that he “hopes to be in place for a decent length of time and to see through many of the reforms that are laid out in the Housing White Paper”.

“We need an evolution over a period of time”, said Crystal Palace Chairman Steve Parish in June when announcing the arrival of manager Frank De Boer. De Boer was sacked after 77 days and 4 matches.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Devolution & The Birmingham Shortfall 3

I first wrote about the Birmingham shortfall in June 2015. Mike Best of Turley provides the background to it’s emergence through the Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) here, but by June 2015 it was becoming clear that the challenge presented by accommodating some 38,000 homes beyond the city’s administrative boundary and across a housing market area (HMA) represented by 13 other LPAs would not be met by the Duty-to-Cooperate (DtC).

The mechanism introduced into the BDP (late in the day as a main modification) is little more than a commitment on behalf of Birmingham’s neighbours to either review already adopted plans or have regard to the shortfall and the DtC in the preparation of new plans. Birmingham, for it’s part, is to review the BDP if the expected rate of progress is not being achieved.

What else could have been done about it though? As the BDP Inspector himself put it, “I see no other way of proceeding that would achieve a faster result”, but the optimist in me wondered in June 2015 whether the joint working that at that time was going in to the GBSLEP’s Strategic Housing Needs Study and Spatial Plan might, one day, create a framework for joint working that might, one day after that, provide the platform for a statutory development plan for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). Whilst there was no other practical solution available to either the officers preparing the BDP or the Inspector examining it, I optimistically speculated that the fast-evolving devolution agenda might provide the leverage for cities to grapple with cross-border challenges in a faster, multi-lateral way, rather than, as is the task facing Birmingham now, on a bilateral, local plan by local plan basis.

I revisited the Birmingham shortfall again in August 2016 when little had changed. The BDP had not actually been adopted because an intervention by Andrew Mitchell MP, concerned about the loss of Green Belt around Sutton Coldfield, had resulted in a DCLG holding direction. An agreement had not been reached on the distribution of the shortfall across the HMA, but since discussions between LPAs were being held behind closed doors it was difficult to know. What was becoming clear by then was the practical implication of the shortfall. With a recently adopted Core Strategy (CS) in place Lichfield, as an example, 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 was clearer; or reviewing the CS now, either partially or fully, to deal with both the allocations and Birmingham’s housing need. The Council went with the first option.

What had changed at that point though was the formation on the horizon of the clouds of the next housebuilding storm. The WMCA had published a Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) ("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.” So even before the current shortfall had been worked through a further round of future housing need was being prepared for layering on top.

I resolved last year to revisit the situation in twelve months’ time, which is now. So here we are. August 2017.Twelve months on there has been both lots of change and no change at all. 

The West Midlands Land Commission Report has been produced on behalf of the WMCA and considers the identification and delivery of suitable land to meet housing and employment needs. It has been produced to inform decisions by the WMCA as to the nature of possible interventions required by the CA and it’s partners. The first of the Commission’s ten recommendations was that WMCA Board develops a Spatial Framework for the West Midlands, initially on a non-statutory basis, but the WMCA is still giving due consideration to the outputs and recommendations of the Land Commission Report, which was published in February.

Also in February came news that Birmingham City Council, on behalf of it’s HMA partners, was to tender for what was initially called a ‘Strategic Growth Study’ (SGS) (now a ‘Strategic Locations Study’, but let us not read too much into that). 

The brief set out that the study should build upon the GBSLEP Strategic Housing Needs Study, which ‘explored spatial options for meeting the shortfall’, by considering:
  • The level of HMA need and shortfall compared with the supply already identified (and the potential for greater density upon it) in adopted and emerging local plans;
  • The housing implications of the growth proposed in the WMCA SEP;
  • The potential supply from land outside of the Green Belt;
  • The development potential and suitability of any large, previously developed sites within the Green Belt in sustainable locations; and
  • Undertaking (where the inevitable shortfall remains) a full strategic review of the Green Belt within the HMA, taking into account ‘market capacity to deliver’.
It has been confirmed subsequently that GL Hearn, which won the instruction, will include shortfalls identified elsewhere in the HMA. This includes Tamworth’s shortfall, which is small, and the Black Country shortfall, which is not small. The recently published Black Country Joint Core Strategy Issues & Options document identifies a shortfall of 22,000 homes. 

What this study will do then is to provide:

Clear recommendations on the broad locations for growth, a range of potential housing capacity from each growth location and an indicative delivery timetable. The merits of these growth locations will then be tested through the Local Plan process.

What this study will not do then is result in the apportionment of the now 60,000 home shortfall, plus the implications of Super SEP-level growth, across the 14 LPAs. There will remain no clear path between the recommendations on the broad locations for growth and the proportion of the shortfall that each LPA will test through it’s respective local plan review. Given that a GBSLEP Spatial Plan is still a stated aspiration, and given that the Black Country Core Strategy, which is aligned with the South Staffordshire Core Strategy review, is likely to draw in more LPAs than the current 14, and given that Stratford upon Avon and North Warwickshire also straddle the Coventry & Warwickshire HMA, this path will be a very difficult one for LPAs acting in isolation to navigate.

If you are a glass half-full kind of person, just reaching an agreement across the 14 LPAs to commission the SGS represents a positive step forward and it could provide a firm platform for discussions about the capacity for development in each LPA. If you are a glass half-empty kind of person though then anything other than a definitive piece of work published punctually and with the public endorsement of 14 Council leaders could give the impression of a can with Green Belt written on it being kicked down the road.

Another thing that has changed in the past twelve months is the election of Andy Street to the West Midlands mayoralty. Is Mr Street the man to grasp this nettle? Whilst acknowledging that Mr Street is still new to a new role within a new organisation that has been placed atop an already complex web of public administration (see graphic from Turley below) the early signs are not encouraging. Mr Street spoke during his election campaign of the need for ‘a joined-up approach to housing across the West Midlands region’, but has stopped short of endorsing the recommendations of the WMCA Land Commission. He also campaigned on the basis that Green Belt is a development option of last resort.

Mr Street also spoke during the election campaign of ‘knocking heads together where there are obstacles.’ In so far as the shortfall is concerned, since two of Birmingham’s 13 HMA neighbours, Stratford and North Warwickshire, have signed agreements with Birmingham to take a total of 7,090 homes, it is the heads of the eleven other Council leaders that need knocking. An important head to knock, so to speak, will be that of Solihull’s leader Bob Sleigh. Solihull Council raised eyebrows in November last year when it’s draft Local Plan proposed to ‘test’ only a 2000 home contribution to the shortfall, which the development community and eight of Solihull’s HMA neighbours believe to be too much too low. Mr Street has appointed Mr Sleigh as his deputy.

Mr Street will mark his first 100 days in office on 12 August and will be buoyed by the recent announcement about second Devo Deal for the West Midlands, which could be announced in the Budget towards the end of the year.

It is almost inconceivable that brownfield land reclamation and new measures to bring unoccupied homes into use won’t be two of Mr Street’s ‘asks’, but whilst he may be moved privately to acknowledge that knocking heads together will not solve the shortfall dilemma, it is equally inconceivable that he would request statutory, region-wide spatial planning powers in order to deal with it. The mayor’s current powers are extremely limited for a reason, which is that councils did not and will not want to pass powers, and controversial decisions about Green Belt, upwards. What chance though of a solution to the shortfall being a condition of Devo Deal II. Whilst a recommendation of LPEG, and whilst ministers may be moved privately to acknowledge that the Duty to Cooperate will simply not address these issues, will anybody in Government be so moved by the significance of the shortfall to local plan progress in the West Midlands as to make resolving it a condition of a new devo deal? Perhaps one day.

Oh, one final thing that has changed in the past twelve months is that the BDP was adopted in January, which means that the clock is now counting down towards the three year deadline within which the BDP expects the shortfall to have been distributed within replacement or revised Local Plan that have been submitted for examination.

When I write about the shortfall again in twelve months’ time that deadline will be 18 months away.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Wirral in it together

With receipt of the Inspector's Report marking a major milestone on the Cheshire East Local Plan's long journey towards adoption, fans of planning and soap operas in the North West may be wondering how to replace what became a major part of our professional lives over the last eight years or so. The void may be filled on the Wirral.

Planning Officers reported to Wirral's Cabinet at the end of February the results of last summer’s SHMA and SHLAA consultation. In the report officers accepted that whilst the objectively assessed need has not yet been identified, it will be higher than the North West RSS. This was the 500 dwellings per annum (dpa) that the Council had sought to be adopted for the next plan period as set out in the Submission Draft Core Strategy, which will soon be five years old.

The OAN for the Borough will be between 875 dpa and 1,235 dpa, both of which represent a significant uplift and Wirral is already falling woefully short of a 5 year housing land supply, with Officer’s stating in that report that:

‘Over the whole fifteen-year plan period, even if all of the potential capacity identified in the SHLAA 2016, including a modest level of development at Wirral Waters, can be delivered, based on the latest information provided by the developer, there would still be a significant shortfall in the supply of future housing land in the Borough against the calculated OAN under both elements.’

Officers recommended that a wider review of potential development options is undertaken, including:

• employment land;
• open space and previously undeveloped land;
• increasing densities where possible;
• Wirral Waters, and when it may be implemented; and
...wait for it...
• Green Belt.

In the minutes of that Cabinet meeting Council Leader Phil Davies (Labour) states that "this administration is committed to not building on Wirral’s Green Belt", but also recognises that "failing to explore all options, including Green Belt, or not submitting a Local Plan by March 2018 carries potential sanctions from Government".

Cue a local news furore and now a resolution from the Conservative Group on the Council to "confirm its unconditional guarantee to protect Wirral's green belt and further resolves that it will not release or allow Council owned green belt land to be developed under any circumstances".

In to this mix will come the Liverpool City Region's Strategic Housing and Employment Land Market Assessment (SHELMA), which will have a growing influence on housing requirements in Wirral and is likely to confirm that none of the neighbouring LPAs are in a position to be able to assist Wirral in meeting their needs.

It was once said that when two North West property professionals meet their first talk is of the Cheshire East Local Plan. Wirral's Plan may actually take longer.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

On the Housing White Paper

The Government is to fix our broken housing market.

It is easy to be cynical about claims of ‘radical, lasting reform’ or ‘big, difficult decisions’ and healthy cynicism is always a good starting point in politics and planning. To apply lazy cynicism to the Housing White Paper would though be unfair because it seems to be born of good intentions and does represent a coherent and comprehensive set of measures. It would also be unfair though because there are few other areas of public policy where minister's views are so routinely tested in the white heat of popular opinion. The stock answer to a difficult question on, say, Question Time is to call for a ‘national debate’. The future of the NHS; the crisis in social care funding; immigration, for example. There are no white papers on these subjects though. There is no print deadline by which cabinet ministers of different views have to agree. Politicians are able to offer platitudinous responses on these subjects because, aside perhaps to a threat to their local A&E Department, their electoral chances do not hang upon them to the same extent. ‘Save the NHS!’ ‘Hooray!’ ‘Integrate the NHS and social care!’ ‘Hooray!’ Balanced immigration (whatever that means)!’ ‘Hooray!’ 'A Green Belt fit for the 21st Century!’ ‘Wait..., what?!'

Simply producing a Housing White Paper will have been a challenge. Consider, for example, the delays in preparing it. Sajid Javid had said in the Commons in early October that it would be published by Christmas, but by November it was January and by January there were as many rumours about further delays as there were leaks about possible policies. Consider too that Theresa May's 641 word 'foreword' is over twice as long as Sajid Javid's 270 word foreword. That might not be unusual or it might be a small indication that Mr Javid was not granted the editorial control that he might have hoped for. Consider also that, despite the delays, so many of the document's details will be the subject of further consultation. 

Sajid Javid told the media that the document is exactly what he wanted and had not been scaled back. It is hard to escape the feeling though that if it did contain policies to implement ‘radical, lasting reform’ or to grapple with ‘big, difficult decisions’ then those policies did not make it into the final draft. Beyond the fruit that has been low-hanging for a while now (brownfield land, public land, SME builders, etc…) there are initiatives that might contribute to faster local plan processes, a better supply of land, and a greater focus on delivery, but, on the whole, these are matters of process and protocol. ‘Radical, lasting reform’? That might have included a consolidation of the various Acts; the reintroduction of planning across HMAs and, rather than 'looking seriously at any request from local authorities for Government powers to be used to support delivery in their local area', state-sponsored new towns and a mass council housebuilding programme . Big, difficult decisions? Even if Green Belt as a principle was not to be tested floating the idea that meeting FOAN or the absence of a 5YHLS might justify building on it would have put the cat amongst the pigeons.

Let us be realistic though. Those measures were not on the agenda, are not on the agenda and are unlikely to be on the agenda for some time still to come and so the smart money should always have been on a document that adds a tier to the main stand rather than imagines a move to a purpose-built arena. Is it cynical then to dismiss claims of ‘radical, lasting reform’ and ‘big, difficult decisions’? Perhaps, but if one imagines a Venn diagram of two circles, one 'planning' and one 'politics', the overlapping area in the middle is 'the possible' and that is where we operate.

The new ministerial team does though construct a petard upon which it can be hoisted in the future by inferring in the title of the document a degree of intervention in the planning system and in the housing market that the Government is clearly unwilling to make, but that would get so much closer so much faster to 225,000-275,000 new homes a year if it did.