Thank You Mikael Armstrong: New Case On Scope Of Section 73

Thank you also to my Town Legal partner Patrick Robinson who spotted this hand-down yesterday from the Planning Court: Armstrong v Secretary of State (Deputy High Court Judge James Strachan KC, 27 January 2023). 

Who is Mr Armstrong? Well Mr Armstrong had the benefit of a planning permission for the erection of a new dwelling in Cornwall with the wonderful address of The Beach House, Finnygook Lane, Portwrinkle. The planning permission dated back to 2007 but had been kept alive by way of minor implementation works. 

A house had previously stood on the site. This photograph from the application documentation on Cornwall Council’s planning portal gives a sense of its dramatic location:

Mr Armstrong made an application under section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to vary the approved scheme, by way of amendment of a condition which listed the approved drawings (a condition which had been added by way of section 96A, to enable use of section 73 – the now familiar approach following Finney (if any non planners or planning lawyers are still reading, you must think we are all mad)). 

The application was refused by Cornwall Council, with one reason for refusal:

The proposed development seeks to change the design of the dwelling approved via, E2/06/01798/FUL, from an irregularly-shaped boldly modernist dwelling to a dual-pitched alpine lodge style dwelling. The application site occupies a highly prominent and sensitive coastal plot. The proposed revised design completely alters the nature of the development and would result in a development that would differ materially from the approved permission. As a result this proposal goes beyond the scope of Section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and is contrary to guidance within the National Planning Practice Guidance, specifically paragraph 001 Reference ID: 17a- 001-20140306.”

There are these images of the approved and proposed schemes, courtesy of Cornwall Council’s planning portal:

(Whilst not relevant to the legal issues, I note that the proposed revisions to the scheme would cause it more closely to resemble the dwelling that had previously been on the site). 

Mr Armstrong appealed. His appeal statement made these (entirely correct) points:

a. although an application under section 73 of the 1990 Act is sometimes referred to as an application to make a “minor material amendment”, the terms of section 73 of the 1990 Act are not limited in that way and place no restriction on the magnitude of the changes that can be sought;

b. reference had been made by the Courts in the consideration of section 73 of the 1990 Act to not permitting amendments which amount to a fundamental alteration to the terms of a planning consent, but there was nothing of a fundamental nature such as scale, size, massing or footprint and positioning on the Site which would result in any significant change;

c. section 73 applications still receive the same amount of scrutiny as a full planning application and the process does not prejudice the ability for relevant parties to make representations”.

The appeal was determined by way of written representations. The inspector determined the main issue to be: “whether the proposal could be considered as a minor material amendment under section 73 of the TCPA 1990“.

(Alarm bells already…)

The inspector’s analysis includes the following passages:

The original planning permission was for a bespoke dwelling in a contemporary architectural style, with the external materials being natural stone and cedar cladding. The approved plans show a multi-faceted building, with an organic form, including curved walls and sedum-covered roofs. By contrast, the proposed plans submitted with the section 73 application show a dwelling with a simple rectilinear form, rendered walls and a pitched slate roof. Consequently, although it is similarly sited, and has a comparable floorspace and volume, it is fundamentally different in its design, bearing virtually no resemblance to the approved building. The modifications are, therefore, substantial.


The appellant contends that the term “minor material amendment” infers that material changes are allowable under a section 73 application. However, the word “minor” qualifies the extent to which material changes should be considered via this route. In this case, the wholesale redesign of the house results in a development that would be of a substantially different nature than the one originally approved. In these circumstances, the PPG advises that a new planning application is necessary
.”

He dismissed the appeal. 

Thankfully, Mr Armstrong didn’t give up on the entire pettyfogging planning system at that point but, as a litigant in person, challenged the decision in the High Court. 

And, as was only right in the face of this sort of reasoning from the inspector, he won! And in so doing, has provided further judicial authority for what planning lawyers end up saying again and again – the limits of section 73 are not confined by the question of whether there would be a minor material amendment to the approved scheme, but whether there would be a fundamental variation to the approved scheme (as that is the test previously set down in Arrowcroft and subsequent cases).

Deputy High Court Judge James Strachan KC’s gave no fewer than eight reasons why the inspector’s decision was unlawful:

First, I consider the correct starting point must be the words of section 73 of the TCPA 1990 itself. As the Defendant accepts, there is nothing in section 73, or in the TCPA 1990, that limits its application to “minor material amendments”, or to amendments which do not involve a “substantial” or “fundamental” variation. On the face of the words used, s.73 applies to any application for planning permission for development of land “without complying with conditions subject to which a previous planning permission was granted” (see s.73(1)). It limits the local planning authority’s consideration to the “question of conditions subject to which planning permission should be granted (see s.73(2)). There are other limitations as to its scope such as those in ss73(4) and (5), but they are not engaged here. There is nothing in the language used that restricts an application to vary or remove a condition to “minor material amendments”, or to what a decision-maker considers to be a “non-fundamental variation”. I accept that the absence of such a limitation on the face of the statute does not automatically mean that such limitations cannot arise as a matter of statutory interpretation, in accordance with well-established principles requiring one to consider the meaning of a statute and its statutory purpose. However it is an important starting point that, on the face of the statute, provided the application is limited to non-compliance with a condition (rather than any other part of the permission) it falls within the stated scope of s.73 of the TCPA 1990.

Second, as now properly understood in light of Finney, the requirement that a s.73 application be confined to applications for non-compliance with a condition is significantly restrictive in and of itself. There is no obvious need, justification or statutory purpose for reading in additional restrictions which are not expressed on the face of the statute. Finney confirms that section 73 cannot be used to vary the operative part of a planning permission. It is a section concerned with non-compliance with condition, rather than the operative part of a permission. One therefore cannot use s.73 to vary or impose a condition where the resulting condition would be inherently inconsistent with the operative part of the planning permission; that would also involve effective variation of the operative part of the planning permission as well. That point was exposed clearly in Finney where the resulting varied condition caused the Inspector to omit the conflicting words in the description of development in her decision. The power under s.73 is therefore a limited one (as briefly observed in Hillside). But in such circumstances, it is difficult to see why it is necessary to introduce or read in further limits on its scope which are not otherwise expressed in the section itself. If, as accepted to be the case here, an application for non-compliance with a condition does not lead to any conflict or inconsistency with the operative part of the permission, it is difficult to see why it is objectionable in light of the statutory purpose of section 73 and the TCPA 1990 itself.

Third, section 73 is clearly intended to be a provision which enables a developer to make a section 73 application to remove or vary a condition, provided of course that the application does not conflict with the operative part of the planning permission. Any such variation application will be subject to the necessary procedural requirements for its consideration which, for example, enable representations to be received. If Parliament had intended the power to restrict its application further (for example to limit it to “minor material” amendments to a condition, or non-fundamental variations to a condition) one would have expected that to be expressed in the language used and it could readily have done so.

Fourth, and linked to the preceding point, the wording of section 96A of the 1990 Act is informative as part of the statutory context. Unlike section 73 which limits its application to conditions, section 96A was introduced as a power to amend a planning permission generally (including the operative part of the permission). But in introducing that power that is applicable to any part of a permission, Parliament expressly constrained its scope to “non-material amendments”. By contrast, no such limitation has been imposed on the scope of s.73 where it is applicable, but with the fundamental difference that s.73 is confined in scope to applications for non-compliance with conditions (rather than non-compliance with the operative part of a permission). From the perspective of statutory interpretation taking account of the statutory context, this is yet a further indication that if Parliament had wished to limit the power under s.73 to “minor material amendments” or so prevent “fundamental variations” to conditions, it would have done so expressly.

Fifth, the effect of giving the words used in s.73 their plain and ordinary meaning so as to allow an application to be made for non-compliance with any planning condition which is not in conflict with the operative part of permission does not, of course, dictate the outcome of that application. It simply means that the application can be entertained. Any such application would then fall to be determined on its planning merits. In this case, for example, the Inspector considered there to be a fundamental difference in the proposed aesthetics of the design shown in the drawings identified in Condition 10 and the proposed plans. That may well be the inevitable result of an application made under s.73. But provided there is no inherent conflict or inconsistency with the “operative part” of the planning permission – in this case the construction of a single dwelling – the planning merits of that proposed change can be assessed on its merits. No such assessment has occurred. As part of that assessment, the decision-maker will be able to consider whether the proposed change (fundamental or otherwise) is acceptable or not in planning terms, taking account of any representations received.

In this respect, I recognise that in Finney, arguments as to the ability to consider the merits of s.73 application in this way (with attendant publicity) was not seen as a factor justifying giving s.73 the more expanded interpretation that the developer and Welsh Ministers had advocated in that case. There is an important difference. There, such arguments were advanced to try and justify giving s.73 a more extended interpretation than its words supported so as to permit effective changes to the operative part of a planning permission. Here, the situation is reversed. The ability to consider the merits of any change to a condition that falls within the ordinary and natural scope of the language used in s.73 points away from the need to read in additional restrictions to the scope of the statutory provision.

Sixth, I do not consider that any of the caselaw materially supports the Defendant’s attempt to restricting the scope of s.73 to “minor material amendments” or non-fundamental variations where there is no conflict with the operative part of the permission. To the contrary, it is more consistent with giving the words of s.73 their plain and ordinary meaning.

….

Seventh, if I am wrong and section 73 is implicitly qualified so as to preclude applications which do not involve any conflict with the operative part of a permission, but do involve what the decision maker considered to be a fundamental variation, I am not convinced that the Inspector has properly addressed the question of what would constitute a fundamental variation in this context.

Eighth, even if a test of fundamental variation is a lawful one to apply, I am not persuaded that the Inspector applied such a test in this case. In my judgment there is more than sufficient doubt about that to justify quashing the decision on the basis that he misdirected himself by reference to the PPG and its concept of “minor material amendments”.”

The inspector’s decision letter was quashed and the appeal will now be redetermined. Stick with it, Mr Armstrong. 

NB For further background on the procedures available for amending schemes, see my 14 January 2023 blog post Greater Flexibility For Planning Permissions (Now I’m Just Showing My Age).

Simon Ricketts, 28 January 2023

Personal views, et cetera

Mission Zero Needs Planning

I think I can point to something good that came out of Liz Truss’s premiership.

On 26 September 2022 she appointed former energy minister Chris Skidmore MP to carry out an “Independent review of net zero delivery by 2050 aims to ensure delivery of legally-binding climate goals are pro-growth and pro-business” and to “scrutinise green transition to make sure investment continues to boost economic growth and create jobs as well as increase energy security”.

Some of us may have feared the worst as to what lay behind this. Was the intention to back-end progress on the net zero by 2050 target?

The final report, Mission Zero: Independent Review of Net Zero, was published on 13 January 2023. I’m no expert but it seems to me – and to many better-informed commentators (although some of course express disappointment that the recommendations could be more radical) – to be a remarkably thorough and practical piece of work – running to 340 pages of waffle-free analysis and recommendations, with (such is the modern way of these things):

  • 7 conclusions
  • 10 priority missions
  • 6 pillars
  • A “25 by 2025” set of recommendations

It only needed a golden thread and … bingo!

There is this good House of Lords library summary published on 20 January 2023 ahead of a short debate on the document that is due to take place on 26 January 2023.

Actually, if one looks more closely, there is a golden thread to the report: the need for urgent reform of the planning system so as to make the path to decarbonisation smoother and faster.

From the paragraph 12 of the executive summary:

We have made great progress decarbonising already with success stories in offshore wind and electric vehicles and it is essential we continue these. However, too often, we heard of problems hampering business and local areas from going as far and as fast as they want to. Whether it is lack of policy clarity, capital waiting for investible propositions, infrastructure bottlenecks, or delays in the planning system, it is clear that we need action to catalyse the deployment of clean solutions, particularly if we want British companies to capture the economic benefits.”

See priority mission 7: ““unblocking the planning system and reforming the relationship between central and local government to give local authorities and communities the power they need to act on net zero”.

From pillar 4, “Net Zero and the Community”:

There is plenty of regional, local and community will to act on net zero, but too often government gets in the way. The UK government must provide central leadership on net zero, but it must also empower people and places to deliver. Place-based action on net zero will not only lead to more local support but can deliver better economic outcomes as well.

Key recommendations

1. Government should simplify the net zero funding landscape by the next Spending Review

2. Government should fully back at least one Trailblazer Net Zero City, Local Authority and Community, with the aim for these places to reach net zero by 2030

3. Government should reform local planning and the National Planning Policy Framework now

See recommended action 21 in the “25 by 2025” list:

Local and regional Reform the local planning system and the National Planning Policy Framework now. Have a clearer vision on net zero with the intention to introduce a net zero test, give clarity on when local areas can exceed national standards, give guidance on LAEP, encourage greater use of spatial planning and the creation of Net Zero Neighbourhood plans, and set out a framework for community benefits.”

See also commentary like this:

Planning system presents major barrier to net zero action. View of system on net zero is unclear and does not give sufficient weight to net zero as a national priority. Often slow and difficult to navigate, especially for individuals and communities.

Central government should reform the local planning system and the NPPF now. Have a clearer vision on net zero with the intention to introduce a net zero test, give clarity on when local areas can exceed national standards, give guidance on LAEP, encourage greater use of spatial planning and the creation of Net Zero Neighbourhood plans, and set out a framework for community benefits. Government should undertake a rapid review of the bottlenecks for net zero and energy efficiency projects in the planning system, and ensure that local planning authorities are properly resourced to deliver faster turnaround times

817. While the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) references climate change, it does not reference net zero specifically and the Review heard that the vision of the planning system on net zero is not clear. Too often there are conflicting or unclear messages, with important points relegated to footnotes.

818. The planning system should be an essential tool in delivering the changes needed for net zero. A system that appears ambivalent to net zero will not be capable of delivering the scale of change required.

819. The planning system should move towards implementing a test for all developments to be net zero compliant, ensuring enough lead-in time to prevent adverse economic consequences or stalling of current development plans. Across the economy the cost of building to net zero standards and using net zero technologies is coming down. Providing clarity and certainty on net zero requirements in the planning system could help drive further action and build supply chains, making net zero development the norm.

Planning can be a driving force for not only net zero but for growth as well, helping to unlock opportunities across the country […] The reputation of planning in the UK would only be furthered if it were given the ability and position to be a key driving force for net zero. Our own research suggests that planning brings in millions to the UK and has the potential to have a much larger impact if the passion and expertise of our consultancies both large and small were showcased as one of our key exports” – the Royal Town Planning Institute.

820. There is also confusion over whether, where and how local authorities can exceed national standards on planning. The litigious nature of the planning system means local authorities are often unwilling to take risks, and so the system effectively puts a ceiling on local ambition.

821. For example, the Review heard from several stakeholders about the difficulty faced by West Oxfordshire District Council in their plans for the Salt Cross Garden Village.568 The Council had proposed that development at Salt Cross would be required to demonstrate net zero carbon, with submission of a validated and monitored energy strategy. However, in May 2022 the Planning Inspectorate provisionally found that such a policy was not ‘consistent with national policy or justified’ and the plan was modified as a result. This is a clear example of the planning system being unclear in its support for net zero.

“Local authorities are wary of the threat of legal challenge, this means to make confident use of their powers, they have to undertake rigorous legal checks, which slows delivery, adds expense and makes some of them risk averse” – Climate Change Committee (CCC).

822. Similarly, some local authorities felt that planning requirements on viability presented a hindrance to net zero development. These local authorities felt that some developers use viability requirements to reject proposed net zero improvements. These local authorities suggested that such viability considerations should be reformed or scrapped, and that net zero should be a fundamental consideration when determining the viability of a project. Current guidance states that viability assessments “should not compromise sustainable development.” This language should be strengthened to ensure that viability assessments actively encourage sustainable and net zero developments, and that assessments take a longer-term approach to determining what is viable.

823. Reforms to the planning system should therefore make it clear when local authorities can exceed standards and provide guidance on how local areas could go further should they wish to.”

(and there is more, through to paragraph 836 in the document, but you get the picture).

So how joined-up is this with current proposals to reform the planning system?

Of course, changes are proposed to the climate change section of the NPPF (part of chapter 14), although they are relatively limited.

Changes are proposed to speed-up NSIPs.

There are the proposals identified in chapter 7 of the  Government’s consultation paper on proposed reforms to the planning system.

In summing up on behalf of the Government at the end of the House of Lords second reading debate on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill on 17 January 2023 Baroness Scott said this on climate change:

The Government recognise the challenge of climate change. It is critical that the planning system must address this effectively. Through the Climate Change Act 2008 the Government have committed to reduce emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels by 2050 and to produce national adaptation programmes every five years that respond to economy-wide climate change risk assessments. The Bill sets out that local plans “must be designed to secure that the development and use of land in”— the local planning authority area — “contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.”

Our new outcomes-based approach to environmental assessment will ensure that the ambitions of the Environment Act and the 25-year environment plan are reflected in the planning process, placing the Government’s environmental commitments at the centre of decision-making.

The National Planning Policy Framework is already clear that plans should take a proactive approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change, taking into account the long-term implications for flood risk, coastal change, water supply, biodiversity and landscapes, and the risk of overheating from rising temperatures, in line with the objectives and provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008. The National Planning Policy Framework must be taken into account in preparing the development plan and is a material consideration in planning decisions. This includes the framework’s current policies related to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Furthermore, as committed to in the net-zero strategy, we will carry out a full review of the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible. This will be consulted on as part of wider changes to the National Planning Policy Framework to support the ambitions in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.”

Does this go far enough? Chris Skidmore’s report is a useful reminder of the importance of a properly functioning, resourced and managed planning system and I hope he has a hand in shaping the current reforms.

Simon Ricketts, 21 January 2023

Personal views, et cetera

Greater Flexibility For Planning Permissions (Now I’m Just Showing My Age)

Such a lot of hyperbolic talk and not enough doing.

The Conservatives’ Open Source Planning 2009 manifesto document started with this passage:

The planning system is vital for a strong economy, for an attractive and sustainable environment, and for a successful economy. At present, the planning system in England achieves none of these goals. It is broken”.

And then Boris Johnson in the foreword to Planning for the Future (August 2020):

“…we approach the second decade of the 21st century [the incredible potential of this country] is being artificially constrained by a relic from the middle of the 20th – our outdated and ineffective planning system.”

Well fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, as the old song went. But, of course, it wasn’t broken in 2009 and it – just about – wasn’t outdated or ineffective in 2020. In 2023? I’m not so sure.

Given that the Government is currently refusing to accept there is an NHS crisis, I wonder if it would still accept that there is a housing crisis? Is it concerned by the number of local authorities deciding to pause or abandon preparation of their local plans? I’m genuinely unsure.

But let’s ignore for the moment the political direction in which this old vehicle should be headed and look instead at how the engine is working – can it actually deliver us to wherever it is we want to go?

Instead, let’s just focus on development management for a moment. In what should be a straightforward matter of processing, in accordance with statutory timescales, planning applications so as hold firm against the unacceptable and to approve the rest without delay , in form that that can lead to development taking place, and the public benefits which flow from that, there are currently at least two really horrible feedback loops, or vicious circles, that are holding back even the best projects:

  • Under-resourced planning departments, precautionary in nature, burdened with being the custodians of so many different policy objectives (climate change, health, building safety, beauty, air quality – you name it), take increasingly longer to process applications and their members’ decision-making is increasingly unpredictable (heads turned by lobby groups and hints from Government as to changing approaches). This leads to more applicants deciding to appeal so as to achieve a certain timescale and objective consideration of the issues. This places more work on officers, slowing down consideration of other applications. Which then also end up at appeal. And the slower the application and appeal process, the more likely that new issues arise, sending the applicant back to an earlier stage in the process again.
  • The demands on an applicant to tie down elements of a project at too early a stage, together with short implementation timescales and uncertain processes for processing scheme changes, lead to much unnecessary activity both in (a) keeping planning permissions alive with relatively minor works so that a permission that has taken years and a huge amount of money to achieve is not prematurely lost before the development is in a position to proceed and in (b) using clunky work-arounds – various combinations of section 96A, section 73 and/or drop-in applications – in order to refine proposals so that the permission is for a development which can actually be built. The longer the process for securing planning permission in the first place, the more likely that the resultant planning permission will need to be varied. The more certainty that the authority seeks to achieve with tightly drawn development parameters and a long list of planning conditions, the more likely that changes will be required.

I suspect that the Government is unaware of the true extent of the issue. I was looking at the latest statistics from December 2022. 86% of major applications last year were apparently determined “within 13 weeks or agreed time limit”. “or agreed time limit” is the clue, with time extensions routinely agreed so as to safeguard against premature refusal. Can anyone find where in the tables one might find how long an application for planning permission takes on average, from submission (usually after a lengthy and expensive pre-app process) to completion of section 106 agreement?

Another awkward reality to introduce at this point: projects need to be viable in order to proceed. Private sector development will not take place unless, broadly speaking, (1) the land owner will be paid by the developer an amount sufficiently above existing use value to make it make it worth his or her while to sell, and above what the land may be worth for any other development which could be carried out on the land (2) the developer can achieve a profit which makes undertaking the development commercially worthwhile, having regard to the financial risks inherent in the project, and can be sufficiently confident that there will be a market for the end product and (3) the capital deployed can achieve a better return than if it were to be deployed elsewhere. At present, with construction cost inflation, increased political risks, uncertainties as to the economy, is it any wonder when development is stalled; when development projects which may previously have been viable no longer make any financial sense on the terms negotiated, or when scheme changes are needed to reflect changing commercial (or indeed Building Regulations) requirements? I focus on private sector development given how reliant as a country we are on the private sector to deliver housing in particular, but of course most of the same economic realities apply, or should apply, to development carried out by the public sector.

None of this appears to be recognised in current Government announcements. Far from it. Instead, the rhetoric is to double down on developers who do not build out quickly, in genuflection to the myth of land-banking – with the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill’s provisions about development commencement notices, changes to the completion notices regime and even a power for local planning authorities to decline to determine applications in cases of earlier implementation. As if these measures were ever going to force a developer to build out a permission for a scheme where the funding wasn’t yet in place, where there was not yet a ready market or where the project was no longer viable! Instead, these measures will simply discourage many from entering the process in the first place, rather than risk abortive expenditure, even if the odds are that the scheme will go ahead. Why take the additional risk?

To people like me, the 2007 – 2008 global financial crisis seems like yesterday. Development almost came to a halt. Whilst it seemed too slow at the time, the then Government responded with measures that were summarised in its guidance document, Greater Flexibility For Planning Permissions, published first in 23 November 2009 and revised  1 October 2010). Look at the 2009 impact assessment:

In current economic circumstances, there is a reduced take-up of existing permissions. Where permissions lapse, there are costs and delays associated with providing and processing an application for a fresh planning permission.

There is also a broader need for added flexibility to allow developers and local planning authorities to make non-material amendments to existing planning permissions and to clarify and streamline the process for making minor material amendments. There is currently a lack of clarity about what can be done, which is resulting in unnecessary expense and time for both parties.

The guidance:

  • set out the temporary arrangements that had been brought in to extend the life of planning permissions. “This measure has been introduced in order to make it easier for developers and local planning authorities to keep planning permissions alive for longer during the economic downturn so that they can more quickly be implemented when economic conditions improve.
  • explained about the then new section 96A process for non-material amendments to planning permissions, introduced on 1 October 2009 pursuant to the Planning Act 2008.

The guidance was withdrawn on 7 March 2014 and replaced with the Flexible options for planning permissions section of what was then the new Planning Practice Guidance. In the transition, somehow the policy thrust of the earlier guidance was lost – the notion that flexibility can be a good or even necessary thing.

If you recall, the coalition Government subsequently introduced by way of the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 new sections 106BA, BB and BC into the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, providing a new application and appeal procedure, to review affordable housing obligations on the grounds of viability. Whilst helpful in some situations, it was certainly abused in others, and it was then repealed in 2016.

More recently of course, during the pandemic there were temporary measures to allow for the extension of time limits on planning permissions.

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has its second reading in the House of Lords on 17 January 2023 and, when it comes to greater flexibility for planning permissions, clause 102 (introducing new Section 73B into the Town and Country Planning Act) remains as a small step in the right direction. Section 73 will continue to exist but section 73B provides for an alternative procedure for amending schemes, given that as a result of the Court of Appeal’s ruling in Finney, section 73 cannot be used for amending the description of development on a planning permission. Section 73B will allow for an application to be made for planning permission to be granted for an amended form of a previous planning permission. Planning permission will only be able to be granted “if the local planning authority is satisfied that its effect will not be substantially different from that of the existing permission”. It will not be able to be applied for in relation to a section 73 permission. The local planning authority “must limit its consideration to those respects in which the permission would, if granted…differ in effect from…the existing permission”.

My worry with section 73B is that unless there is really encouraging guidance from DLUHC, local planning authorities will be cautious as to the “not substantially different” test. After all, where does it rest on the spectrum between “non-material amendment” and “fundamental alteration”?

It seems to be that we will now have the following procedural options:

  • Section 96A for non-material amendments
  • Section 73 for amendments which may be material but which are not a fundamental alteration to the approved scheme and which do not necessitate a change to the description of development on the face of the original planning permission.
  • Section 73B for amendments which do not approve development whose effect will be substantially different from that of the existing planning permission
  • A fresh application for planning permission (encompassing also the Supreme Court’s suggested solution given in paragraph 74 of  its Hillside judgment: “Despite the limited power to amend an existing planning permission, there is no reason why an approved development scheme cannot be modified by an appropriately framed additional planning permission which covers the whole site and includes the necessary modifications”)
  • In a case where the existing planning permission is, in the words of the Supreme Court in Hillside, “severable”, our old friend the “drop-in permission”. Unmentioned in Hillside, not to be found in legislation or guidance but still in my view clearly possible in the right situation.

Wouldn’t it be useful for DLUHC to publish a document now with the can-do tone of Greater Flexibility for Planning Permissions, recognising the obstacles in the way of achieving timely development, and encouraging local planning authorities to use these procedural tools available to them where necessary, so as not to delay or frustrate development, with suggestions as to how the appropriate tests should be approached? At present the whole thing is a lottery, dependent on the particular views of individual planning departments and even individual officers.

And wouldn’t it be useful if, instead of the hyperbole, there could be an honest look at the real stresses and strains the current system is under and if there could be a tightening of processes in the same way as Rosewell achieved for the planning appeals system? And above all, if planning departments could have available to them sufficient staff: well-trained, well-managed and well-motivated?

And now the prospect of strikes at the Planning Inspectorate. An interesting year ahead, folks.

Simon Ricketts, 14 January 2023

Personal views, et cetera

Tall Buildings & Fire Safety

It’s hard to plan when policies are continually in a state of flux, when there is uncertainty as to where the controls lie – via the planning system or via separate legislation – and when there is the possibility of inconsistency as between the differing regimes.

Take fire safety in relation to buildings for instance.  The Government is proposing to tighten the Building Regulations – it published a consultation document on 23 December 2022 proposing various amendments to Approved Document B, which include recommending the inclusion of sprinklers in all new care homes, regardless of building height, as well as introducing a threshold whereby residential buildings above 30 metres in height should be designed and built with two staircases. A “very short” transition period is proposed:

59. The transition period will allow time for schemes to be completed but should not allow the opportunity for developments to get off the ground ahead of the new requirements coming into effect.

60. We would encourage all developments to prepare for this change now.”

The consultation runs until 17 March 2023.

Why is 30 metres proposed as the threshold?

56. 30 metres is an accepted threshold for increased safety measures such as increased fire resistance provisions and marks a recognised trigger representing an increase in the level of risks in buildings overall. We therefore propose to introduce a new trigger in Approved Document B making provisions such that new residential buildings more than 30 metres are provided with a second staircase.

57. There is no standard international approach to the provision of staircases within residential buildings of height. The approaches taken by other countries, varies greatly depending on other fire mitigation measures such as travel distances, provision of sprinklers, compartmentation, cavity barriers etc. Where other countries set a maximum height for the provision of single stairs, this ranges from 18m to 75m in height.”

This is all clear – or will be once the amended Approved Document B is published.

However, with operation of the planning system, and the inherent discretion given to decision makers within it, comes additional uncertainty.

My 3 July 2021 blog post Safety & Planning covered the requirements introduced by the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure and Section 62A Applications) (England) (Amendment) Order 2021, which introduced a requirement for a fire statement to be submitted with applications for planning permission for development involving a building (1) contains two or more dwellings or educational accommodation and (2) contains 7 or more storeys or is 18 metres or more in height and which required consultation with the Health and Safety Executive before the grant of planning permission involving a high-rise residential building in certain circumstances.

In practice, HSE’s responses to local planning authorities provide its substantive response, setting out any specific significant areas of concern arising from the proposal, as well as “supplementary information for the applicant” which is more advisory in nature.

Whilst it is of course open to a decision maker to take into account the advice of a statutory consultee but to determine, with appropriate reasoning, why it is appropriate not to follow the advice, in matters of human safety it would be a brave officer, committee of councillors or inspector who were to take that approach. What the HSE has to say is therefore extremely important. But it is also important to ensure that its requirements do not go beyond what is reasonably required.

Just because the HSE is satisfied gives no certainty that there will be no fire brigade objection. Whilst not statutory consultees, the relevant local fire brigade, for instance, in London, the London Fire Brigade, may also choose to make representations in relation to a proposal and the same considerations apply. Whilst they are a statutory consultee under the Building Regulations, by the time that a proposed development has planning permission it may of course be too late to build into the design the additional measures that are required so one can well understand why it is sensible for concerns to be expressed at this stage, although again, plainly, they should not go beyond what is reasonably required.

Neither the NPPF nor national planning practice guidance sets out the criteria to be applied. Although this has no Government policy endorsement, the National Fire Chiefs Council’s position is that the maximum height for buildings with a single staircase should be 18 metres, rather than 30 metres. Its Single Staircases Policy Position Statement (15 December 2022) says this:

NFCC believe, that 18 metres or has at least 7 storeys must become the threshold at which more than one staircase should be required in new residential buildings, and that this threshold should be kept under review alongside other situations addressing these issues, including evacuation management and lifts.”

Multiple protected staircases create more resilience to support evacuation and firefighting operations. The need for unambiguous guidance is particularly important given the clear problem with culture and competency identified across the design and construction industry since the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy.

An 18 metre or has at least 7 storeys threshold would provide continuity of message and clarity across Government, aligning with definitions in the Building Safety Act as well as thresholds for certain provisions in the Fire Safety (England) Regulations and the Government’s ban on the use of combustible materials. This would also help to synchronise standards across the United Kingdom by aligning to rules in Scotland. While arguments exist for a range of thresholds, both higher and lower, 18 metres or has at least 7 storeys would bring the greatest harmonisation with the wider regulatory environment in the United Kingdom, and the greatest simplicity and certainty for industry at this time.”

 So is it to be 30 metres, as consulted upon by the Government, for the purposes of the operation in due course of the Building Regulations – or 18 metres, as advocated by the National Fire Chiefs Council?

Policy D12B of the Mayor of London’s London Plan 2021 goes further than the statutory requirement for a fire statement and requires a separate, more detailed, fire statement to be submitted with any application for planning permission for “major development proposals”. It must be prepared by someone who is “third-party independent and suitably-qualified” – “a qualified engineer with relevant experience in fire safety, such as a chartered engineer registered with the Engineering Council by the Institution of Fire Engineers, or suitably qualified and competent professional with the demonstrable experience to address the complexity of the design being proposed.” The statement must set out how the proposed development will function in terms of:

•             The building’s construction method and products and materials used

•             Means of escape for all building users and evacuation strategy

•             Passive and active fire safety measures

•             Access and facilities for the fire and rescue service

•             Site access for the fire and rescue service

•             Future development of the asset and the ‘Golden Thread’ of information

So two separate fire statements. Appeals have been dismissed where this has not been done (see eg here).

The Mayor’s draft London Plan Guidance on fire safety does not (yet at least) specify in guidance the height of buildings a second staircase is required, but, following the NFCC’s statement, I understand that the Mayor’s office has taken the position last week that, until it has had further discussions with the Government on the issue, it will not take schemes to the Mayor for stage 2 sign off where the proposals are for 18m+ high residential buildings with single staircase access.

Isn’t this area a classic illustration of how, even for the best of reasons (people’s lives), looking to the planning system to address matters which are the proper domain of other legislation is so often a recipe for delay and confusion, particularly where there is no specific national guidance on the issue? Don’t we need:

  1. Clear, robust standards
  2. Clarity as to which regime will set out and police compliance with those standards
  3. Clear signposting of any proposed changes to standards, with appropriate transitional arrangements?

….

In other news:

I hope plenty of people read my Town partner Clare Fielding’s blog post Still IL – if I draw a Venn diagram with a circle around those of you who are interested in the proposed Infrastructure Levy and a circle around those of you who are aficionados of the Smiths and if you are in the intersection between the circles, this is a must-read.

Thanks if you tuned into our clubhouse discussion last week on DLUHC’s 22 December announcements, where we went through the various proposed changes to the NPPF. Over 500 of you have listened so far. The link is here. However I think the best summary of the proposals that I have read so far is by Sam Stafford. His 50 Shades of Planning blog post, National Planning Policy Fudge (4 January 2023),  is well worth a read (and I’ve got to be nice to him as he is tidying up the clubhouse recording for subsequent release in his podcast series).

Simon Ricketts, 7 January 2023

Personal views, et cetera

Courtesy Mario La Pergola via Unsplash

It’s Been A Good Year For The ROSEs (& Bloggers Etc)

A tumultuous year ends. Authority after authority in the south east, or the Rest of the South East, as we used to call it before regional planning so as to exclude London, is pausing or going slow with its local plan, given the signals from Government that authorities will soon find it easier to decide not to plan to meet their local housing needs. (It’s not just in the south east I know but I desperately needed to make the Elvis Costello pun work).

In terms of policy, nothing yet has changed at all. But the excuses are already being found.

Planning Resource for instance reported on 19 December 2022 that:

  • Horsham District Council has delayed its cabinet meeting to consider its proposed Regulation 19 consultation draft plan from 15 December 2022.
  • Mole Valley District Council has paused preparation of its new local plan/
  • The Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire District Councils have announced an 11 month delay to the preparation of their emerging joint local plan

And this was before Michael Gove’s 22 December 2022 announcements as to proposed reforms to national planning policy that I blogged about that day (and which we will be discussing on clubhouse at 4 pm, 4 January – tune in to blow those cobwebs away! Join via this link – do RSVP in the link and get it in your diaries).

Someone please post some stats, I can’t immediately find them in my post-Christmas haze, but these delays have of course been building up over the year. Back on 2 September 2022 Planning Resource was reporting on the 19 authorities that have withdrawn or delayed local plans in the past year . Before that on 26 April 2022 Lichfields were reporting on 11 authorities that had either stalled, delayed or withdrawn their local plans. Go back even further to my 12 February 2022 blog post, Local Plan Breaking.

No doubt we will see over the course of 2023 how all this plays out in the light of the two successive waves of changes to the NPPF that we have now been told to expect.

It’s also been a good year for the bloggers and podcasters. Shout outs to Zack the Planorak, Nicola the Gooch, Sam 50 Shades Stafford, Raj Compulsory Reading Gupta and to my colleagues responsible for the Planning Law (With Chickens) podcasts (Victoria McKeegan, Nikita Sellers and Meeta Kaur). You all keep me on my toes and occasionally wondering what I have to add. But in any event thank you everyone for continuing to read and engage – sitting down every week for an hour or two to do these notes to self remains the only way I can hope to keep track for myself of what is happening and for people to find this occasionally useful or entertaining is always an unexpected bonus..

These were my most-read posts of 2022:

  1. New NE Nutrient Neutrality & Recreational Impact Restrictions (+ DEFRA Nature Recovery Green Paper) (18 March 2022)
  2. Running Down That Hillside (2 November 2022)
  3. EZ Does It: Charter Cities, Freeports, Development Corporations (30 July 2022)
  4. Local Plan Breaking (12 February 2022)
  5. It Will Soon Be Christmas & We Really Don’t Have To Rush To Conclusions On This New NPPF Consultation Draft (22 December 2022)

Looking back, these were the posts that pretty much wrote themselves in reaction to what was happening all around us: the neutralities issues, the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hillside, the bizarre happenings within that brief Truss premiership, the local plan making crisis and of course the Government’s planning reform agenda. In fact, at the foot of this post there is a table of month by month views of the blog since it started in June 2016. Views have been dependent not on any writing quality but on subject matter (oh, and the lockdowns certainly helped).

I’m sure there will be plenty of planning law to write about next year, all of it as yet unplanned.

Healthy new year all. And in the wise words of Elvis Costello: Get Happy.

Simon Ricketts. 31 December 2022

Personal views, et cetera

It Will Soon Be Christmas & We Really Don’t Have To Rush To Conclusions On This New NPPF Consultation Draft

Plenty of easy Christmas present jokes to be had but I’ll avoid them – the Government’s consultation document on proposed reforms to national planning policy and indicative mark-up of the NPPF have arrived (22 December 2022).

There is much to take on board. By way of indication, the consultation document lists 58 questions. It’s 32 pages or so long.

But don’t panic!

Consultation doesn’t close until 3 March 2023. There is plenty of time for thinking to percolate and indeed to assist with that we have the special Planning Law Unplanned clubhouse discussion at 4pm on 4 January 2023 featuring various planners and planning lawyers. Join the event via this link – do RSVP in the link and get it in your diaries.

I am relieved that for once what we have been presented with is comprehensive and well explained. This is no longer a “prospectus” as to what the nature of the proposed changes but includes the actual proposed wording of the revised NPPF itself (this revision at least – another revision is already promised). The changes are by and large not a surprise, having been heavily trailed since Michael Gove resumed office. I urge you to scroll through the indicative mark-up of the NPPF – the changes are easy to spot, for instance:

  • watering down of the paragraph 11 (d) tilted balance and of the requirements on local planning authorities to maintain an adequate housing supply and meet housing delivery targets
  • watering down of the local plan “soundness” test
  • references to the standard method as only an “advisory starting point
  • express references to the needs for retirement housing, housing with care and care homes
  • References to “beauty” and a weirdly specific passage extolling the virtues of mansard roofs
  • Green Belt boundaries are not required to be reviewed and altered if this would be the only means of meeting the objectively assessed need for housing over the plan period
  • Changes in relation to climate change and renewable energy
  • The availability of agricultural land used for food production should be considered, alongside the other policies in this Framework, when deciding what sites are most appropriate for development“.
  • Important transitional arrangements in paragraph 225 and 226

But what is being consulted upon does not stop at the proposed changes to the NPPF but also covers various other longer term aspects of the reform agenda.

If one thing shines through the consultation document it is that re-construction of the system is going to be underway for some years. An indicative timeline:

Consultation closes: 3 March 2023

Government response to consultation and publication of revised NPPF: Spring 2023

Changes to take effect that are being consulted upon in the current document as to:

  • Increasing the emphasis on provision of social rented housing
  • More older people’s housing
  • More small sites for small builders
  • Greater emphasis on the role that community-led development can have in supporting the provision of more locally-led affordable homes

Consultation on proposed changes to the rest of the NPPF and on more detailed policy options and proposals for National Development Management Policies (supported by environmental assessments), once the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is passed through all its Parliamentary stages: from Spring 2023 (NB there is much already in the consultation document which helps in setting out more clearly than previously the intended scope of national development management policies, which will be in a separate document to the NPPF)

Three further measures to be introduced, via changes to the NPPF to encourage developers to build out “as soon as possible”:

“a) We will publish data on developers of sites over a certain size in cases where they fail to build out according to their commitments.

b) Developers will be required to explain how they propose to increase the diversity of housing tenures to maximise a development scheme’s absorption rate (which is the rate at which homes are sold or occupied).

c) The National Planning Policy Framework will highlight that delivery can be a material consideration in planning applications. This could mean that applications with trajectories that propose a slow delivery rate may be refused in certain circumstances.”

There will be “a separate consultation on proposals to introduce a financial penalty against developers who are building out too slowly”.

Changes to the soundness test will apply to local plans which have not reached pre-submission consultation stage within 3 months of the revised NPPF: summer 2023

Further updates to the NPPF: later in 2023

Whilst flexibility as to the use of the standard method will be in place from Spring 2023 as part of the revised NPPF, there will be a review of standard method for calculating local housing need, once 2021 census is published: 2024 (NB “It remains our intention to publish the 2022 Housing Delivery Test results. However, given our proposed changes and consultation on the workings of the Housing Delivery Test, we would like to receive views on whether the test’s consequences should follow from the publication of the 2022 Test or if they should be amended, suspended until the publication of the 2023 Housing Delivery Test, or frozen to reflect the 2021 Housing Delivery Test results while work continues on our proposals to improve it. We will take a decision on the approach to the Housing Delivery Test and the implementation of any the proposed changes in due course, once we have analysed consultation responses”).

Implementation of the LURB plan-making reforms: late 2024

Transitional arrangements will mean that for the purposes of decision-making, “where emerging local plans have been submitted for examination or where they have been subject to a Regulation 18 or 19 consultation which included both a policies map and proposed allocations towards meeting housing need, those authorities will benefit from a reduced housing land supply requirement. This will be a requirement to demonstrate a 4-year supply of land for housing, instead of the usual 5”: two year transitional period, so until Spring 2025

Deadline of 30 June 2025 for plan makers to “submit their local plans, neighbourhood plans, minerals and waste plans, and spatial development strategies for independent examination under the existing legal framework; this will mean that existing legal requirements and duties, for example the Duty to Cooperate, will still apply.

We are also proposing that all independent examinations of local plans, minerals and waste plans and spatial development strategies must be concluded, with plans adopted, by 31 December 2026. These plans will be examined under the current legislation.”

Latest date for any old-style local and minerals and waste plans to be adopted (or in the case of Strategic Development Strategies, published): April 2027

Latest date when LPAs must begin the new style plan-making process (if their previous plan was adopted on 31 December 2026): 31 December 2031

Of course these dates, all of them taken from or derived from the consultation document, could slip (surely not!) and priorities could move in an entirely different direction, but somehow I sense that this is a package of reforms which is more likely to stick. So let’s have a rest for a week or so after a ridiculous year, maybe tune in on 4 January, but in any event do some constructive thinking over the next couple of months ahead of that consultation deadline. It’s a serious set of proposals which deserves a serious response. Since I came off Twitter I think I may be getting a bit soft….

Merry Christmas.

Simon Ricketts, 22 December 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Photo courtesy of Mel Poole via Unsplash

Prospective Prospectus

My 6 December 2022 blog post Gove Gives: Local Housing Need Now Just “Advisory” summarised the contents of his written ministerial statement that day which promised a “National Planning Policy Framework prospectus, which will be put out for consultation by Christmas”.

I mentioned in the blog post a letter which he had written to all MPs the previous day which had gone into more detail that the statement. I hadn’t included a link to the letter. It is here. What is even more interesting is that there is another letter, of the same date, written just to Conservative MPs. The link to that one is here.

The introduction to the letter to Conservative MPs makes the intended policy direction very clear. For instance:

Whatever we do at a national level, politics is always local and there is no area that demonstrates this more than planning. Through reforms made by Conservative-led governments since 2010, we have a locally-led planning system – for instance, by scrapping policies like top-down regional targets that built nothing but resentment – and introducing neighbourhood planning. These reforms have delivered a record of which Conservatives can be proud. I also do not need to remind you that under the last Labour government, housebuilding reached its lowest rate since the 1920s.

But there is much more to do to ensure we can build enough of the right homes in the right places with the right infrastructure, and to ensure that local representatives can decide where – and where not – to place new development. As Conservatives, we recognise both the fundamental importance of home ownership and that we can only deliver the homes we need if we bring the communities we represent with us. These are the promises on which we stood in our manifesto and ones that I and the Prime Minister are determined to deliver.

I am therefore writing to set out the further changes I will be making to the planning system, alongside the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which address many colleagues’ concerns. They will place local communities at the heart of the planning system.

As you know I share the views of many colleagues about the current system. That it does not provide the right homes in the right places, and at its worst risks imposing ever more stretching housing targets that are out of touch with reality – leading to developers taking advantage through planning by appeal and speculative development. Communities feel that they are under siege, and I am clear that this approach will never be right or sustainable if we want to build the homes that our communities want and need.”

This Government weaves around planning reform like Kylian Mbappe. First the 2020 white paper, then the u-turn after the Chesham and Amersham by-election, then the Kwarteng “growth growth growth” plan – and now placing house-building delivery firmly in the hands of “communities” – in reality, at root, existing home owners – with a weakened process for local plan examination:

I will ensure that plans no longer have to be ‘justified’, meaning that there will be a lower bar for assessment, and authorities will no longer have to provide disproportionate amounts of evidence to argue their case.”

Is all of this just another feint, a shimmy past the Tory rebel MPs to ensure that planning reform can actually progress? Or genuine capitulation – genuflection to the election pamphlet needs of political colleagues? Zack Simons doesn’t mince his words in his 8 December 2022 blog post Notes on reform: the Government gives up – essential reading.

The matters to be consulted upon in the forthcoming prospectus are numerous. Steve Quartermain and I were counting them this week and ran out of fingers – the letters include commitments to consultation as to at least the following matters:

  • Changes to the method for calculating local housing need figures
  • Dropping the requirement for a 20% buffer to be added to housing land supply numbers for both plan making and decision taking
  • What should be within the scope of the new National Development Management Policies
  • Each new National Development Management Policy before it is brought forward
  • Detailed proposals for increases in planning fees
  • A New planning performance framework that will monitor local performance across a broader set of measures of planning service delivery, including planning enforcement
  • Further measures (i) allowing local planning authorities to refuse planning applications from developers who have built out slowly in the past and (ii) making sure that local authorities who permission land are not punished under the housing delivery test when it is developers who are not building
  • A new approach to accelerating the speed at which permissions are built out, specifically on a new financial penalty
  • How to address the issue of the planning system being “undermined by irresponsible developers and landowners who persistently ignore planning rules and fail to deliver their commitments to the community”.
  • Amending national policy to support development on small sites, particularly with respect to affordable housing
  • Further measures that would prioritise the use of brownfield land
  • Details of how a discretionary registration scheme for short term lets in England would be administered
  • Reviewing the Use Classes Order so that it “enables places such as Devon, Cornwall and the Lake District to better control changes of use to short term lets if they wish“.

There is a lot to take in here – both what is written and what is between the lines. To try to help make sense of the prospectus when it lands, there will be a special Planning Law Unplanned clubhouse discussion at 4pm on 4 January 2023 featuring various planners and planning lawyers, including myself, Zack, Steve and many more. Join the event via this link – do RSVP in the link and get it in your diaries.

Simon Ricketts, 10 December 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Gove Gives: Local Housing Need Now Just “Advisory”

A deal has been reached between the Government and those rebel MPs who had threatened to derail the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. And so we have Michael Gove’s written statement to the House of Commons today 6 December 2022, in the wake of a letter written to all MPs on 5 December 2022 and a 5 December 2022 press statement. Of course, when we talk about the Bill, that is short-hand for the reform package as a whole, including most crucially the proposed amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework. 

Those proposed amendments are soon to be fleshed out in the National Planning Policy Framework prospectus, “which will be put out for consultation by Christmas” (i.e. by the time that the Commons rises on 20 December 2022). It is going to be thin gruel for those of us who believe that this country has a housing crisis and that part of the solution to that crisis is to build more homes, where they are most needed.  

I’ll just summarise here what the written ministerial statement covers. The letter to MPs goes into further detail.

There will be an amended method for calculating local housing need, which will be “advisory. “It will be up to local authorities, working with their communities, to determine how many homes can actually be built, taking into account what should be protected in each area – be that our precious Green Belt or national parks, the character of an area, or heritage assets. It will also be up to them to increase the proportion of affordable housing if they wish.

Of course it is not currently mandatory that local authorities plan for the level of local housing need arrived at via the current standard method, but there is a heavy onus on authorities to justify departures. 

Paragraph 35 of the current NPPF sets out the “soundness test”, including that plans are “positively prepared”, meaning that they are “providing a strategy which, as a minimum, seeks to meet the area’s objectively assessed needs; and is informed by agreements with other authorities, so that unmet need from neighbouring areas is accommodated where it is practical to do so and is consistent with achieving sustainable development.

Paragraph 61 of the current NPPF says this:

To determine the minimum number of homes needed, strategic policies should be informed by a local housing need assessment, conducted using the standard method in national planning guidance – unless exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach which also reflects current and future demographic trends and market signals. In addition to the local housing need figure, any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas should also be taken into account in establishing the amount of housing to be planned for.”

It is plain that those circumstances are now to be widened, in ways which are more subjective, eg relying on perceived capacity constraints based on “the character of an area” (the letter to MPs gives the example of for instance “new blocks of high-rise flats which are entirely inappropriate in a low-rise neighbourhood” and talks of the need for “gentle densities”).  It will be open season for authorities and/or local campaigners to press the case for lower numbers to be adopted and/or for the required proportion of affordable housing to be set at such a financially onerous level that in practice chokes off the prospect of development. The proposed abolition of the duty to cooperate and its replacement by an “alignment” mechanism yet to be articulated just increases the plain jeopardy here. Open question: how will the Government be able to hold to its 300,000 homes a year target if significant numbers of authorities adjust their numbers downwards? Another open question: how important is mitigating the housing crisis to the Government versus fending off internal rebellions and having constituency-friendly developer-phobic policies?

Five year housing land supply requirement:

We will end the obligation on local authorities to maintain a rolling five-year supply of land for housing where their plans are up-to-date. Therefore for authorities with a local plan, or where authorities are benefitting from transitional arrangements, the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the ‘tilted balance’ will typically not apply in relation to issues affecting land supply.

I also want to consult on dropping the requirement for a 20% buffer to be added for both plan making and decision making – which otherwise effectively means that local authorities need to identify six years of supply rather than five. In addition, I want to recognise that some areas have historically overdelivered on housing – but they are not rewarded for this. My plan will therefore allow local planning authorities to take this into account when preparing a new local plan, lowering the number of houses they need to plan for.”

…Where authorities are well-advanced in producing a new plan, but the constraints which I have outlined mean that the amount of land to be released needs to be reassessed, I will give those places a two year period to revise their plan against the changes we propose and to get it adopted. And while they are doing this, we will also make sure that these places are less at risk from speculative development, by reducing the amount of land which they need to show is available on a rolling basis (from the current five years to four).

I will increase community protections afforded by a neighbourhood plan against developer appeals – increasing those protections from two years to five years…”

Ensuring timely build out:

I already have a significant package of measures in the Bill to ensure developers build out the developments for which they already have planning. I will consult on two further measures:

i) on allowing local planning authorities to refuse planning applications from developers who have built slowly in the past; and

ii) on making sure that local authorities who permission land are not punished under the housing delivery test when it is developers who are not building.

I will also consult on our new approach to accelerating the speed at which permissions are built out, specifically on a new financial penalty.”

Character of a developer:

I have heard and seen examples of how the planning system is undermined by irresponsible developers and landowners who persistently ignore planning rules and fail to deliver their legal commitments to the community. I therefore propose to consult on the best way of addressing this issue, including looking at a similar approach to tackling the slow build out of permissions, where we will give local authorities the power to stop developers getting permissions.”

Brownfield first:

I will consult to see what more we can do in national policy to support development on small sites particularly with respect to affordable housing and I will launch a review into identifying further measures that would prioritise the use of brownfield land. To help make the most of empty premises, including those above shops, I am reducing the period after which a council tax premium can be charged so that we can make the most of the space we already have. I will also provide further protection in national policy for our important agricultural land for food production, making it harder for developers to build on it.

Tourist accommodation/short-term lets

I intend to deliver a new tourist accommodation registration scheme as quickly as possible, working with DCMS, starting with a further short consultation on the exact design of the scheme. I will also consult on going further still and reviewing the Use Classes Order so that it enables places such as Devon, Cornwall, and the Lake District to control changes of use to short term lets if they wish.

More anon. 

Simon Ricketts, 6 December 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Ps In A Pod: Politics, Planning, Protest & Prevarication

Planning still appears to have been taken hostage by internal Tory political infighting. See e.g. Tory backbenchers rebel over national housing targets (SP Broadway, 2 December 2022).

In a more innocent time, September 2014, I delivered a paper to the Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference, Heroes and Villains — Challenge and Protest in Planning: What’s a Developer To Do?   

Since then the antagonism seems to have increased and areas of common ground seem to reduced. Planning and heritage processes are frequently just another battleground in this time of global and cultural division. 

I was going to pull together a few more strands today, for instance on contested heritage (I’m conscious that I haven’t yet covered the Court of Appeal’s September 2022 ruling following the acquittal of the “Colston Four”), the closure by the Wellcome Collection of its “Medicine Man” gallery, on the battle for control of the National Trust and much else besides. 

But I’m just going to pick the most recent item from this week’s news. It’s possible  that politics played as much a role as planning in the decision on 1 December 2022 by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ Strategic Development Committee, against officers’ recommendations, to refuse planning permission for the redevelopment of Royal Mint Court, near the Tower of London, to establish a new Chinese Embassy (replacing its existing embassy on Portland Place), including “the refurbishment and restoration of the Johnson Smirke Building (Grade II listed), partial demolition, remodelling and refurbishment of Seaman’s Registry (Grade II listed), with alterations to the west elevation of the building, the retention, part demolition, alterations and extensions to Murray House and Dexter House, the erection of a standalone entrance pavilion building, alterations to the existing boundary wall and demolition of substation, associated public realm and landscaping, highway works, car and cycle parking and all ancillary and associated works.

51 objections had been received, raising a range of planning and non-planning objections. One has a sense of non-planning issues swirling around from the officer’s report which, after summarising the various planning and heritage based objections received, sets out the “non-material considerations” raised by objectors as including:

  • Concerned about the building becoming a secret police station
  • Concerned about the violent assault of protesters at the Manchester Chinese Consulate
  • Concerned about the actions of the Chinese government in relation to other countries and human rights record
  • All phone calls and fibre optic cables will be listened to as the site is adjacent to a BT telephone exchange”. 

The minutes are not yet available but I understand that the Committee resolved that the proposals would “affect the ‘safety and security’ of residents, such as those at next-door Royal Mint Estate, cause harm to heritage assets, impact the quality of the area as a tourist destination and have an impact on local police resourcing.”

The decision has attracted widespread media attention, not just in the UK (see for instance London council rejects new Chinese embassy amid residents’ safety fears (Guardian, 2 December 2022) and David Chipperfield’s Chinese embassy complex rejected by London council (Architects Journal, 2 December 2022)) but across the world. 

What is going to happen next? The People’s Republic of China has owned the site outright since 2018 and they are hardly going to walk away from the project. Michael Gove could conceivably call the application in before the refusal notice is issued, or China could appeal against the refusal and the appeal would presumably be recovered for his determination following recommendations from an inspector who would hold a public inquiry. 

The political sensitivities are surely going to ramp up, no matter what. Perhaps this application should have been called in by the Government at an earlier stage rather than leave committee members with (1) such a difficult decision, balancing local concerns against international diplomatic responsibilities, and (2) such power. But I’m sure the government would have loved to have left this particular hot potato well alone. And they thought that juggling an appearance of dealing with the housing crisis with an appearance of leaving communities in control of local housing numbers was difficult….

Simon Ricketts, 3 December 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Photo courtesy of Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

Nutrient Neutrality: Possibly Good News & Possibly Bad News

The Government appears to be in negotiation with Tory MPs (46 of them at least) who may be prepared to wreck the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill unless it includes a provision abolishing housebuilding targets for local authorities and abolishing the policy in the NPPF as to the maintenance of a five years’ supply of housing land. No doubt this will end up with some fudged solution adding further (1) uncertainty, (2) complexity and (3) hurdles in the way of housing provision. 

But in another part of the forest, assuming they will overcome that local difficulty (aka huge chasm), the Government has brought forward a further set of amendments to the Bill to seek to address the nutrient neutrality problem which has amounted to a de facto veto on housebuilding in many areas of the country (see eg my 23 July 2022 blog post Neutrality: Government Clambers Off The Fence).

This is what I am categorising as the possible good news. See DLUHC’s 25 November  2022 press statement Government sets out plan to reduce water pollution.

Government plans announced today will see:

  • A new legal duty on water companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works by 2030 in ‘nutrient neutrality’ areas to the highest achievable technological levels.
  • A new Nutrient Mitigation Scheme established by Natural England, helping wildlife and boosting access to nature by investing in projects like new and expanded wetlands and woodlands. This will allow local planning authorities to grant planning permission for new developments in areas with nutrient pollution issues, providing for the development of sustainable new homes and ensuring building can go ahead. Defra and DLUHC will provide funding to pump prime the scheme.”

The new legal duty on water and sewerage companies in England to upgrade certain wastewater plants will be introduced via a Government amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. We want these improvements to be factored in for the purposes of a Habitats Regulation Assessment.

The nutrient mitigation scheme “will be open to all developers, with priority given to smaller builders who are most affected. Developers can also continue to put their own mitigation schemes in place should they choose. Natural England will work with, not crowd out, new and existing private providers and markets for nutrient offsets wherever they exist.

The scheme is due to open in the Autumn. All affected areas can continue to access practical support from the government and Natural England in meeting nutrient neutrality requirements. Natural England will deliver the scheme by establishing an ‘Accelerator Unit’, with the support of Defra, DLUHC, the Environment Agency and Homes England.

This announcement will support the delivery of the tens of thousands of homes currently in the planning system, by significantly reducing the cost of mitigation requirements. The mitigation scheme will make delivering those requirements much easier for developers.”

The possible bad news? Not so much bad news but an inspector’s appeal decision letter which confirms that the Habitats Regulations’ assessment requirements do not just apply when an application for planning permission is determined but, if an assessment was not carried out at that stage, at reserved matters/ conditions discharge stage. This is of course one of the huge current frustrations. 

The decision letter, dated 24 November 2022, is here and is summarised by Landmark Chambers here.  

Charlie Banner KC was for the appellant and his submissions were in line with an opinion previously provided for the HBF and widely circulated. The issues are not straight-forward and we wait to see whether the  question will now come before the courts. 

Short blog post this week – too busy, and to0 much football to watch. 

Simon Ricketts, 26 November 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Pic courtesy Four Four Two