Through A Glass Darkly: To BRE Or Not To BRE

How to determine whether the impact from a proposed development on the daylight and sunlight enjoyed by neighbours, or to be enjoyed by future occupiers of the scheme, is appropriate? That is the question. 
The problems are multi-layered:
– There is no practical guidance in the NPPF or NPPG as the approach to be taken.
– Many local planning authorities default in their policies to requiring compliance with a guide to good practice published by the Building Research Establishment in 2011: “site layout planning for daylight and sunlight: a guide to good practice” (BR 209) by Paul Littlefair (a document incidentally not freely available but available for purchase from the BRE for £55). 

– The document has various numerical criteria and calculations to determine acceptability. Whilst the need for flexibility in application is acknowledged in the document itself (“Although it gives numerical guidelines, these should be interpreted flexibly because natural lighting is only one of many factors in site layout design“) in practice this is often overlooked. 

– The document has not been updated to reflect changes in our understanding of what makes great places or indeed nuanced to reflect the very different expectations of those living in urban environments, and London in particular. 
The Government signalled in its February 2017 housing white paper that a new approach may be needed: “the Government intends to amend national planning guidance to highlight planning approaches that can be used to help support higher densities, and to set out ways in which daylight considerations can be addressed in a pragmatic way that does not inhibit dense, high- quality development.”
I will be disappointed if we do not see this in the draft revised NPPF (likely to be published on 5 March). 
Disappointingly, the Mayor of London has omitted specific guidance from the draft London Plan (2 March representations deadline looming). The opportunity has been missed to stress the need for flexibility and appreciation of context. Given the loss of the previous density matrices, daylighting and sunlighting issues will continue to be relied upon by objectors seeking to resist higher density schemes, which are inevitable if the housing targets in the plan are to be achieved. 
Against this context it is fascinating to read the inspector’s decision letter dated 21 February 2018 allowing an appeal by Londonewcastle for their Whitechapel Estate development, which comprises “demolition of all existing buildings and redevelopment to provide 12 buildings ranging from ground plus 2-23 storeys (a maximum 94m AOD height), comprising 343 residential dwellings (Class C3), 168 specialist accommodation units (Class C2), office floorspace (Class B1), flexible office and non-residential institution floorspace (Class B1/D1), retail floorspace (Class A1-A3), car parking, cycle parking, hard and soft landscaping and other associated works.” The site falls within the City Fringe Opportunity Area Planning Framework.
The inspector summarised the main issues as:
* “The quality of design of the appeal proposal and its effect on the character and appearance of the area and on the wider townscape;

* The effect on heritage assets and their settings; 


* The effect on living conditions of neighbouring residents, having regard in 
particular to daylight and sunlight, outlook and privacy; 


* The quality of living conditions for future residents of the development, having regard in particular to daylight and sunlight, overshadowing, outlook and privacy. ”

The inspector’s approach to daylight and sunlight is particularly interesting, given that it follows detailed evidence from, for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, none other than Paul Littlefair, author of the BRE guide, and, for the appellant, leading consultant Gordon Ingram of GIA, proponent of a more nuanced, contextual, assessment approach. 

It is plain from the decision letter that the inspector preferred the GIA methodology:
107. It is agreed that the starting point in the assessment of the effect on residents’ living conditions arising from daylight and sunlight should be the Building Research Establishment 2011 publication Site layout planning for daylight and sunlight: A guide to good practice, (‘the BRE guide’) whose author gave evidence at the Inquiry on behalf of the Council. Use of this methodology is demanded by the supporting text to MDD Policy DM2539 and by the Mayor of London’s Housing SPG of March 2016. 

108. The BRE document offers guidance on generally acceptable standards of daylight and sunlight, but advises that numerical values are not to be rigidly applied and recognises the importance of the specific circumstances of each case. Inner city development is one of the examples where a different approach might be justified. This is specifically endorsed by the Housing SPG, which calls for guidelines to be applied sensitively to higher density developments, especially in (among others) opportunity areas and accessible locations, taking into account local circumstances, the need to optimise housing capacity, and the scope for the character and form of an area to change over time. This approach is clearly relevant to the appeal site. The area’s identification for transformation through high density housing development indicates high scope for its form and character to change over the short and longer term. I agree with the appellants that blanket application of the BRE guide optimum standards, which are best achieved in relatively low-rise well spaced layouts, is not appropriate in this instance.
112. The figures show that a proportion of residual Vertical Sky Component (‘VSC’) values in the mid-teens have been found acceptable in major developments across London. This echoes the Mayor’s endorsement in the pre- SPG decision at Monmouth House, Islington that VSC values in the mid-teens are acceptable in an inner urban environment. They also show a smaller proportion in the bands below 15%. Even if there were some discrepancy in the appellants’ figures for this lower band at Whitechapel Central, which is disputed, the VSC outcomes for the appeal proposal would in general be very similar to those of the other major schemes. The appeal proposal would therefore appear to be in compliance with the LP as amplified by the SPG and as it is being interpreted by the Mayor. The GLA responses to the planning application did not raise any concern about neighbours’ amenity. 

113. I acknowledge that a focus on overall residual levels could risk losing sight of individual problem areas. It is accepted that light is only one factor in assessing overall levels of amenity, but I consider that the trade-off with other factors, such as access to public transport or green space, is likely to be of more relevance to an occupier of new development than to an existing neighbour whose long-enjoyed living conditions would be adversely affected by new buildings. However, I also consider that Inner London is an area where there should generally be a high expectation of development taking place. This is particularly so in the case of the appeal site, where the WVM and the OAPF have flagged the desirability of high density development. Existing residents would in my view be prepared for change and would not necessarily expect existing standards of daylight and sunlight to persist after development.”
121. As in the matter of daylight, the guidance on loss of annual and winter sunlight is not to be rigidly applied. Emphasis on the level of retained sunlight rather than degree of change would be justified. On balance, I accept the appellants’ conclusion the proposal’s overall effect on sunlight would not be significantly adverse.”
As to the effect of the scheme on living conditions for neighbouring residents:
125. I conclude that the proposal would result in some significant individual reductions in daylight and sunlight levels, but that this is almost unavoidable in achieving the policy requirement for high density development in a confined urban setting. The new buildings would for the most part be comparable in height with the existing and would re-define traditional street frontages. Retained levels of daylight and sunlight would be adequate and comparable with existing and emerging urban conditions. The effects would appear very comparable with those recently allowed by the Council at Whitechapel Central. There would be minimal adverse losses of outlook and increases in overlooking. Taken as a whole, the proposal would not result in unacceptably harmful effects on living conditions and would comply with the development plan in this respect. ”
Whilst of course individual decisions of inspectors are not formal precedents, and every scheme is dependent on its individual circumstances and the relevant local policy background, this decision is undoubtedly important and surely fully in line with what the Government was flagging in the housing white paper. 
The BRE guidance in part draws upon British Standard BS 8206-2 (2008) Lighting for Buildings – Part 2: Code of Practice for Daylighting. I am wondering whether one reason that the 2011 guidance has not been updated is that the British Standards Institute has been working with other EU member states’ standards institutes on a new voluntary set of standards for natural daylight, via the European Committee for Standardisation. During this process, revisions of the relevant standard at a domestic level must be placed on hold. Following consultation, a new ECS standard was ratified on 8 February 2018 and will be formally available from 25 April 2018. More information as to the tighter criteria that the new standard will introduce is set out in a useful (subscription-only I am afraid) Planning Resource piece by Gregory Francis of GVA Schatunowski Brooks. 
So, on the one hand, are we at last seeing a move towards more flexible application of daylighting and sunlighting standards? On the other hand, are we are likely in due course to see a tightening of the standards themselves? I find it disappointing that the extent to which there is domestic oversight of the BRE (since 1997 not a governmental body but an independent charitable organisation) is opaque to say the least, before we even get to the complexities of the workings of the European Committee for Standardisation. The Government, and London Mayor, really do need shine a light on all of this.
Simon Ricketts, 24 February 2018
Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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