…really don’t want other people to have houses, do they?
The prime minister can hardly be surprised when the affluent home-owning constituents of Chesham and Amersham register a protest vote against his plans for change, thinking that in some way he is coming for their beautiful part of the country, even though it bristles with statutory protections from development. First there has been the insensitivity with which HS2 has been forced through the Chilterns AONB with the case for longer tunnelling rejected (see my 30 July 2016 blog post HS2: The Very Select Committee) and secondly, as hitherto loyal Conservatives, they will have taken the prime minister at his word when with typical hyperbole he said in his foreword to last August’s white paper:
“Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places. People cannot afford to move to where their talents can be matched with opportunity. Businesses cannot afford to grow and create jobs. The whole thing is beginning to crumble and the time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again.
That is what this paper proposes.
Radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War.
Not more fiddling around the edges, not simply painting over the damp patches, but levelling the foundations and building, from the ground up, a whole new planning system for England.”
“And, above all, that gives the people of this country the homes we need in the places we want to live at prices we can afford, so that all of us are free to live where we can connect our talents with opportunity.
Getting homes built is always a controversial business. Any planning application, however modest, almost inevitably attracts objections and I am sure there will be those who say this paper represents too much change too fast, too much of a break from what has gone before.
But what we have now simply does not work.
So let’s do better. Let’s make the system work for all of us. And let’s take big, bold steps so that we in this country can finally build the homes we all need and the future we all want to see.”
How easy it must be for other parties and for campaign groups to scaremonger when such coarse analogies are used – war, tearing things down, levelling foundations, building from the ground up.
The paper itself was not nearly as radical as the foreword would suggest and we have seen no further detail since. And so he is now on the defensive:
“What we want is sensible plans to allow development on brownfield sites. We’re not going to build on greenbelt sites, we’re not going to build all over the countryside.”
[What does this even mean? Of course there will continue to be green field development, and of course some green belt development – as there is under the current system].
This is such an unnecessarily controversial issue, carelessly caused, cynically amplified. The planning system doesn’t need to be torn up and was never going to be torn up. But where have the ministers been to explain, to persuade, to engage? Instead, a resounding, almost embarrassed, silence since that August 2020 white paper. The news vacuum as to the form that changes are likely to take has of course been filled with media speculation and campaigners’ characterisations which have now served to make the whole question more political than it ever needed to be.
We all know that what is needed is for the current planning system to work better, largely through clearer carrot and stick policies, through specific process improvements and simplifications – and with better resourcing. So as to deliver, yes, more homes, yes economic growth, yes in a planned way, yes meeting environmental and social, not just economic, goals. But none of that’s going to happen now is it? Because politics is all about retaining power, and planning is dependent on politics. So if you are relying on the planning system to enable you to move out of your parents’ house or out of an HMO; to start a family, or to grow a business, you know what? Your needs don’t matter. Not against the needs of a politician who doesn’t want to be the next Peter Fleet.
All this of course means that the current system needs to continue to work as best it can. The good news is that at least this week we had that Colney Heath appeal decision letter to demonstrate that the entire system is in fact not in total meltdown. If an area is without an up to date plan, with a severe unmet housing need, with need for affordable housing and for sites for self build homes, planning permission may be granted even if the land is, horror of horrors, politicians look away, green belt. My firm Town (well, my colleague Paul Arnett) was pleased to play at least a small role in the appeal as planning solicitors for the appellant, negotiating a section 106 agreement with the St Albans and Welwyn Hatfield councils that secured a commitment that 45% of the 100 homes proposed would be affordable housing and 10% would be self-build, delivering a strategy first formulated by Chris Young QC and developed and implemented at the inquiry itself by Zack Simons (who kindly brought us onto the team). Russell Gray at Woods Hardwick was the lead planning witness and coordinated the team.
Inspector Christa Masters determined that the following were “very special circumstances” that justified inappropriate development in the green belt:
⁃ provision of market housing
“I am aware of the Written Ministerial Statement of December 2015 which indicates that unmet need is unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to Green Belt and any other harm so as to establish very special circumstances. However, in common with the appeal decision referred to, I note that this provision has not been incorporated within the Framework which has subsequently been updated and similar guidance within the Planning Practice Guidance has been removed. I can therefore see no reason to give this anything other than little weight as a material consideration.
It is common ground that neither SADC or WHBC can demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable homes. Whilst there is disagreement between the parties regarding the extent of this shortfall, the parties also agreed that this is not a matter upon which the appeals would turn. I agree with this position. Even taking the Councils supply positions of WHBC 2.58 years and SADC at 2.4 years, the position is a bleak one and the shortfall in both local authorities is considerable and significant.
There is therefore no dispute that given the existing position in both local authority areas, the delivery of housing represents a benefit. Even if the site is not developed within the timeframe envisaged by the appellant, and I can see no compelling reason this would not be achieved, it would nevertheless, when delivered, positively boost the supply within both local authority areas. From the evidence presented in relation to the emerging planning policy position for both authorities, this is not a position on which I would envisage there would be any marked improvement on in the short to medium term. I afford very substantial weight to the provision of market housing which would make a positive contribution to the supply of market housing in both local authority areas.”
⁃ provision of self-build
“In common with both market housing and affordable housing, the situation in the context of provision of sites and past completions is a particularly poor one. To conclude, I am of the view that the provision of 10 self build service plots at the appeal site will make a positive contribution to the supply of self build plots in both local planning authority areas. I am attaching substantial weight to this element of housing supply.”
⁃ provision of affordable housing
“The uncontested evidence presented by the appellant on affordable housing for both local authorities illustrates some serious shortcomings in terms of past delivery trends. In relation to WHBC, the affordable housing delivery which has taken place since 2015/16 is equivalent to a rate of 23 homes per annum. The appellant calculates that the shortfall stands in the region of 4000 net affordable homes since the 2017 SHMA Update, a 97% shortfall in affordable housing delivery. If the shortfall is to be addressed within the next 5 years, it would required the delivery of 1397 affordable homes per annum. In SADC, the position is equally as serious. Since the period 2012/13, a total of 244 net affordable homes have been delivered at an average of 35 net dwellings per annum. Again, this equates to a shortfall also in the region of 4000 dwellings (94%) which, if to be addressed in the next 5 years, would require the delivery of 1185 affordable dwellings per annum.
The persistent under delivery of affordable housing in both local authority areas presents a critical situation. Taking into account the extremely acute affordable housing position in both SADC and WHBC, I attach very substantial weight to the delivery of up to 45 affordable homes in this location in favour of the proposals.”
I recommend Zack’s 15 June 2021 blog post Notes from the Green Belt: what’s so very special about Colney Heath?
I also recommend Chris’ earlier paper Winning an inquiry: it’s the benefits, stupid.
More decisions such as Colney Heath are inevitable where authorities, admittedly struggling at times with a sclerotic local plans system, fail to deliver, which of course makes this scaremongering about a new planning system so nonsensical.
Topically, at 6pm this Tuesday 22 June our Clubhouse Planning Law, Unplanned theme is “How can we build enough, affordable, housing?”. Our special guests are Chris Young QC, Nick Walkley (ex Homes England chief executive), Claire Dickinson (director, Quod) and Ric Frankland (founder, wudl.). Please join us. A free link to the app and event is here.
Simon Ricketts, 19 June 2021
Personal views, et cetera