More Plans Grounded: West Of England; Sevenoaks; London

My 13 July 2019 blog post Less Than Best Laid Plans: Political Pragmatism commented on the previous Secretary of State’s 18 June 2019 letter to PINS, which stressed the need for pragmatism on the part of local plan inspectors.

MHCLG must be careful not to shoot the messenger. Inspectors are continuing to point out basic flaws in plans which, in most cases, have been pretty clear to the planning community for some time. Aside from the passive aggressive approach of that letter, which I hope will not be supported by the new Secretary of State, inspectors are also facing increasing hostility from some local political leaders.

West of England joint spatial strategy

I referred in my 17 August blog Gestation Of An Elephant: Plan Making to the inspectors’ letter dated 1 August 2019, which was provisionally recommending withdrawal of the West of England joint spatial strategy. Since then the inspectors have set out their detailed reasoning in a subsequent letter dated 11 September 2019 which focuses on the “key points which have led us to conclude that there are very substantial soundness problems with the plan.

The plan had identified that 17,000 dwellings needed to be provided at 12 “strategic development locations”. The inspectors pointed out that despite the fact that the plan comprised two housing market areas and despite evidence as to various local housing needs, “no requirement figures (either precise or indicative) have been considered or identified for any individual settlements, for each local authority area or for any other sub- area of the West of England as a whole. Thus, we understand that the SDLs were selected on the basic presumption that any candidate SDL anywhere within the plan area could meet the plan area’s housing needs just as well as any other candidate.” There was no robust assessment of reasonable alternatives.

[We] conclude that robust evidence has not been provided to demonstrate that the 12 SDLs proposed in the plan have been selected against reasonable alternatives on a robust, consistent and objective basis. Consequently, given that the SDLs are an integral part of the plan’s spatial strategy, we cannot conclude that the spatial strategy is itself sound. Additionally, the absence of a robust SDL selection process or a strategy which is not based on specific SDLs means that there is not a clear basis on which to select alternative/additional SDLs (either in a review of the JSP or in local plans) should this be necessary if one were to “fall away” (eg because of deliverability problems) or if the quantum of development needs were to change over time.”

The inspectors plainly were aware of that need for “pragmatism” (indeed the advice is acknowledged paragraph 49 as a matter to which they attached “great weight”). They say this:

We first set out our concerns about the spatial strategy and the SDL selection process in June 2018, a few weeks into the examination. In the spirit of pragmatism and recognising the desirability of getting a sound plan in place, we gave you the opportunity to prepare a considerable amount of further evidence in an attempt to address these concerns. Unfortunately, this has not been successful and for the reasons detailed above our concerns remain and, indeed, have deepened. In the light of this we consider that any further work to simply re-justify the selection of SDLs included in the plan or any change in the way the existing strategy is merely articulated in the JSP, could not now be considered to be anything other than retrospective justification of the plan. Consequently, it would be very unlikely to persuade us that the SDLs, and thus the spatial strategy overall, were selected on a robust, consistent and objective basis.

The approach to SDLs was not the only issue. The inspectors also set out their concerns as to:

⁃ “the approach to, and policy steer on, the purpose, amount and distribution of non-strategic growth; and

⁃ the plan’s proposals for overall employment land provision if, as we believe is likely, we were to conclude that policy 4 is not sound, including proposals for, or the policy steer on, growth at Bristol Port and Bristol Airport if, as we believe is likely, we were to conclude that the plan is not currently sound in these particular respects.”

Furthermore:

Additionally, if we were to conclude that the contended OAN of 102,800 is significantly underestimated, there would be a need to provide for a significantly higher objective-assessed need for housing in the plan.

Moreover, each of these elements cannot be considered in isolation, as the preferred and justified approach in relation to one is likely to impact on at least some of the others. Furthermore, there would need to be robust justification that there are exceptional circumstances to justify any proposed alterations of the Green Belt boundary for housing or any other purposes. It is also very likely that key policy decisions would need to be taken in respect of most or all of these elements of the plan.”

Finally, there is recognition of the confusion caused to local communities by endless stages of re-consultation in relation to flawed plans:

At the hearings we heard from a number of examination participants who were already confused by the processes of, and multiple rounds of consultation undertaken in, getting the plan to this stage. This was particularly so given the parallel processes of developing and consulting on the emerging local plans for each authority and the Joint Local Transport Plan 4. Continuing with the examination along the, undesirable, lines detailed above would also be likely to be more complicated in consultation and public participation terms than returning to the plan preparation stage, thus potentially hindering the community’s ability to comment on and influence the plan.

Consequently, whilst we recognise that the Councils’ preference might be to continue with the examination if at all possible and, although we will not reach a final decision on the way forward until we have had the opportunity to consider the Councils’ response to this letter, we remain of the view that withdrawal of the plan from examination is likely to be the most appropriate option.”

Sevenoaks district local plan

The Sevenoaks plan is another one that has pretty much crash-landed on take off. The hearing sessions started on 24 September 2019. On 17 October 2019, the inspector wrote a one and a half page letter to the council to indicate that she has “significant concerns about a number of aspects of the Plan, both in terms of legal compliance and soundness.

She states:

“My main concern relates to the lack of constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need and the absence of strategic cross boundary planning to examine how the identified needs could be accommodated. Indeed, the Council did not formally ask neighbouring authorities if they were in a position to address its unmet housing need until just before the Local Plan was submitted for Examination. I am not satisfied, therefore, that the Council has addressed this key strategic matter through effective joint working, but has rather deferred it to subsequent Plan updates. This is evidenced by the ‘actions’ set out in the Statements of Common Ground with neighbouring authorities submitted to the Examination. I consider this to be a significant failure in the Council’s Duty to Co-operate. Any failure of the Duty to Co-operate cannot be rectified during the Examination and therefore the only option is for a Report recommending non-adoption to be issued or for the Plan to be withdrawn from Examination.

Furthermore, I have significant concerns about the soundness of the Plan in respect of a number of areas including the approach to Sustainability Appraisal, the chosen Strategy for Growth, the assessment of the Green Belt and housing supply and distribution.”

What is no doubt frustrating to the council, aside from the very visible and expensive failure, which will have significant practical consequences not just for the district but for plan-making by nearby authorities, is the lack at present of more detailed reasoning. A more detailed letter is promised. However, surely nothing excuses the council’s intemperate response, which is hardly likely to assist a positive outcome. The council’s disappointment is clear enough from its formal response dated 21 October 2019:

The Inspector’s initial conclusions are at odds with the independent advice that the Council received in advance of submission, including our discussions with the Government’s own Planning Advisory Service (PAS), the opinion of a QC and industry experts – including former senior Planning Inspectors. This extensive peer review was undertaken in good faith, to inform the examination process and avoid the circumstances that we now appear to find ourselves in.”

However, surely comments attributed to the council’s leader in its press statement issued the same day are inexcusable, for instance:

To call into question an evidence-led approach comes to the root of our concerns with the actions of the Inspector. If we are not to follow the evidence to make our Plan then the Government may just as well dictate how many homes an area should have and then pick sites, we need to put an end to the thinly veiled charade that local plans are in any way locally led.

“But the most damning comment has to be left for the Inspector’s approach to publish her brief note before allowing the Council to either see her full reasoning or have a chance to respond. This suggests her mind is far from open and she and her masters have made their minds up.

“Sevenoaks District Council will stand up for its residents and the District’s environment against what we believe is a huge abuse of the process by the Planning Inspectorate and the Government department responsible. We will not allow them to run roughshod over the huge weight of evidence we have amassed, community views we have collated and the few powers we have left as a planning authority.

London Plan 2019

We finally have the inspectors’ report into the London Plan, together with their detailed recommendations.

I set out the peculiar legal framework that applies to the London Plan in my 23 April 2017 blog post Make No Little Plans: The London Plan. An additional peculiarity is that the Mayor of course does not have to accept the inspectors’ recommendations. If he does not intend to accept the recommendations, he has to send the Secretary of State a statement of his reasons (see regulation 9 of the The Town and Country Planning (London Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2000) and the Secretary of State has the power to direct that modifications to the plan be made “if it appears to the Secretary of State that it is expedient to do so for the purpose of avoiding (a) any inconsistency with current national policies …, or (b) any detriment to the interests of an area outside Greater London” (see section 337 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999).

London First’s Sarah Bevan, who played a crucial role at the examination, representing the interests of London First members, has prepared a good summary of the inspectors’ findings.

The inspectors conclude that subject to recommended modifications the plan meets the tests of soundness and provides an appropriate basis for the strategic planning of Greater London. However, some of the conclusions and recommended modifications will not have made welcome reading for the Mayor and his team, for instance in relation to:

Viability

The inspectors identify that the viability assessment work underpinning the plan is broadly acceptable but has shortcomings, particularly in relation to specialist housing for the elderly and purpose built student accommodation, and the assumptions about the redevelopment of sites with currently operating supermarkets. The inspectors are not persuaded that “these forms of development would be viable if they are required to meet all of the policy requirements in the Plan”. (paragraphs 80 and 81).

To be effective in London, the approach to viability at the planning application stage set out in current national policy and guidance will require consideration of the viability evidence supporting both the London Plan but also the relevant local plan. In other words, it is only where there is an up to date local plan in place supported by appropriate viability evidence, that we would expect full weight to be given to the assumption that planning applications that fully comply with all relevant development plan policies are viable.” (paragraph 24).

Small sites strategy realism and overall housing target

The inspectors recommend that the overall housing target should be reduced due to given that the target for what can be achieved from small sites is “aspirational” and “not realistic”. “In some cases the imposition of such large increases in this element of the target is heavy-handed and not helped by the lack of detailed engagement with the boroughs in deciding the small site capacity methodology. As some suggested a more nuanced approach might have borne fruit.” (paragraph 165).

Green belt

The inspectors’ “inescapable conclusion…that if London’s development needs are to be met in future then a review of the Green Belt should be undertaken to at least establish any potential for sustainable development. Therefore we recommend that this Plan include a commitment to a Green Belt review [PR35]. This would best be done as part of the next London Plan. Given its strategic nature and to ensure consistency the review should be led by the Mayor and should involve joint working with authorities around the administrative boundary as well as the boroughs. This would form the basis for the Mayor to consider Green Belt release as a means to deliver housing and industrial development that cannot be accommodated in the existing built up area or in adjoining areas.” (paragraph 457).

The inspectors also recommend amending the policies that preclude boroughs reviewing green belt boundaries applying the “exceptional circumstances” test and that seek refusal for development proposals that would cause harm to the green belt without reference to the “very special circumstances” test.

Airports, fracking

The inspectors identify policies, such as those in relation to Heathrow and other airports and in relation to fracking, which are inconsistent with national policy or in relation to which there is insufficient justification.

So what stance will the Mayor take towards these recommendations? There has been a certain scepticism on the part of many potential participants in the process, borne of what has happened with previous versions of the plan, that, no matter what the recommendations, those which are unpalatable to the Mayor will not be accepted.

Particularly with the Mayoral election process looming, it is perhaps unsurprising that this is how it may well play out. He has already come out with some pretty hostile comments, reported in a Guardian piece on 21 October 2019: Sadiq Khan to fight government attempt to water down green policies.

The prospects of a new adopted London plan before the 7 May 2020 Mayoral election appear to be fading fast, although it will be interesting to see the extent to which the existing ministerial team at MHCLG are prepared to stand up for the inspectors’ green belt approach.

The inspectors’ conclusions will also have implications for authorities outside London, in the rest of the south east, many of which are green belt authorities already failing to plan to meet local housing needs:

“If London cannot accommodate all of its development needs, the most significant strategic issue facing the wider South East for the coming decades will be how and where to accommodate that growth outside London in a way that will contribute towards achieving sustainable development. Many representors, with a wide variety of interests, have argued that this could and should be achieved. However, it is clear from past experience and evidence about increasing development pressures that areas in the wider South East outside London already face, that there are no easy solutions or clearly identified potential growth locations. Furthermore, it is apparent from the representatives from the South East England Councils, East of England Local Government Association and individual local authorities outside London that there is limited appetite to consider the possibility of accommodating significant amounts of additional development associated with the growth of London.” (paragraph 111)

Much as every politician tries to avoid the very subject, isn’t green belt the underlying theme of this entire blog post?

Simon Ricketts, 26 October 2019

Personal views, et cetera

SOx On The Run

What a mess in South Oxfordshire, with the council now on a collision course with MHCLG over its submitted local plan, which it would dearly love to withdraw.

One of the last things that the previous Conservative administration at South Oxfordshire District Council did before purdah kicked in ahead of the May 2019 local elections was to submit its local plan to the Secretary of State for examination, on 29 March 2019.

The housing numbers in the plan were part of a funding deal that the Oxfordshire authorities had struck with MHCLG last March. Part of the deal was that the plan be submitted for examination by 1 April.

So far so good.

The Lib Dems and Greens fought the election on an anti housing growth ticket, seeking the withdrawal of the plan.

Be careful what you wish for. The council is now in Lib Dem control. As with a number of local authorities which changed political control in May, it has been placed with a dilemma, once political promises meet reality.

Its cabinet considered a report from its officers on 3 October 2019. Some highlights:

In March 2018, the Council and the other authorities in Oxfordshire signed the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal (Deal). This committed the Councils to support the delivery of 100,000 new homes across Oxfordshire between 2011 and 2031. In return, over a period of five years, Government offered £215 million of funding; £150 million for infrastructure projects, £60 million for affordable housing, and £2.5 million for the preparation of a Joint Statutory Spatial Plan and £2.5 million for wider administrative costs associated with the Deal. The Deal committed the Oxfordshire authorities to submitting outstanding local plans for examination by 1 April 2019 (South Oxfordshire & Oxford City).

Paragraph 010 of the Guidance states that where a Deal is in place, it is appropriate for the Council to consider whether the Deal justifies uplifting our housing need beyond the standard method. The emerging Local Plan considered that the Deal justified an uplift in need to 775 homes per annum (in line with the SHMA recommendations for South Oxfordshire).

In March 2019, Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) was successful in bidding for £218 million of funding from the Government’s Housing and Infrastructure Fund (HIF). It is intended this will contribute toward providing new infrastructure costing £234 million across South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse districts. OCC are finalising an agreement with Homes England (on behalf of Government) before they will secure any of the offered funding.”

“On 26 August 2019, the leader of the council received a letter (Appendix 13) from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government setting out his view that “the HIF is contingent on identified housing sites coming forward in an adopted Local Plan and, as the previous Housing Minister set out, the government expects progress on your Local Plan in order to access this funding”.”

Following further discussions, MHCLG wrote again. As summarised in the report:

“In the letter of 20 September 2019, it states that should the council choose to withdraw the plan “it would immediately put at risk the significant investment that the Government has made available to South Oxfordshire and the wider County, including jeopardising the £218m recently allocated through the HIF (Didcot Garden Town)”. The letter also says, “this is because the funding is dependent on the delivery of specific sites”.

However, the letter of 20 September 2019 is less categoric in relation to the Deal compared to the HIF, stating that “withdrawing the plan will also undermine the wider ambitions and commitments of the Housing and Growth Deal and therefore potentially impact future investment to support ambitions either directly or as part of the Growth Deal of Oxford-Cambridge Arc.”

The report put forward three options:

Option A) Allow the emerging Local Plan to continue through its examination. Any modifications proposed during the examination will be considered at the sole discretion of the Inspectors.

Option B) Withdraw the Local Plan from examination and make changes to it ahead of a further regulation 19 consultation and resubmission to the Inspectorate for examination. The extent of the changes to the Plan that would be possible under Option B would be limited to no significant changes, in comparison to those that could be made under Option C. Any representations made at that Regulation 19 would be reported to and considered by the Inspector and would not be within the control of the Council.

Option C) Withdraw the Local Plan from examination. The Council would commence work on a new Local Plan. This will allow the Council to prepare a significantly different plan (subject to compliance with the law, and national policies and guidance). The Council would need to undertake at least two rounds of public consultations (Regulation 18 and 19) before submitting the new plan for examination

Officers examined the advantages and risks of each option, together with the financial and legal implications, before concluding that “there are clear advantages over the disadvantages and officers therefore recommend Option A.

The Cabinet voted down the recommendation in favour of a resolution that reflected option C:

“MOTION

That Cabinet recommends Council to:

(a) withdraw the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2034,

for the following reasons:

the uplift above the standard method from 627 homes to 775 homes a year is excessive, and the existence of the Growth Deal should not be used as a justification for this uplift

the overall supply of homes in the Local Plan period is considered excessive as it is over 5,000 homes greater than the need identified for South Oxfordshire, even allowing provision for Oxford City’s unmet housing need.

the Local Plan does not give sufficient weight to responding to the climate emergency that we face as recognised by the decision of Council of 11 April 2019

concerns about site selection issues including:

that the scale of Green Belt release is not justified

flawed site selection having regard to the sustainability and deliverability of strategic allocations

concerns about the impact of the housing mix delivery and density policy

(b) withdraw from the Oxfordshire Statements of Common Ground linked to the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2034

(c) agree to commence work as soon as practicable on a new ambitious Local Plan, to seek to address the above concerns

(d) request a report on the merits of a joint Local Plan with neighbouring authorities

(e) request the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to provide financial support to support a new ambitious Local Plan

(f) explore other opportunities for funding

(g) bring forward revenue expenditure on a new Local Plan currently estimated at £2 million into the next Medium-Term Financial Plan period, representing the most cost-effective option

(h) ask officers to prepare a new Local Development Scheme and work programme and bring this to Cabinet for approval.”

The full council meeting to consider the resolution was to take place on 10 October 2019. If ratified, the submitted plan would be immediately withdrawn, as an authority is empowered to do at any stage prior to adoption pursuant to section 22 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

MHCLG was clearly rattled by the prospect of the plan being torn up and its consequences for Oxfordshire housing and infrastructure planning more generally. The Secretary of State wrote to the leader of the council on 9 October 2019 in these terms:

Following South Oxfordshire District Council Cabinet’s decision on 3 October to recommend withdrawing the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan (“the Plan”), I am considering whether to give a direction to South Oxfordshire District Council in relation to the Plan under section 21 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (“the 2004 Act”).

The government remains committed to making sure every community has an up-to-date and sufficiently ambitious Local Plan. Withdrawing the Plan at this stage is instead likely to create uncertainty and expose communities to speculative planning applications.

Therefore, in exercise of the powers under section 21A of the 2004 Act (inserted by section 145(5) of the Housing and Planning Act 2016), I hereby direct South Oxfordshire District Council not to take any step in connection with the adoption of the Plan, while I consider the matter further. This direction will remain in force until I withdraw it or give a direction under section 21 of the 2004 Act in relation to the Plan.

I would like to work constructively with you to ensure that South Oxfordshire is able to deliver the high-quality homes and infrastructure required to support jobs and growth in the local community. As I set out in my letter to you on 26 August 2019, progressing the Plan is an essential step to delivering the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal. I have therefore asked my officials to get in touch with your officers to discuss next steps and will keep you updated while I consider this matter further.”

The council’s chief executive responded the next morning, on 10 October in uncompromising terms:

As you are aware, s.21A gives you the power to make a holding direction only where you are considering making a direction under s.21 of the Act. Importantly, section 21 gives you the following powers:

(i) Where you think a local development document is unsatisfactory, to direct the local planning authority to modify the document in accordance with that direction (s.21(1)(a));

(ii) To direct the Local Planning Authority to submit the local development document to you for your approval (s.21(4)). In circumstances where (as here) the Plan has already been submitted for examination, the Inspectors would have to report to you (s.21(5)); or

(iii) To direct that the Plan be withdrawn (s.21(9)).

We cannot see how you could properly consider that any of the directions that you could make under s.21 would accord with your clearly stated view that it is essential that the plan should be progressed. In particular, we do not understand that you consider the plan to be unsatisfactory in any way (s.21(a)); that there is anything in the Plan that needs your approval (s.21(4)); or that you think the Plan should be withdrawn (s.21(9)). Section 21A does not give you the power to make a general holding direction – it must be tied to a proper consideration of whether you intend to make a direction under s.21. Given that it would be inconsistent with your stated position for you to issue a direction under any of the powers available to you under s.21, it appears that there was no proper basis for your decision to issue the direction under s.21A.

Given the importance of this matter we require a response to this letter no later than 3pm today, either explaining the basis on which you consider it might be appropriate for you to issue a direction under s.21, or (assuming you accept that there would be no basis for issuing such a direction) withdrawing the s.21A Direction.

The Secretary of State did indeed respond that day:

You are correct that a holding direction made pursuant to s.21A of the 2004 Act requires the Secretary of State to be considering whether to give a direction under s.21 of that Act. As your Cabinet have stated they wish to withdraw the plan, the Secretary of State is considering whether to give a direction under s.21(4) of the 2004 Act for the plan (or any part of it) to be submitted to him for his approval instead of the Council.

In summary, this was not an attempt to issue a ‘general’ holding direction but to allow time for the Secretary of State to consider whether to give a direction under s21(4) of the 2004 Act.

I hope this has clarified the situation for you.”

The council meeting went ahead, but the local plan item was pulled from the agenda.

So what next?

The leader has issued this statement:

Surely, the council’s reading of the legislation is correct – under section 21 the intervention power applies if “the Secretary of State thinks that a local development document is unsatisfactory”. I doubt whether section 21 can be relied up to prevent a plan from being withdrawn, which would mean that the holding power in section 21A is also not available.

However, I’m not sure that this assist the council in practice. Whilst the Secretary of State may be reluctant to take this step, if the council were to seek to challenge the lawfulness of the purported direction, wouldn’t he simply use his default power in section 27, available where the “Secretary of State thinks that a local planning authority are failing or omitting to do anything it is necessary for them to do in connection with the preparation, revision or adoption of a development plan document”? He may “a) prepare or revise (as the case may be) the document, or (b) give directions to the authority in relation to the preparation or revision of the document”. Does this cover the current circumstances? If it doesn’t then the Government certainly missed a trick when extending the Secretary of State’s intervention powers by way of the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

The section 27 procedure is referred to in my 18 November 2017 blog post Local Plan Interventions. Reasons need to be given, but it is pretty plain that other Oxfordshire authorities are not impressed at all at the South Oxfordshire volte face, evidenced for instance by a letter from West Oxfordshire District Council dated 10 October 2019.

With a nod to my 17 August 2019 blog post Gestation Of An Elephant: Plan Making, what is better: to let nature take its course, or intervention?

Simon Ricketts, 12 October 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Gestation Of An Elephant: Plan Making

Keith Hill, then housing and planning minister, once described the process to Royal Assent of what became the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 as “the gestation of an elephant”. It took 17 months. Given that the average gestation period for an Asian elephant is 18 to 22 months he wasn’t far off.

However, he would have been more accurate using the metaphor in relation to the local plan examination processes that were conceived by way of the Act. Lichfields’ January 2019 statistical report Planned up and be counted: Local Plan-making since the NPPF 2012 concludes that the average examination length under the 2012 NPPF has been 18 months.

My 13 July 2019 blog post Less Than Best Laid Plans: Political Pragmatism attempted to go into some of the reasons for that.

15 years on from the 2004 Act, it is interesting to set what the aspirations of the Government of the time were, as against some examples of current examination processes up and down the country.

Barbara Roche in the House of Commons on 17 December 2002, introducing the Bill for a second reading:

We want to make the system fairer, faster and more predictable and to bring to planning clarity, certainty and more strategic direction.”

Lord Rooker in the House of Lords 6 January 2004:

“…the Bill sets out a reform planning system for this new century that will help us to deliver sustainable communities faster and more fairly—it is no good being faster unless it is fairer.”

What will the Bill do? It simplifies the plan-led process by abolishing the middle tier of planning—the structure plans—that exists in some areas; that is to say, areas where there are county councils and two-tier local government. The new system will have two linked levels of planning: regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks. The local development frameworks will be made up each of a set of local development documents, which each authority will be required to prepare. Together, these documents will replace local plans and unitary development plans. They will set out development proposals and have a clear map so that everyone can see what goes where.”

The Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield in response:

In introducing the legislation, the Minister pointed out that the Government seek to make the planning system simpler and quicker, aims which we support. However, we believe that the proposals risk achieving the opposite outcomes. This legislation will unleash regional spatial strategies, local development schemes, local development frameworks, local development documents, action area plans, simplified planning zones and statements of community involvement. How will all these plans and schemes, with their different timetables, consultations, inspections and appeals, make the system more transparent or streamlined? This level of complexity and fragmentation will accelerate public disenchantment with the system. It will lead to uncertainty, delay and planning by appeal.”

Looking back at the scrutiny of the Bill in Public Bill Committee on 23 October 2003 for instance, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, then shadow spokesman for Communities and Local Government, responding to planning and housing minister Keith Hill, also pretty much called it right (but it was what we all said at the time):

I accept a lot of what the Minister said in his long speech about the deficiencies in the existing system, such as the inflexibility as well as the time and difficulty in getting a revision due to the need to revise the whole plan. We feel that the existing system with amendments could have been made to work and that tearing it up and replacing it with a highly complicated new system will make a paradise for lawyers. We will see judicial reviews and all manner of case law created as a result of the Bill, which will add to the delay that it will bring.”

I accept absolutely, however, what the Minister said about the existing system being inadequate, in that it is too slow and that 31 authorities do not have a plan in place. The Committee will not be surprised to learn that a number of practitioners and large developers who use the planning system have been through my offices in the last few weeks. The one thing they all say is, ”For goodness’ sake, we hope that this new system is going to be quicker and clearer, but we don’t think it is.” The test of time will prove that, but we need to ensure that the system will operate.”

Time will tell whether that new system works, but I have a new acronym— CHAOS, which stands for ”Can Hill’s Alternative Objectives Succeed?” I submit that they will not.”

Nothing is black and white in planning. It is not that there is chaos, but, guess what, the system is no quicker or clearer. We no longer have lengthy adversarial local plan inquiries but we are seeing increasingly lawyer-heavy local plan examinations (cross-examination having been replaced by duelling legal opinions), that can turn into utter sagas of successive rounds of inspectors’ preliminary findings, further work, further consultation and rescheduled hearing sessions. Outcomes are unpredictable. There is a lack of statistical transparency across the piece as to how the system is performing.

It took 28 months from submission of the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire local plans for examination on 28 April 2014 to publication of the inspectors’ final report on 3 September 2018. Is that a record?

If so, it won’t be for long. From those plan examinations that I am immediately aware of:

Welwyn Hatfield will soon overtake that. Its plan was submitted for examination on 15 May 2017. During the course of the hearing sessions, the inspector was not satisfied that the council had allocated sufficient housing sites and the council embarked on a further call for green belt sites for possible release but misjudged how long the process would take, or simply failed to manage the process properly, leading the inspector to issue his 8 August 2019 letter to the council. You can sense the frustration in his tone. There is now no likelihood that the examination will be completed by May 2020, as the council had suggested back in March. If the council is not able to revise the timetable, “putting forward realistic time periods and milestones for the conclusion of all the outstanding tasks, including the hearings…or slippage continues to occur [beyond April 2020] then I think we should consider the option of you withdrawing the plan with a view to re-submitting it for Examination when the work is finally completed and there are no obvious soundness issues accompanying it”.

The North Essex Authorities section 1 local plan will run and run. The plan was submitted for examination on 9 October 2017. The inspector was not satisfied with the sustainability appraisal work underpinning identification of three new garden cities and raised concerns as to soundness in his 8 June 2018 letter. He gave the options of removing the garden cities from the plan on the basis of a commitment to an early review, or doing further working and undertaking further consultation. The authorities chose the latter course. Consultation starts on Monday until 30 September 2019 before further hearing sessions are then arranged, according to the inspector’s August 2019 update.

The Windsor and Maidenhead local plan was submitted for examination on 31 January 2018. The council has had to do various strands of further work since the stage 1 hearings which took place last year. Another frustrated inspector – her letter dated 21 June 2019 presses the council for “as much detail as possible” as to the likely implications for the plan of each strand and the number and nature of changes that it is likely to propose:

In making this assessment, please consider whether continuing with the examination of the submitted Plan is the most prudent course of action in light of the work you are doing and of the potential issues reported in our previous correspondence. If you remain of the view that the examination should continue, please set out clearly the steps necessary before hearings can resume along with a realistic timetable for the process. I would also ask you to consider whether a procedural hearing might be a useful means of clarifying the process for all parties and, if so, when it could take place.”

The St Albans local plan was submitted to the Secretary of State for examination in March 2019, following the failure of the previously submitted plan on the basis of the inspector finding that the duty to cooperate had not complied with. The hearing sessions were due to begin in October 2019 but already the examination has run into the sand. The council responded in detail on 31 July 2019 to initial questions from the inspectors. When I say “in detail”, their response as to its approach to proposed green belt releases runs to over 70 pages (an explanation that should surely have been available when the plan was initially submitted). The council has now confirmed that the stage hearing sessions will not be taking place until January and February 2020.

The York local plan was submitted for examination in May 2018, following years of delay and political disagreements. 15 months on, there is no sign of any hearing sessions. Consultation closed on 22 July 2019 in relation to a proposed revised housing need figure and other documents as well as a number of proposed consequent modifications to the plan.

And so it goes on. The North Warwickshire local plan was submitted for examination in March 2018. The inspector’s letter dated 24 June 2019 following the hearing sessions sets out various unresolved issues, the main one being the plan’s reliance on a HIF funding bid of around £58m which has not yet been awarded. The inspector puts forward three possible options for the council and recommends that in the first instance the council pursues option (a), which “may mean suspending the examination for a short period”:

a. await the outcome of the HIF bid and unambiguously identify the likely source(s) of funding for the dualling of the A5; or

b. put forward alternative sites that do not rely on highways improvements for which funding is not certain or unknown; or

c. withdraw the plan

The inspectors’ approach with the West of England joint spatial plan (submitted for examination in April 2018) – to recommend, after the first hearing sessions, withdrawal of the plan, in their letter dated 1 August 2019 – was perhaps a more realistically decisive response than the make-do-and-mend pragmatism that is leading time and time again to these prolonged examination processes, although equally unsatisfactory for the participants. They will provide more detailed reasoning later this month, but the inspectors have a series of concerns as to how the “strategic development locations” in the plan were selected against reasonable alternatives. They question whether further work could be carried out “with the necessary objectivity, rather than being an exercise to justify a predetermined spatial strategy.

It would obviously be better for all concerned if work is done to the necessary standard before plans are submitted. Why isn’t it? The problems can’t all be laid at the door of the 2012 NPPF and the uncertainties arising from the 2012 system of assessing housing need. Or of the prescriptive requirements of strategic environmental assessment.

Is it a lack of guidance, too many fudged compromises pre-examination or simply a system that is not fit for purpose?

Or, to mix mammalian metaphors, is it that, if the system was an elephant, perhaps now it is a camel? For example, crucial components of the 2004 brave new world were (1) the setting of numbers by way of regional spatial strategies (a process that proved slow and difficult, with little public appetite for directly elected regional assemblies), abolished once the coalition government took control in 2010, and (2) the concept that the local development scheme would comprise a variety of development plan documents, being updated at different times, but now encouraged to be bundled back together as local plans and thereby as cumbersome as the complex documents the 2004 system sought to replace. Tinkering has not necessarily improved.

An elephant would never forget the meandering way in which we ended up with our present planning system.

One hump or two?

Simon Ricketts, 17 August 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Less Than Best Laid Plans: Political Pragmatism

The Secretary of State sent a curious letter to the Planning Inspectorate on 18 June 2019, which was only placed on the Government’s website on 28 June 2019. (The delay may have been to allow PINS to update its procedure guide for local plan examinations).

It is in two parts:

Sharing information with MHCLG

The Secretary of State reminds inspectors and local authorities that Parliament has given him “a number of powers that, where justified, allow [him] to become involved in plan making. This includes powers to notify or direct the Inspectorate to take certain steps in relation to the examination of the plan or to intervene to direct modification of the plan or that it is submitted to [him] for approval”. He states that he is “frequently asked by those affected by the plan making process to consider use of these powers and must look at each of these requests on a case by case basis. This includes requests from Members of Parliament, who have a legitimate interest in the progress of local plans in their areas and are accountable to their electorates. I am pleased that the Planning Inspectorate’s published Procedural Practice encourages MPs to participate in the examination hearing sessions even if they did not make a representation and I would encourage their involvement in this way”.

He considers that more can be done by way of sharing of factual information so that his officials can advise him as to whether use of his powers would be appropriate.

He sets out two changes to the arrangements for sharing of information between MHCLG and PINS with immediate effect:

1. On a quarterly basis the Planning Inspectorate will publish a report that sets out the plans that are expected to be submitted for examination in the following 6-month period. I ask that this report be published on the Planning Inspectorate website. Clearly this can only be as good as the information received from local authorities, and I am arranging for this to be drawn to the attention of local authorities to remind them of the importance of giving clear timetables;

2. The Planning Inspectorate will share all post-hearing advice letters, letters containing interim findings, and any other letters which raise soundness or significant legal compliance issues, as well as fact check reports, with my department on a for information basis, at least 48 hours in advance of them being sent to the Local Planning Authority

In relation to the second change, can I ask that we have on one website each of these documents as soon as they can be made public. There is a fundamental lack of transparency in the ad hoc way that this information is currently made available only on the relevant examination page of the particular local authority’s website, meaning that ensuring consistencies of approach, reviewing trends and learning from similar circumstances is currently very difficult indeed.

And what local plans have escaped to adoption before the relevant MP could ask the Secretary of State to apply the knife? Local Plan Intervention: a question of MP influence published by the House of Commons Library in July 2017 summarises the four times since the 2012 NPPF (to July 2017) when the Secretary of State had used his powers of intervention: Bradford, Birmingham, Maldon and North Somerset. In all but Maldon the intervention was at the request of an MP. I note that the MPs’ interventions only achieved delay to eventual adoption of the plan, whereas the call in of the Maldon plan was in circumstances where an inspector had found that the whole plan was unsound, due to its policies on traveller provision, the council’s chief executive successfully sought call in of the plan and the plan was eventually adopted.

Aside from the Secretary of State’s sabre rattling in relation to authorities that have not made sufficient progress with their plans, which I will come to in a moment, what interventions have there been since July 2017? Do we discern a continuing trend? Wouldn’t it be nice to have the information in one place so that potentially straight-forward questions such as that could be resolved. Is MPs’ interest more often in the “progress of local plans in their areas” or is it in being seen to be pressing in relation to those issues of most concern to their electorate eg retention of green belt and/or opposition to housing?

In fact, as I was typing this, in pinged a Planning magazine online update High Court allows legal challenge to Guildford local plan to proceed to full hearing (12 July 2019, behind paywall):

In May, Sir Paul Beresford, the Conservative MP for Mole Valley, wrote to several Guildford councillors expressing outrage at the “astonishing way” the plan had been adopted in the purdah period before local elections.”

Another Conservative MP on the “anti-housing in the Green Belt” campaign trail. Was this local plan perhaps “the one that got away” as far as MHCLG is concerned?

So how has the more general sabre rattling, in relation to delays in plan preparation, been going? My 18 November 2017 blog post Local Plan Interventions referred to the 31 January 2018 deadline given to 15 local authorities to set out any exceptional circumstances as to why they had failed to produce a local plan, to justify the Secretary of State not intervening in their local plan processes.

On 23 March 2018 the Secretary of State made a statement to the House of Commons, indicating that his attention had narrowed to three authorities: Castle Point, Thanet and Wirral:

In three areas, Castle Point, Thanet and Wirral, I am now particularly concerned at the consistent failure and lack of progress to get a plan in place and have not been persuaded by the exceptional circumstances set out by the council or the proposals they have put forward to get a plan in place. We will therefore step up the intervention process in these three areas. I will be sending a team of planning experts, led by the Government’s Chief Planner, into these three areas to advise me on the next steps in my intervention.

I have a number of intervention options available to me which I will now actively examine. As it may prove necessary to take over plan production, subject to decisions taken after the expert advice I have commissioned, my Department has started the procurement process to secure planning consultants and specialists to undertake that work so it can commence as quickly as possible. My Department will also be speaking to the county councils and combined authority with a view to inviting those bodies to prepare the local plan in these three areas as well as exploring the possibility with neighbouring authorities of directing the preparation of joint plans

Tough talk but it then took another ten months before intervention letters were finally sent to Wirral and Thanet on 28 January 2019.

The position in Castle Point is a mystery to me. Councillors voted down a proposed draft of the plan in December 2018. The council’s website simply says this:

A Special Council Meeting was held in November 2018, whereby the Council resolved to not proceed with the Pre-Publication Local Plan. As a result of this meeting the Council are in discussions with the Minstry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in regards to the next steps. “

But no intervention letter yet.

Sadly, if I worked for an authority I would presently be more concerned about the risk of the Secretary of State intervening in relation to a plan that has passed its examination and is about to be adopted than the risk of his intervening due to the lack of a plan in the first place or due to the authority’s withdrawal of a draft plan. We are seeing various authorities taking decisions to withdraw their submitted plans (for example East Cambridgeshire and Amber Valley) because they find the inspector’s findings, usually seeking further development allocations or additional housing numbers, unpalatable and there is still such slow progress on the part of many authorities. Surely this is the scourge – not plans which are within a process that has been refined by independent examination, the outcome of which happens to contradict the views of an MP, now encouraged to participate in hearing sessions “even if they did not make a representation”? In any world other than one in which backbench MPs have to be pacified, isn’t this madness?

The importance of being pragmatic

On the subject of pragmatism…

The second part of the Secretary of State’s 18 July letter comprises this final paragraph which I have already seen trotted out at an examination by one authority seeking to paper over the cracks:

Finally, on the substance of plan examinations, I wanted to stress to inspectors – who are doing a challenging job – the importance of being pragmatic in getting plans in place that, in line with paragraph 35 of the NPPF, represent a sound plan for the authority and consistent in how they deal with different authorities. We support and expect Inspectors to work with LPAs to achieve a sound plan, including by recommending constructive main modifications in line with national policy. In this regard, I would reiterate the views set out by the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP in his 2015 letter which I attach, on the need to work pragmatically with councils towards achieving a sound plan.”

I have since been trying to find an example of a local plan inspector in the last few years who has not been pragmatic in seeking to rescue a plan by way of main modifications rather than recommending withdrawal – and indeed the 2013/2014 spate of plans that failed examination were down to hard-edged legal failings in relation to the duty to cooperate.

Inspectors routinely allow pretty significant changes by way of main modifications, and general evidential backfilling, rather than recommend withdrawal. They routinely accept unenforceable assurances from the authority that the authority will carry out an early review – but at best “early” never means early and, at worst, as last week with the Reigate and Banstead plan, the authority’s (judge in its own cause) “review” determines that changes to the plan are not after all necessary!

So what is this paragraph getting at? If the Secretary of State were to be saying that inspectors should not be checking that legal requirements (eg the duty to cooperate and the need for adequate sustainability and habitats appraisals) have been met or that the plan meets the soundness test in NPPF, that would surely be wholly inappropriate. And shouldn’t we be protecting the independence of the Planning Inspectorate? Formal guidance is one thing, but “go easy” warning letters such as this surely just make an inspector’s task even more challenging.

Imagine equivalent guidance being given to appeal inspectors! Oh yes, bend over backwards to give the appellant time to amend elements of his scheme, overlook policy inconsistencies, fudge the approach to later phases of the development because the appellant has agreed, outside any enforceable timescale, to carry out an “early review” of those aspects. Doesn’t ring true, does it?

Simon Ricketts, 13 July 2019

Personal views, et cetera

MHCLG Consults On A Changed Basis For Assessing Local Housing Need & Other Urgent Repairs

I’m not sure anyone was expecting MHCLG to act quite so quickly to try to mend a number of problems that have been arising from the July 2018 NPPF (although perhaps problems of its own making).

Its technical consultation on updates to national planning policy and guidance (26 October 2018) invites comments by 7 December 2018 on the following:

Local housing need assessment

I referred in my 29 September 2018 blog post OAN Goal to the confusion caused by the publication by the ONS on 20 September 2018 of updated 2016-based household projections that resulted in the national minimum housing need calculated by the NPPF’s standard method falling significantly from data published in September 2017 which had been based on 2014 household projections.

There was widespread concern that the updated figures were not reliable. The Government had indicated that the figures would not lead to a reduction in the national 300,000 new homes target. A revision to the standard method was to be made so that the new household projections did not cause that target to be missed but in the meantime how were authorities to plan?

The consultation paper is unambiguous: the Government has decided that it is not right to change its aspirations and the ONS figures are indeed misleading due to the way that they only draw from two censuses (rather than previous projections based on five censuses) “which focuses it more acutely on a period of low household formation where the English housing system was not supplying enough additional homes“. In addition:

⁃ “Household projections are constrained by housing supply

⁃ “The historic under-delivery of housing means there is a case for public policy supporting delivery in excess of household projections, even if those projections fall“.

⁃ “Other things being equal a more responsive supply of homes through local authorities planning for more homes where we need them will help to address the effects of increasing demand, such as declining affordability, relative to a housing supply that is less responsive“.

⁃ “The above factors have led to declining affordability…This indicates that the Government should not be less ambitious for housing supply“.

The Government has decided that the best way of responding to the ONS household figures is to ignore them completely, ie in its language:

1. For the short-term, to specify that the 2014-based data will provide the demographic baseline for assessment of local housing need.

2. To make clear in national planning practice guidance that lower numbers through the 2016-based projections do not qualify as an exceptional circumstance that justifies a departure from the standard methodology; and

3. In the longer term, to review the formula with a view to establishing a new method […] by the time the next projections are issued.”

So for local plans submitted from 24 January 2019, the 2014-based household projections as per the September 2017 data are to be used but with current figures used for the calculation of the ratio of local median house prices to local median earnings (where the ratio exceeds four the standard method formula will continue to increase local need above household projections). This all provides authorities with welcome clarity – ignore the September 2018 ONS projections and no need to wait for tweaks to the methodology.

Housing land supply

The 2018 NPPF provides that in calculating how many years’ supply of housing land supply each authority has, the standard method for assessing local housing need is to be used as the baseline for housing land supply calculations where plans are considered to be out of date. The NPPF is to be amended (and updated planning guidance is to be published) so as to clarify that whilst in exceptional circumstances authorities can use a justified alternative approach to the standard method for calculating housing need, this only applies to plan making rather than in the calculation of need in the determination of applications and appeals where the scale of housing land supply is relevant.

The definition of deliverable

In order to determine whether an authority has a five year supply of deliverable sites, the definition of “deliverable” is critical. The Government has held its hands up: the definition of “deliverable” in the 2018 NPPF could be clearer. It proposes the following revised definition:

To be considered deliverable, sites for housing should be available now, offer a suitable location for development now, and be achievable with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the site within five years. In particular:

a) sites which do not involve major development and have planning permission, and all sites with detailed planning permission, should be considered deliverable until permission expires, unless there is clear evidence that homes will not be delivered within five years (for example because they are no longer viable, there is no longer a demand for the type of units or sites have long term phasing plans).

b) where a site has outline planning permission for major development, has been allocated in a development plan, has a grant of permission in principle, or is identified on a brownfield register, it should only be considered deliverable where there is clear evidence that housing completions will begin on site within five years.”

There will be further guidance in due course “to provide further information on the way that sites with different degrees of planning certainty may be counted when calculating housing land availability“.

Development requiring Habitats Regulations Assessment

The Government belatedly intends to address a problem that has arisen from the European Court of Justice’s ruling in People Over Wind (see my 20 April 2018 blog post EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening). The 2018 NPPF followed the 2012 NPPF in disapplying the presumption in favour of sustainable development where appropriate assessment is required, even though the effect of People Over Wind is that appropriate assessment is now routinely required in relation to proposed developments where mitigation will avoid any potential from harm, thereby removing the presumption in relation to many more development proposals than had previously been the case.

Paragraph 177 is now proposed to be amended to read:

The presumption in favour of sustainable development does not apply where the plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a habitats site (either alone or in combination with other plans or projects), unless an appropriate assessment has concluded that there will be no adverse effect from the plan or project on the integrity of the habitats site.”

So now the need for appropriate assessment will not be a bar to the presumption applying. The wording in fact now allows the presumption to apply to more schemes than was the case pre People Over Wind.

The Government could have dealt with this issue before the 2018 NPPF was published. It makes the rather weak excuse: “Although some consultation responses asked for an amendment to the Framework in the light of the ruling, there was not an opportunity for all interested parties to comment at the time.” Well, why was there not even a written ministerial statement to clarify the position? I’m sure I am not the only one to have lost a planning appeal partly due to the absurd position that arose.

The government also indicates that it is “considering what other changes to regulations and guidance may be necessary following the European Court’s ruling“.

In my view MHCLG should take some credit for trying to sort out all of these issues. It is also interesting that the previous approach of avoiding making running repairs to the NPPF has been abandoned – we can soon expect NPPF version 2.1.

Simon Ricketts, 26 October 2018

Personal views, et cetera

OAN Goal

The Government’s goal remains as per Philip Hammond’s 22 November 2017 Autumn budget statement:

So today we set out an ambitious plan to tackle the housing challenge.

Over the next five years we will commit a total of at least £44 billion of capital funding, loans and guarantees to support our housing market.

To boost the supply of skills, resources, and building land.

And to create the financial incentives necessary to deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year on average by the mid-2020s.”

Will that number be reached? What pressure will the Government be under from its supporters, at next week’s party conference and subsequently, to resile from that 300,000 target in the light of the Office of National Statistics’ statistical bulletin, household projections in England published this month?

After topdown targets for individual authorities, derived from regional plans directly overseen by government, were abolished by the incoming 2010 coalition government, the 2012 NPPF has required each local authority to work out for itself, without any centrally prescribed methodology, what the objectively assessed need for housing is in its area. That quickly proved to be a recipe for complexity, uncertainty, local politicking and delay.

So the Government has been trying since 2015 to arrive out how to arrive at a simpler system that isn’t seen as centrally prescribed. As set out in my 20 September 2017 blog post Housing Needs: Assessed Or Assumed?, the Government decided to consult on a new “standard method” which would provide authorities with a minimum figure, desired from a formula based on household projections, local affordability and a cap on the extent of any increase deriving from the new formula.

Alongside its 14 September 2017 consultation document it published a spreadsheet showing “indicative” figures that would result for each authority from the new method, draft figures which it warned should be “treated with caution“. The total number totted up to 266,000 – a number that made the 300,000 look like a decent stretch target.

All admirably transparent and fascinating at the time, but surely in retrospect it was not helpful to publish those figures, particularly given that it was also stated that the new standard method would apply to local plans that weren’t submitted for examination by the later of 31 March 2018 and publication of the new NPPF?

Numbers drive actions. For some authorities there was clearly an immediate incentive to rush to submit their plan before the standard method was imposed, for others quite the reverse. We have seen corners cut by some authorities in their haste and the position became even more confused once (1) the possible 31 March 2018 deadline became, once the new NPPF was published containing a six months’ grace period, 24 January 2019 and (2) it became clearer that the figures and methodology were liable to change in any event.

The numbers were always likely to change given that the September 2017 household formation projections were arrived at by MHCLG using date going back to 1971 and the task for arriving at the final numbers was to be given to the Office of National Statistics, who would use the 2016-based population projections published in May 2018. When the ONS published its proposed methodology in June 2018 it became clear that ONS would only use trends in household formation back to 2001. Lichfields were expressing concerns about the likely consequences in a 27 June 2018 blog post:

We know that in the decade 2001-11 housebuilding fell to its lowest level and household formation amongst young adults changed significantly. If the new household projections only draw upon this (relatively) short term trend for projecting future household growth, is there a significant risk of ‘baking-in’ trends which are not reflective of future ‘need’ but simply an illustration of what the number would be if we continued more of what has been before?

ONS had consulted on its approach in 2017, and many respondents (including Lichfields) pointed out the need for the methodology to reflect not just a ‘purist’ demographic approach, but reflect on the real-world implications for housing need. Suggestions were made that ONS might wish to consider producing local ‘variant’ projections (as DCLG used to do at a national level) with modified formation rates as the basis for the standard methodology. It does not appear ONS intends to follow this advice.”

To be fair, the Government was not blind to what was likely to happen. As I set out in my 5 August 2018 blog post Housing Needs, Housing Shortfalls, when it published the final version of the NPPF on 24 July 2018, it published on the same dayits response document to the consultation on the draft, with this passage:

A number of responses to this question provided comment on the proposed local housing need method. The government is aware that lower than previously forecast population projections have an impact on the outputs associated with the method. Specifically it is noted that the revised projections are likely to result in the minimum need numbers generated by the method being subject to a significant reduction, once the relevant household projection figures are released in September 2018.

In the housing white paper the government was clear that reforms set out (which included the introduction of a standard method for assessing housing need) should lead to more homes being built. In order to ensure that the outputs associated with the method are consistent with this, we will consider adjusting the method after the household projections are released in September 2018. We will consult on the specific details of any change at that time.

It should be noted that the intention is to consider adjusting the method to ensure that the starting point in the plan-making process is consistent in aggregate with the proposals in Planning for the right homes in the right places consultation and continues to be consistent with ensuring that 300,000 homes are built per year by the mid 2020s.”

So, as at July the position was that updated household projection figures would be released in September and the Government would then “consider adjusting the method after the household projections” and would “consult on the specific details of any change at that time.

The updated figures were indeed then published, on 20 September, and show significant downward movements in the projections for individual authorities and an overall decrease in the total required, from 266,000 to 213,000. There has been a quick succession of excellent blog posts from planning consultancies, going into the statistical detail and likely implications, including (with apologies to those I don’t mention) Bidwells, Barton Willmore, Turley and Lichfields. There have inevitably also been many calls from objectors to housing numbers within emerging local plans for those numbers to be reviewed in the light of the new figures.

But the goalposts haven’t moved (yet). I assume that the Government will now indeed consult on changes to the standard method to increase numbers back within spitting distance of the 300k. There is surely no point in any authority taking any steps in reliance on the September 2018 ONS figures, but then again the September 2017 MHCLG figures have a large question mark against them. If you are an authority looking to make progress with your plan with a view to submission after 24 January 2019 you really have very little to go on as to the approach to be adopted.

So it is urgent that the Government consults as to proposed changes to its methodology and what that is likely to mean for individual authorities – although that consultation paper is going to end up running very close up to the 24 January 2019 date, leaving very little time for, er, planning.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that the ONS numbers are going to be standing still. As Planning magazine have identified in their useful coverage of the new numbers, ONS’ analysis that accompanies their figures makes it clear that it is aware of some of the deficiencies in the data. It refers to responses to consultation on its proposed methodology:

There was a view that only using the 2001 and 2011 Censuses would result in a downward trend in household formation for the younger age groups, which in turn would downplay the need for housing for younger people. With these views in mind, Section 8 shows the results of sensitivity analysis in which 2014-based HRRs (projected using 1971 to 2011 Census data) are applied to the 2016-based subnational population projections (SNPPs), should users wish to investigate the impact of the change of HRR methodology on the household projections.”

ONS is also “planning to publish a set of variant 2016-based household projections in which household formation rates for younger adults (those aged 25 to 44 years) are higher – provisionally scheduled for 3 December 2018. The purpose of this variant would be to illustrate the uncertainty in the projections around the future household formation patterns of this age group.”

You numbers people will know better than me whether this is also likely to have an appreciable effect on the numbers, at least in some areas.

But it does seem odd that in order to gauge the level of housing need, in order finally to look to put right the increasing shortage and unaffordability of housing, the starting point has been to look at the rate at which people have been able to form households in particular areas, during that very period where lack of supply and high prices have led to them sharing with others or not moving from the parental home – or, in areas of particularly high demand and/or restraint, not having a hope of living near their family or job (or the job that they would seek were suitable affordable accommodation available).

There is now the dilemma at a national level that echoes the dilemma that local plan inspectors have had to grapple with at an individual authority level: whether to accept a coarse, hypothetical approach that can be implemented with relative ease or whether to insist on getting to a “pure” statistical answer. The latter may in my view be unrealistic: we need targets, with consequences if they are not met and we need to avoid giving convenient excuses for delay. Those targets need to be based on the best evidence but are ultimately political choices where national leadership is essential – this is not a local issue where individual authorities can operate without regard for wider consequences.

I would be disappointed if the Government, faced in any event with the prospect of not meeting its current target (which conveniently is expressed in any event by reference to a time frame, the “mid-2020s“, that takes it past the next election), were to see this current position, which should be a surprise to no-one, as an excuse to retreat from the 300k commitment. But they won’t get an easy ride from some I’m sure.

Simon Ricketts, 29 September 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Housing Needs, Housing Shortfalls

We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot

We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got

(David Bowie)

The new NPPF introduces the requirement for local planning authorities to use a standard method to arrive at their local housing needs assessment, “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.”

However, the precise methodology and authority by authority figures are still a moving target. The Government said this in its “response to consultation” document, published alongside the new NPPF:

A number of responses to this question provided comment on the proposed local housing need method. The government is aware that lower than previously forecast population projections have an impact on the outputs associated with the method. Specifically it is noted that the revised projections are likely to result in the minimum need numbers generated by the method being subject to a significant reduction, once the relevant household projection figures are released in September 2018.

In the housing white paper the government was clear that reforms set out (which included the introduction of a standard method for assessing housing need) should lead to more homes being built. In order to ensure that the outputs associated with the method are consistent with this, we will consider adjusting the method after the household projections are released in September 2018. We will consult on the specific details of any change at that time.

It should be noted that the intention is to consider adjusting the method to ensure that the starting point in the plan-making process is consistent in aggregate with the proposals in Planning for the right homes in the right places consultation and continues to be consistent with ensuring that 300,000 homes are built per year by the mid 2020s.”

Inevitably, with change comes uncertainty as to how the new policies will be applied to applications and plans which are currently in the pipeline. There are three key transitional arrangements:

⁃ “The policies in the previous Framework will apply for the purpose of examining plans, where those plans are submitted [for examination] on or before 24 January 2019” (paragraph 214)

⁃ “The Housing Delivery Test will apply from the day following the publication of the Housing Delivery Test results in November 2018” (paragraph 215)

⁃ “The policies in this Framework are material considerations which should be taken into account in dealing with applications from the day of its publication” [ie 24 July 2018] (paragraph 212).

I want to look at a few specific issues of interest (to me at least):

The application of the new NPPF to the draft London Plan

The footnote to paragraph to paragraph 214 is more specific than the draft, in making it clear that the equivalent cut-off date for the London Plan is “the point at which the Mayor sends to the Panel copies of all representations made in accordance with regulation 8(1) of the Town and Country Planning (London Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2000“, meaning that the current Draft London Plan, for which a Panel of three inspectors has been appointed to hold an examination in public late this year, will be tested against the 2012 NPPF.

As underlined in his 27 July 2018 letter to the London Mayor, even when it is tested against the 2012 NPPF the Secretary of State is “not convinced” that the assessment of need in the current draft “reflects the full extent of housing need in London to tackle affordability problems.” He is looking to see modifications on a series of matters:

⁃ “A number of policy areas in the draft that are inconsistent with national policy, such as your policies allowing development on residential gardens and your policy on car parking. [NB whilst these might be areas of political difference they are not areas where the MHCLG’s approach would drive up numbers – far from it]

The detail and complexity of the policies within the draft London Plan have the potential to limit accessibility to the planning system and development.

⁃ The draft Plan strays considerably beyond providing a strategic framework.

⁃ The draft Plan does not provide enough information to explain the approach you will take to ensure your targets are delivered, including collaboration with boroughs and neighbouring areas.

⁃ There are a number of policies in the draft Plan which seek to deal with matters relating to building standards and safety. It is important that there is a consistent approach to setting building standards through the framework of Building Regulations

But, presumably as a quid pro quo for not sending the plan back to the drawing board to be tested against the methodology for assessing housing need in the new NPPF (which would arrive at significantly higher need figures than the basis for the draft plan), the Secretary of State is looking for the Mayor to review and revise the plan as soon as it is adopted:

It remains crucial however that you bring forward a revised London Plan that has regard to new national policies at the earliest opportunity. You will want to note paragraph 33 and annex 1 of the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which sets out that the Government expects plans to be reviewed early where all identified housing need is not being met and to ensure a plan is in place which reflects current national policy. I would therefore expect you to review the London Plan to reflect the revised National Planning Policy Framework immediately once the London Plan has been published. I remind you that if this is not forthcoming, I have powers to direct the review to ensure London delivers the plan and homes that communities need.”

Of course, since the current draft is not likely to be adopted until late 2019 and Sadiq Khan’s current term ends in May 2020, this will presumably increase the potential for politicking as between candidates and parties. Not good for consensus building, or perhaps other kinds of building, although if a new plan does not come forward presumably we can expect to see more MHCLG intervention in relation to major applications in London.

Other plans submitted for examination before 24 January 2019

Nothing in planning is of course black and white. Paragraph 214 of the new NPPF says that plans submitted for examination before 24 January 2019 will still be tested against the 2012 NPPF, but of course the 2012 NPPF allowed significant room for argument as to what the appropriate methodology might be for any authority “to use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework“. To what extent might inspectors allow the new standard method to be used for plans submitted before 24 January 2019?

Already since the publication of the new NPPF we have seen the East Cambridgeshire local plan inspector, Louise Nurser, issue her preliminary findings in a letter dated 30 July 2018 in which she accepts that the use of the new standard methodology is appropriate “in the particular circumstances of East Cambridgeshire” even though the plan was plainly submitted well before the relevant date. I set out her reasoning below:

“I conclude that it is a sound approach for the standard method to be used to set the OAN for housing within East Cambridgeshire at a minimum of 11,960 dwellings between 2016 and 2036. Indeed, in the context of a Strategic Housing Market Assessment (PE05) of considerable vintage (2013), which had already been used as the primary evidence base for the development strategy which is to be superseded by the Plan before me, it would not have been appropriate to update the evidence base in isolation of the wider HMA, so that it could be used a second time. Ideally, for the purposes of this plan, the housing needs of the wider Housing Market Area would have been thoroughly considered through a new Housing Market Assessment.

However, it is clear from the different stages in which the constituent plan making bodies find themselves that such a scenario would be unrealistic, particularly in the context of the clear indication from the recently published Framework that the standard method should be used in plan making in the future, and as a consequence, it is highly improbable that a completely new HMA would ever be commissioned.

I draw particular comfort from the fact that the annual dwelling requirement using the revised OAN figure of October 2016, for the district, which is based on the SHMA, is 586 dwellings per annum (PE06). This is comparable with the figure of 598 dwellings per annum, using the standard method (PE07). As such, the use of the standard method to determine East Cambridge’s housing needs is an acceptable and a pragmatic approach to determining the district’s needs. In coming to this conclusion, I must stress that my conclusions relate to the particular circumstances of East Cambridgeshire, which has already adopted a plan on the basis of the 2013 SHMA evidence.

I can see that there does not seem to be a significant difference in the case of East Cambridgeshire as to the outcome under the two approaches, but is her reasoning essentially, as she says, pragmatic – it would have been impractical to expect the 2013 strategic housing market assessment to have been updated as a base for the new plan? Might this be a position that various other authorities find themselves in? Does the new standard method amount to an appropriate evidence base for these purposes?

What now of the tilted balance?

Paragraph 11 of the new NPPF of course contains an amended form of what was paragraphs 14 and 49 of the 2012 document, the presumption in favour of sustainable development (or the “tilted balance” in the jargon) which applies where there is a shortfall in housing supply.

There is a shortfall where:

⁃ the “local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable housing sites” (with a 5 to 20% buffer – see paragraph 73); or where

⁃ (for decisions after the publication of the Housing Delivery Test results in November 2018) the Housing Delivery Test indicates that the delivery of housing was substantially below the housing requirement over the previous three years (with “substantially below” defined in paragraph 215 – starting at 25% of what is required and ratcheting up first to 45% and then to 75%).

Where there is a shortfall, the “policies which are most important for determining the application” are deemed to be out of date, meaning that planning permission should be granted unless (i) the application of policies in the NPPF that protect a defined list of categories of areas or assets of particular importance provides a clear reason for refusing the development proposed or (ii) “any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed the policies in this Framework taken as a whole“.

In my view this wording is clearer than the 2012 NPPF and should be easier to apply.

However, the effects of a shortfall are much reduced where there is a neighbourhood plan (which, after 11 December 2018, must be less than two years old) which contains policies and allocations to meet its identified housing requirement, the local planning authority has at least a three year supply of deliverable housing sites and the authority’s housing delivery was at least 45% of that required over the previous three years (25% until December 2019). (See paragraphs 14 and 216). In these circumstances, “the adverse impact of allowing development that conflicts with the neighbourhood plan is likely to significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits“.

Relevance of degree of shortfall

In deciding an appeal against the refusal of planning permission for housing development, how far does the decision-maker have to go in calculating the extent of any shortfall in the five-year supply of housing land? That was precisely the question considered last week by the Court of Appeal in Hallam Land Management Limited v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 31 July 2018). The case concerns the policies within the 2012 NPPF but the principles are just as applicable to the new NPPF.

In his decision letter dated 9 November 2016 the Secretary of State had dismissed an appeal by Hallam Land against refusal of planning permission by Eastleigh Borough Council for a development of up to 225 dwellings, a 60-bed care home and 40 care units together with associated development in Hamble.

His conclusions as to the degree of shortfall in housing supply simply stated this:

The Secretary of State notes the Inspector’s comment (IR108) that at the time of inquiry the Council were not able to demonstrate more than a four and a half years supply of deliverable housing land, and that there is evidence of an existing need for affordable housing. Whilst the Secretary of State notes that the Council are now of the view that they are able to demonstrate a 4.86 year supply...”

Weighing this shortfall into the balance he dismissed the appeal on the basis that the adverse impacts of the proposal would significantly and demonstrably outweigh its benefits.

Had he reached a properly reasoned decision on the housing supply question or had he just ducked it? At the inquiry there had been much argument as to the extent of housing supply. Hallam asserted that it was between 1.78 and 2.92 years. In post inquiry representations, the council asserted that the figure was now 4.86 years. However two inspectors’ appeal decisions in the borough had concluded otherwise. In the 24 May 2016 Bubb Lane decision letter the inspector had found that the council had a “considerable way to go to demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable sites”. In the 7 October 2016 Botley Road decision letter the inspector had concluded that there were 4.25 years of supply.

It is not necessary for the decision maker to arrive at a precise conclusion as to the level of shortfall. As Lindblom LJ states:

Relevant authority in this court, and at first instance, does not support the proposition that, for the purposes of the appropriate balancing exercise under the policy in paragraph 14 of the NPPF, the decision-maker’s weighting of restrictive local plan policies, or of the proposal’s conflict with such policies, will always require an exact quantification of the shortfall in the supply of housing land.

Accordingly, Lindblom LJ did not “think that in this case the Secretary of State could fairly be criticized, in principle, for not having expressed a conclusion on the shortfall in the supply of housing land with great arithmetical precision. He was entitled to confine himself to an approximate figure or range – if that is what he did. Government policy in the NPPF did not require him to do more than that. There was nothing in the circumstances of this case that made it unreasonable for him in the “Wednesbury” sense, or otherwise unlawful, not to establish a mathematically exact figure for the shortfall. It would not have been an error of law or inappropriate for him to do so, but if, as a matter of planning judgment, he chose not to do it there was nothing legally wrong with that.”

It was not clear “whether the Secretary of State reached any concluded view on the scale of the “acknowledged shortfall”. His reference in paragraph 17 to “the limited shortfall in housing land supply” suggests he had not found it possible to accept Hallam Land’s case at the inquiry, as recorded by the inspector in paragraph 62 of his report, that the supply of housing land was as low as “2.92 years, or 1.78 years if the need for affordable housing is included”, or even the “material shortfall” to which the inspector had referred in paragraph 108, in the light of the council’s concession that it was “not able to demonstrate more than a four and a half years supply of deliverable housing land”. A “limited shortfall” could hardly be equated to a “material shortfall”. It would have been a more apt description of the shortfall the council had now acknowledged in conceding, or contending, that it was able to demonstrate a supply of 4.86 years – the figure to which the Secretary of State referred in paragraphs 19 and 30 of his decision letter.”

If he did adopt, or at least assume, a figure of 4.86 years’ supply of housing land, or even a range of between four and half and 4.86 years, his approach could not, I think, be stigmatized as unlawful in either of those two respects. It could not be said, at least in the circumstances of this case, that he erred in law in failing to calculate exactly what the shortfall was. In principle, he was entitled to conclude that no greater precision was required than that the level of housing land supply fell within a clearly identified range below the requisite five years, and that, in the balancing exercise provided for in paragraph 14 of the NPPF, realistic conclusions could therefore be reached on the weight to be given to the benefits of the development and its conflict with relevant policies of the local plan. Such conclusions would not, I think, exceed a reasonable and lawful planning judgment.”

However, “even if that assumption is made in favour of the Secretary of State, there is in my view a fatal defect in his decision in his failure to engage with the conclusions on housing land supply in the recent decisions in the Bubb Lane and Botley Road appeals.”

In both decision letters the shortfall was characterized as “significant”, which plainly it was. This was more akin to saying that it was a “material shortfall”, as the inspector in Hallam Land’s appeal had himself described it in paragraph 108 of his decision letter. Neither description – a “significant” shortfall or a “material” one – can be squared with the Secretary of State’s use of the adjective “limited”. They are, on any view, quite different concepts.”

“Quite apart from the language they used to describe it, the inspectors’ findings and conclusions as to the extent of the shortfall – only “something in the order of four year supply” in the Bubb Lane appeal and only “4.25 years’ supply” in the Botley Road appeal – were also substantially different from the extent of the shortfall apparently accepted or assumed by the Secretary of State in his decision in this case, which was as high as 4.86 years’ supply on the basis of evidence from the council that had been before the inspector in the Botley Road appeal and rejected by him.”

“One is left with genuine – not merely forensic – confusion on this important point, and the uncomfortable impression that the Secretary of State did not come to grips with the inspectors’ conclusions on housing land supply in those two very recent appeal decisions.”

In a short judgment, agreeing with the lead judgment of Lindblom LJ, Davis LJ makes the position plain:

I have the greatest difficulty in seeing how an overall planning judgment thereafter could properly be made without having at least some appreciation of the extent of the shortfall. That is not to say that the extent of the shortfall will itself be a key consideration. It may or not be: that is itself a planning judgment, to be assessed in the light of the various policies and other relevant considerations. But it ordinarily will be a relevant and material consideration, requiring to be evaluated.

The reason is obvious and involves no excessive legalism at all. The extent (be it relatively large or relatively small) of any such shortfall will bear directly on the weight to be given to the benefits or disbenefits of the proposed development.”

The decision was quashed.

Was David Bowie writing for the Secretary of State, or for all of us?

My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare

I had to cram so many things to store everything in there

Simon Ricketts, 5 August 2018

Personal views, et cetera