Stay Alert! A Quick Guide To All Those MHCLG Announcements

On 13 May 2020, MHCLG published:

Guidance: coronavirus planning update

Guidance: Coronavirus compulsory purchase

Guidance: Coronavirus community infrastructure levy

Guidance: construction site working hours Q&A

Guidance: consultation and pre-decision matters

Guidance: plan-making

Guidance: neighbourhood planning

On the same day, the Planning Inspectorate updated its guidance on site visits, hearings, inquiries and events.

On 14 May 2020, the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure, Listed Buildings and Environmental Impact Assessment) (England) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 were made and came into force that day. The Regulations were accompanied by an Explanatory Memorandum.

The highlights

Validation and determination of applications for planning permission

No changes have been made to the timescales for determining planning applications. Developers are however encouraged to agree extensions of the period for determination. Local authorities have been urged to give priority to validating urgent COVID-19 related applications for planning permission and associated consents.

Publicising applications for planning permission

Temporary regulations (expiring on 31 December 2020) were made and came into force on 14 May to supplement existing publicity arrangements for planning applications, listed building consent applications and environmental statements for EIA development. There is now flexibility to take other reasonable steps to publicise applications and environmental statements if the usual specific requirements cannot be discharged relating to site notices, neighbour notifications, newspaper publicity or availability of hard copy documents. Steps can include the use of social media and electronic communications and they must be “proportionate to the scale and nature of the development”. Guidance has also been issued on this topic.

Planning Conditions

MHCLG has made it clear that planning conditions should not be a barrier to allowing developers and site operators flexibility around construction site working hours to facilitate safe working. Where only short term or modest increases in working hours are required, LPAs are encouraged to use their discretion to not enforce against a breach of working hours conditions. Where longer term measures or other significant changes are required, applications to amend conditions should be made, which LPAs should prioritise and turn around in 10 days. Requests to work up to 9 pm Monday to Saturday should not be refused without very compelling reasons.

Community infrastructure levy

The existing CIL regulations of course allow charging authorities limited flexibility to defer CIL liability. Amendments will be made to the regulations “in due course” to increase flexibility, but that will still depend upon charging authorities deciding to exercise the new discretion available to them. Authorities will be able to defer payments, temporarily disapply late payment interest and provide a discretion to return interest already charged. However, these changes will only apply to small and medium-sized developers with an annual turnover of less than £45 million. It remains to be seen how this limitation will be addressed in the regulations, for example where a special purpose vehicle, potentially offshore, has assumed liability. The new instalment policies for deferred payments will only apply to chargeable development starting after the changes come into effect, but they are anticipated to apply to “phases“ of the development starting after that date. The announcement on 13 May added that “existing flexibilities and the government’s clear intention to legislate should give authorities confidence to use their enforcement powers with discretion and provide some comfort to developers that, where appropriate, they will not be charged extra for matters that were outside of their control.”

Section 106 planning obligations

Local planning authorities are encouraged to consider the deferral of section 106 obligations, e.g. financial payments. This will require variations to existing section agreements and undertakings. Local planning authorities are encouraged generally to take a “pragmatic and proportionate” approach to the enforcement of section 106 planning obligations

Virtual Committees

These are already enabled, by way of Regulation 5 of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. MHCLG is working with the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) to provide further practical advice on the way these meetings are managed.

Planning Appeals

PINS issued a further update on 13 May. Site visits are being commenced and PINS is considering whether there are types of cases that can proceed without a site visit. The first digital appeal hearing took place on 11 May as a pilot and PINS is aiming for 20 further examinations, hearings and inquiries in May and June. It is also exploring hybrid options – a mix of in person and by video public/telephone hearings and is considering “social distance” events.

Local Plans

MHCLG is working on ways to address the local plans process in order to meet aspirations to have all local plans in place by 2023. In particular, the use of virtual hearings and written submissions is being considered.

Neighbourhood Plans

Regulation 12 of the Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (Coronavirus) (Postponement of Elections and Referendums) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 prevents any neighbourhood planning referendum from taking place until 6 May 2021. Updated guidance was issued in April allowing neighbourhood plans awaiting referendums to be given significant weight in decision making.

Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects

The government is working with consenting departments to support the continuation of decision-making to minimise the impact of current restrictions on the consideration of DCO applications and the Planning Inspectorate has updated its guidance.

Compulsory purchase orders

There is now pragmatic advice as to the service of documents. Acquiring authorities are encouraged to allow more time for responses to requests for information about interests in land or submitting objections to CPO. There is also encouragement to authorities to act responsibly regarding business and residential claimants, particularly regarding the timing of vesting orders and payment of compensation, which is particularly relevant when considering evictions. Authorities are reminded of their obligation to make advance payments of compensation in accordance with statutory time limits given cash flow difficulties which claimants may currently face.

Concluding remarks

To my mind, this is all welcome and congratulations are due in particular to the relevant civil servants. Of course, there is more to be resolved, for instance the vexed question of extending time limited planning permissions (see my 4 April 2020 blog post Pause Not Delete: Extending Planning Permissions) as well as the Regulations in relation to CIL, but it is good to see this progress. No wonder MHCLG’s Simon Gallagher was prepared to come on this week’s Have We Got Planning News For You!

Whether by serendipity or, now I think about it, of course, good planning, the RTPI published on 15 May 2020 its research paper Pragmatic and prepared for the Recovery: The planning profession’s rapid response to Covid-19. This last week has been a good start.

Simon Ricketts, 16 May 2020

Personal views, et cetera

(Thank you to Town’s Michael Gallimore and Lida Nguyen for allowing me to draw from a client note prepared earlier this week).

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards: Wealden, South Oxfordshire & Eastleigh Local Plans

It feels like I only go backwards, baby

Every part of me says, “Go ahead”

I got my hopes up again, oh no, not again

Feels like we only go backwards, darling

The seed of all this indecision isn’t me, oh no

‘Cause I decided long ago

But that’s the way it seems to go

When trying so hard to get to something real, it feels

(Tame Impala)

An Australian band singing about English local plans?

Wealden local plan

First the Sevenoaks plan was knocked back on failure of the duty to cooperate (see my 26 October 2019 blog post More Plans Grounded: West Of England; Sevenoaks; London), now Wealden.

As always, it is interesting to start with the “taking the moral high ground” toned press statement.

Throughout the Local Plan process, we have always tried to find the right balance between the need for growth in housing and employment land, and the need to protect our unique environment,” said Councillor Bob Standley, Leader of Wealden District Council.

“Our approach to protect the environment has been supported by our Councillors and many of our residents.

“Unfortunately, the Planning Inspector, following last summer’s Examination in Public of our Local Plan, has found that we put too great an emphasis on protecting the environment and that we need to do more to build houses in Wealden which our neighbouring councils cannot accommodate.

“Regrettably, this will inevitably have impacts on our communities. We acknowledge that there is already significant pressure on infrastructure; such as roads, doctors, dentists, schools and sports facilities. A requirement to build more homes will only have a greater impact on those facilities, which will require further investment.”

(Wealden District Council’s 6 January 2020 press release).

It is interesting then to turn to the forensic dissection of the council’s approach, its multiple failings laid bare in the inspector’s 20 December 2019 letter.

I wrote about Wealden’s previous run-ins with Natural England, adjoining authorities and the courts, all basically about the extent that the council is entitled to rely on environmental concerns to reduce housing numbers within its district, in my 8 April 2017 blog post Heffalump Traps: The Ashdown Forest Cases.

South Oxfordshire local plan

My 12 October 2019 blog post SOx On The Run explained the background to the Government’s intervention to prevent the new Lib Dem administration at South Oxfordshire from withdrawing the plan which the previous Conservative administration had submitted for examination.

Secretary of State Robert Jenrick has now written on 6 January 2020 to the council indicating that he is considering whether to use powers to ask Oxfordshire County Council to prepare the Plan.

In this context, I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to outline by 31st January 2020, if there are any exceptional circumstances as to why you do not have a plan in place that I should take into account when I make a decision on next steps.”

Eastleigh local plan

Eastleigh Borough Council is in the middle of an examination of its submitted local plan. It has not been uncontroversial locally:

Hundreds of campaigners, along with local TV crews, converged on the Botleigh Grange Hotel yesterday morning as Action Against Destructive Development (ADD) staged a demonstration on the second day of the public examination of Eastleigh’s Council’s Local Plan.

Organisers estimated 400 hundred people had braved the rain to attend the early morning “show of strength” as residents from Eastleigh’s Northern and Winchester’s Southern parishes united in opposition to council plans to build thousands of new homes and a motorway link road in countryside just North of Bishopstoke and Fair Oak.  It was reported that so many people had turned up, some were forced to park at the Ageas bowl two miles away.”

(from Hundreds protest at Local Plan hearing Eastleigh News, 23 November 2019).

31 year old career politician Paul Holmes was elected to represent the Eastleigh constituency in the December 2019 general election, replacing fellow Conservative Mims Davies, who is now MP for mid-Sussex. Ms Davies was a long-time opponent of the (Lib Dem) council’s plans – indeed oddly (and surely contrary to convention) there are still campaigning pieces by her about Eastleigh on her official website despite now representing another constituency:

Our community must be heard. Real democracy is missing across Eastleigh in the local planning process. Our beautiful green spaces are under direct threat from the plans of the Council. We need to use brownfield land first. That is why I joined with community groups to make a strong submission to the Eastleigh Local Plan process. The Council should serve Eastleigh residents and not developers.”

Mr Holmes has picked up the reins from Ms Davies with some verve…

Indeed he asked a question about the local plan at Prime Minister’s Questions on 8 January 2020:

My right hon. Friend has always been a vocal advocate of localism, so what advice can he give to my constituents who are concerned about the local Lib Dem council’s unwanted housing plan in Eastleigh, which would lead to even more overdevelopment without securing the vital infrastructure that Eastleigh needs?

The Prime Minister’s response:

I am not surprised by what my hon. Friend says about the cavalier behaviour of the Lib Dem council in Eastleigh. We will ensure that, in so far as we need to build many more homes, which we do, we will supply the infrastructure necessary and do it on brownfield sites.”

(Sigh, that brownfield sites reference. That’s what they all say, isn’t it? What did Mr Holmes do on the very first day in his new job? He objected to proposed development on just one such brownfield site, the GE Aviation site in Hamble Lane, and the application was duly refused by members in spite of officers’ recommendation to approve).

I wrote about other examples of MPs intervening in local plan processes in my 13 July 2019 blog post Less Than Best Laid Plans: Political Pragmatism.

Let’s leave local plan examinations to the examiners!

Simon Ricketts, 11 January 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Image from Tame Impala video for Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.

Elephant, Dove, Old Oak, RICS

I thought I would start 2020 by trying to establish some common ground, before then mentioning what happened shortly before Christmas in relation to the Elephant & Castle and Old Oak projects, both controversial in different ways. The questions are long but I hope that the answers are short.

Do we all agree that…

1. more housing is needed for those who cannot afford homes that are being built by the private sector in their local area, even when these are required to be sold or let at significant discounts to market rates – and that what we call that housing (eg social housing/socially rented) and the nature of the body that delivers and manages it (housing associations or other registered providers, local authorities) are secondary issues?

2. the current system of seeking to require developers to deliver that housing (whoever then manages it) is not working and is hugely inefficient, in that: (1) local policy expectations set out in local plans are often not met, due to those expectations being determined not to be viable – leading to prolonged negotiations and local objection (2) the complexities and multitude of inputs to any negotiated section 106 affordable housing package, often including intricate mechanisms to provide for later reviews of the viability position, are at best a costly distraction for all parties (needing to be tooled up with valuation and QS professionals) and at worst are prone to lead to huge delays and, over time, the prospect of renegotiation where the negotiated outcome is not sufficiently attractive to funders, or where (almost inevitably) circumstances have changed during the long course of the process?

3. it is in the public interest for communities within developments to be socially and economically diverse?

4. the system worked more easily when much more Government money was available to support affordable housing by way of grant (without grant obviously a requirement to deliver social housing has a huge impact on the viability of a scheme) and that we need to get back to a system that (1) is simple (2) delivers housing that is truly affordable for those who need it (3) is efficient and (4) does not delay development more generally?

5. government (ie our) money needs to be spent where it can have most beneficial impact and is most needed?

There has been a lot of government tinkering but don’t we have to get back to those fundamentals? I’m not sure that the Government’s promised Social Housing White Paper is going to get us there, given the absence of relevant detail about affordable housing in the Conservatives’ manifesto – talk about owning first homes is a world away from the very different challenges faced by so many.

I’m sorry to be a cracked record – see my 28 May 2017 blog post Affordable Housing Tax or 4 November 2017 blog post Viability Assessment Is Not A Loophole, It’s A Noose. We could look at the idea of expanding CIL to include a social housing contribution, so that local authorities can deliver or procure it, with the option of provision on site counting as works in kind? But I’ve previously been against further rolling out another complex and inefficient regime, ie CIL, and most authorities, hollowed out and stretched as they are, are not currently in any position to deliver or procure social housing at scale. Instead, personally I would simply prefer that we go back to the old way – grants to providers so as to reduce the impact on viability for the developer of providing social housing.

In the meantime, we have to make the current system work. My 8 June 2019 blog post The Bottom Line: Updates On CIL And Viability reported on the RICS professional statement on financial viability in planning, which came into effect on 1 September 2019, and mentioned the revisions made to viability passages of the PPG by the Government on 9 May 2019, reflecting changes to the NPPF that seek to ensure, amongst other things, that detailed viability examination takes place at plan-making stage rather than when applications come forward.

The RICS professional statement sets out the professional responsibilities of the surveyor in the viability appraisal process, to seek to ensure that the surveyor operates with professional independence and integrity throughout. The RICS is now consulting from 13 December 2019 until 9 February 2020 on a draft guidance note Assessing financial viability in planning under the National Planning Policy Framework for England, 1st edition that seeks to set out the methodology to be applied by those professionals, so as to give effect to Government policy.

We are not seeking comments contrasting the government framework with a market-based appraisal. Comments should focus on whether our draft guidance gives effect to government policy and practice guidance, in an administratively efficient way, in order to deliver the objectives of the NPPF.”

Make your views known.

In the meantime…

Elephant & Castle

Delancey’s proposed redevelopment of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre and London College of Communication has long been controversial. It proposes a large mixed-use development comprising a range of buildings of up to 35 storeys, with a mix of uses including 979 dwellings (proposed to be for rent rather than sale) and accommodation for retail, office, education, assembly and leisure along with a remodelling of the London Underground station. One of the lines of attack for objectors, including the 35% Campaign, has been the perceived lack of “genuinely affordable” housing.

Planning permission was granted by the London Borough of Southwark on 10 January 2019. Just before Christmas, in Flynn v London Borough of Southwark (Dove J, 20 December 2019), the High Court rejected a crowdfunded challenge to the permission brought on behalf of the 35% Campaign. The grounds of challenge all turned on the affordable housing deal that Southwark struck in the section 106 agreement with the developer.

The case doesn’t turn on any particularly interesting legal principles or make any new law. But the facts, set out in careful detail by Dove J, illustrate precisely the concerns that lay behind my attempt just now to establish some common ground:

The policy background is not straightforward, with a changing position both at borough level and at London Plan level.

The Mayor has set out criteria in his 2017 affordable housing and viability SPG for different tenures of affordable housing, including social rent (target rents determined through the national rent regime), affordable rent (rent controls requiring a rent of no more than 80% of the local market rent), intermediate (available for rent or sale at a cost above social rent but below market levels – and eligible only to households whose annual income is within a defined range) and intermediate London Living Rent (only available to households renting with a maximum income of £60,000 without sufficient current savings to purchase a home within the local area).

The adopted London Plan requires boroughs to seek the “maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing…when negotiating on individual private residential and mixed use schemes, having regard to” a number of factors, including “development viability” and the “availability of public subsidy”.

Within the Elephant & Castle area, Southwark’s adopted plan seeks a minimum requirement of 35%, on the basis of a split of 50% social rented and 50% intermediate housing. Its emerging plan seeks, in relation to build to rent developments, a different tenure split for the 35%: social rent equivalent (ie social rent level but not managed by registered provider) 34% minimum, affordable rent (aka discount market rent) capped at London Living Rent equivalent 52% minimum, affordable rent (aka discount market rent) for household incomes between £60,000 and £90,000 per year 14% minimum. The lack of social rent reflects the specific nature of build to rent developments, where it is more efficient for all of the housing to remain under single management rather than for a separate registered provider to be introduced.

At the time Delancey’s application first went to committee on 16 January 2018, its proposal was 36% affordable housing based upon habitable rooms, with the 36% made up as follows: 10% social rent equivalent, 46% London Living Rent, 43% discount market rent. The non policy compliant offer (in terms of tenure split) was based on an agreed viability assessment. Despite a recommendation for approval, members deferred a decision until a meeting scheduled for 30 January 2018 at which they intended to formulate reasons for refusal. The day before the follow-up meeting the developer made further proposals in relation to the affordable housing offer and the application was deferred to a subsequent meeting.

The revised proposal was to replace 33 social rent equivalent units with 74 socially rented units, all to be located on the western part of the development and to be owned and operated either by the borough or by a registered provider. This changed the tenure split (of the 35% affordable housing dwellings) to: social rent 24.9%, London Living Rent 27.9%, discount market rent 47.2%.

In June 2018 the offer was increased again. The developer’s consultants indicated that following “in-principle agreement from the GLA to provide grant funding towards the proposed scheme” the number of social rent units could be increased to 116 homes, or 38.1% of the 35% of the units that were to be affordable.

The application was approved at a committee meeting on 3 July 2018. It was acknowledged in the report that the proposed tenure split was still not policy compliant but was justified by way of the agreed viability appraisal. The report also noted that there would need to be a fallback arrangement in the section 106 agreement to cater for the possibility that the developer might choose after all to develop the western part of the development on a for sale rather than for rent basis (in which case the affordable housing requirement for that part of the site would return to 50% social rented, 50% intermediate).

If all of this does not start to give an idea of the inevitable complexity of negotiations on a scheme such as this, then consider the viability appraisal. As is common with a significant longterm development, where application of the more straightforward benchmark land value plus developer’s profit approach does not reflect accurately the financial modelling of a project over time, viability was judged against a minimum internal rate of return for the developer.

The latest RICS draft guidance defines internal rate of return (or “IRR”) as follows:

The rate of interest (expressed as a percentage) at which all future project cash flows (positive and negative) will be discounted in order that the net present value (NPV) of those cash flows, including the initial investment, be equal to zero. IRR can be assessed on both gross and net of finance.”

However, unless I have missed it, there is no guidance anywhere as to when an IRR approach is appropriate and how to arrive at and test the inputs and modelling.

The agreed benchmark was 7.15% IRR, with annual growth to 11% over the construction period. Review mechanisms in the section 106 agreement provide that 50% of any excess are to be applied to increasing the affordable housing provision up to a policy compliant level/tenure split.

The claimant had three grounds of challenge. The first turned on an alleged inaccuracy in the way that the GLA’s offer of funding had been reported – it had not been formally confirmed and discussions were at an “in principle stage”. The second alleged that one of the detailed mechanisms in the section 106 agreement departed from the relevant head of term in the committee resolution. The third related to the mechanism in the section 106 agreement for determining the affordable housing to be provided if the western part of the site turned into a “for sale” development, but a deed of variation had been entered into after the challenge was brought, largely correcting the error that had been identified.

Dove J rejected each of the grounds, whilst accepting that each was arguable. (1) The report did not materially mislead members. (2) The section 106 mechanism was not outside the scope of the committee resolution (“True it is that the solutions arrived at are not a literal interpretation of paragraph 364 [of the report to committee], in that they do not include for the provision of land and a substantial cash dowry to construct the social rented units but, in my judgment, that was not required in order to remain within the scope of the delegation granted by the members”). (3) The approach to the fallback (“for sale”) scenario was “entirely rational and appropriate”. Part of the claimant’s criticism of the arrangements turned on whether the additional affordable housing in these circumstances should be social rented units rather than the social rented equivalent units provided for. The judge saw nothing relevant in the distinction:

In terms of the matters raised by the Claimant the quality of tenure enjoyed by tenants in social rented equivalent properties are, as the nomenclature suggests, equivalent to those in social rented properties. Of course, there may well be nuanced differences between them as a consequence of them being separately defined. Furthermore, they will be managed in different ways as the definition implies. Be all of this as it may, in my view the important point is that the requirement of the officers’ report was a review in terms of affordable housing, and whether the additional habitable rooms were to be provided as social rented or social rented equivalent accommodation was not identified as being in any way a critical point upon which the delegation to the officers of authority to enter into the section 106 obligation turned. Put another way, whatever may be the nuanced differences between social rented equivalent property and social rented units that was not identified as a key requirement in relation to the review mechanism contemplated were the developer to take up the fall-back scenario.”

Will the new guidance make any of this more straight forward? I doubt it. Would proper funding for social rent and social rent equivalent housing? Of course it would.

Old Oak and Park Royal Local Plan

The recent NPPF and PPG changes of course seek to move the viability spotlight to the point at which sites are allocated for development. The Old Oak plan was examined last year under the previous NPPF but viability matters were still centre stage and the inspector’s findings may be an indicator of the detailed scrutiny that is likely to be given to the viability in particular of strategic sites (taken together with proposed policy requirements in terms of infrastructure delivery and affordable housing).

One of the key issues for the inspector was whether the proposed allocation of the 54 acre Cargiant site for residential and associated development was viable. Cargiant had itself attempted development of its site in the past. It had concluded that it would be unviable to contemplate relocating or extinguishing its business and carrying out the development – and took the position that there was no reasonable prospect within the plan period of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (“OPDC”) being in a position to carry out such proposals, even by resorting to compulsory purchase and even with the benefit of £250m Housing and Infrastructure Fund monies which had been agreed in principle to be allocated by MHCLG.

My firm acted for Cargiant and so I will restrict myself to pointing out the level of detail to which the inspector went in his interim findings on viability of Cargiant site proposal (10 September 2019) before concluding that the allocation would be unviable and therefore unsound.

The day after the general election, on 13 December 2019, the OPDC announced that it would change its proposals, which will now leave Cargiant in place:

New focus for Old Oak and Park Royal regeneration:

The Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) has today set out a revised approach to deliver tens of thousands of new homes and jobs through collaboration with major public sector landowners.

The regeneration of Old Oak, Park Royal and surrounding areas in west London, has the potential to deliver 25,500 new homes and 65,000 jobs over the next 30 years. OPDC has already approved plans for over 5,000 homes including 1,500 already completed or being built.

The shift in approach has been triggered by recent, rapid increases in industrial land values in west London which mean that it is currently not financially viable to deliver OPDC’s early regeneration plans at Old Oak North. This area, close to the planned new HS2 interchange station, includes the 54-acre site that is owned and operated by Cargiant, which had originally been earmarked for development.

Earlier this year, the Planning Inspector, in his interim report on the OPDC’s draft Local Plan, de-designated the Cargiant site from Strategic Industrial Land, but also concluded that Old Oak North had become commercially unviable for residential-led development at this time.”

Whilst this situation might be taken to be an example of how viability matters can indeed in practice be taken into account at the plan-making stage, I do have concerns:

⁃ There is now a bigger onus on authorities to carry out proper viability work, including work to a sensible level of detail on strategic sites (albeit often with assistance from those promoting those sites for development), and is it actually going to be done?

⁃ Where it is not done, delays will occur in the examination process. At Old Oak, the necessary work had not been done and there was a significant hiatus whilst it was commissioned.

⁃ Development proposals are often not sufficiently worked up, at the stage that the plan is being prepared, so as to enable a sensible viability appraisal to be undertaken. And will developers be prepared always to come clean at the allocation stage as to the challenges they are facing in making the numbers stack up?

⁃ Will there always be participants in the local plan examination process with the motivation and resources to put authorities to proof on the work that has been carried out? If Cargiant hadn’t taken its stance (entailing lawyers and a team of consultants to challenge much of the inputs) I suspect the allocation would have been confirmed without challenge – and then proved over time to be undevelopable.

The next blog post will be shorter, I promise.

Simon Ricketts, 4 January 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Pic credit: Bizarro Comics

Unsuccessful Attacks On Guildford & Waverley Local Plans

Two recent salutary lessons from Surrey for campaigners tempted to resort to the courts, having failed to persuade the relevant local plan inspector.

Guildford local plan

In Compton Parish Council v Guildford Borough Council (Sir Duncan Ouseley, 4 December 2019), three separate claimants, Compton Parish Council, a Mr Julian Cranwell and Ockham Parish Council, “opposed the principle and extent of land which the submitted Plan proposed to release from the Green Belt, as well as the allocation for development of specific sites proposed for release from the Green Belt.

The main general issue (numbered 2 in the list used by the parties) was whether the Inspector had erred in law in his approach to what constituted the “exceptional circumstances” required for the redrawing of Green Belt boundaries on a local plan review. This had a number of aspects, including whether he had treated the normal as exceptional, and had failed to consider rationally, or with adequate reasons, why Green Belt boundaries should be redrawn so as to allow for some 4000 more houses to be built than Guildford BC objectively needed. The scale of the buffer did not result, it was said, from any consideration of why a buffer of such a scale was required but was simply the sum of the site capacities of the previously allocated sites. There were two other general issues (1) and (7): (1) had the Inspector considered lawfully or provided adequate reasoning for not reducing the housing requirement, leaving some needs unmet to reflect the Green Belt policy constraints faced by Guildford BC? (7) Did Guildford BC breach the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004 SI No.1633, in deciding not to reconsider what might be reasonable alternatives to the proposed Plan when, in 2018, the objectively assessed housing needs figure was reduced from 12,426 to 10,678, with housing land supply allocations totalling 14,602. It was submitted that it ought to have considered alternatives such as removing the development allocation in the Green Belt from one or more of the contentious large sites.”

But there were also site specific grounds of challenge. The first site specific issue, (4), relating to the former Wisley airfield, was the adequacy of reasons given by the Inspector in his report on the PE for reaching conclusions which, it was said, were inconsistent with the views expressed by an Inspector, accepted by the Secretary of State, on an appeal against the refusal of planning permission for a major residential development at the former Wisley airfield, taking up most of the Local Plan allocation there. The appeal Inquiry began before the PE and the decision emerged in the course of the PE. The second site specific issue at Wisley, (5a), concerned the extent of land removed from the Green Belt yet not allocated for development, termed “white land”; issue (5b) concerned the lawfulness and effect of the submission of the 2017 version of the Plan, when the further consultation on it was restricted to the 2017 changes, and did not encompass unchanged aspects of the 2016 version, upon which there had already been consultation in 2016. The third issue, (8), concerned the lawfulness of the approach by the Inspector to the air quality impact of the Wisley allocation on the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area, the SPA. It was initially said that the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 SI No.2012 required the decision-maker to leave mitigation and avoidance measures out of account; but the argument was refined so that it attacked the assessment that there would be no adverse effects, on the basis that there would still be exceedances of critical thresholds, even though the baseline levels of pollution would have reduced.

The site-specific issues raised in respect of the Blackwell Farm allocation were, (3), that the local exceptional circumstances relied on by the Inspector were not legally capable of being regarded as “exceptional”, and that strategic and local “exceptional circumstances” overlapped, leading to double counting of exceptional circumstances. The other issue at Blackwell Farm was, (6), whether the Inspector erred in law in the way he considered the new access road. This would have to climb the escarpment to link to the A31, and a section of which would pass through the part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the AONB, which lay to the north of the A31. Should he have concluded that this would be “major development” in the AONB and so face a policy obstacle to its approval which could put the allocation at risk, or even prevent its being delivered? He should at least have taken this risk into account.”

After assessing the extent of local housing need the inspector concluded that there was “to strategic-level exceptional circumstances to alter the Green Belt boundary to meet development needs in the interests of the proper long-term planning of the Borough.

Some highlights:

Issue 1: did the Inspector consider and provide legally adequate reasons for his conclusion that the objectively assessed need for 10678 dwellings should be met in full, notwithstanding the consequent need for the release of land from the Green Belt?

There is no definition of the policy concept of “exceptional circumstances”. This itself is a deliberate policy decision, demonstrating that there is a planning judgment to be made in all the circumstances of any particular case; Calverton Parish Council v Nottingham City Council [2015] EWHC 1078 at [20], Jay J. It is deliberately broad, and not susceptible to dictionary definition.”

“”Exceptional circumstances” is a less demanding test than the development control test for permitting inappropriate development in the Green Belt, which requires “very special circumstances.” That difference is clear enough from the language itself and the different contexts in which they appear, but if authority were necessary, it can be found in R(Luton BC) v Central Bedfordshire Council [2015] EWCA Civ 537 at [56], Sales LJ. As Patterson J pointed out in IM Properties Development Ltd v Lichfield DC [2014] EWHC 2240 at [90-91 and 95-96], there is no requirement that Green Belt land be released as a last resort, nor was it necessary to show that assumptions upon which the Green Belt boundary had been drawn, had been falsified by subsequent events.”

“Mr Kimblin put forward Mr Cranwell’s contention that the supply of land for ordinary housing, even with the combination of circumstances found here to constitute exceptional circumstances by the Inspector, could not in law amount to “exceptional circumstances.” I cannot accept that, and I regard it as obviously wrong.”

“The Inspector has already considered the pressing needs, and the consequence of them not being met. Here he considers whether the consequence of those needs being met, through releases of Green Belt land, mean that they should nonetheless not be met. His conclusion is clear: there is no justification for applying a restriction on the quantity of development. His reasoning is clear and adequate: land can be found within the Green Belt, through boundary changes, with relatively limited impacts on openness, elaborated elsewhere in the Report, and without causing severe or widespread harm to its purposes. He also considered whether further land could be made available in the urban areas; IR 81-2; these had been thoroughly investigated; significant constraints existed; any extra yield from sites which could have potential not yet earmarked, “would fall a long way short of making the scale of contribution towards meeting overall development needs that would enable the allocated sites in the Green Belt to be taken out of the Plan.”

“I reject the Claimants’ first ground of challenge. This issue and whether a policy restraint should be applied to the OAN was considered and the Inspector’s conclusion that there should be no restraint below OAN was supported by ample reasoning.”

“Issue 2: Was the conclusion that there were exceptional circumstances justifying the allocations of housing land, released from the Green Belt, to provide headroom of over 4000 dwellings above the 10678 OAN lawful, and adequately reasoned?”

“…in my judgment, once meeting the OAN is accepted as a strategic level factor contributing to “exceptional circumstances”, as it has to be for the purpose of this Issue in the light of my conclusions on Issue 1, it follows that the provision of headroom against slippage and for flexibility to meet changes, “future-proofing” the Plan, as the Inspector put it, would also contribute to such circumstances.”

“...having read the strategic and Local-level exceptional circumstances, which have to be taken together, I had no sense of having read something illogical or irrational, or which strained the true meaning of “exceptional circumstances.” I can see that a different approach to the quantity of headroom might have commended itself, but that was plainly a matter of planning judgment.”

Issue 7 Sustainability Appraisal”

“The Claimants contended, through Mr Harwood, that once the OAN was reduced from 12426 to 10678 as a result of the publication in September 2018 of the 2016 household projections, there should have been a further SA examining reasonable alternatives which matched allocations to the OAN figure of 10678, with the Wisley airfield allocation in mind in particular however.”

“I cannot accept these arguments. No complaint is made of the SA process before the effect of the 2016 household projections was considered. First, the objectives of the Plan had not changed; the objective was not the provision of 10,678 dwellings; it was not simply the provision of the OAN plus an appropriate buffer. I have set out how the objective was phrased in the earlier versions of the SA. An updated SA, confining itself to the provision of 10,678 dwellings, omitting any buffer, would not have been a reasonable alternative, as previous SAs concluded, and would have been for an objective other than that of the Plan.

The judgment that an OAN without any buffer was not a reasonable alternative, was a reasonable judgment for Guildford BC to make. It could only be attacked on rationality grounds; see Spurrier and Others v Secretary of State for Transport and Others [2019] EWHC 1070 (Admin) at [434]. That would be untenable.

Second, whether the effective increase in the headroom or buffer, but without change to the level of housing allocation, was a significant change or one likely to have significant effects was a matter for the judgment of Guildford BC, as the decision-maker. It is clear that the overall level of housing supply was within the range already considered. All the housing allocations had already been evaluated. The judgment that the change was not significant or likely to have significant effects which had not already been considered, was reasonable.

Third, the only point in considering further alternatives would have been whether one or two large sites should be removed from the allocations. The smaller, sequentially less preferable Green Belt releases around villages, totalling 945 dwellings, could not have been omitted from any reduced buffer because of their importance in meeting the five-year housing supply in the early years of the Plan after adoption. Guildford BC and the Inspector did in fact consider whether the increased level of buffer in the same total supply, with a reduced OAN, was appropriate. They each concluded that it was, and that no large Green Belt site allocation should be now omitted. The arguments for deleting one or more of the 3 large sites were raised; indeed there was an obvious issue about whether that would be an appropriate response. Guildford BC and the Inspector considered it. Guildford BC was entitled to conclude that a further round of SA was quite unnecessary. The Inspector agreed, in his Report. There was no misdirection as to the law; it was for Guildford BC to judge whether there had been a change in circumstances or in the plan which warranted a further SA. This judgment can only be challenged on public law grounds; the only one available would be irrationality. There was no irrationality in the decision.”

Even if there had been an error, and assuming that the omission of one or two of the large sites would have been a reasonable alternative to consider, it is perfectly obvious that the allocations in the adopted plan would have been the preferred choice. That issue was considered by both Guildford BC and by the Inspector. Omission of a further SA would have been a procedural error causing no prejudice, let alone substantial prejudice to anyone. Even if one going to vires, I would have exercised my residual discretion to take no action, given that it is perfectly obvious that it could have had not the slightest effect on the outcome of the Plan.”

“Issue 4: the Wisley airfield appeal decision and the way in which the Inspector dealt with it.”

“I do not consider that it was necessary for the LP Inspector to take the AIR and analyse all its views against his views on the various topics. There is perhaps a difference in emphasis in the LP IR comments on the Green Belt releases in general “relatively limited impacts on openness” and their not causing “severe or widespread harm”, and the AIR comment that there would be “very considerable harm” to the Green Belt from the Wisley allocation. However, as IR 182 makes clear, on a comparative basis, the Wisley site was of medium sensitivity. Its development would avoid putting pressure on other Green Belt areas of greater sensitivity. This comparative exercise, underpinned by the Green Belt and Countryside Study, was not a task which the appeal Inspector could undertake or attempted to undertake; but was essential for the LP Inspector. The same applies to the assessment of the degree of visual prominence: the LP IR comments on the allocation as “fairly self-contained visually,” being on a plateau and not prominent, whereas the AIR thought it visible along its length to highly sensitive receptors, though quite well screened in certain respects. But the sites they consider differed in an important respect and with an adverse effect for the appeal scheme. It is obvious from the AIR that the narrowness of the appeal site exacerbated the prominence of the appeal development. The LP Inspector also considered that specific design objectives, should be in the Plan, via a Main Modification, Policy A35.The effect on the character of the area is referred to in IR 181, but is a factor outweighed by the compelling strategic-level exceptional circumstances. The LP Inspector obviously considered the appeal decision, but found the circumstances he had to deal with, compelling.”

“Accordingly, I reject the contention that it is not possible to see why the LP Inspector reached the conclusion he did, having considered, as he obviously did, what the AIR and Secretary of State had to say. In the circumstances known to all participants about the differing tasks, the reasons are sufficient. There was no need to identify, issue by issue, where the LP Inspector did or did not, to some degree, agree or disagree with the appeal Inspector. Such differences as there may be are explained by the different focus of their tasks and the different cases they were considering.”

Issue 8: The air quality impact of the allocation at the former Wisley airfield”

“It is perfectly clear, in my judgment, that Guildford BC, whose task it was to undertake the HRA, did consider whether significant adverse effects were likely from the development proposed in the Local Plan; it then undertook an appropriate assessment to see whether there would be no adverse effect on the SPA. That could not be answered, one way or the other, by simply considering whether there were exceedances of critical loads or levels, albeit rather lower than currently. What was required was an assessment of the significance of the exceedances for the SPA birds and their habitats. Guildford BC did not just treat reductions in the baseline emissions or the fact that with Plan development, emissions would still be much lower than at present, as showing that there would be no adverse effect from the Plan development. The absence of adverse effect was established by reference to where the exceedances of NOx and nitrogen deposition would occur, albeit reduced, and a survey based understanding of how significant those areas were for foraging and nesting by the SPA birds. The approach and conclusion show no error by reference to the Regulations or CJEU jurisprudence. I have set out the 2019 HRAs at some length. The judgment is one for the decision-maker, as to whether it is satisfied that the plan would not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned; the assessment must be appropriate to the task. Its conclusions had to be based on “complete precise and definitive findings and conclusions capable of removing all reasonable scientific doubt as to the effect of the proposed works on the protected site concerned”; People Over Wind. But absolute certainty that there would be no adverse effects was not required; a competent authority could be certain that there would be no adverse effects even though, objectively, absolute certainty was not proved; R (Champion) v North Norfolk District Council [2015] UKSC 52 at [41], and Smyth v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2015] EWCA Civ 174 at [78]. The same approach applies, following the Dutch Nitrogen case, to taking account of the expected benefits of measures not directly related to the plan being appropriately assessed.”

Issue 6: The access road at Blackwell Farm and major development in the AONB

“The issue before me was whether the Inspector reached a conclusion on whether the access road was “major development” in the AONB, to which NPPF [116] applied; a contrary conclusion was said to be irrational. If he had reached no conclusion, he ought to have considered the risk to the allocation, and hence to its deliverability, which would arise when a planning application was made, and a decision could be reached that it was indeed “major development”, with all the weight, adverse to the development, which would have to be given to such a conclusion.”

“I can see the force in the argument from Mr Findlay and Mr Turney that the Inspector has in substance concluded that, with the Main Modifications, the means have been provided for the access road to be constructed in such a way that it would not constitute “major development.” However, he has not expressly so concluded, and it would not have been for him to express the decisive view on the point, or to do so in advance of the detailed design of the road. He has reached the view that the road would not inevitably be “major development”, and that it could be designed and landscaped so that the risk of a significant hurdle to the delivery of the allocation is minimised. I do not consider that he needed to go further. In effect, the degree of risk, with the modification, was not such that it made him find the allocation to be unsound. He considered the issue; his language makes his view clear that he sees no significant risk, and is adequately reasoned.

But it cannot be ignored that he has included an extent of headroom, complained of by the Claimants, in part because he recognised the difficulties which larger sites face. This issue was not expressly part of his consideration of the justification for the headroom, but hurdles and delays in the way of approving infrastructure would have been well within his contemplation of the sort of problems which larger sites face.”

Three days in court, eleven barristers, all claims rejected.

Waverley local plan

In CPRE Surrey v Waverley Borough Council (Court of Appeal, 31 October 2019) CPRE Surrey and POW Campaign were appealing against the dismissal of their applications at first instance which had sought to challenge the adoption of the Waverley local plan. They contended that “the council erred in law in adopting the Local Plan Part 1 because the inspector who carried out the examination of it under section 20, when identifying the objectively assessed need (“OAN”) for housing in the borough of Waverley, took an unlawful approach to the treatment of the unmet housing need in the neighbouring borough of Woking. CPRE Surrey also complain that the relevant reasons in the inspector’s report were inadequate. The crucial point, common to both appeals, concerns the inspector’s recommended Main Modification 3, which the council accepted, whose effect was to increase the annual housing requirement figure in Waverley by 83 dwellings per annum – 1,575 dwellings over the whole plan period – to address unmet housing need in Woking.

There were four issues: “first, whether the inspector’s approach to the assessment of unmet housing need in Woking was unlawful and his conclusion unreasonable; second, whether his assessment was vitiated by a failure to seek further information; third, whether he was obliged to recommend a review of the Local Plan Part 1; and fourth, whether his reasons were inadequate”.

At paragraph 35 of his judgment Lindblom LJ sets out the principles applying where there is a challenge to a planning decision-maker’s assessment of housing need, by reference to the relevant case law.

He addresses the claimants’ arguments that the inspector had adopted an incorrect approach in failing to assess Woking’s objectively assessed need before deciding to increase Waverley’s housing requirement figure:

“I cannot accept those submissions, skilfully presented as they were. The fatal weakness in such arguments is that they draw the court beyond the line dividing the role of the judge from the role of the planning decision-maker – territory where the court will not intrude. In my view the judge’s analysis is consistent with the general principles recognized and applied in the authorities. As she held, the inspector’s approach to the issue of unmet housing need in Woking was lawful, and his conclusion did not exceed the range of reasonable planning judgment.”

“In the circumstances he was entitled to conclude, as a matter of planning judgment, that it was reasonable to calculate the necessary uplift to Waverley’s OAN by taking 50% of “the figure for unmet need identified through the [2015 SHMA] process”. This conclusion entailed not merely his judgment on the appropriate proportion, but, in effect, a composite judgment on both amount and proportion: hence the figure of 83 dwellings per annum. Another inspector might have reached a different conclusion on the same evidence, but this does not mean that the conclusion he did reach was legally bad. The conclusion that the appropriate proportion was 50% – rather than, say, 60% or 70% or 75% – was comfortably within the bounds of reasonable planning judgment. In judging this to be the appropriate proportion, the inspector took care not to overstate the amount of Woking’s unmet need that should be met in Waverley. This was a cautious judgment, which deliberately allowed for the uncertainties to which he had referred. The ingredients of the calculation itself were clear. They had been identified at the examination, and were explained in the inspector’s conclusions (paragraphs 26 and 29 and footnote 9). And the figure it produced was specific enough for its purpose. It was not unreasonably approximate.”

As for the attack on the adequacy of his reasons:

Generally at least, the reasons provided in an inspector’s report on the examination of a local plan may well satisfy the required standard if they are more succinctly expressed than the reasons in the report or decision letter of an inspector in a section 78 appeal against the refusal of planning permission. As Mr Beglan submitted, it is not likely that an inspector conducting a local plan examination will have to set out the evidence given by every participant if he is to convey to the “knowledgeable audience” for his report a clear enough understanding of how he has decided the main issues before him.

But the crucial point here is that the inspector explained sufficiently why he had concluded that 50% of Woking’s unmet housing need should be planned for in the Local Plan Part 1. His reasons leave no room for sensible doubt on that issue. He did not have to set out the representations in which various possible conclusions – a wide range of them – were put forward, or summarize the relevant evidence. Participants in the process were familiar with the submissions and evidence. The inspector’s reasons had only to set out the main parts of his assessment and the essential planning judgments in it. They did that.”

That reasoning is clear, adequate and intelligible. Nothing that ought to be there is left out. Nothing is obscure. The appellants disagree with the outcome of the inspector’s assessment. But they cannot say that the reasons he gave in those four paragraphs of his report left them unable to see why he concluded as he did.

Simon Ricketts, 6 December 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Image courtesy of Surrey Life

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