Just as solutions are beginning to emerge to unlock the development embargos that have been in place in many areas due to the nutrient neutrality issue, areas of Sussex now have a new problem: water.
For over two years now, where the integrity of special areas of conservation or special protection areas (areas of nature conservation importance previously protected at EU level) are already under stress due to nitrate or phosphate pollution (usually due to historic farming practices), Natural England has been advising local planning authorities that an appropriate assessment cannot be reached under regulation 63 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to the effect that further development, causing additional sewage or surface water run-off will not affect the integrity of nearby SACs and SPAs unless measures will are secured to achieve neutrality, either on or off site. Under the 2017 Regulations, unless a development can pass that appropriate assessment test it’s stuffed, no go.
Topically, HBF’s director for cities, James Stevens, has written an article Wading through the effluent in the October 2021 edition of Housebuilder magazine as to the problems being caused to housebuilders by needing to achieve nutrient neutrality, even where a technical solution can be found – the average costs being apparently over £5,000 per dwelling.
But those involved with development in Horsham, Crawley and Chichester, which fall within the Sussex North Water Supply Zone, are all now faced with an even more challenging issue: the potential need to demonstrate water neutrality. Natural England has become increasingly concerned as to the impact of groundwater abstraction on the Arun Valley SPA, SAC and Ramsar site. It has recently published its Position Statement for Applications within the Sussex North Water Supply Zone – interim approach (September 2021):
“Natural England has advised that this matter should be resolved in partnership through Local Plans across the affected authorities, where policy and assessment can be agreed and secured to ensure water use is offset for all new developments within Sussex North. To achieve this Natural England is working in partnership with all the relevant authorities to secure water neutrality collectively through a water neutrality strategy.
Whilst the strategy is evolving, Natural England advises that decisions on planning applications should await its completion. However, if there are applications which a planning authority deems critical to proceed in the absence of the strategy, then Natural England advises that any application needs to demonstrate water neutrality. We have provided the following agreed interim approach for demonstrating water neutrality:
The relevant authorities are now advising applicants accordingly. Crawley Borough Council’s website for instance now says this:
“Developers / planning applicants who can demonstrate water neutrality such as having significant water efficiency measures built into their development and by providing offsetting measures to reduce water consumption from existing development, and who are able to enter into legal obligations to secure these measures, would be able to proceed, subject to the planning process. The onus is on developers and planning applicants to demonstrate that they can deliver water neutrality for their proposals. For applications in these circumstances which are not able to do this, the Local Planning Authority [the council] when determining a decision, would unfortunately have no choice but to refuse them, as a matter of law, in light of the Natural England Statement.
The Local Planning Authority [the council] has written urgently to agents of affected applicants advising them of Natural England’s position and advising them that, for the time being, all applications where a positive decision / recommendation was / is to be made on an application will have to be delayed if they are within the Southern Water supply zone, until the matter of water neutrality can be addressed.”
Without speedy solutions, this is going to create real problems both for individual developers in the area and for authorities in bringing forward deliverable local plans.
No doubt there will be solutions in due course (and questions do have to be asked as to whether the issue really lies with the water abstraction licences, which presumably were the subject of appropriate assessment under the 2017 Regulations and their statutory predecessors, rather than with those who are seeking to have access the abstraction of which has already been licensed!) but how long will that take and at whose cost?
In the meantime, what an unplanned mess.
Simon Ricketts, 9 October 2021
Personal views, et cetera
Talking of Planning Law Unplanned…our clubhouse session will tackle this subject in more detail with practical, authoritative, input from special guests including Peter Home (mentioned above), Tim Goodwin, Charlie Banner QC, Richard Turney and others. Do join us at 6 pm on Tuesday 12 October. Link to app here.
A personal rant, with apologies. Did you see that quote in the Daily Mail about the long awaited Planning Bill?
“A Government source said ministers would be in ‘listening mode’ on the issue when Parliament returns in September, adding: ‘We’ll listen and we’ll move.
‘We can take some of the edges off that are upsetting people and still get some important changes through.
‘The bottom line is we have got to get more houses built. The average age of a first-time buyer is 34. We have to get that down and give younger people a chance to get a stake in society.’”
Listening to whom, do we think? Backbench Conservative MPs of course and voters in relevant constituencies of course. Anyone else? Shrugging shoulders emoji.
Does the Government really believe that it can make changes that materially accelerate the delivery of homes, without upsetting voters and therefore backbench Conservative MPs? (I’m only focusing on the Conservative party because it is in Government – Labour MPs are hardly falling over themselves either to support development in their constituencies, and as for the Liberal Democrats…). I see it all around me, the social norm/knee jerk reaction to a development proposal being to object and being to assume that everyone else will want to object too – whether green field development (it should be on a brown field site) or the development of a brown field site (oh not there, too high, setting, infrastructure etc etc). Of course it is hoped that exhortations as to design will make a difference in making development less unpopular, but, even travelling optimistically, that is going to take a long long time.
So what are the “edges” that are going to be taken off the white paper proposals?
It’s obvious isn’t it? No doubt the idea that national housing targets will actually, perish the thought, have to be planned for by each local authority on a local basis, let alone find their way through to consents and development, isn’t just out of the window, it’s jumped down onto the pavement and skipped half way down the street by now.
“One leading rebel said: ‘If this ends up being a developers’ free-for-all, it will be utterly toxic for Tory MPs everywhere – not just in the South East.
‘If ministers get this wrong we can kiss goodbye to our new electoral success.
‘We will be doing the Lib Dems’ job for them across the Midlands, the South and the suburbs where we’ve had massive growth in recent years.
‘People are fed up. Being seen as the party concreting over our countryside or ramming housing estates into suburban green spaces will be electoral suicide. Boris needs to get a grip on this.’ Rebels want the idea of mandatory house-building targets replaced with voluntary ones.
They also want ministers to drop ‘growth zones’ in which planning applications would be automatically approved.”
Can we be clear: no-one I know in the development and planning world wants a fudged, bodged, old failed ideas re-branded, camel of a Planning Bill. Forget the whole thing rather than waste valuable time on a set of reforms based on political trade-offs and trying to be all things to all people. If as a politician you can’t focus on the objectives – climate change, providing everyone with a decent home, a functioning economy – because you’re just worrying about holding onto power and a job, forget it, don’t even start: with that frame of mind you will make things worse not better.
Without (1) a clear articulation of how many homes need to be built across the country, with a published evidence base to support that number (whether that’s 300,000 a year, or lower, or – probably – higher) and (2) those numbers somehow being divided out across the country without local opportunities for prolonged delays, obfuscation and special pleading (a year on from the white paper it is still really difficult to work out how this can be done), the system will continue to meander on its way – through the interminable plan making local politics, through the lengthy, unpredictable, too detailed and yet too light touch, examinations and through the inevitable court challenges.
The incoming coalition government in 2010 tore up top-down planning, in the form of the regional strategies, before the system even had time to prove itself. Yes it was an slow and over-engineered process, but there was at least the opportunity for democracy at the regional level in setting and apportioning numbers. The return to a bottom up approach, together with the let’s cross our fingers and rely on the duty (not really) to co-operate, and with a semi voluntary, almost unmappable, ad hoc patchwork of local authority combinations and alliances, has led to local plans being mired in endless debates as to numbers. Even with a supposedly standard method for calculating local housing need, those endless debates continue in every green belt local authority area – see Cherwell Development Watch Alliance v Cherwell District Council & Secretary of State (Thornton J, 30 July 2021) for the most recent example.
How are we going to get out of that mire, plan quickly and positively, stabilise spiralling house prices, reduce the age at which adult working offspring can leave the parental home to live somewhere convenient (let alone buy their own home – that’s a first world problem compared to the need for an affordable home in the first place), if local housing numbers are going to be left for local authorities and communities to determine?
Pray tell, “Government source”.
Simin Ricketts, 6 August 2021
Personal views, et cetera
Two great clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned events coming up:
⁃ 6pm Tuesday 10 August: Stonehenge road tunnel consent quashed: why, how, what next – discussion led by junior counsel to Save Stonehenge, Victoria Hutton. Link to invitation here.
⁃ 6pm Tuesday 17 August: AN END TO UGLY: The Office for Place & NMDC unpacked – special guests Nicholas Boys-Smith (chair, Office for Place), Dr Chris Miele (Montagu Evans) and Vicky Payne (URBED). Link to invitation here.
On 16 December 2020 the Government abruptly abandoned its proposed revised standard method for calculating local housing need, in the face of political and media pressure from those who saw the method increasing substantially the figure for their particular areas. I covered the consultation as to the proposed revised method in my 29 August 2020 blog post, asking whether we might see a fudged outcome.
So the Government has decided to stick to its previous 2017 method (just as much of an algorithm, equally “mutant”), one based on out of date household formation figures from 2014 (2014!), but with a heavy handed readjustment of the figures to ensure that they still add up to 300,000 homes (a number which itself has no empirical basis – but reflective of the extent of the, plain to see, housing crisis). The heavy handed-adjustment? To increase the relevant figure by 35% for England’s 20 largest towns and cities, including London.
Imagine if a local planning authority attempted to include housing numbers in its plan in such a way, without evidence! (Or indeed if it introduced a blanket “approve it all” policy equivalent to the effect of the new class E to C3 PD right!).
If anyone knows about planning and housing, it’s Chris Young QC. He had put forward constructive suggestions for improving the proposals given the unduly low numbers the draft revised method would have achieved for much of the north. His subsequent LinkedIn post was incandescent:
“- Confused about the “new” Standard Method?
– Baffled why it fails to address levelling up across the North?
– Mystified why in an economic crisis, Govt would focus on the largest cities where apartment prices are falling?
– Troubled by the urban focus, when overcrowded housing is a key factor for the UK having the highest Covid 19 death rate in Europe?
Well, here’s what just happened
Govt introduced Standard Method 1 in 2017 to make housing targets simpler. But it added up to less than its own 300,000 annual target, and collapsed housebuilding in the North
In August, Govt consulted on a revised version. But it contained a double affordability uplift which piled the numbers into the Shires, causing a Tory revolt
Then experts in this field came up with a more appropriate set of numbers focussing on achieving 300,000 and levelling up the North.
And then Ministers bottled it
They decided to leave the formula, which they know doesn’t work, the same. But add 35% to the major constrained cities nearly all of which are Labour controlled, pinning their hopes on a collapse in the office market and town centres and the use of PD rights
Housing policy in this country is not about housing people. Its now 100% about politics”
I’ve no problem with an urban focus, but what really is the point when those higher numbers will not be achieved, meaning an inevitable failure to achieve the overall target?
Let’s take a step back (watch out for the Christmas tree though).
The Government’s NPPF tells local planning authorities this:
“To determine the minimum number of homes needed, strategic policies should be informed by a local housing need assessment, conducted using the standard method in national planning guidance – unless exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach which also reflects current and future demographic trends and market signals. In addition to the local housing need figure, any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas should also be taken into account in establishing the amount of housing to be planned for.” (paragraph 60).
The new standard method is incredibly important, both for this purpose, and because it will form the basis for the new plan-making system proposed in the white paper, where local planning authorities will have to plan, without deviation, for the numbers handed down to them (numbers which will be based on this standard method and then tweaked by government by way of an as yet undevised process).
To understand the detail what has now been introduced, and the justifications given, there are four relevant documents, all published on 16 December 2020:
The response document tries to downplay the role of the numbers – making them out not to be a “target” but a “starting point”:
“Many respondents to the consultation were concerned that the ‘targets’ provided by the standard method were not appropriate for individual local authority areas. Within the current planning system the standard method does not present a ‘target’ in plan-making, but instead provides a starting point for determining the level of need for the area, and it is only after consideration of this, alongside what constraints areas face, such as the Green Belt, and the land that is actually available for development, that the decision on how many homes should be planned for is made. It does not override other planning policies, including the protections set out in Paragraph 11b of the NPPF or our strong protections for the Green Belt. It is for local authorities to determine precisely how many homes to plan for and where those homes most appropriately located. In doing this they should take into account their local circumstances and constraints. In order to make this policy position as clear as possible, we will explore how we can make changes through future revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework, including whether a renaming of the policy could provide additional clarity.”
Weaselly words! Of course they are a target. This methodology can no longer be said to be a proper methodological assessment of local need based on demographics and household formation rates – if nothing else, the 35% uplift for the major towns and cities puts paid to that. The justification given for the uplift is a policy justification:
“”First, building in existing cities and urban centres ensures that new homes can maximise existing infrastructure such as public transport, schools, medical facilities and shops. Second, there is potentially a profound structural change working through the retail and commercial sector, and we should expect more opportunities for creative use of land in urban areas to emerge. Utilising this land allows us to give priority to the development of brownfield land, and thereby protect our green spaces. And third, our climate aspirations demand that we aim for a spatial pattern of development that reduces the need for unnecessary high-carbon travel.”
I quoted Chris Young earlier. For an equally brilliant, expert and authoritative analysis how about Lichfields? This is a superb post by Matthew Spry and Bethan Hayes Mangling the mutant: change to the standard method for local housing need on the day of the announcement, including indications as to what the new numbers will mean for the 20 largest towns and cities:
How quickly will the changes come into effect? The Government’s response document says this:
“From the date of publication of the amended planning practice guidance which implements the cities and urban centres uplift, authorities already at Regulation 19, will have six months to submit their plans to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, using the previous standard method. In recognition that some areas will be very close to publishing their Regulation 19 plan, these areas will be given three months from the publication date of the revised guidance to publish their Regulation 19 plan, as well as a further six months from the date they publish their Regulation 19 plan to submit their plan to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, to benefit from the transition period.
The standard method has a role not only in plan-making, but is also used in planning decisions to determine whether an area has identified a 5 year land supply for homes and for the purposes of the Housing Delivery Test (where strategic policies are more than five years old). Where this applies, the revised standard method (inclusive of the cities and urban areas uplift) will not apply for a period of six months from the publication of the amended planning practice guidance. After 6 months, the new standard method will apply.”
“It is clear that in London, in the medium term, there will need to be a much more ambitious approach to delivering the homes the capital needs. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government expects to agree the London Plan with the Mayor shortly. This new plan, when adopted, will set London’s housing requirement for the next 5 years. The local housing need uplift we are setting out today will therefore only be applicable once the next London Plan is being developed. In order to support London to deliver the right homes in the right places, the government and Homes England are working with the Greater London Authority to boost delivery through the Home Building Fund. Homes England has been providing expertise and experience to support the development of key sites in London. Sites like Old Oak Common, Nine Elms and Inner East London provide opportunities to deliver homes on significant brownfield sites. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will consider giving Homes England a role in London to help meet this challenge, working more closely with the Greater London Authority, boroughs and development corporations to take a more direct role in the delivery of strategic sites in London and the preparation of robust bids for the new National Homebuilding Fund.”
A final musing for the lawyers. It has become a bit of a knee jerk reaction to proposals to question whether strategic environmental assessment was in fact required but…was it?
“From the statutory framework it can be seen that a plan or programme is only required to be the subject of an environmental assessment if all four of the following requirements are satisfied:-
(1) The plan or programme must be subject to preparation or adoption by an authority at national, regional, or local level, or be prepared by an authority for adoption, through a legislative procedure by Parliament or Government;
(2) The plan or programme must be required by legislative, regulatory or administrative provisions;
(3) The plan or programme must set the framework for future development consents of projects; and
(4) The plan or programme must be likely to have significant environmental effects.”
It was held in that case that the GPDO and Use Classes Order changes did not require SEA because they do not set the framework for future development consents.
The previous challenge to NPPF changes in Friends of the Earth v Secretary of State (Dove J, 6 March 2019) had also failed. Dove J held that, whilst it did set the framework for subsequent development consents, the NPPF was not a measure “required by legislative regulatory or administrative provisions“.
But what is wrong with the following analysis?
⁃ criterion 1 – standard method = a plan prepared by government
⁃ criterion 2 – standard method = a plan required by administrative provisions, i.e. required by NPPF paragraph 60
⁃ criterion 3 – standard method sets framework for local plans and for decision making – e.g. onus on the major towns and cities in their next plans to plan for 35% more homes or suffer consequences via the tilted balance and housing delivery test – indeed geographically specific in a way which the NPPF and PPG has previously largely avoided
⁃ criterion 4 – standard method likely to have significant environmental effects – of course.
In any event, wouldn’t some evidence be helpful, as well as a proper assessment of impacts and alternatives, before lurching to a new system that has moved a long way further away from being any methodological assessment of local housing need?
What happens when a development plan, or one or more of its policies, is found to be unlawful? There have been two instances of this in 2020: in relation to the Leeds Site Allocations Plan (in the Aireborough case, the subject of three rulings by Lieven J between January and August this year) and in relation to the Harrogate Local Plan (in the Flaxby case, the subject of a ruling by Holgate J last week).
My firm acted for the claimant in both cases (alongside Jenny Wigley in Aireborough and Christopher Katkowski QC and Richard Moules in Flaxby). Aside from the substantive issues arising, the cases are interesting examples of the flexibility that the court has when it finds against the plan making authority. By virtue of the changes made to section 113 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase 2004 by the Planning Act 2008, the court no longer simply has to quash the plan, or relevant part of the plan (meaning that the authority would need to start again) but can “remit” the plan back to an earlier stage in its preparation so that decisions can be taken again, from the stage where the errors occurred.
I set out the relevant sub-sections of Section 113 as follows:
(7) The High Court may—
(a) quash the relevant document;
(b) remit the relevant document to a person or body with a function relating to its preparation, publication, adoption or approval.
(7A) If the High Court remits the relevant document under subsection (7)(b) it may give directions as to the action to be taken in relation to the document.
(7B) Directions under subsection (7A) may in particular—
(a) require the relevant document to be treated (generally or for specified purposes) as not having been approved or adopted;
(b) require specified steps in the process that has resulted in the approval or adoption of the relevant document to be treated (generally or for specified purposes) as having been taken or as not having been taken;
(c) require action to be taken by a person or body with a function relating to the preparation, publication, adoption or approval of the document (whether or not the person or body to which the document is remitted);
(d) require action to be taken by one person or body to depend on what action has been taken by another person or body.
(7C) The High Court’s powers under subsections (7) and (7A) are exercisable in relation to the relevant document—
(a) wholly or in part;
(b) generally or as it affects the property of the applicant.
At an initial hearing Lieven J first considered arguments at by Leeds City Council and the two developer interested parties that as an unincorporated association the Aireborough Neighbourhood Development Forum did not have legal capacity to bring the claim. After a useful review of the caselaw on standing, the judge held that the Forum could indeed bring the claim: the “critical question in judicial review or statutory challenge is whether the claimant is a person aggrieved or has standing to challenge, which is not a test of legal capacity but rather one of sufficient interest in the decision not to be a mere busybody.”
Judgment 2: substantive issues
There was then the main hearing, which lasted two days.
The Site Allocations Plan (SAP) had initially been promoted on the basis of housing need evidence prepared in accordance with Leeds City Council’s 2014 core strategy. The significant level of housing need identified by the core strategy was used as the basis for exceptional circumstances justifying green belt releases. However, the housing need requirement was reduced during the course of the SAP examination based on changes to the government’s standard methodology for assessing housing need, and a much lower housing need requirement was therefore promoted the city council as part of a selective review of the core strategy (CSSR) being promoted at the same time as the SAP.
The city council proceeded with the adoption of the SAP, in accordance with the examining inspectors’ recommendation, notwithstanding the claimant’s submissions that the case for exceptional circumstances had been undermined given the lower housing need.
The claim was successful on three grounds. The judge found that the material change of circumstances had been insufficiently considered and its consequences insufficiently explained by the examining inspectors. This amounted to a failure to provide adequate reasons, which had been contended in two grounds of challenge. The inspectors also made an error of fact amounting to an error of law in calculating housing need figures.
The defendant was found also to have breached the Strategic Environment Assessment Regulations by failing to consider and consult upon a “reasonable alternative” to continuing with the SAP in materially changed circumstances. However, relief was not granted in respect of this ground of challenge because the failure was found not to have been likely to have resulted in a different outcome.
Following hand down of the main judgment Lieven J then needed to consider the parties’ written submissions as to the relief to be granted to give effect to her judgment: whether to quash all or part of the document or to remit it back to the city council or Secretary of State.
The dispute between the parties was as to the appropriate remedy under section 113 and the scope of any remedy, i.e. whether it should apply across the whole of Leeds rather than just the area for which the claimant was the neighbourhood development forum. Applying University of Bath v North Somerset Council (HHJ Alice Robinson, 7 March 2013), the judge determined that remittal was the appropriate remedy, as she held that it was appropriate to go back to the stage where the error of law occurred rather than back to the very beginning of the local plan process.
The judge also held that the scope of the remedy should be all Green Belt allocations in Leeds, rather than just those in Aireborough. Although the claim was focused on Aireborough, the claim was never limited to only those sites. The grounds of challenge went to the Green Belt allocations in their entirety. In the face of submissions from the Secretary of State, the allocations were remitted back to the inspectors and the judge indicated that it would be for the council to consider what modifications if any to make.
Flaxby Park Limited v Harrogate Borough Council (Holgate J, 25 November 2020) concerned the new settlements policy within the plan, which purported to identify a broad location for a new settlement within the borough, at Green Hammerton/Cattal. Flaxby Park Limited argued that that the council had not properly considered its alternative proposals.
The detailed chronology is set out at length in Holgate J’s judgment but in basic summary, the local plan inspector agreed with Flaxby that the council should carry out further sustainability appraisal to consider possible reasonable alternatives to the Green Hammerton/Cattal, including broad locations around Flaxby and other new settlement options.
The council carried out further work and consulted upon it, reported it and the consultation responses to the inspector who concluded that the plan was sound. The council then adopted the plan.
In summary, Flaxby’s complaints were partly as to the adequacy of the sustainability appraisal work and the extent to which it had been taken into account by the council, arguing that the council (1) had failed properly to consider the outcome of the assessment of alternative “broad locations” (and officers purported to carry out that consideration rather than the council itself) (2) had failed to compare the broad locations of Flaxby and Green Hammerton/Cattal on an equal basis because it did not include in the Additional sustainability appraisal work an additional 630 ha of land which had been identified by consultees and (3) had failed properly to examine viability and deliverability of the Green Hammerton/Cattal proposals.
The judge partly accepted the first complaint, in that, after an examination of the extent to which decisions in relation to the local plan process may lawfully be delegated, he found that “the full Council did not take into account the final SEA material and consultation responses, or a summary and analysis thereof, when they resolved to adopt the local plan”.
The judge has ordered that “the whole of Local Plan shall be remitted firstly, to the Defendant’s Cabinet to re-consider whether or not to accept the Inspector’s recommendations in so far as they related to the New Settlement Policies, and secondly, to the Defendant’s full Council to consider the Cabinet’s decision, whether or not to accept the Inspector’s recommendations in so far as they related to the New Settlement Policies, and whether or not to adopt the Local Plan with those policies.”
For completeness while we are talking about local plan challenges…
This claim focused on the Local Plan’s Policy BE2 which, in operation with other parts of the plan, releases from the green belt a site of approximately 32 hectares of mainly agricultural land at Hollands Farm, south-east of High Wycombe, allocating the majority of the site for housing (some 467 dwellings).
The main grounds of challenge were first that Policy BE2 releasing the Site from the green belt was adopted on a basis of misunderstanding or misinterpretation of national policy (including the National Planning Policy Framework 2012 paragraphs 47 and 50) and guidance (including the 2014 Planning Practice Guidance) regarding published household projections, in part involving erroneous calculations of “objectively assessed housing need” (“OAHN”) for the local area. Second, that that Policy BE2 releasing the Site from the green belt was adopted on a basis of misapplication of national green belt policy requiring exceptional circumstances for release of land from green belt, in part as there were no exceptional circumstances.
Holgate J rejected all grounds of challenge. He stated that “it is important for the court to emphasise … that its role is not to consider the merits of the Council’s proposed policy or of the objections made to it. The court is only able to consider whether an error of law has been made in the decision or in the process leading up to it.”
On the first ground, Holgate J held that the local plan had been adopted following proper consideration of applicable published household projections, without errors of law, and with appropriate planning judgment being exercised by decision-makers. In doing so, he commented that “There have been many attempts in the last few years to entice the courts into making pronouncements on the methods used to assess OAHN. Repeatedly the response has been that this is a matter of planning judgment for the decision-maker and not for the courts.”
On the second ground, Holgate J held that, on the basis of there being no definition of the policy concept of “exceptional circumstances”, the expression “is deliberately broad and not susceptible to dictionary definition. The matter is left to the judgment of the decision-maker in all the circumstances of the case. Whether a factor is capable of being an exceptional circumstance may be a matter of law, as an issue of legal relevance. But whether it amounts to such a circumstance in any given case is a matter of planning judgment”. He held that the relevant decision-maker’s (an Inspector) reasons for finding “exceptional circumstances” do not “raise any substantial doubt as to whether a public law error was committed”; the “overall package of considerations upon which the Inspector relied was plainly capable of amounting to “exceptional circumstances” and could not be described as simply “commonplace”. It is impossible to say that the judgment which the Inspector reached was irrational. It did not fall outside the range of decisions which a reasonable Inspector could reach.”
The Court of Appeal this month refused the claimant permission to appeal.
are probably the three words I most associate with the planning system in England, since you asked.
The main part of this post is a commentary by special guest and fellow Town partner Duncan Field on the Government’s Planning for the future white paper, published on 6 August 2020.
But before we get to that, some initial comments from me on timescales.
The consultation period on the white paper ends on 29 October 2020.
The aspiration in the document is that (subject to time extensions for recent plans) new local plans should be in place by the end of this Parliament, so by Spring 2024. Given that those local plans will take up to 30 months to be put in place under the new system proposed, the necessary primary legislation will need to have been passed and in force, with any necessary accompanying Regulations and guidance, by Autumn 2021.
By way of proxy for legislative timescales, the less ambitious Housing and Planning Act 2016 and Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 each took around seven months to pass through the necessary Parliamentary stages, which would mean introducing a Bill by the beginning of 2021. One perhaps has to look back to the Localism Act 2011 for planning legislation of equivalent complexity. That took eleven months from soup to nuts.
Something is going to have to give – either there is going to be rushed consideration of these proposals, which still need significant refinement, or that “end of this Parliament” aspiration is going to have to be reconsidered before long.
But in any event, things can be expected to move quickly.
The timescales in that document for the four sets of proposals within it are as follows:
· changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need: “Following the outcome of this consultation, the Government will update the planning practice guidance with the revised standard method for assessing local housing need.”
· securing of First Homes through developer contributions in the short term until the transition to a new system: “We intend to begin by making planning policy changes, to ensure that clear expectations are set. However, to ensure that First Homes are delivered, nationwide, on a consistent basis, we are keeping under consideration the option to strengthen the policy through primary legislation at a future date. We also intend to introduce an exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy for First Homes, to enable delivery prior to wider developer contribution reform. This would require changes to regulations. Lastly, we are also considering significant reforms to the system of developer contributions. We will ensure that First Homes willcontinue to be delivered under a reformed approach”
· supporting small and medium-sized builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing: “Following the consultation, a decision will be taken on whether to proceed with this approach. If it is taken forward, this could be through the introduction of a Written Ministerial Statement in the Autumn.”
· extending the current Permission in Principle to major development: “Following this consultation, if we introduce Permission in Principle by application for major development, we aim to introduce amending regulations this Autumn, with the regulations expected to come into force by the end of the calendar year. Changes to the fee structure would require separate changes to the Planning Fees Regulations.”
The white paper is in my view a considered document and less radical than might have been expected, although certainly ambitious in its breadth. Proposals spin out of it, one after the other, often just in a sentence or two. There are of course areas where there needs to be further thought or explanation. For me, there are two big ones in particular:
⁃ the way in which housing numbers are to be set by the Government for individual authorities and how to resolve the inevitable tension between a swifter examination process and a process that allows proposals in a plan (and the basis for proposals not being in the plan) to be properly tested (particularly where the plan is going to be the equivalent of a series of outline planning permissions for its growth areas);
⁃ how this new infrastructure levy is really going to work and how obligations are going to be addressed that presently are dealt with by way of section 106 agreement, in particular the delivery of affordable housing.
There will also have to be a clear working through of the respective powers and responsibilities across the system, as between government, strategic authorities, local planning authorities and neighbourhoods.
I must say that I found Chris Katkowski QC’s explanations in the latest Have We Got Planning News For You episode really helpful in bringing the proposals, and the thinking behind them, to life. And, boring to say, there is no substitute for reading the actual document.
Planning for the Future begins with some fairly combative language, referring to “our outdated and ineffective planning system” and drawing comparisons with a patched up building which needs to be torn down.
In truth the Government’s proposals do not go quite as far as that and in practice, to continue with the same analogy, we might end up with a better and more sustainable outcome if we were to save the parts of the “patched up building” which have architectural merit. The biggest problem with the current system is not that it is all inherently bad but that it is not sufficiently resourced; it is a pity that planning reforms by successive Governments have never really grappled with that central issue. The good news on this occasion is that the new system will be accompanied by a comprehensive skills and resources strategy for local authorities and key participants in the system; let’s hope the Government delivers on that.
Further on in the document there are some powerful words from the Secretary of State which bring home just how important a time this is for the planning system and what it can deliver. It is hard to disagree with any of this:
The outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the economic and social lives of the entire nation. With so many people spending more time at home than ever before, we have come to know our homes, gardens and local parks more intimately. For some this has been a welcome opportunity to spend more time in the place they call home with the people they love. For others – those in small, substandard homes, those unable to walk to distant shops or parks, those struggling to pay their rent, or indeed for those who do not have a home of their own at all – this has been a moment where longstanding issues in our development and planning system have come to the fore.
Onto the objectives for reform, which can be summarised as follows:
• Reduce complexity and with it, uncertainty and delay.
• In doing so, deliver a more competitive market with a greater diversity of developers.
• Remove the discretionary nature of individual development management decisions and replace it with a rule-based system of development control.
• In doing so, reduce planning risk and the cost of capital for development.
• Reduce the time it takes to produce a local plan.
• Simplify assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts.
• Restore public trust and encourage more widespread public participation.
• Get better at unlocking growth and opportunity, encouraging beautiful new places, supporting town and city centres and revitalising existing buildings as well as new development.
• Harness digital technology.
Linked to this is a long list of desired outcomes including the user experience, home ownership, access to infrastructure, economic growth and innovation.
We then come to the main proposals which the Government intends to bring forward:
1. Local plans
a. These will be simplified so that they only identify land for development, the sites that should be protected and the development that can take place. There would be three categories of land:
i. Growth – sites suitable for comprehensive development which, once allocated, will have outline approval for development.
ii. Renewal – sites where smaller scale development is appropriate, which would benefit from a statutory presumption in favour of development once allocated.
iii. Protected – sites with environmental or cultural characteristics where development should be subject to more stringent controls.
An alternative approach might be a more binary system (growth and renewal with permission in principle versus protected areas) or more scope for the existing development management approach in areas other than those allocated for “growth”.
b. Plans should become digital, visual and map-based, interactive and data rich, using a standardised approach to support open access.
c. Local plans (and neighbourhood plans) will be more focused on giving clear area-specific requirements for land that is allocated for growth and renewal including design codes; generic development management policies and duplication of national policy and guidance needs to be avoided.
d. Plans should be subject to a single test of achieving sustainable development instead of the current tests for soundness and the duty to co-operate. There would be no Sustainability Appraisal and instead this would be replaced by a simplified process for assessing the environmental impact of plans.
e. Local plans would meet housing need by reference to a standard method for establishing housing requirements developed and set at a national level; this would mean distributing the national housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes annually, and one million homes by the end of the Parliament, taking into account local factors including constraints, opportunities and affordability. The Housing Delivery Test would stay.
f. Local plans would have to be brought forward by reference to a fixed 30 month statutory timescale with six stages and individual timings for each stage.
g. Local planning authorities would be under a duty to review their plans every 5 years; powers of intervention would remain such as the issuing of directions and preparation of a plan in consultation with local people.
h. Neighbourhood Plans to be retained but with more focus on form of development to reflect the proposals for Local Plans.
This is a refreshingly clear vision of what local plans might become and a digitalised system would be transformative for the user experience and public engagement. However, there are some big questions around how to encourage strategic planning across local authority boundaries for the bigger than local issues (the Government is open to suggestions), how in practice the “sustainable development” test would work and, linked to that, how robust the new environmental assessment process will be.
Equally as important, what will the effect of these promised changes be on current local plans? Without further incentives or assurances around their continuing effect in any transitional arrangements as we switch over to the new system, there must be a real concern they will be halted in their tracks.
2. Development Management
a. As indicated above, growth areas allocated in a local plan would have outline permission for the principle of development; details would be agreed and full planning permission achieved through a new reserved matters process, a local development order or possibly, on bigger sites, via a development consent order.
b. Renewal areas would benefit from a new statutory presumption in favour of development and would benefit from either a new automatic consenting route where specified forms of development meet design and other prior approval requirements, a faster planning application process or a local or neighbourhood development order.
c. Proposals which do not conform to the local plan in renewal and growth areas could still come forward, exceptionally, through a planning application process.
d. In protected areas, proposals will have to be brought forward via a planning application (subject to any permitted development rights or local development orders) and will be judged against the NPPF.
e. Generally, the development management process will be based on a more streamlined end-to-end process with firm deadlines for determination through a mix of:
ii. Data access;
iii. Shorter and standardised applications with reduced or limited supporting material;
iv. A standardised approach to technical information, conditions and developer contributions; and
v. Delegation of detailed planning decisions to planning officers where the principle of development has been established.
f. The Government will build in incentives for prompt determination of applications by local planning authorities such as deemed approval of some applications or refunds of application fees.
g. The process will still be subject to call-in powers and appeals but the Government expects the volume of call-ins and appeals to reduce over time.
h. There will be encouragement for faster build out by making provision in local plans/design codes for a variety of development types by different builders (picking up on the conclusions of the Letwin Review).
This vision for the new development management system feels less clear: permission in principle and outline planning permission are used interchangeably in places as a consequence of land being allocated for growth; however, over and above this, there appears to be provision for a “full” planning permission through a new reserved matters system or local development orders or even development consent orders. Would this not remove a lot of the benefit of allocating land for growth? There is also a myriad of possible ways in which land allocated for renewal might gain consent and, in the meantime, we retain the current planning application process as well. If the Government is not careful it might add to the complexity of development management.
Certainly, we can all get on board with the much-needed streamlining of the development management process from end to end, with more standardisation, reducing the quantity of application documents and increased use of digital technology. However, resourcing this change will be key to its success.
3. Building better, building beautiful and sustainable places
Design and place-making is still high up on the Government’s political agenda. Proposals in this space include the following:
a. A National Model Design Code to be published in the Autumn which will work alongside the National Design Guide and the Manual for Streets; together these are expected to have a bearing on design of new communities and to guide decisions on development. (This will be an early entrant into the current planning system.)
b. Local guides and codes are to be prepared wherever possible to reflect local character but need to have input from the local community before they are given any weight in the planning process.
c. A new expert body will be set up to help local authorities make use of design guidance and codes, as well as performing a wider monitoring and challenge role for the sector.
d. The much-heralded “fast-track” for beauty will be achieved through:
i. The NPPF – which will have provision for schemes that comply with local design guides and codes to be approved quickly;
ii. Legislation to require that sites in growth areas should have a masterplan and site-specific code as a condition of the permission in principle which is granted through allocation in the local plan; and
iii. Widening permitted development rights through the use of “pattern books” for different building types.
e. The NPPF will require targeted consideration of measures to support climate change mitigation and adaptation. (In our view, policy has been playing catch-up on climate change for some time – this is long overdue and should be welcomed.)
f. There will be a quicker and simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts, stepping away from the current frameworks such as Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal and Environmental Impact Assessment. The key requirements for the new framework will be:
i. early consideration;
ii. clear and easy to understand; and
iii. avoidance of duplication.
A further consultation on this is expected in the Autumn.
g. The Government intends to review and update the planning framework for listed buildings and conservation areas, to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing, where appropriate, sympathetic changes to support their continued use and address climate change.
h. Improvements to the energy efficiency standards for buildings will be brought forward to help meet the 2050 net zero commitment.
The intention here is clear and consistent with the recent focus of the Government on design and beauty in the planning system. The area with the most loaded questions is the promised framework for assessing environmental impact; in our view, there is clear scope to reduce the voluminous and highly technical nature of the current framework but now is not the time to water it down in terms of its ambit and its protective function. We will have to wait until the Autumn to find out more.
There are radical proposals for the funding of infrastructure:
a. Replace S106 obligations and the current version of Community Infrastructure Levy with a new Infrastructure Levy calculated as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory, nationally-set rate or rates (potentially variable by area).
b. This new levy will be charged on the final value of a development (or an assessed sales value where the development is not sold, e.g. build to rent) by reference to the rate in force when planning permission is granted. This would have to be paid before occupation.
c. Local authorities would be able to borrow against Infrastructure Levy revenues so that they could forward fund infrastructure.
d. The London Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy and similar strategic Community Infrastructure Levies in combined authorities could be retained.
e. The Infrastructure Levy Could be extended to capture changes of use without additional floor area and through permitted development.
f. The new levy would be extended to fund affordable housing. Allowance would be made for in-kind delivery on-site, which could be made mandatory where an authority has a requirement, a capability to deliver on site and wishes to do so. In those circumstances local authorities would be able to specify the form and tenure of the on-site provision. The Government anticipates that there would need to be a considered policy approach to the risk of imbalance between the value of the agreed in-kind delivery and the fluctuating nature of the levy liability, contingent as it will be on the development value.
g. Local authorities could be given more freedom on how they spend the levy.
There is a lot of detail to be worked through here. Setting the new levy at a level which does not deter development (and indeed land supply through the price paid by developers) will be key and a difficult issue to judge.
The Government will also need to be scrupulous in ensuring that affordable housing continues to come forward using levy funds and still comes forward as part of mixed and balanced communities.
The removal of the blunt and inflexible tool that we have come to love or hate in the form of CIL is welcome in our view and with it the removal of a considerable amount of confusing and time-consuming red tape. For practical reasons – not least delivering site-specific solutions for development – we are not sure we are witnessing the end of S106 obligations or an equivalent just yet but they will undoubtedly be slimmed down.
The consultation document ends with a few final proposals and thoughts from Government on the delivery of a new planning system:
a. As a first step there is a parallel consultation on changes to the current system including extension of Permission in Principle (by application to major development), the standard method for assessing local housing need, First Homes and supporting SME builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing. More here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/changes-to-the-current-planning-system
b. The Government sees a potential delivery role for development corporations.
c. The reforms are considered likely to reduce judicial review risk.
d. The need for resources and skills is recognised and will be addressed through a comprehensive strategy. In principle, the Government’s view is that the cost of operating the new planning system should be principally funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer. Funding may also be achieved through application fees and potentially the new infrastructure levy or- to a limited extent – general taxation.
e. The Government intends to strengthen the powers for local planning authorities to enforce against breach of planning control and provide incentives for enforcement action to be taken.
To end where this overview began, resources are key and a comprehensive strategy to ensure the sufficiency of funding and skills will be very welcome, as long as it does what it says on the tin. This will be vital to the success of the new system.
We know now what the Government wants to achieve. It is up to all of us in the sector to help them make it work and if parts of the system are worthy of retention for their “architectural” merit, to explain why that is, with reference to the Government’s objectives.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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 Runexplained 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 councilindicating that he is consideringwhether 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.”
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 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.
“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:
“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.
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 Regulations2017 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.”
“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  EWHC 1078 at , 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  EWCA Civ 537 at , Sales LJ. As Patterson J pointed out in IM Properties Development Ltd v Lichfield DC  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 7Sustainability 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  EWHC 1070 (Admin) at . 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  UKSC 52 at , and Smyth v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWCA Civ 174 at . 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  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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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:
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).
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.
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.
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?