Gestation Of An Elephant: Plan Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Rooker in the House of Lords 6 January 2004:

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

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

The Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield in response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. withdraw the plan

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

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

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

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

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

One hump or two?

Simon Ricketts, 17 August 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Pic courtesy of Wikipedia

Bad Timing: More On Appropriate Assessment From Court & Govt Post POW

This is intended to be an update as to appropriate assessment under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 rather than a blog post on the domestic effect of EU environmental law post-Brexit.

But I’ll address that briefly first:

EU environmental law post-Brexit

The position remains pretty much as summarised in my 18 September 2018 blog post Planning, Brexit, supplemented by my 22 December 2018 blog post The Office For Environmental Protection. Whilst there is a general initial saving for EU-derived domestic legislation and whilst section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 sets a process for maintaining EU environmental principles, the “no deal” risks are still that:

(1) the latter depends on an Environment Bill being laid before Parliament and enacted (we so far have only seen draft provisions of the most directly relevant parts of what is proposed), a set of draft environmental principles being consulted upon and approved and the new Office for Environmental Protection being established, all before 31 October 2019 and

(2) post-Brexit, all EU-derived domestic legislation will be reviewed as to its continuing appropriateness and the degree of protection as regards this, presently provided by the environmental principles and governance mechanism in section 16, could easily be amended, replaced or sidestepped by this or a subsequent government.

DEFRA published an Environment Bill summer policy statement on 23 July 2019 but, whilst I am sure the war cabinet talks of little else, there simply is not the time available for the environmental principles and governance machinery to be up and running by the end of October 2019. Even when the machinery is established, it is susceptible to subsequent tinkering and dismantling by way of subsequent legislation.

Appropriate assessment

The immediate implications of the European Court of Justice’s ruling in People Over Wind were covered in my 20 April 2018 blog post EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening.

In England and Wales the main problems caused by the judgment have revolved around:

(1) authorities being caught out through no longer being able to screen out the need for appropriate assessment by relying upon commitments to introduce mitigation measures;

(2) until the February 2019 changes to the NPPF, the disapplication of the NPPF’s “tilted balance” where appropriate assessment is required.

MHCLG has now included within its Planning Practice Guidance a specific section dealing with appropriate assessment (22 July 2019).

By coincidence, two days after the new guidance was published, two separate judgments were handed down by the High Court on different aspects of the appropriate assessment regime, both cases stemming from People Over Wind issues and both cases examples of plain bad timing.

Gladman Developments Limited v Secretary of State (Dove J, 24 July 2019) was a challenge by Gladman to the dismissal by the Secretary of State of its appeal in respect of a proposed development of 225 dwellings in Cliffe Woods, Kent.

The inquiry had been held in November 2017, pre People Over Wind. The parties agreed that the tilted balance applied in favour of the proposal as there was a shortfall in the Medway Council’s five year housing land supply. The parties also agreed that a condition requiring an environmental construction management plan was sufficient to mitigate any ecological concerns. Following an HRA screening process that took into account a financial contribution towards a strategic access management and mitigation strategy (SAMMS) “no adverse consequences were identified in respect of the impact of any additional recreational pressures on the Thames Estuary Marshes SPA/RAMSAR and the Medway Estuaries and Marshes SPA/RAMSAR sites.”

The inspector recommended approval in his report dated 29 March 2018. The People Over Wind judgment was handed down on 12 April 2018. The Secretary of State invited representations from the parties as to whether appropriate assessment was now required in the light of the judgment, and on their views as to the correct application of planning policy in the light of it – a reference to paragraph 119 in the 2012 NPPF which disapplied the tilted balance in circumstances in the case of development requiring appropriate assessment.

Gladman submitted as part of its representations a report prepared by its ecologists, information to ensure that the inspector could carry out appropriate assessment and reach a conclusion that there were no likely significant effects on the integrity of of the SPAs. It also submitted that it would be “illogical and perverse to disengage the tilted balance in these circumstances”.

Before the Secretary of State reached his decision on the appeal, more generally on 26 October 2018 he embarked a technical consultation as to potential changes to the methodology for assessing local housing need and as part of that consultation he sought views on his proposal to amend the NPPF to make it clear that the tilted balance “is disapplied only where an appropriate assessment has concluded that there is no suitable mitigation strategy in place”, having missed the opportunity to make that change in the 24 July 2018 version (within which paragraph 177 simply replicated the old paragraph 119).

The Secretary of State’s decision letter was issued on 9 November 2018. He found that appropriate assessment was required and stated that on the basis of the appropriate assessment which he had carried out he could “safely conclude that the proposed development would not adversely affect the integrity of any European site”. He noted that under paragraph 177 of the 2018 NPPF “the presumption in favour of sustainable development does not apply where development requiring appropriate assessment is being determined”. He dismissed the appeal.

Gladman challenged the decision on a number of grounds, including irrationality in his application of paragraph 177 in the circumstances of the appeal, failure to have regard to the contents of the technical consultation, failure specifically to consult Gladman in relation to the technical consultation and contending that People Over Wind was wrongly decided, requiring a reference to the CJEU to clarify the position.

Dove J rejected all of the grounds. There was nothing unlawful in the way in which the Secretary of State had applied paragraph 177. It was “applied in a straight forward and uncomplicated manner to the circumstances of the present case”. The technical consultation was only a consultation. Indeed:

I see nothing wrong, and indeed much to commend, in an approach whereby a decision-taker continues to apply existing policy whilst it is subject to review, and await the outcome of a consultation process on the review of a policy before applying any new policy which might emerge. For a consultation exercise to be lawful it must be engaged in with an open mind. That must contemplate a number of potential outcomes from the consultation process, (including, potentially, no change to the policy) which could be undermined by the premature second guessing of its outcome through the application of a policy which was being consulted upon. In my view the First Defendant’s approach in applying his existing policy in the present case was in principle entirely correct.”

There was no basis for asserting that Gladman should have been specifically consulted as part of the technical consultation and in any event they had not been prejudiced by any failure to consult.

Lastly, he was unpersuaded that there was any justification for the reference sought to the CJEU or that People Over Wind was wrongly decided: “the need for full and precise analysis removing all reasonable scientific doubt, reflects a consistent line of authority in the CJEU emphasising these features of the requirements of the Habitats Directive…Whilst there may be cases in which the existence of significant effects could be addressed by the examination of mitigating measures at the Appropriate Assessment screening stage that is not, in principle, any justification for not undertaking the Appropriate Assessment itself.” Furthermore, as also relied upon by the CJEU in People Over Wind, “the taking account of mitigation measures and exclusion of the Appropriate Assessment process may also deprive the public of a right to participate in the decision-taking process.”

The final kick in the teeth for Gladman must have come when, after the 24 July 2018 version of the NPPF missed the obvious opportunity to resolve the widespread problems caused by People Over Wind, it was finally put right in the 19 February 2019 version. So if the decision letter had been issued either at least six weeks before the 12 April 2018 ruling in People Over Wind (such that the decision was beyond the legal challenge period) or after 19 February 2019, the chances are they would have had their permission. A Secretary of State who actually wanted to see housing would surely have sorted out the policy issue more quickly – or delayed the decision letter. Bad timing indeed.

The timing was similarly awkward in R (Wingfield) v Canterbury City Council & Redrow Homes South East (Lang J, 24 July 2019). Outline planning permission was obtained on 5 July 2017 for up to 250 dwellings and associated development at Hoplands Farm, Westbere, Kent. The site is near SPAs and an SAC. On the basis of mitigation proposals, Canterbury City Council concluded, having taken advice from Natural England, that appropriate assessment was not required.

The judicial review period expired without challenge and the site was sold to the interested party, Redrow Homes. Reserved matters approval was sought in December 2017 for the first phases of development. Then came that People Over Wind ruling on 12 April 2018. In the light of the judgment, the council carried out an appropriate assessment and concluded that, with mitigation, the project would have no adverse effect on the integrity of the European protected sites. Reserved matters approval was granted on 12 February 2019.

The claimants argued that “the Council acted in breach of EU law by failing to conduct an HRA before granting outline planning permission and impermissibly taking into account mitigation measures when screening the proposed development, contrary to the CJEU judgment in the People over Wind case. The effect of the judgment of the CJEU was to render the grant of outline planning permission a nullity, which could no longer be relied upon. Further or alternatively, when the Council realised its error, it should have revoked the outline planning permission and re-considered the application. Instead, it unlawfully conducted an HRA at the reserved matters stage, when it should have been conducted at the earliest possible stage, before the grant of outline planning permission.

Lang J rejected both arguments. The submission that “the effect of the judgment of the CJEU in People Over Wind was to render the grant of outline planning permission a nullity was both contrary to authority, and wrong in principle. A decision made by a public body is valid unless and until it is quashed”. Further, “the Council could lawfully conduct an appropriate assessment at the reserved matters stage, in the circumstances of this case”.

In considering whether the Council could legitimately remedy its earlier error by conducting an appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage, instead of revoking the grant of outline planning permission, I have taken into account that the consequences of revoking planning decisions long after they have been made, and the time limits for challenge have expired, are disruptive and undermine the principle of legal certainty. As Laws J. said in R v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, ex parte Greenpeace Ltd [1998] Env LR 415, at [424], applicants for judicial review must act promptly, so as to ensure that the proper business of government and the reasonable interests of third parties are not overborne or unjustly prejudiced by litigation brought in circumstances where the point in question could have been exposed and adjudicated without unacceptable damage.

In this case, the IP acquired its interest in the Site after outline planning permission had been granted and the time for bringing a judicial review challenged had expired. Although building operations have not yet commenced, time and money has been spent in bringing this project to fruition. The Council considers that the development will bring tangible benefits to the community, although local residents, such as the Claimant, take a different view.

In my judgment, the Council’s decision to remedy its earlier error by conducting an appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage was permissible under EU and domestic law, and it was a proportionate and effective remedy for the breach of EU law […]

Alternatively if my analysis is not correct, I would nonetheless refuse relief in this case. The Court may refuse relief where there has been a breach of EU law, if the substance of the EU right has been complied with.”

The claimant also sought to argue that the HRA was deficient. It was not:

the HRA conducted by the Council was appropriate for the task in hand, particularly bearing in mind that the Council was able to draw upon the detailed research and assessment in the ‘Report to inform a Habitats Regulations Assessment’, as well as the further reports submitted by the IP. Its findings were complete, precise and definite and there were no significant lacunae. The Council was entitled to rely upon Natural England’s endorsement of its HRA, particularly since Natural England had initially raised concerns about the evidence-base provided by the applicants, and those concerns were addressed by the further evidence produced by the IP. Natural England, as the custodian of the Stodmarsh designated sites, was particularly well placed to judge the risks from the proposed development. In my view, the Claimant’s challenge did not come close to meeting the high threshold of Wednesbury irrationality; it was primarily a disagreement with the Council’s exercise of its planning judgment.”

So bad timing in this case for the claimant, unable to take advantage of the windfall that People Over Wind appeared to represent.

Even if we leave the EU, I suspect that we will not be leaving behind these sorts of arguments for a good time yet – and it is apparent from the Gladman case that (1) the resulting trip hazards are as often those introduced by our own domestic policies and (2) when it comes to CJEU cases such as People Over Wind, however inconvenient, our domestic courts are not going to be turning the clock back.

Simon Ricketts, 2 August 2019

Personal views, et cetera

National Lottery: 2 Problematic Recovered Appeal Decisions

The exercise of the Secretary of State’s power to call in applications and recover appeals for his own determination is inherently politically charged.

This blog post focuses on two recent recovered appeals. The other reverse lottery, of call in, is for another day.

The Secretary of State’s policy as to recovering appeals is handily summarised in section 6 of the House of Commons briefing paper Calling-in applications (England).

Wavendon, Woburn Sands

If anyone thinks that the Secretary of State’s intervention in this case did anything other than, at the request of a fellow MP, frustrate or delay the delivery of homes in accordance with national policy, and in so doing place unjustified financial pressure on an SME housebuilder, then do let me know.

This relates to a relatively small proposal for the development of 203 homes at Woburn Sands, Buckinghamshire. The application was made to Milton Keynes Council in July 2016 and refused in December 2016, against officers’ recommendations.

The developer, Storey Homes, appeals. An inquiry takes place over six days in July 2017, with an extremely experienced inspector, David Cullingford.

The proposal is locally controversial, with various objectors appearing at the inquiry, including three councillors. I can only assume that objectors are spooked by the way the inquiry goes because in August 2017 the councillors then ask the then planning minister to recover the appeal for the Secretary of State’s own determination. The request is refused. But they don’t stop there.

As reported at the time in MK Citizen (2 November 2017) local Conservative MP Iain Stewart then writes a billet doux to the then Secretary of State:

The letter […] starts with ‘Dear Sajid’, and thanks him for his “kind” email on Mr Stewart’s election to the government’s transport committee.

It states: “I implore you to intervene in any way you can to at least delay the announcement of the Inspector’s decision.”

It ends: “Yours ever, Iain

Anyway the charm works, and the appeal is recovered on 31 October 2017.

There is then an elongated period of post-inquiry correspondence. The most significant issue was whether Milton Keynes Council could show five years’ housing supply or whether the NPPF tilted balance applied. All the evidence points to the position being as shown by the appellant at the inquiry – less than five years’ supply.

It turns out that the objectors were right to be worried by the way the inquiry had gone. When the Secretary of State published his decision letter on 5 December 2018, they could see that the inspector in his 2 February 2018 report had indeed recommended that the appeal be allowed, finding that there was less than five years’ housing supply and that taking all considerations into account he considered “that the planning balance in this case is firmly in favour of the scheme. The benefits of this sustainable housing proposal would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the adverse impacts elicited.”

But hey never mind, babychams all round, Mr Stewart’s intervention had done the job for the objectors because the Secretary of State’s decision was to reject the inspector’s recommendation and dismiss the appeal. On the basis of some not fully explained calculations, the Secretary of State determined that there was indeed five years’ supply: “Taking all these factors into consideration, he considers that on the basis of the evidence put forward at this inquiry, estimated deliverable supply is roughly in the region of 10,000– 10,500. The Secretary of State therefore considers that the housing land supply is approximately 5.9–6.2 years. He notes that on this basis, even if the emerging plan figure of 1,766 were used (1,854 with a 5% buffer added), as the agent proposes, there would still be an estimated deliverable housing land supply of over 5 years.”

This conclusion of course meant that the tilted balance in what is now para 11(d) of the 2019 NPPF did not apply, “the policies which are most important” for determining the appeal were not automatically to be treated as out of date and he could therefore find that the proposal “conflicts with development plan policies relating to development outside settlement boundaries and density. He further considers that it is in conflict with the development plan as a whole.

The Secretary of State considers that the housing benefits of the scheme carry significant weight and the economic benefits carry moderate weight in favour of the proposal.

The Secretary of State considers that the low density of the appeal proposal carries significant weight against the proposal, while the location in unallocated open countryside outside the development boundary of Woburn Sands carries moderate weight, and the impact on the character of the area carries limited weight. He further considers that the minimal harm to the listed building carries little weight and that the public benefits of the scheme outbalance this ‘less than substantial’ harm. The heritage test under paragraph 196 of the Framework is therefore favourable to the proposal.

The Secretary of State considers that there are no material considerations which indicate the proposal should be determined other than in accordance with the development plan. He therefore concludes that the appeal should be dismissed, and planning permission should be refused.”

Many would have given up this apparent lottery at that point, but all credit to Storey and to their legal team, Peter Goatley and James Corbet Burcher (No 5 chambers) together with Stephen Webb (Clyde and Co). The decision was duly challenged in the High Court and has now been quashed by Dove J in Wavendon Properties Limited v Secretary of State (Dove J, 14 June 2019)

The judge found the Secretary of State’s reasoning to be inadequate in relation to the critical question as to whether there was five years’ supply of housing land:

“All of these factors lead me to the conclusion that the reasons provided by the First Defendant in relation to the figure were not adequate in the particular and perhaps unusual circumstances of this case. By simply asserting the figures as his conclusion, the First Defendant has failed to provide any explanation as to what he has done with the materials before him in order to arrive at that conclusion, bearing in mind that it would have been self-evident that it was a contentious conclusion. Simply asserting the figures does not enable any understanding of what the First Defendant made of the Inspector’s conclusions which he accepted in paragraph 17 of the decision letter, and how they were taken into account in arriving at the final figures in his range.

“I accept the Claimant’s submission that the need for the range to be in some way explained is not requiring reasons for reasons, it is simply requiring reasons for a conclusion which was pivotal in relation to the application of the tilted balance in this case, and which derived from figures which had not been canvassed as an answer to the question of what the Second Defendant’s housing land supply was anywhere in any of the material before the First Defendant prior to the decision letter.”

In passing, there are two other interesting aspects to the judgment:

1. An analysis of what is meant in paragraph 11(d) of the NPPF, when, separate from questions of five years’ supply, you are considering whether “the policies which are most important for determining the application are out-of-date“. Unsurprisingly, Dove J concluded that this is “neither a rule nor a tick box instruction. The language does not warrant the conclusion that it requires every one of the most important policies to be up-of-date before the tilted balance is not to be engaged. In my view the plain words of the policy clearly require that having established which are the policies most important for determining the application, and having examined each of them in relation to the question of whether or not they are out of date applying the current Framework and the approach set out in the Bloor case, an overall judgment must be formed as to whether or not taken as a whole these policies are to regarded as out-of-date for the purpose of the decision.

2. The judge’s agreement with the Secretary of State that a section 106 planning obligation by the housebuilder to use its reasonable endeavours to build out the development within five years of the council approving the last reserved matters application was not a material consideration to be taken into account. One to return to, once perhaps we see the Government’s promised green paper on measures to improve delivery and other matters.

Of course the housebuilder is not yet out of the woods. Back the appeal will go to the Secretary of State of the day for redetermination as against whatever the housing supply position, and national policy position, happens to be at that time, whenever it will be. The problem doesn’t just lie in the arbitrary nature of the recovery process (it is particularly wrong that appeals can be recovered even after the inquiry has concluded) but with the glacial pace of appeals (until the anticipated brave new world of Rosewell) which means that no-one ever knows what the policy or housing supply/delivery position is going to be when any decision is finally taken, let alone which minister will be sitting at the relevant desk.

I note that an application by the housebuilder for specific disclosure against the Secretary of State did not need to be determined by the judge in the light of his ruling. No doubt this was for civil servants’ internal recommendations to ministers before those decisions were taken in relation to the appeal, including potentially its recovery in the first place. Now wouldn’t that make interesting reading?

Sainsbury’s, Cambridge Heath Road

Last week we saw another decision by the Secretary of State to dismiss an appeal against the recommendations of his inspector. This was the decision letter dated 10 June 2019 in relation to an appeal by Sainsbury’s following the non-determination by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets of its application for planning permission for “a replacement Sainsbury’s store, an ‘explore learning’ facility, flexible retail/office/community floorspace, 471 residential units arranged in 8 blocks, an energy centre and plant at basement level, 240 ‘retail’ car parking spaces and 40 disabled car parking spaces for use by the proposed residential units, two additional disabled units proposed at Merceron Street, creation of an east-west public realm route from Cambridge Heath Road to Brady Street and public realm provision and enhancements, associated highway works to Brady Street, Merceron Street, Darling Row and Collingwood Street and Cambridge Heath Road“.

Again, an experienced inspector, David Nicholson, had recommended approval in a nuanced report, following a lengthy inquiry. There was one issue where clearly he was not convinced by the proposals, namely the location of the affordable housing within the scheme:

In describing the main entrance to the AH as poor doors, it drew attention not only to the simple design but also to the position of these at the north end of the scheme. Unlike the private units, this would put them at the greatest walking distances from public transport, shops and services. The podium barrier would not only divide the types of tenure, but also separate the amenity and play space areas as well as extend the walking distances (although access to these could be addressed through condition 43). Although more than one witness was questioned on this, no persuasive explanation was given as to why the units were separated in this way.”

The inspector pragmatically recommended that if the Secretary of State were to share these concerns “then he should seek an alternative arrangement through a further s106 Agreement“.

To a very small extent this concern was addressed by the revised s106 Agreement which would include a few shared ownership units on the other side of the proposed barrier. Nevertheless, the location of vast majority of the AH, including all the rented housing, would be both at the far end of the site and altogether rather than integrated, and this counts heavily against the benefits of the AH“.

The Secretary of State in his decision letter appears to agree with almost all of the inspector’s conclusions but the “poor doors” concern appears to be the tipping point:

The Secretary of State has further considered the fact that the social rented housing is positioned at the north end of the scheme, at the greatest walking distance from public transport, shops and services, and that the podium barrier would not only divide the types of tenure, but also separate the amenity and play space areas. He notes the Inspector’s comment that no persuasive explanation was given as to why the units were separated in this way (IR11.33). He agrees with the Inspector that to a very small extent this would be addressed by the inclusion of a few shared ownership units on the other side of the proposed barrier, and has taken into account that condition 43 requires the measures for providing access to be approved. Nonetheless the location of the vast majority of the affordable housing, including all the rented housing, would be both at the far end of the site, and all together rather than integrated (IR11.34).

In assessing the implications of this, the Secretary of State has taken into account that the Framework aims not just to deliver raw housing numbers, but to achieve healthy, inclusive and safe places (paragraph 91). He considers that the separation of the affordable housing, amenity and place space areas is not in keeping with the aims of paragraph 91(a) to achieve inclusive places that promote social interaction, including opportunities for meetings between people who would not otherwise come into contact with each other. The Secretary of State considers that this carries substantial weight against the proposal.

The Secretary of State has considered the Inspector’s comment at IR11.33 that if the Secretary of State shares his concerns, then he should seek an alternative arrangement through a further s.106 agreement. However, the Secretary of State notes that previous concerns about this matter which were addressed by a revised s.106 agreement only resulted in the inclusion of a few shared ownership units on the other side of the proposed barrier (IR11.34). He therefore considers that a seeking more fundamental changes via further revisions to the s.106 agreement is unlikely to be successful. He has also taken into account that other matters also weigh against a grant of permission. Overall he does not consider that a ‘minded to allow’ letter would be an appropriate approach in this case.”

He dismisses the appeal.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the proposal itself, was it right not to give the appellant a short opportunity to complete a further section 106 agreement so as to address this concern? On the one hand it could have led to an appropriate form of development that would deliver much needed housing. Or it could all have proved too much for the appellant to swallow, or too complicated without scheme changes, in which case at least the opportunity would have been given.

Presumably the scheme will now be reworked, at significant expense and delaying any start on site.

I thought we were in a housing crisis – more, better, faster? And yes of course the developer could have got the scheme “better” to begin with but no doubt with a hit to viability and therefore potentially the amount of affordable housing to be provided – that’s the balance.

But is there really no room for procedural solutions such as this? Or, in the case, of Woburn Sands, de-recovery?

Simon Ricketts, 15 June 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Beauty

How can the planning system seek to achieve “beautiful” buildings and places?

What is beauty? How do you arrive at objectivity in matters largely of subjective judgment? Is the customer always right (and who is the customer)?

These thoughts were prompted this week by a few things:

⁃ The resolution of the Corporation of London’s Planning and Transportation Committee on 2 April 2019 to grant planning permission for the Tulip following officers’ recommendations. The application will now be referred to the Mayor who will need to decide whether to intervene (whether by call in or by directing refusal). His stage 1 report dated 14 January 2019 set out his initial concerns.

Obituaries of Bill Heine, responsible for the Headington shark. Is there any inspector’s decision letter with a better passage than this (when allowing an appeal against an enforcement notice)?

“It is not in dispute that this is a large and prominent feature. That was the intention, but the intention of the appellant and the artist is not an issue as far as planning permission is concerned. The case should be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to “utilitarianism”, in the sense of the greatest good to the greatest number. And it is necessary to consider the relationship between the shark and its setting…. In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be in harmony with them. The basic facts are there for almost all to see. Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the shark. The contrast is deliberate … and, in this sense, the work is quite specific to its setting. As a “work of art” the sculpture (“Untitled 1986”) would be “read” quite differently in, say, an art gallery or on another site. An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called “Oxford shark”. The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred. Only very recently has there been a proposal for twin baby sharks in the Iffley Road. But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain.”

⁃ a nagging awareness that I probably need to cover the Government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” initiative in one of these blog posts.

Section 12 of the July 2018 NPPF sought to give more weight, in plan making and decision taking, to design considerations – see MHCLG’s press release Government’s new planning rulebook to deliver more quality, well-designed homes (24 July 2018) and there is more detailed guidance in the PPG. The press release, as with so many Government announcements, focused on the relevance of the policy changes to the construction of new homes.

Is poor design one reason why new development is often not accepted by communities? That’s the thesis leading to James Brokenshire’s announcement on 3 November 2018 of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, chaired by Professor Sir Roger Scruton.

The Commission has three aims:

1. To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.

2. To explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent.

3. To make the planning system work in support of better design and style, not against it.

The commission has five commissioners:

• Sir Roger Scruton (Chair)

• Gail Mayhew

• Mary Parsons

• Nicholas Boys Smith

• Kim Wilkie

It also has an impressive list of “specialist advisors”:

• Stephen Stone, Executive Chairman of Crest Nicholson

• Sunand Prasad, Senior Partner and co-founder of Penoyre & Prasad and past President of the RIBA

• Ben Bolgar, Senior Director of Prince’s Foundation

• Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

• Adrian Penfold OBE, Advisor in Planning and Public Affairs

• Peter Studdert, Chair of Quality Review Panels for the LLDC and LB of Haringey

• Patrick James, Founding Director of The Landscape Agency

• Paul Monaghan, Director of AHMM and Design Council Trustee

• Yolande Barnes, Professor of Real Estate at UCL

The deadline for the Commission’s call for evidence is 31 May 2019.

This “Building Beautiful” initiative, ironically as with the resi PD rights initiative where there no controls over matters of aesthetics and design, has its roots in think tank the Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange published Building More, Building Beautiful: How design and style can unlock the housing crisis by Jack Airey, Sir Roger Scruton and Sir Robin Wales, and with a foreword by James Brokenshire, in July 2018. It published a collection of essays on the design, style and economics of the built environment Building Beautiful in January 2019.

Stating the position neutrally, it is right to record that the initiative, and Scruton, have their detractors, such as Robert Bevan in the London Evening Standard – I wouldn’t build my dream home in joyless, moralistic Scrutopia (25 January 2019):

The beauty commission has emerged from a report called Building More, Building Beautiful, by Policy Exchange, a Right-of-centre think tank. One of its three authors was Scruton himself. From its cover onwards — a drawing of Georgian houses that gets the historical details all wrong — it has been many decades since a more ludicrous or ignorant report on architecture was published.”

What on earth is going to come from this process?

The visual appearance of new homes is a curious thing. Largely a private sector product with paying consumers, why are we the public often not satisfied with what the market produces, even when the direct customers appear to be?

I won’t reveal the house builder, but there was a piece this week on the BBC website about a couple who had bought their “dream home” but were dissatisfied with a number of defects in its construction. I looked at the photo below with its wrong proportions, verge/garden, largely blank side flank and clay coloured rendering, and initially wondered how a such an ugly, presumably not cheap, house could be anyone’s dream. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder – it’s a new detached home with garden, and home ownership has been promoted by successive governments as to what we should aspire.

(Photo: BBC)

The aesthetic appearance of a new car is probably the only element of its design or function that is not subject to prescriptive regulation and requirements for testing. But it is plainly critical for car makers to invest in the visual appearance of the product, so as to attract the consumer for whom the car will be an extension of the personality that he or or she wishes to express, emphasising qualities such as speed or ruggedness, elegance or urban quirkiness.

So why is the new housing market apparently so different? Is there a lack of choice such that we’re still at Model T Ford “any style as long as it looks like a child’s drawing of a detached house and garden“? Or is it the case, more likely, that the products that we see are those that have been proven to sell? In which case, aren’t there dangers in trying to funnel house builders towards a different approach?

If different products would make it more likely for permission to be obtained and for homes to be built and sold, why hasn’t this been achieved by operation of the market? What is the overlap with the Letwin “delivery” initiative (see my 3 November 2018 blog post Oliver’s Twist: Letwin’s Proposals For Large Housing Sites)?

It is all very well for the Commission’s first aim to refer to local styles of building but where is the architectural integrity in adopting a particular local building style as pastiche simply to gain community buy-in? Surely beauty simply comes from producing well-proportioned good quality buildings with a form that reflects their function (can we ban fake chimneys?) and with as much attention paid to space and landscape as built form? Do we really need the Scuton Commission or indeed any more prescriptive planning policies? Simply assess schemes against those principles, at outline and reserved matters stages, and make sure that there is no room for post-permission dumbing down. And ensure that there is a properly functioning, competitive house building market. Start with getting the market right, not the detailed design requirements (only local stone here, even though it has to be shipped in from abroad).

After all, whilst planners love to arrive at quasi-objective ways of assessing largely subjective matters (needs must, I suppose) and the tools for doing that are getting ever better (for instance, primarily in an urban context, vu.city and Cityscape Digital), save where particularly justified surely we should restrict the role of the state in telling us what we are going to find beautiful? Heritage decisions based on assessment of architectural quality are difficult. Decisions in relation to NPPF paragraph 79(e) (the green light for proposed isolated homes in the countryside where the design is of “exceptional quality” in that it is “truly outstanding or innovative, reflecting the highest standards in architecture..”) are difficult. It is quite something to appoint a planning committee or inspector as cultural arbiter on our behalf and to expect their decisions not to be underpinned, consciously or unconsciously, by political or social priorities and assumptions.

I still like that shark. Jury out on Tulip.

Simon Ricketts, 6 April 2019

Personal views, et cetera

NPPF & PPG In Court

Hanging over me all week was a deadline for preparing a legal update about the NPPF. Then, thank you judges, just like London buses but with more barristers on board, along came three interesting cases.

Is the NPPF subject to the requirements of SEA?

The question as to whether the latest version of the NPPF required strategic environmental assessment was the question before Dove J in Friends of the Earth v Secretary of State (Dove J, 6 March 2019).

 

You will recall that requirements of the SEA Directive apply to plans and programmes which are “required by legislative, regulatory or administrative provisions” and which “set the framework for future development consent of projects”.

 

The Government argued that neither applied in the case of the NPPF. It was always going to be a stretch to argue that the, er,  Framework does not set the framework for the future development consent of projects and the judge wasn’t going to accept that. But he did conclude that due to the Framework’s curious, non-statutory, legal basis it could not be said to be required by legislative, regulatory or administrative provisions and therefore SEA was not required: “there is in reality nothing by way of any formal provisions which might be said to govern or regulate the production of the Framework“.

Incidentally, I had always assumed that fear of being caught by SEA requirements was one reason why the NPPF has remained so determinedly non-spatial but, on Dove J’s reasoning, even an NPPF with spatial policies would not require SEA.

Was consultation on the draft NPPF legally inadequate in relation to fracking?

The hearing in relation to Stephenson v Secretary of State (Dove J, 6 March 2019), a claim brought on behalf the Talk Fracking campaign group, immediately followed the Friends of the Earth hearing and one of its grounds (ground 3) was covered by the previous case. The other grounds focused on the new NPPF’s pro-fracking paragraph 209(a):

Minerals planning authorities should:
a) recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development, including unconventional hydrocarbons, for the security of energy supplies and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy; and put in place policies to facilitate their exploration and extraction
.”

Ground 1 contended that “the Defendant unlawfully failed to take into account material considerations, namely scientific and technical evidence, which had been produced following the adoption of a Written Ministerial Statement by the Secretary of State for Business and Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Defendant on 16th September 2015 (“the 2015 WMS”)

Ground 2 contended that “the Defendant failed, in publishing the policy in paragraph 209(a) of the Framework, to give effect to the Government’s long-established policy in relation to the obligation to reduce green-house gas emissions under the Climate Change Act 2008“.

Ground 4 contended that “the Defendant failed to carry out a lawful consultation exercise in relation to the revisions to the Framework which were published on 24th July 2018.”

Dove J started with ground 4, because “at the heart of the dispute” was the questions as to “what the Defendant was doing when incorporating paragraph 209(a) into the Framework or, more particularly in relation to Ground 4, what a member of the public engaging in the consultation process and reading the publicly available material as a reasonable reader, would have concluded the Defendant was doing“. The issues “cannot be disposed of by simply considering the Defendant’s private intentions“. In the documentation there was no suggestion that the merits or substance of the policy represented by the 2015 WMS were outside the scope of the consultation.

By contrast with what the reasonable reader would have discerned from the publicly available material, the Defendant had a closed mind as to the content of the policy and was not undertaking the consultation at a formative stage. The Defendant had no intention of changing his mind about the substance of the revised policy. Further, the Defendant did not conscientiously consider the fruits of the consultation exercise in circumstances where he had no interest in examining observations or evidence pertaining to the merits of the policy. This had the effect of excluding from the material presented to the Minister any detail of the observations or evidence which bore upon the merits of the policy. Given my conclusion as to what the reasonable reader would have concluded from the publicly available documentation the consultation exercise which was undertaken was one which involved breaches of common law requirements in respect of consultation and which was therefore unfair and unlawful.

Ground 1 accordingly also succeeded: it was unlawful to fail to take the Talk Fracking material into account in decision making as to the final form of the NPPF, given that it was clearly relevant to the questions posed. “The fact that the Defendant believed that he was taking a far more narrow and restricted decision from that which he had advertised to the public does not provide a basis for avoiding that conclusion.

Ground 2 failed, but on the basis of reasoning which may be helpful to the anti-fracking community, in that the judge accepted the Secretary of State’s submission that “in individual decisions on plans or applications the in principle support for unconventional hydrocarbon extraction, provided by paragraph 209(a) of the Framework, will have to be considered alongside any objections and evidence produced relating to the impact of shale gas extraction on climate change. These are conflicting issues which the decision-maker will have to resolve.”

The judge has not yet determined the appropriate relief (ie what should be done) to give effect to his judgment. But surely we are now likely to see further consultation as to paragraph 209(a) and potentially another tweaked NPPF in due course. NPPFs are also now coming along like buses.

What is the legal status of Planning Practice Guidance?

This question was relevant in Solo Retail Limited v Torridge District Council (Lieven J, 4 March 2019) as it went to complaints about the approach taken by a local planning authority to retail impact assessment, in a challenge by one value retailer to a planning permission granted to a competitor. The complaint was that the guidance in the PPG has not properly been followed.

Of course if there is doubt as to the legislative, regulatory or administrative basis for the National Planning Policy Framework, that doubt is accentuated in the case of the Government’s subsidiary Planning Practice Guidance.

The judge found that the NPPF and the local development plan were not prescriptive as to the form of retail impact assessment required to be carried out. The claimant therefore had to fall back on the detailed steps for assessment set out in the PPG.

However:

In my view the NPPG has to be treated with considerable caution when the Court is asked to find that there has been a misinterpretation of planning policy set out therein, under para 18 of Tesco v Dundee. As is well known the NPPG is not consulted upon, unlike the NPPF and Development Plan policies. It is subject to no external scrutiny, again unlike the NPPF, let alone a Development Plan. It can, and sometimes does, change without any forewarning. The NPPG is not drafted for or by lawyers, and there is no public system for checking for inconsistencies or tensions between paragraphs. It is intended, as its name suggests, to be guidance not policy and it must therefore be considered by the Courts in that light. It will thus, in my view, rarely be amenable to the type of legal analysis by the Courts which the Supreme Court in Tesco v Dundee applied to the Development Policy there in issue.

These points are illustrated the paragraphs of the NPPG that are most relevant in this case. Paragraph 015 says that “the impact test should be undertaken in a proportionate and locally appropriate way…” However, paragraph 017 says “The following steps should be taken in applying the impact test…”. Taken at face value these words would seem to suggest that the following elements are mandatory where there is a policy requirement for any form of impact test. However, in my view that cannot be the case. There is a judgement for the LPA as to what level of scrutiny of possible impact is appropriate in the particular circumstances of the proposal, taking into account the need to be proportionate. Paragraph 017 therefore cannot and should not be interpreted and applied in an overly legalistic way as if it was setting out mandatory requirements.”

A reminder not to interpret the PPG legalistically. There may be internal inconsistencies within it. Guidance means guidance.

Simon Ricketts, 9 March 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Delivery!

MHCLG’s announcements this week have clarified three separate issues which go to whether the “tilted balance” in paragraph 11(d) of the NPPF applies in relation to applications for planning permission for housing development.

Where the tilted balance applies, Government policy is of course that planning permission should be granted unless:

(i) the application of policies in this Framework that protect areas or assets of particular importance [being specific categories of policies set out in footnote 6 to the NPPF] provides a clear reason for refusing the development proposed; or

(ii) any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.”

Two situations where the tilted balance applies are:

⁃ “where the local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable housing sites” with an appropriate buffer percentage of 5%, 10% or 20% calculated by reference to paragraph 73 of the NPPF; and

⁃ “where the Housing Delivery Test indicates that the delivery of housing was substantially below [a defined percentage of] the housing requirement over the previous three years” the defined percentage being 25% in the case of Housing Delivery Test results published in November 2018, 45% in the case of results published in November 2019 and 75% in the case of results published in November 2020 and thereafter. (Additionally, the authority needs to publish an action plan where the delivery percentage is less than 95%, “to assess the causes of under-delivery and identify actions to increase delivery in future years“).

Paragraph 177 of the 2018 NPPF disapplies the presumption in favour of sustainable development (and therefore the possibility of the tilted balance applying) where the project requires appropriate assessment under the Conservation of Habitats Regulations, which has proved problematic following the Court of Justice of the European Union’s judgment in People Over Wind, which led to far more projects requiring appropriate assessment.

This week’s announcements have clarified three things:

1. How “deliverable” is defined for the purposes of that first situation.

2. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is no longer disapplied if there is a negative appropriate assessment.

3. What the November 2018 Housing Delivery Test results are for in relation to each English local planning authority (the results not having been, er, delivered on time by MHCLG).

After a long wait, and initial indications that this would all be done before Christmas, on 19 February MHCLG published:

Government response to technical consultation on updates to national planning policy and guidance

housing delivery test 2018 measurement

further revised NPPF

The revisions to the NPPF are limited but care will be needed when referring to decisions and court rulings to be clear as to the relevant policy basis: the 27 March 2012 NPPF, the 24 July 2018 NPPF or the 19 February 2019 NPPF.

What is deliverable?

Footnote 11 to the 2012 NPPF defined “deliverable” as follows:

To be considered deliverable, sites should be available now, offer a suitable location for development now, and be achievable with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the site within five years and in particular that development of the site is viable. Sites with planning permission should be considered deliverable until permission expires, unless there is clear evidence that schemes will not be implemented within five years, for example they will not be viable, there is no longer a demand for the type of units or sites have long term phasing plans.”

The degree of probability required, given the words “realistic prospect“, was considered by the Court of Appeal in St Modwen Developments Ltd v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 20 October 2017), where Lindblom LJ said this:

35…Deliverability is not the same thing as delivery. The fact that a particular site is capable of being delivered within five years does not mean that it necessarily will be. For various financial and commercial reasons, the landowner or housebuilder may choose to hold the site back. Local planning authorities do not control the housing market. NPPF policy recognises that…


37… Had the Government’s intention been to frame the policy for the five-year supply of housing land in terms of a test more demanding than deliverability, this would have been done…


38 The first part of the definition in footnote 11—amplified in paras 3–029, 3–031 and 3–033 of the PPG—contains four elements: first, that the sites in question should be ” available now”; second, that they should “offer a suitable location for development now”; third, that they should be ” achievable with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the site within five years”; and fourth, that “development of the site is viable ” (my emphasis). Each of these considerations goes to a site’s capability of being delivered within five years: not to the certainty, or—as Mr Young submitted—the probability that it actually will be. The second part of the definition refers to “[sites] with planning permission”. This clearly implies that, to be considered deliverable and included within the five-year supply, a site does not necessarily have to have planning permission already granted for housing development on it. The use of the words “realistic prospect” in the footnote 11 definition mirrors the use of the same words in the second bullet point in paragraph 47 in connection with the requirement for a 20% buffer to be added where there has been “a record of persistent under delivery of housing”. Sites may be included in the five-year supply if the likelihood of housing being delivered on them within the five-year period is no greater than a “realistic prospect”—the third element of the definition in footnote 11 (my emphasis). This does not mean that for a site properly to be regarded as “deliverable” it must necessarily be certain or probable that housing will in fact be delivered upon it, or delivered to the fullest extent possible, within five years.”

The wording in glossary to the 2018 NPPF was made more specific:

“”Deliverable: To be considered deliverable, sites for housing should be available now, offer a suitable location for development now, and be achievable with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the site within five years. Sites that are not major development, and sites with detailed planning permission, should be considered deliverable until permission expires, unless there is clear evidence that homes will not be delivered within five years (e.g. they are no longer viable, there is no longer a demand for the type of units or sites have long term phasing plans). Sites with outline planning permission, permission in principle, allocated in the development plan or identified on a brownfield register should only be considered deliverable where there is clear evidence that housing completions will begin on site within five years.”

Due to concerns as to potential ambiguity (which I didn’t really see) as to the treatment of non-major development (ie developments of less than ten homes, with a site area of less than 0.5 hectares), the wording has now been changed in the 2019 NPPF to read as follows

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

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

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

But there will remain room for argument: “realistic prospect” inevitably requires judgement and the local planning authority’s assessment as to the position of individual sites will always be potentially controversial given its interest (and/or that of objectors to development) in demonstrating an adequate supply so as to avoid the tilted balance. We will no doubt still see cases such as East Cheshire Council v Secretary of State (Deputy Judge Justine Thornton QC, 1 November 2018), East Bergholt Parish Council v Babergh District Council (Sir Ross Cranston, 7 December 2018) and (no transcript available but the link is to a useful Cornerstone summary) R (Chilton Parish Council) v Babergh District Council (Deputy Judge Robin Purchas QC, 2 February 2019.

There has also previously been much uncertainty as to the circumstances in which the new standard method for assessing local housing need should be used as the basis for assessing whether a five year supply of specific deliverable sites exists in the case of a plan with strategic policies which are more than five years old (unless those strategic policies had been reviewed and found not not to require updating). Footnote 37 in the 2019 NPPF makes clear that the standard method should indeed be used (which reflects the 5 February 2019 decision of the Secretary of State in relation to the Edenthorpe Doncaster called in application, blogged about by Lichfields on 21 February 2019).

Appropriate assessment

Hooray, paragraph 177 now reads:

The presumption in favour of sustainable development does not apply where the plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a habitats site (either alone or in combination with other plans or projects), unless an appropriate assessment has concluded that the plan or project will not adversely affect the integrity of the habitats site.

The Housing Delivery Test

Well, the results are finally in. The housing delivery test 2018 measurement. According to analysis by Savills:

⁃ no authority is subject this time round to the tilted balance by virtue of delivering less than 25% of its housing requirement over the last three years

⁃ 86 out of 326 authorities are subject to the requirement of a 20% buffer on their five year housing land supply figure as a result of having delivered less than 85% of their housing requirement over the last three years

⁃ 107 out of 326 authorities have to prepare an action plan as a result of having delivered less than 95% of their housing requirement over the last three years.

A future blog post will deal with the “need” side of the equation…

Simon Ricketts, 23 February 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Oliver’s Twist: Letwin’s Proposals For Large Housing Sites

Sajid Javid had given Sir Oliver Letwin the following terms of reference for his review into the “build out of planning permissions into homes” that was announced in the Autumn 2017 budget.

The Review should seek to explain the significant gap between housing completions and the amount of land allocated or permissioned in areas of high housing demand, and make recommendations for closing it. The Review should identify the principal causes of the gap, and identify practical steps that could increase the speed of build out. These steps should support an increase in housing supply consistent with a stable housing market in the short term and so that over the long-term, house prices rise slower than earnings. The review will provide an interim report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in time for Spring Statement 2018 and a full report for Budget 2018.”

Has Letwin’s final report (published alongside the budget on 29 October 2018) twisted itself away from the examination question that he was set? In my view, read as a set along with the previous two stages of his work, it is pretty clear how his thinking has developed. But he has ended up making a surprisingly radical and, to my mind, impractical, set of recommendations that surely will not find traction with this Government and which on any reflection would surely not increase the “speed of build out“. Perhaps due to the deadline he was set, the recommendations in the final report are not accompanied by any evidence. They are also set out in some detail (see for example the tables embedded in a later part of this blog post) at the expense of any commentary on, for example, the proposals to encourage timely delivery that were set out in the February 2017 white paper.

Dear Philip and Sajid

There have been three stages to his work. In his 9 March 2018 letter to the Chancellor and Secretary of State he provided this initial analysis:

The fundamental driver of build out rates once detailed planning permission is granted for large sites appears to be the ‘absorption rate’ – the rate at which newly constructed homes can be sold into (or are believed by the house builder to be able to be sold successfully into) the local market without materially disturbing the market price. The absorption rate of homes sold on the site appears, in turn, to be largely determined at present by the type of home being constructed (when ‘type’ includes size, design, context and tenure) and the pricing of the new homes built. The principal reason why house builders are in a position to exercise control over these key drivers of sales rates appears to be that there are limited opportunities for rivals to enter large sites and compete for customers by offering different types of homes at different price-points and with different tenures.

When a large house builder occupies the whole (or even a large part) of a large site, the size and style (and physical context) of the homes on offer will typically be fairly homogeneous. We have seen examples of some variation in size, style and context on some large sites; but the variations have not generally been great. It has become apparent to us that, when major house builders talk about the absorption rates on a large site being affected by “the number of outlets”, they are typically referring not only to the physical location of different points of sale on the site, but also and more importantly to differences in the size and style (and context) of the products being offered for open market sale in different parts of the site. Even these relatively slight variations are clearly sufficient to create additional demand – and hence additional absorption, leading to a higher rate of build out.

It is also clear from our investigation of large sites that differences of tenure are critical. The absorption of the ‘affordable homes’ (including shared ownership homes) and of the ‘social rented housing’ on large sites is regarded universally as additional to the number of homes that can be sold to the open market in a given year on a given large site. We have seen ample evidence from our site visits that the rate of completion of the ‘affordable’ and ‘social rented’ homes is constrained by the requirement for cross-subsidy from the open market housing on the site. Where the rate of sale of open market housing is limited by a given absorption rate for the character and size of home being sold by the house builder at or near to the price of comparable second-hand homes in the locality, this limits the house builder receipts available to provide cross-subsidies. This in turn limits the rate at which the house builder will build out the ‘affordable’ and ‘social rented’ housing required by the Section 106 Agreement – at least in the case of large sites where the non-market housing is either mixed in with the open market housing as an act of conscious policy (as we have frequently found) or where the non-market housing is sold to the housing association at a price that reflects only construction cost (as we have also seen occurring). If freed from these supply constraints, the demand for ‘affordable’ homes (including shared ownership) and ‘social rented’ accommodation on large sites would undoubtedly be consistent with a faster rate of build out. And we have heard, also, that the demand for private rented accommodation at full open market rents (the scale of which is at present uncertain) would be largely additional to, rather than a substitute for, demand for homes purchased outright on the open market.

The interim report

His interim report in June 2018 then focused on three issues:

• what the build out rate on large sites in areas of high housing demand actually is;

• why the rate of build out on these sites is as it is; and

• which factors would be most likely to increase the rate of build out on these sites without having other, untoward effects.

The interim report is a solid document with strong analysis and a variety of conclusions, one of which being that “if either the major house builders themselves, or others, were to offer much more housing of varying types, designs and tenures (and, indeed, more distinct settings, landscapes and street-scapes) on the large sites and if the resulting variety matched appropriately the desires of the people wanting to live in each particular part of the country, then the overall absorption rates – and hence the overall build out rates – could be substantially accelerated. The policy levers required to bring this about without damaging the economics of individual sites or the financial sustainability of the major house builders are topics for the second phase of my work, on which I shall report at the time of the Budget.”

The final report

And this is precisely what he has sought in part to do in his final report, published alongside the budget on 29 October 2018. I say in part, as there is no real analysis as to whether his proposed policy levers would or would not damage “the economics of individual sites or the financial sustainability of the major house builders“.

Underlying his conclusions seems to be his scepticism as to whether the encouragement in the NPPF for “residential developments to have a mix of tenures, types and sizes which reflect local housing demand (as well as emphasising the importance of good design)“, together with the 2018 NPPF’s requirement for local authorities to encourage the sub-division of large sites, is sufficient to lead to less homogenous development or “the prospect of significant increases in the rapidity of build out on such sites“.

He gives no evidence for this assumption. Even the 2012 NPPF (as now revised) is, after all, still working through into plans and permissions.

Instead of trying to work with the grain of the existing system, he recommends that “the Government should adopt a new set of planning rules specifically designed to apply to large sites. The purpose of these rules should be to ensure that all sites in areas of high housing demand whose size exceeds a certain threshold are subject to an additional form of planning control that requires those owning such sites to provide a diversity of offerings on the site which are able to address the various categories of demand within the local housing market. This, in turn, should ensure that houses can be built at a greater rate than at present on such sites, because the absorption rate for each category of housing will be complementary, yielding, overall, a greater absorption of housing by the local market as a whole in any given period.”

Ahead of a new legislative structure (both primary and secondary legislation) and an annex to the NPPF (I suspect it would take more than an annex – he’s driving a coach and horses through the thing as far as large housing sites are concerned), he envisages that the new rules could first be brought in by a written ministerial statement, secondary legislation and the policy annex. “If, for example, the Government decides to adopt my recommendations at the end of 2018, I suggest that it should be made clear to the owners of existing large sites in areas of high housing demand, and to those who are taking such large sites through the current planning system before commencing works, that the new rules governing planning permission for large sites will come into force at the start of 2021, and will therefore govern any permissions granted for large sites on or after that date.”

The primary legislation would:

” • define large sites both in terms of a size threshold (which might, for example, be set initially at 1,500 units2) and in terms of boundaries (to ensure that a site which is allocated as a single entity in a local development plan qualifies, even if it benefits from a number of different outline planning permissions);

• require local planning authorities, when granting allocations, outline permissions or final planning permissions for any large site or any part of a large site in areas of high housing demand, to comply with the new secondary legislation and the new planning policy relating to large sites – and, in particular, to include within all outline planning permissions for large sites in areas of high housing demand a requirement that ‘housing diversification’ on such sites should be a ‘reserved matter’; and

• establish the principle that all permissions for reserved matters granted in relation to such large sites should contain diversi cation requirements in accordance with the new secondary legislation and the new planning policy for large sites.”

The secondary legislation would:

” • amend the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure)(England) Order 2015 to include type, size and tenure mix (alongside the current provision for prescription of access, appearance, landscaping, layout and scale) as characteristics that can be prescribed as reserved matters for large sites in areas of high housing demand; and

• require any applicant making an outline planning application for a large site or an application for final permission for a phase of a large site in an area of high housing demand to prepare a diversification strategy, specifying the types of diversity that will be exhibited on that site or in the part of the site to which the application refers.”

The new planning policy document would set out the diversification principles that are to apply to such large sites in areas of high housing demand in the future. By diversification, he means, for example, “housing of varying types, designs and tenures including a high proportion of affordable housing“, as well as “more distinctive settings, landscapes and streetscapes“. By all means strengthen the NPPF if further strengthening is needed (is it?) but how much of this is specific to schemes of 1,500 homes plus.

Then it really starts to get weird. Because there will be “scope for disagreement about whether a particular applicant has made a genuine effort to provide sufficient diversity to address multiple markets simultaneously and hence to increase the overall absorption rate and build out rate. Accordingly, in order to minimise recourse to appeal or litigation, I recommend that the Government should establish a National Expert Committee.

The primary purpose of this Committee should be to arbitrate on whether any application that causes a disagreement between the local planning authority and the applicant (and consequently comes to appeal) satisfies the diversification requirement, and is therefore likely to cause high build out rates.

The secondary purpose of the Committee would be to offer informal advice to any developer or local planning authority that was considering a large site application. I recommend that the Housing Secretary should guide local planning authorities to consult the National Expert Committee before approving any such large site application in an area of high housing demand.”

Why on earth would a new quango such as this be created?

For sites that will already have an outline planning permission before 2021, Letwin recommends that there should be financial incentives (ie government funding) for house builders to accept changes to their existing site plans. Developers would enter into a section 106 agreement to document their continued commitment to the diversity requirements. Letwin says that he has taken legal advice and is confident that the “voluntary transaction” that he proposes will prove to be lawful – perhaps, but it would certainly be unusual. Would the local planning authority be a party? Who would enforce?

One Step Beyond

He then goes “one step further” in relation to “large sites that have yet to be allocated within a local authority’s local plan“. He recommends “that the Government should, as part of the new primary legislation, introduce a power for local planning authorities to designate particular sites within their local plans as sites which can be developed only as single large sites and which therefore automatically become subject to the new planning rules for large sites. In addition, I believe that the local planning authority should be empowered to specify, at the time of designation, strong master-planning requirements including a strict design code as well as landscaping and full and specific infrastructure requirements.”

This in part appears to be a device to ensure that “the land value of those sites is not raised as far above the alternative use value as would be the case if a site were allocated in a local plan and subsequently obtained outline permission under our current rules“. But this can already be done by local planning authorities for good planning reasons, where comprehensive development is required for reasons of, for instance, sustainability or viability. Is Letwin going further than that?

What if there is no good planning reason why the site could not be sustainably be built out in parts? And what is indeed a single development? This will all prove hugely contentious. Particularly given that he goes on to indicate that to “ensure that a reasonable balance is struck between promoting the public interest through increased diversity and faster build out rates on the one hand, and proper recognition of the value of the land on the other hand, I recommend that the Housing Secretary (when issuing updated viability guidance alongside the new planning framework) should guide local planning authorities towards insisting on levels of diversity that will tend to cap residual land values for these large sites at around ten times their existing use value.”

No evidence is given as to why the level above which land values would be expropriated by the state without compensation (which, after all, would be the effect of the proposal) is set at 10 x EUV.

Letwin recognises that significant support will be needed from Homes England: “planning rules are by their nature passive and reactive. They can prevent things from happening (if they are properly enforced); but they can only do a very limited amount to encourage applicants to follow the spirit of the rules and hence to achieve fully the outcomes the rules have been created to achieve.”

He then goes on to visualise local authorities being empowered to bring forward sites themselves via a development vehicle, in one of two ways:

(a) the local authority could use a Local Development Company (LDC) to carry out this development role by establishing a master plan and design code for the site, and then bringing in private capital through a non-recourse special purpose vehicle to pay for the land and to invest in the infrastructure, before “parcelling up” the site and selling individual parcels to particular types of builders/providers offering housing of different types and different tenures;”

(b) the local authority could establish a Local Authority Master Planner (LAMP) to develop a master plan and full design code for the site, and then enable a privately nanced Infrastructure Development Company (IDC) to purchase the land from the local authority, develop the infrastructure of the site, and promote a variety of housing similar to that provided by the LDC model described above.

He sees local authorities that use these vehicles being given “clear” compulsory purchase powers over the large sites that the authorities allocate and indicates that “it would also make sense to consider the possibility of giving local authorities such CPO powers in relation to large sites that have been allocated in their local plan in the past but which have not obtained outline permission after a long period has elapsed.”

Even when compulsory purchase compensation values have been reduced by the mechanisms requiring build out as a single site (query how that is defined in practice) and by increasing the required diversity until the 10 x uplift on EUV is not exceeded, will development (with the required diversity) be viable for a local authority to bring forward? Will any authority have the resources for the task? Will non-recourse lending really be available to the extent that would be required? Why would anyone start on the process of promoting a large site for development when it can be snaffled as part of a larger “single site” in this way?

The notions in the report could be read as moving to the public sector the role of strategic land promotion companies, which I suspect (for all that they are maligned) to be responsible for a high proportion of the major housing sites that do come forward at present. So, to misappropriate Kit Malthouse’s recent analogy that he applied to Homes England, we would lose some WD40 in the system: the companies with the incentive to identify sites, assemble them, identify and overcome infrastructure constraints, devise a viable and acceptable form of development, pursue allocation and permission, open up land with strategic infrastructure and dispose of parcels to house builders. And, going back to the original terms of reference, this will “increase the speed of build out“?

I appreciate that this report was delivered to a deadline, which it achieved, but (unlike the previous stages of Sir Oliver’s review) it seems to me to lack any robust evidential basis at all to justify the wholly new structure that it proposes for allocating, permitting and delivering schemes with 1,500 or more dwellings. Nor does the review interest itself with any more practical nudges that could be introduced into the current system. If it just goes on the “nice but radical ideas” shelf, another year will have been wasted, without any real progress towards making practical improvements that might improve build out rates. After all, Homes England is already playing a hugely positive role in unlocking large-scale housing development and indeed on 30 October 2018 published its strategic plan for 2018/2019 – 2022/2023, setting how it intends to go much further to use its “land, money, powers and influence to increase the pace, scale and quality of delivery“. When the Government responds to the Letwin report in early 2019 I will be looking to see whether any measures that are to be taken forward will pragmatically assist Homes England’s practical work – they are the ones rolling up their sleeves on all this.

Lastly, if as a consequence of implementation of these proposals we were to see the private sector focusing its attention on smaller sites, in preference to these sites which can really make a difference in terms of delivering at scale, that would in my view be inconsistent with the brief that was set.

Stick or twist?

Simon Ricketts, 3 November 2018

Personal views, et cetera

PS No sooner had I finished this post and poured some strong coffee than I saw this morning’s announcement that the Secretary of State has appointed Professor Sir Roger Scruton to chair a ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission – no-one could criticise the current build out rate of MHCLG when it comes to reports and reviews.

LAMP lighter