All eyes on the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021. Was there to be a narrowing down of previous options; a reflection on the consultation process; a programme set out of further work to be carried out ahead of the proposed Planning Bill, perhaps some new thinking following longer reflection?
“Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward…”
Turning to the background notes, there is literally nothing in the section on the proposed Planning Bill could not have been written back at the time of the white paper in August 2020 or that gives any indication as to ministers’ current thinking.
“The purpose of the Bill is to:
● Create a simpler, faster and more modern planning system to replace the currentone that dates back to 1947, and ensuring we no longer remain tied to procedures designed for the last century.
● Ensure homes and infrastructure – like schools and hospitals – can be deliveredmore quickly across England.
● Transform our planning system from a slow document-based one to a more efficient and easier to use digital and map-based service, allowing more active public engagement in the development of their local area.
● Help deliver vital infrastructure whilst helping to protect and enhance the environment by introducing quicker, simpler frameworks for funding infrastructure and assessing environmental impacts and opportunities.
The main benefits of the Bill would be:
● Providing more certainty for communities and developers, particularly smaller developers, about what is permitted where, through clear land allocations in local plans and stronger rules on design.
● Simpler, faster procedures for producing local development plans, approving major schemes, assessing environmental impacts and negotiating affordable housing and infrastructure contributions from development.
Establishing a framework which focuses on positive outcomes, such as environmental opportunities and better designed places.
● Digitising a system to make it more visual and easier for local people to meaningfully engage with.
The main elements of the Bill are:
● Changing local plans so that they provide more certainty over the type, scale and design of development permitted on different categories of land.
● Significantly decrease the time it takes for developments to go through the planning system.
● Replacing the existing systems for funding affordable housing and infrastructure from development with a new more predictable and more transparent levy.
● Using post-Brexit freedoms to simplify and enhance the framework for environmental assessments for developments.
● Reforming the framework for locally led development corporations to ensure local areas have access to appropriate delivery vehicles to support growth and regeneration.
Territorial extent and application
● The Bill will extend to the whole of the UK, however the majority of provisions will apply to England.”
In my view there can only be two possible reasons for this “no news” approach:
1. The Government may not yet have reached the necessary decisions – for instance as to how many zoning categories there will be, whether all land will be zoned or just parts of areas; or how this Infrastructure Levy will work. Quite possible. But come on! Nine months, and nothing?
2. Alternatively, the Government may not yet ready to take the political flak from its own that any specific proposals will attract. Despite the lack of any new information the reaction was surprisingly hostile, and even amongst the development industry I only hear at best muted, hedged and qualified support for elements of the white paper: are many politicians or business leaders prepared to be the cheer-leaders for these changes when, inevitably, the going gets politically tough? This will need a plan.
The only “new” element that caught my eye was that the long-flagged proposal to reform environmental assessment processes will now be within the Bill. It is another area where an announcement is overdue. Environment minister George Eustice indicated in his 20 July 2020 speech:
“Later this autumn we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system.”
The consultation never happened. Whether the legislation will indeed not only simplify but “enhance the EU derived framework of environmental assessments for developments” partly depends on what happens with a separate proposal within the forthcoming Judicial Review Bill:
“Giving the courts the power to suspend quashing orders in Judicial Review cases, so as to allow defects to be remedied. This will enable the courts to have more flexibility in Judicial Review cases. This may help ensure that, for example, a large infrastructure project is not delayed because an impact assessment has not been properly done”
I hope we are not now faced with a Bill that is either a fait accompli, given the various areas which genuinely need a great deal more work and engagement, or (as likely) an empty legislative shell, leaving the difficult work for secondary legislation in due course.
Incidentally, as a topical reminder that how the system is operated is as important as how is how it is structured, in the same week as the traditional parading of the Government’s forthcoming legislative programme, we have seen yet another example of the delays to the system that are caused when the Government intervenes in relation to planning applications: the ministerial decision on 13 May 2021 to approve the Whitechapel Bell Foundry application called in on 22 January 2020. Almost 16 months’ unnecessary delay, not to mention much unnecessary cost. Never mind new laws: how much could be achieved by the Secretary of State simply deciding not to call in applications or recover appeals!
But I will leave more detailed commentary on that decision, and on the Secretary of State’s enigmatic subsequent statement on twitter this afternoon, until next week’s thrilling blog post.
Simon Ricketts, 15 May 2021
Personal views, et cetera
This Tuesday we held a #PlanningLawUnplanned Queen’s Speech Clubhouse session. If you attended I hope you found it useful. This Tuesday we’re going to run an essential session about the Clubhouse app itself and how to get the most out of it. All will become clear! Do join us (iphone invitation here if you are not yet a member).
In response to that blog post, Hugh Richards (No 5 Chambers) rightly, and probably rhetorically, asked whether local authorities need statutory authority to hold virtual meetings in any event. Well, I took it as a rhetorical question and didn’t reply at the time after I disappeared down a legal rabbit hole trying to arrive at an answer.
I’m pleased to see that the Lawyers in Local Government and Association of Democratic Services Officers are taking urgent steps to try to avoid what would be an unfortunate hiatus – they have obtained an opinion from James Strachan QC, a summary of which is reported as follows:
“(1) There are forceful arguments that can be made that the pre-existing legislation governing local authority meetings under Schedule 12 of the Local Government 1972 Act, and meetings of an executive or a committee of an executive under the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012, enable local authorities to hold meetings remotely.
(2) For the present situation to continue after 7 May 2021 with the use of remote meetings, the optimum position would be for further legislation to be passed to make the position clear.
(3) In the absence of such legislation, one resolution would be to obtain a declaration from the courts to obtain clarity as to the legal position under the pre-existing legislation.
(4) The Secretary of State does have (a) power under section 16 of the 1999 Act to make an Order to modify or disapply those restrictions for best value authorities and (b) power under the 2000 Act to make regulations governing executive decision-making bodies to hold remote meetings.”
The LLG and ADSO intend to seek a declaration from the High Court. Without such a declaration (or legislation) there is inevitably going to be a question-mark over the lawfulness of any local authority resolution passed on or after 7 May by way of a virtual meeting. This is a risk that most applicants would wish to avoid in relation to any contentious planning application.
6 May is of course an important date because local government elections will definitely be proceeding (as far as “definitely” is a word that any of us can still use). The Local Government Association has published much information and guidance relating to the May 2021 local government elections.
Ahead of those elections will be the usual period (previously known as the “purdah period”, now simply and dully, “pre-election period”) when there is heightened sensitivity over decision making. The period will start at the latest on 27 March (22 March for the London elections). Again, the Local Government Association has published detailed guidance.
The period is shorter when it comes to actions and decisions taken being by central Government. As set out in the Commons Library research briefing Pre-election period of sensitivity (23 November 2020), the relevant civil service guidance is as follows:
“The period of sensitivity for UK Government civil servants preceding scheduled local and mayoral elections each May is not fixed to any particular date, but the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections.”
Applying that ESPN Premier League analysis, it will be fascinating to see the influence of the current restrictions upon election outcomes. Fortunately I don’t have a team. Simon’s iPad will not be making its first appearance at my local parish council meeting this Spring.
Why at the moment do ministers conclude so often that they have to reject their inspectors’ recommendations in relation to planning proposals and major infrastructure projects?
Something is clearly wrong when there can be a hugely expensive, time consuming inquiry or examination, followed by a lengthy, considered and reasoned report, only for the decision letter to arrive at a different balance. Is it the fault of inspectors? Has Government not communicated its up to date policy priorities? Are these decisions driven by political convenience? The problem is that we don’t get to find out – the minister’s decision is inevitably as bland as bland, with differences cloaked by “legal cover” explanations as to the different weight applied to particular considerations. Is it any wonder that the losing party so frequently then embarks on a legal challenge?
Anglia Square, Norwich
Yesterday (13 November 2020), Robert Jenrick issued his decision letter refusing, against his inspector’s recommendations, a called in application for planning permission in relation to the proposed development at Anglia Square, Norwich of “up to 1250 dwellings, hotel, ground floor retail and commercial floorspace, cinema, multi-storey car parks, place of worship and associated works to the highway and public realm areas”. The proposal included a 20 storey tower. Inspector David Prentis had held an inquiry over 15 days in January and February 202, providing his 206 page report to the Secretary of State on 6 June 2020. Russell Harris QC appeared for the applicant (Weston Homes and others), Tim Corner QC appeared for Norwich City Council and Historic England (represented by Guy Williams), Save Britain’s Heritage (represented by Matthew Dale-Harris), the Norwich Society and the Norwich Cycling Campaign were all rule 6 parties.
Why was the inspector’s recommendation not accepted?
“The Secretary of State has carefully considered the Inspector’s assessment at IR468- 469 of the building typologies proposed, and their height. While he recognises that there has been an effort to place the taller buildings within the site rather than on the edges, the Secretary of State considers that the bulk and massing of the built form proposed is not sympathetic to its context. In particular, he is concerned that the frontage to St Crispins Road would include 8, 10 and 12 storey buildings, and he finds, like the Inspector at IR607, that Block F, which would have frontages to Pitt Street and St Crispins Road, would appear strikingly different and unfamiliar, to an extent that would cause harm. The Secretary of State also concurs with the advice of Design South East as quoted in the evidence of Historic England (IR269 and IR474) that:
“with blocks of over 10 storeys, it is only in comparison with the tower that these could be considered low rise, and in the context of the wider city they are very prominent. These blocks are not just tall, but also very deep and wide, creating monoliths that are out of scale with the fine grain of the surrounding historic urban fabric”
He “finds that the tower would be of an excessive size in relation to its context, and does not demonstrate the exceptional quality required by Policy DM3(a).”
The Secretary of State “disagrees with the Inspector on the scale of the heritage benefits of the proposal set out in IR542, specifically the second bullet given his concerns over the design of the proposal. Taking account of the wider heritage impacts of the scheme as set out in paragraphs 27 to 59 of this letter, the Secretary of State disagrees with the Inspector and finds that, while the benefits of the scheme are sufficient to outweigh the less than substantial harm to the listed buildings identified at IR536-540, when considered individually, they do not do so when considered collectively, given the range and number of heritage assets affected, and given the increased harm found in comparison to the Inspector. He therefore finds, like the Inspector, that the proposals would conflict with policy DM9. He has also found conflict with elements of policies JCS1 which states that heritage assets, and the wider historic environment will be conserved and enhanced through the protection of their settings, and conflict with elements of policy DM1 which states that development proposals will be expected to protect and enhance the physical, environmental and heritage assets of the city.”
“Overall the Secretary of State concludes that the benefits of the scheme are not sufficient to outbalance the identified ‘less than substantial’ harm to the significance of the designated heritage assets identified at IR536-537 and in paragraphs 27-59 above. He considers that the balancing exercise under paragraph 196 of the Framework is therefore not favourable to the proposal.”
Yesterday (12 November 2020) Grant Shapps overturned the examining authority’s recommendation and confirmed the A3030 Stonehenge DCO. The examining authority comprised no fewer than five inspectors (Wendy McKay, Alan Novitzky, David Richards, Ken Taylor and Edwin Maund).
Why was their recommendation rejected?
“ It is the ExA’s opinion that when assessed in accordance with NPSNN, the Development’s effects on the OUV of the WHS, and the significance of heritage assets through development within their settings taken as a whole would lead to substantial harm [ER 5.7.333]. However, the Secretary of State notes the ExA also accepts that its conclusions in relation to cultural heritage, landscape and visual impact issues and the other harms identified, are ultimately matters of planning judgment on which there have been differing and informed opinions and evidence submitted to the examination [ER 7.5.26]. The Secretary of State notes the ExA’s view on the level of harm being substantial is not supported by the positions of the Applicant, Wiltshire Council, the National Trust, the English Heritage Trust, DCMS and Historic England. These stakeholders place greater weight on the benefits to the WHS from the removal of the existing A303 road compared to any consequential harmful effects elsewhere in the WHS. Indeed, the indications are that they consider there would or could be scope for a net benefit overall to the WHS [ER 5.7.54, ER 5.7.55, ER 5.7.62, ER 5.7.70, ER 5.7.72 and ER 5.7.83].”
“Ultimately, the Secretary of State prefers Historic England’s view on this matter for the reasons given [ER 5.7.62 – 5.7.69] and considers it is appropriate to give weight to its judgment as the Government’s statutory advisor on the historic environment, including world heritage. The Secretary of State is satisfied therefore that the harm on spatial, visual relations and settings is less than substantial and should be weighed against the public benefits of the Development in the planning balance.”
See also his overall conclusions at paragraphs 80 to 86.
Again, as with Anglia Square, the position of Historic England proved influential, as was that of the National Trust and other bodies.
A legal challenge from campaigners appears inevitable.
On 9 July 2020 Grant Shapps also overturned the examining authority’s recommendation and confirmed the Manston Airport DCO. The examining authority comprised four inspectors (Kelvin MacDonald, Martin Broderick, Jonathan Hockley and Jonathan Manning).
The proposals would permit the reopening and development of Manston Airport, enabling it to become a dedicated air freight facility handling at least 10,000 air cargo movements each year, with the offer of some passenger, executive travel, and aircraft engineering services.
Why was the examining authority’s recommendation to reject the proposals not accepted?
“For the reasons above, the Secretary of State disagrees with the ExA’s recommendation to refuse development consent. As set out above in paragraphs 20 and 21, the Secretary of State considers there is a clear case of need for the Development and this should be given substantial weight. He considers the Development would support the government’s policy objective to make the UK one of the best-connected countries in the world and for the aviation sector to make a significant contribution to economic growth of the UK and comply with the Government’s aviation policy that airports should make the best use of their existing capacity and runways, subject to environmental issues being addressed. Substantial weight is given by the Secretary of State to the conclusion that the Development would be in accordance with such policies and that granting development consent for the Development would serve to implement such policy. The Secretary of State also considers that there are significant economic and socio-economic benefits which would flow from the Development, which should also be given substantial weight.
The Secretary of State accepts that there is the potential for short term congestion and delays on the local road system caused by the Development to occur before appropriate mitigation is delivered; however, he considers that the residual cumulative impacts would not be severe and gives limited weight to these effects. He concludes that the need and public benefits that would result from the Development clearly outweigh the heritage harm and the harm that may be caused to the tourist industry in Ramsgate. The Secretary of State also concludes that with the restrictions imposed by him in the DCO and also through the UUs only limited weight should be given to noise and vibration adverse effects.
For the reasons set out in paragraphs 24-26 above, the Secretary of State is content that climate change is a matter that should be afforded moderate weight against the Development in the planning balance. He does not agree with the ExA that operational matters weigh moderately against the grant of development consent being given for the Development.
The Secretary of State is content that the impacts of the Development in terms of air quality [ER 8.2.28 – 8.2.43]; biodiversity [ER 8.2.44 – 8.2.62]; ground conditions [ER 8.2.76 – 8.2.82]; landscape, design and visual impact [ER 8.2.104 – 8.2.120]; and water resources [ER 8.2.219 – 8.2.227] are of neutral weight in the decision as to whether to make the DCO.
When all the above factors are weighed against each other either individually or in- combination, the Secretary of State is satisfied that the benefits outweigh any adverse impacts of the Development.”
An objector, Jenny Dawes, has challenged the decision. Her crowdfunding page gives some basic information.
The claim was filed on 20 August and was granted permission by the High Court on about 14 October to proceed to a full hearing. It doesn’t seem that a hearing date has yet been set. The barristers are Paul Stinchcombe QC, Richard Wald QC and Gethin Thomas.
Norfolk Vanguard offshore windfarm
On 1 July 2020 Alok Sharma overturned the examining authority’s recommendation and confirmed the Norfolk Vanguard offshore windfarm DCO. The examining authority comprised four inspectors (Karen Ridge (Lead Member), Caroline Jones, Gavin Jones and Grahame Kean).
Why was their recommendation to reject the proposals not accepted?
“The Secretary of State notes that the ExA determined that consent should not be granted for the proposed Development because of potential impacts on habitats and species afforded protection under the Habitats Directive. In determining that it was not possible on the basis of the information available to it to rule out an AEoI on two sites protected by the Directive – the Flamborough and Filey Coast Special Protection Area and the Alde-Ore Estuary Special Protection Area – the ExA concluded that the proposed Development would not be in accordance with NPS EN- 1 and could not therefore be granted consent.
However, in other respects, the ExA concluded that, while there would be impacts arising from the proposed Development across a range of issues (including on local landscape and traffic and transport), those impacts were not of such significance or would be mitigated to such a degree as to be not significant as to outweigh the substantial benefits that would derive from the development of a very large, low carbon, infrastructure project. The ExA notes that, if one set aside the conclusion on Habitats-related issues, then in all other matters, the proposed Development would be in accordance with the National Policy Statements and national policy objectives. This conclusion was subject to some clarification on specific points, including mitigation proposals.
As is set out elsewhere in this submission, in light of the ExA’s Report to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State consulted a range of parties including the Applicant about the Habitats-related issues and other relevant matters that had been raised in the ExA’s Report. On Habitats, further information on potential bird impacts such that the Secretary of State is now able to conclude that, on balance, there would be no Adverse Impact on Integrity for the Flamborough and Filey Coast Special Protection Area and the Alde-Ore Estuary Special Protection Area.
The Secretary of State notes that there were a range of views about the potential impacts of the Development with strong concerns expressed about the impacts on, among other things, the landscape around the substation, traffic and transport impacts and potential contamination effects at the site of the F-16 plane crash. However, he has had regard to the ExA’s consideration of these matters and to the mitigation measures that would be put in place to minimise those impacts wherever possible. The Secretary of State considers that findings in the ExA’s Report and the conclusions of the HRA together with the strong endorsement of offshore wind electricity generation in NPS EN-1 and NPS EN-3 mean that, on balance, the benefits of the proposed Development outweigh its adverse impacts. He, therefore, concludes that development consent should be granted in respect of the Development.”
Lang J granted permission on 2 July 2020 in relation to a crowdfunded legal challenge brought by an objector, Ray Pearce.
Drax Power Station Re-Powering Project
These DCO overturn instances are of course not new. On 9 October 2019 Alok Sharma overturned the examining authority’s recommendation and confirmed the Drax Power Station Re-Powering Project DCO. A challenge to the decision failed: ClientEarth v Secretary of State (Holgate J, 22 May 2020).
Nor of course are such instances new when it comes to planning appeals and call-ins.
Might I suggest that a review be carried out as to why they are occurring so often?
are probably the three words I most associate with the planning system in England, since you asked.
The main part of this post is a commentary by special guest and fellow Town partner Duncan Field on the Government’s Planning for the future white paper, published on 6 August 2020.
But before we get to that, some initial comments from me on timescales.
The consultation period on the white paper ends on 29 October 2020.
The aspiration in the document is that (subject to time extensions for recent plans) new local plans should be in place by the end of this Parliament, so by Spring 2024. Given that those local plans will take up to 30 months to be put in place under the new system proposed, the necessary primary legislation will need to have been passed and in force, with any necessary accompanying Regulations and guidance, by Autumn 2021.
By way of proxy for legislative timescales, the less ambitious Housing and Planning Act 2016 and Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 each took around seven months to pass through the necessary Parliamentary stages, which would mean introducing a Bill by the beginning of 2021. One perhaps has to look back to the Localism Act 2011 for planning legislation of equivalent complexity. That took eleven months from soup to nuts.
Something is going to have to give – either there is going to be rushed consideration of these proposals, which still need significant refinement, or that “end of this Parliament” aspiration is going to have to be reconsidered before long.
But in any event, things can be expected to move quickly.
The timescales in that document for the four sets of proposals within it are as follows:
· changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need: “Following the outcome of this consultation, the Government will update the planning practice guidance with the revised standard method for assessing local housing need.”
· securing of First Homes through developer contributions in the short term until the transition to a new system: “We intend to begin by making planning policy changes, to ensure that clear expectations are set. However, to ensure that First Homes are delivered, nationwide, on a consistent basis, we are keeping under consideration the option to strengthen the policy through primary legislation at a future date. We also intend to introduce an exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy for First Homes, to enable delivery prior to wider developer contribution reform. This would require changes to regulations. Lastly, we are also considering significant reforms to the system of developer contributions. We will ensure that First Homes willcontinue to be delivered under a reformed approach”
· supporting small and medium-sized builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing: “Following the consultation, a decision will be taken on whether to proceed with this approach. If it is taken forward, this could be through the introduction of a Written Ministerial Statement in the Autumn.”
· extending the current Permission in Principle to major development: “Following this consultation, if we introduce Permission in Principle by application for major development, we aim to introduce amending regulations this Autumn, with the regulations expected to come into force by the end of the calendar year. Changes to the fee structure would require separate changes to the Planning Fees Regulations.”
The white paper is in my view a considered document and less radical than might have been expected, although certainly ambitious in its breadth. Proposals spin out of it, one after the other, often just in a sentence or two. There are of course areas where there needs to be further thought or explanation. For me, there are two big ones in particular:
⁃ the way in which housing numbers are to be set by the Government for individual authorities and how to resolve the inevitable tension between a swifter examination process and a process that allows proposals in a plan (and the basis for proposals not being in the plan) to be properly tested (particularly where the plan is going to be the equivalent of a series of outline planning permissions for its growth areas);
⁃ how this new infrastructure levy is really going to work and how obligations are going to be addressed that presently are dealt with by way of section 106 agreement, in particular the delivery of affordable housing.
There will also have to be a clear working through of the respective powers and responsibilities across the system, as between government, strategic authorities, local planning authorities and neighbourhoods.
I must say that I found Chris Katkowski QC’s explanations in the latest Have We Got Planning News For You episode really helpful in bringing the proposals, and the thinking behind them, to life. And, boring to say, there is no substitute for reading the actual document.
Planning for the Future begins with some fairly combative language, referring to “our outdated and ineffective planning system” and drawing comparisons with a patched up building which needs to be torn down.
In truth the Government’s proposals do not go quite as far as that and in practice, to continue with the same analogy, we might end up with a better and more sustainable outcome if we were to save the parts of the “patched up building” which have architectural merit. The biggest problem with the current system is not that it is all inherently bad but that it is not sufficiently resourced; it is a pity that planning reforms by successive Governments have never really grappled with that central issue. The good news on this occasion is that the new system will be accompanied by a comprehensive skills and resources strategy for local authorities and key participants in the system; let’s hope the Government delivers on that.
Further on in the document there are some powerful words from the Secretary of State which bring home just how important a time this is for the planning system and what it can deliver. It is hard to disagree with any of this:
The outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the economic and social lives of the entire nation. With so many people spending more time at home than ever before, we have come to know our homes, gardens and local parks more intimately. For some this has been a welcome opportunity to spend more time in the place they call home with the people they love. For others – those in small, substandard homes, those unable to walk to distant shops or parks, those struggling to pay their rent, or indeed for those who do not have a home of their own at all – this has been a moment where longstanding issues in our development and planning system have come to the fore.
Onto the objectives for reform, which can be summarised as follows:
• Reduce complexity and with it, uncertainty and delay.
• In doing so, deliver a more competitive market with a greater diversity of developers.
• Remove the discretionary nature of individual development management decisions and replace it with a rule-based system of development control.
• In doing so, reduce planning risk and the cost of capital for development.
• Reduce the time it takes to produce a local plan.
• Simplify assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts.
• Restore public trust and encourage more widespread public participation.
• Get better at unlocking growth and opportunity, encouraging beautiful new places, supporting town and city centres and revitalising existing buildings as well as new development.
• Harness digital technology.
Linked to this is a long list of desired outcomes including the user experience, home ownership, access to infrastructure, economic growth and innovation.
We then come to the main proposals which the Government intends to bring forward:
1. Local plans
a. These will be simplified so that they only identify land for development, the sites that should be protected and the development that can take place. There would be three categories of land:
i. Growth – sites suitable for comprehensive development which, once allocated, will have outline approval for development.
ii. Renewal – sites where smaller scale development is appropriate, which would benefit from a statutory presumption in favour of development once allocated.
iii. Protected – sites with environmental or cultural characteristics where development should be subject to more stringent controls.
An alternative approach might be a more binary system (growth and renewal with permission in principle versus protected areas) or more scope for the existing development management approach in areas other than those allocated for “growth”.
b. Plans should become digital, visual and map-based, interactive and data rich, using a standardised approach to support open access.
c. Local plans (and neighbourhood plans) will be more focused on giving clear area-specific requirements for land that is allocated for growth and renewal including design codes; generic development management policies and duplication of national policy and guidance needs to be avoided.
d. Plans should be subject to a single test of achieving sustainable development instead of the current tests for soundness and the duty to co-operate. There would be no Sustainability Appraisal and instead this would be replaced by a simplified process for assessing the environmental impact of plans.
e. Local plans would meet housing need by reference to a standard method for establishing housing requirements developed and set at a national level; this would mean distributing the national housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes annually, and one million homes by the end of the Parliament, taking into account local factors including constraints, opportunities and affordability. The Housing Delivery Test would stay.
f. Local plans would have to be brought forward by reference to a fixed 30 month statutory timescale with six stages and individual timings for each stage.
g. Local planning authorities would be under a duty to review their plans every 5 years; powers of intervention would remain such as the issuing of directions and preparation of a plan in consultation with local people.
h. Neighbourhood Plans to be retained but with more focus on form of development to reflect the proposals for Local Plans.
This is a refreshingly clear vision of what local plans might become and a digitalised system would be transformative for the user experience and public engagement. However, there are some big questions around how to encourage strategic planning across local authority boundaries for the bigger than local issues (the Government is open to suggestions), how in practice the “sustainable development” test would work and, linked to that, how robust the new environmental assessment process will be.
Equally as important, what will the effect of these promised changes be on current local plans? Without further incentives or assurances around their continuing effect in any transitional arrangements as we switch over to the new system, there must be a real concern they will be halted in their tracks.
2. Development Management
a. As indicated above, growth areas allocated in a local plan would have outline permission for the principle of development; details would be agreed and full planning permission achieved through a new reserved matters process, a local development order or possibly, on bigger sites, via a development consent order.
b. Renewal areas would benefit from a new statutory presumption in favour of development and would benefit from either a new automatic consenting route where specified forms of development meet design and other prior approval requirements, a faster planning application process or a local or neighbourhood development order.
c. Proposals which do not conform to the local plan in renewal and growth areas could still come forward, exceptionally, through a planning application process.
d. In protected areas, proposals will have to be brought forward via a planning application (subject to any permitted development rights or local development orders) and will be judged against the NPPF.
e. Generally, the development management process will be based on a more streamlined end-to-end process with firm deadlines for determination through a mix of:
ii. Data access;
iii. Shorter and standardised applications with reduced or limited supporting material;
iv. A standardised approach to technical information, conditions and developer contributions; and
v. Delegation of detailed planning decisions to planning officers where the principle of development has been established.
f. The Government will build in incentives for prompt determination of applications by local planning authorities such as deemed approval of some applications or refunds of application fees.
g. The process will still be subject to call-in powers and appeals but the Government expects the volume of call-ins and appeals to reduce over time.
h. There will be encouragement for faster build out by making provision in local plans/design codes for a variety of development types by different builders (picking up on the conclusions of the Letwin Review).
This vision for the new development management system feels less clear: permission in principle and outline planning permission are used interchangeably in places as a consequence of land being allocated for growth; however, over and above this, there appears to be provision for a “full” planning permission through a new reserved matters system or local development orders or even development consent orders. Would this not remove a lot of the benefit of allocating land for growth? There is also a myriad of possible ways in which land allocated for renewal might gain consent and, in the meantime, we retain the current planning application process as well. If the Government is not careful it might add to the complexity of development management.
Certainly, we can all get on board with the much-needed streamlining of the development management process from end to end, with more standardisation, reducing the quantity of application documents and increased use of digital technology. However, resourcing this change will be key to its success.
3. Building better, building beautiful and sustainable places
Design and place-making is still high up on the Government’s political agenda. Proposals in this space include the following:
a. A National Model Design Code to be published in the Autumn which will work alongside the National Design Guide and the Manual for Streets; together these are expected to have a bearing on design of new communities and to guide decisions on development. (This will be an early entrant into the current planning system.)
b. Local guides and codes are to be prepared wherever possible to reflect local character but need to have input from the local community before they are given any weight in the planning process.
c. A new expert body will be set up to help local authorities make use of design guidance and codes, as well as performing a wider monitoring and challenge role for the sector.
d. The much-heralded “fast-track” for beauty will be achieved through:
i. The NPPF – which will have provision for schemes that comply with local design guides and codes to be approved quickly;
ii. Legislation to require that sites in growth areas should have a masterplan and site-specific code as a condition of the permission in principle which is granted through allocation in the local plan; and
iii. Widening permitted development rights through the use of “pattern books” for different building types.
e. The NPPF will require targeted consideration of measures to support climate change mitigation and adaptation. (In our view, policy has been playing catch-up on climate change for some time – this is long overdue and should be welcomed.)
f. There will be a quicker and simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts, stepping away from the current frameworks such as Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal and Environmental Impact Assessment. The key requirements for the new framework will be:
i. early consideration;
ii. clear and easy to understand; and
iii. avoidance of duplication.
A further consultation on this is expected in the Autumn.
g. The Government intends to review and update the planning framework for listed buildings and conservation areas, to ensure their significance is conserved while allowing, where appropriate, sympathetic changes to support their continued use and address climate change.
h. Improvements to the energy efficiency standards for buildings will be brought forward to help meet the 2050 net zero commitment.
The intention here is clear and consistent with the recent focus of the Government on design and beauty in the planning system. The area with the most loaded questions is the promised framework for assessing environmental impact; in our view, there is clear scope to reduce the voluminous and highly technical nature of the current framework but now is not the time to water it down in terms of its ambit and its protective function. We will have to wait until the Autumn to find out more.
There are radical proposals for the funding of infrastructure:
a. Replace S106 obligations and the current version of Community Infrastructure Levy with a new Infrastructure Levy calculated as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory, nationally-set rate or rates (potentially variable by area).
b. This new levy will be charged on the final value of a development (or an assessed sales value where the development is not sold, e.g. build to rent) by reference to the rate in force when planning permission is granted. This would have to be paid before occupation.
c. Local authorities would be able to borrow against Infrastructure Levy revenues so that they could forward fund infrastructure.
d. The London Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy and similar strategic Community Infrastructure Levies in combined authorities could be retained.
e. The Infrastructure Levy Could be extended to capture changes of use without additional floor area and through permitted development.
f. The new levy would be extended to fund affordable housing. Allowance would be made for in-kind delivery on-site, which could be made mandatory where an authority has a requirement, a capability to deliver on site and wishes to do so. In those circumstances local authorities would be able to specify the form and tenure of the on-site provision. The Government anticipates that there would need to be a considered policy approach to the risk of imbalance between the value of the agreed in-kind delivery and the fluctuating nature of the levy liability, contingent as it will be on the development value.
g. Local authorities could be given more freedom on how they spend the levy.
There is a lot of detail to be worked through here. Setting the new levy at a level which does not deter development (and indeed land supply through the price paid by developers) will be key and a difficult issue to judge.
The Government will also need to be scrupulous in ensuring that affordable housing continues to come forward using levy funds and still comes forward as part of mixed and balanced communities.
The removal of the blunt and inflexible tool that we have come to love or hate in the form of CIL is welcome in our view and with it the removal of a considerable amount of confusing and time-consuming red tape. For practical reasons – not least delivering site-specific solutions for development – we are not sure we are witnessing the end of S106 obligations or an equivalent just yet but they will undoubtedly be slimmed down.
The consultation document ends with a few final proposals and thoughts from Government on the delivery of a new planning system:
a. As a first step there is a parallel consultation on changes to the current system including extension of Permission in Principle (by application to major development), the standard method for assessing local housing need, First Homes and supporting SME builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing. More here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/changes-to-the-current-planning-system
b. The Government sees a potential delivery role for development corporations.
c. The reforms are considered likely to reduce judicial review risk.
d. The need for resources and skills is recognised and will be addressed through a comprehensive strategy. In principle, the Government’s view is that the cost of operating the new planning system should be principally funded by the beneficiaries of planning gain – landowners and developers – rather than the national or local taxpayer. Funding may also be achieved through application fees and potentially the new infrastructure levy or- to a limited extent – general taxation.
e. The Government intends to strengthen the powers for local planning authorities to enforce against breach of planning control and provide incentives for enforcement action to be taken.
To end where this overview began, resources are key and a comprehensive strategy to ensure the sufficiency of funding and skills will be very welcome, as long as it does what it says on the tin. This will be vital to the success of the new system.
We know now what the Government wants to achieve. It is up to all of us in the sector to help them make it work and if parts of the system are worthy of retention for their “architectural” merit, to explain why that is, with reference to the Government’s objectives.
Duncan Field, Victoria McKeegan and I were speculating in our 16 December 2019 planorama vlog as to what the new Government’s legislative programme and policy priorities are likely to be in relation to planning, infrastructure and the environment
We now have the blueprint, in the form of the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019 and particularly the 151 pages of background notes published the same day.
There is going to be an “ambitious” planning white paper in due course, but what is promised in the meantime in this very blue paper that these notes represent? The government has little excuse not to deliver on what it has set out, given the size of its majority. The most relevant references are as follows:
Housing (pages 48 to 50):
“My government will take steps to support home ownership, including by making homes available at a discount for local first-time buyers.”
● The Government will support people to realise the dream of homeownership. One of the biggest divides in our country is between those who can afford their own home and those who cannot.
● The Government will shortly launch a consultation on First Homes. This will provide homes for local people and key workers at a discount of at least 30 per cent – saving them tens of thousands of pounds.
● The discount on First Homes will be secured through a covenant. This means these homes will remain discounted in perpetuity, supporting people now and in the future who aspire to own a home of their own.
● The Government will also renew the Affordable Homes Programme, building hundreds of thousands of new homes for a range of people in different places. This will help us prevent people from falling into homelessness while also supporting further people into homeownership.
● We will introduce a new, reformed Shared Ownership model, making buying a share of a home fairer and more transparent. This new model will be simpler to understand and better able shared owners to buy more of their property and eventually reach full ownership.
● To deliver on the homes this country needs, the Government is committed to building at least a million more homes over this Parliament. In the coming months we will set out further steps to achieve this, including an ambitious Planning White Paper and funding for critical infrastructure.
● The Planning White Paper will make the planning process clearer, more accessible and more certain for all users, including homeowners and small businesses. It will also address resourcing and performance in Planning Departments.
● The new £10bn Single Housing Infrastructure fund will provide the roads, schools and GP surgeries needed to support new homes. Alongside First Homes, this will ensure local people truly benefit from house building in their area and build support for new developments
● To help those who rent, the Government will build a rental system that is fit for the modern day – supporting landlords to provide high quality homes while protecting tenants. The Government’s Better Deal for Renters will fulfil our manifesto commitments to abolish ‘no fault’ evictions and to introduce lifetime deposits, alongside further reforms to strengthen the sector for years to come.
● The Government is taking forward a comprehensive programme of reform to end unfair practices in the leasehold market. This includes working with the Law Commission to make buying a freehold or extending a lease easier, quicker and more cost effective – and to reinvigorate commonhold and Right to Manage.
● The Government will ensure that if a new home can be sold as freehold, then it will be. We will get rid of unnecessary ground rents on new leases and give new rights to homeowners to challenge unfair charges. The Government will also close legal loopholes to prevent unfair evictions and make it faster and cheaper to sell a leasehold home.
● For those in the social rented sector, we will bring forward a Social Housing White Paper which will set out further measures to empower tenants and support the continued supply of social homes. This will include measures to provide greater redress, better regulation and improve the quality of social housing.
● This Government has committed to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. The Government will continue to invest in key rough sleeping interventions, building on the progress that we made last year in reducing rough sleeping numbers. The Government will also continue to support those at risk of homelessness and rough sleeping through the continued enforcement of the Homelessness Reduction Act.
Building Safety Bill (pages 51 to 53):
“New measures will be brought forward…to improve building safety.”
● An enhanced safety framework for high-rise residential buildings, taking forward the recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building safety, and in some areas going further by:
○ Providing clearer accountability and stronger duties for those responsible for the safety of high-rise buildings throughout the building’s design, construction and occupation, with clear competence requirements to maintain high standards.
○ Giving residents a stronger voice in the system, ensuring their concerns are never ignored and they fully understand how they can contribute to maintaining safety in their buildings.
○ Strengthening enforcement and sanctions to deter non-compliance with the new regime, hold the right people to account when mistakes are made and ensure they are not repeated.
○ Developing a new stronger and clearer framework to provide national oversight of construction products, to ensure all products meet high performance standards.
○ Developing a new system to oversee the whole built environment, with local enforcement agencies and national regulators working together to ensure that the safety of all buildings is improved.
● We will also legislate to require that developers of new build homes must belong to a New Homes Ombudsman.
Fire Safety Bill (pages 54 to 55):
“New measures will be brought forward…to improve building safety.”
● Clarifying that the scope of the Fire Safety Order includes the external walls of the building, including cladding, and fire doors for domestic premises of multiple occupancy.
● Strengthening the relevant enforcement powers to hold building owners and managers to account.
● Providing a transitional period for building owners and managers (the “responsible person”) and Fire and Rescue Services to put in place the infrastructure for these changes.”
National Infrastructure Strategy (pages 90 to 91):
“My government will prioritise investment in infrastructure…”
● The National Infrastructure Strategy will be published alongside the first Budget, and will set out further details of the Government’s plan to invest £100 billion to transform the UK’s infrastructure.
● The Strategy will set out the Government’s long-term ambitions across all areas of economic infrastructure including transport, local growth, decarbonisation, digital infrastructure, infrastructure finance and delivery.
● The Strategy will have two key aims:
○ To unleash Britain’s potential by levelling up and connecting every part of the country. Prosperity will be shared across all of the UK, and long- standing economic challenges addressed, through responsible and prudent investment in the infrastructure.
○ To address the critical challenges posed by climate change and build on the UK’s world-leading commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
● The Strategy will also provide the Government’s formal response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment, which made a series of independent recommendations to government across all sectors of economic infrastructure (transport, energy, digital, waste, water and flood management).”
Rail reform and High Speed Rail 2 (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill (pages 101 to 103)
● Last year the Government launched a ‘root and branch’ review of the railways led by Keith Williams. The Review is the first comprehensive assessment of the rail system in a generation and is tasked with making ambitious proposals to reform the rail industry.
● The Review is focused on reforms that will put passengers at the heart of the railway, provide value for taxpayers and deliver economic, social and environmental benefits across Britain.
● The Government will publish a White Paper informed by the recommendations next year. Among other things, this will end the complicated franchising model to create a simpler, more effective system.
● The Government has also committed to a number of major investments in the railway, including:
o Midlands Rail Hub, to improve services around Birmingham and throughout the West and East Midlands;
o Northern Powerhouse Rail;
o Reopening a number of the lines and stations closed under the
Beeching cuts in the 1960s; and,
o Significant upgrades to urban commuter and regional services outside London.
● Separate to the wider review of the railway system, the Government awaits the review, of the High Speed Two (HS2) network led by Doug Oakervee which is looking at whether and how to proceed with HS2, including the benefits and impacts; affordability and efficiency; deliverability; and scope and phasing, including its relationship with Northern Powerhouse Rail.
● Without prejudice to the Oakervee Review’s findings and any Government decisions that follow, it is expected that the High Speed Rail (West Midlands – Crewe) Bill will be revived in this Parliament. The Bill was first introduced in Parliament in July 2017 and will enable Phase 2a of HS2. The Bill passed through the House of Commons and had completed Second Reading in the House of Lords before the dissolution of the previous Parliament. Following revival it would begin its next stages in the House of Lords.
English Devolution (pages 109 to 110):
“My government…will give communities more control over how investment is spent so that they can decide what is best for them.”
● We are committed to levelling up powers and investment in the regions across England and allowing each part of the country to decide its own destiny.
● This means proposals to transform this country with better infrastructure, better education, and better technology.
● We will publish a White Paper setting out our strategy to unleash the potential of our regions, which will include plans for spending and local growth funding.
● It will provide further information on our plans for full devolution across England, levelling up powers between Mayoral Combined Authorities, increasing the number of mayors and doing more devolution deals.
● These increased powers and funding will mean more local democratic responsibility and accountability.
● We remain committed to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, and Western Gateway strategies.
Business rates (page 111):
“To support business, my government will…bring forward changes to business rates.”
● The Government is committed to conducting a fundamental review of business rates.
● The Government recognises the role of business rates as a source of local authority income and will consider input from the sector as part of the review of business rates. Further details on the review will be announced.
● We are committed to increasing the retail discount from one-third to 50 per cent, extending that discount to cinemas and music venues, extending the duration of the local newspapers discount, and introducing an additional discount for pubs.
● We will also progress legislation to bring forward the next business rates revaluation by one year from 2022 to 2021 and move business rates revaluations from a five-yearly cycle to a three-yearly cycle. This will allow the Government to press ahead with delivering an important reform that has been strongly welcomed by business.
● More frequent revaluations will ensure that business rates bills are more up- to-date reflecting properties’ current rental values. Moving to three-yearly revaluation will make the system more responsive to changing economic conditions.
Environment Bill (pages 112 to 114):
“To protect and improve the environment for future generations, a bill will enshrine in law environmental principles and legally-binding targets, including for air quality. It will also ban the export of polluting plastic waste to countries outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and establish a new, world-leading independent regulator in statute.”
● Establishing new long term domestic environmental governance based on: environmental principles; a comprehensive framework for legally-binding targets, a long term plan to deliver environmental improvements; and the new Office for Environmental Protection.
● Improving air quality by setting an ambitious legally-binding target to reduce fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the most damaging pollutant to human health. The Bill also increases local powers to address sources of air pollution and brings forward powers for the Government to mandate recalls of vehicles when they do not meet legal emission standards.
● Protecting nature by mandating ‘biodiversity net gain’ into the planning system, ensuring new houses aren’t built at the expense of nature and delivering thriving natural spaces for communities. We will improve protection for our natural habitats through Local Nature Recovery Strategies and give communities a greater say in the protection of local trees.
● Preserving our resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy. These measures include extended producer responsibility, a consistent approach to recycling, tackling waste crime, introducing deposit return schemes, and more effective litter enforcement. We will also ban the export of polluting plastic waste to non- OECD countries, consulting with industry, NGOs, and local councils on the date by which this should be achieved.
● Introducing charges for specified single use plastic items. This will build on the success of the carrier bag charge and incentivise consumers to choose more sustainable alternatives.
● Managing water sustainably through more effective legislation to secure long- term, resilient water and wastewater services. This will include powers to direct water companies to work together to meet current and future demand for water, making planning more robust, and ensuring we are better able to maintain water supplies.
Climate change (pages 115 to 118):
“My government will continue to take steps to meet the world-leading target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It will continue to lead the way in tackling global climate change, hosting the COP26 Summit in 2020.”
● We will build on our progress with an ambitious programme of policy and investment, with our first Budget prioritising the environment. This will help deliver the green infrastructure needed to improve lives and achieve Net Zero, including by investing in carbon capture, offshore wind, nuclear energy, and electric vehicle infrastructure so that individuals are always within 30 miles of a chargepoint. We will make sure we help lower energy bills investing in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals. And away from home, we will use our £1 billion Ayrton Fund to develop affordable clean energy for developing countries.
● The government will continue to use our position as a global leader in this area by hosting the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow in 2020 (COP26). We will ask our partners to match the UK’s ambition.
● With a focus on nature based solutions at our upcoming COP summit, at home we will be substantially increasing our tree-planting commitment and creating a £640 million new Nature for Climate fund.
● Our natural environment is one of our greatest assets, and can play a crucial role in the fight against climate change. This government will:
○ introduce a landmark Environment Bill – the first one in twenty years – that will create an ambitious environmental governance framework for post Brexit, as well as banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries;
○ establish a new £500 million Blue Planet Fund to help protect our oceans from plastic pollution, warming sea temperatures and overfishing;
○ lead diplomatic efforts to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030; and,
○ in our trade negotiations, never compromise on our high environmental protection
● We will also ensure that we are protecting our citizens by investing £4 billion in flood defences and lowering energy bills by investing £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.
● We will increase our ambition on offshore wind to 40GW by 2030, and enable new floating turbines.
● We will support decarbonisation of industry and power by investing £800 million to build the first fully deployed carbon capture storage cluster by the mid-2020s; and £500 million to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon techniques.
Constitution and democracy (pages 126 to 127):
“A Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established. Work will be taken forward to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.”
Setting up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will:
● Examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. Careful consideration is needed on the composition and focus of the Commission. Further announcements shall be made in due course.
It’s a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.
The usual askew perspectives and commentary will continue here in 2020.
Parliament will dissolve just after midnight on 6 November 2019, allowing the required 25 working days before a general election on 12 December. In accordance with the Prime Minister’s 28 October statement the new Parliament will first meet “before 23 December.”
So we will have a period of “purdah” from 6 November to 12 December. What does that mean in practice? Well because, elections come around so frequently these days, my 21 April 2017 blog post Parliament, Purdah, Planning remains pretty much up to date.
The blog post sets out the Cabinet Office guidance issued the day before start of the 2017 election period. Updated guidance will probably be issued in the next few days but I don’t expect major changes. It included the following:
“During the election period, the Government retains its responsibility to govern, and Ministers remain in charge of their departments. Essential business must be carried on. However, it is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long term character. Decisions on matters of policy on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.”
It will be interesting to see if there will be a final spurt of decision letters being issued in the next couple of days (so far just the Secretary of State’s overturning on 31 October 2019 of the Mayor of London’s direction of refusal for proposals by Harrow School, awarding costs against the Mayor, ouch).
“If a consultation is on-going at the time this guidance comes into effect, it should continue as normal. However, departments should not take any steps during an election period that will compete with parliamentary candidates for the public’s attention. This effectively means a ban on publicity for those consultations that are still in process.
As these restrictions may be detrimental to a consultation, departments are advised to decide on steps to make up for that deficiency while strictly observing the guidance. That can be done, for example, by:
– prolonging the consultation period; and
– putting out extra publicity for the consultation after the election in order to revive interest (following consultation with any new Minister).
Some consultations, for instance those aimed solely at professional groups, and that carry no publicity will not have the impact of those where a very public and wide-ranging consultation is required. Departments need, therefore, to take into account the circumstances of each consultation.”
Wouldn’t it have been nice if there were plenty of consultations underway!
As for public Bills, they automatically fall from the date of dissolution – so farewell the Environment Bill. It will be for the new Parliament to determine whether to reintroduce it and in what form.
“Local authorities should pay particular regard to the legislation governing publicity during the period of heightened sensitivity before elections and referendums […]. It may be necessary to suspend the hosting of material produced by third parties, or to close public forums during this period to avoid breaching any legal restrictions.
During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members. Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute. It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.
In general, local authorities should not issue any publicity which seeks to influence voters…”
“Local government sometimes views this period as a time when communications has to shut down completely. This is not the case, and the ordinary functions of councils should continue, but some restrictions do apply, by law, to all councillors and officers.”
During the purdah period, I do not expect the Planning Inspectorate to be issuing any decisions or reports in relation to controversial proposals which may be used for electoral advantage by any party.
What a mess in South Oxfordshire, with the council now on a collision course with MHCLG over its submitted local plan, which it would dearly love to withdraw.
One of the last things that the previous Conservative administration at South Oxfordshire District Council did before purdah kicked in ahead of the May 2019 local elections was to submit its local plan to the Secretary of State for examination, on 29 March 2019.
The housing numbers in the plan were part of a funding deal that the Oxfordshire authorities had struck with MHCLG last March. Part of the deal was that the plan be submitted for examination by 1 April.
So far so good.
The Lib Dems and Greens fought the election on an anti housing growth ticket, seeking the withdrawal of the plan.
Be careful what you wish for. The council is now in Lib Dem control. As with a number of local authorities which changed political control in May, it has been placed with a dilemma, once political promises meet reality.
Its cabinet considered a report from its officers on 3 October 2019. Some highlights:
“In March 2018, the Council and the other authorities in Oxfordshire signed the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal (Deal). This committed the Councils to support the delivery of 100,000 new homes across Oxfordshire between 2011 and 2031. In return, over a period of five years, Government offered £215 million of funding; £150 million for infrastructure projects, £60 million for affordable housing, and £2.5 million for the preparation of a Joint Statutory Spatial Plan and £2.5 million for wider administrative costs associated with the Deal. The Deal committed the Oxfordshire authorities to submitting outstanding local plans for examination by 1 April 2019 (South Oxfordshire & Oxford City).
Paragraph 010 of the Guidance states that where a Deal is in place, it is appropriate for the Council to consider whether the Deal justifies uplifting our housing need beyond the standard method. The emerging Local Plan considered that the Deal justified an uplift in need to 775 homes per annum (in line with the SHMA recommendations for South Oxfordshire).
In March 2019, Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) was successful in bidding for £218 million of funding from the Government’s Housing and Infrastructure Fund (HIF). It is intended this will contribute toward providing new infrastructure costing £234 million across South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse districts. OCC are finalising an agreement with Homes England (on behalf of Government) before they will secure any of the offered funding.”
“On 26 August 2019, the leader of the council received a letter (Appendix 13) from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government setting out his view that “the HIF is contingent on identified housing sites coming forward in an adopted Local Plan and, as the previous Housing Minister set out, the government expects progress on your Local Plan in order to access this funding”.”
Following further discussions, MHCLG wrote again. As summarised in the report:
“In the letter of 20 September 2019, it states that should the council choose to withdraw the plan “it would immediately put at risk the significant investment that the Government has made available to South Oxfordshire and the wider County, including jeopardising the £218m recently allocated through the HIF (Didcot Garden Town)”. The letter also says, “this is because the funding is dependent on the delivery of specific sites”.
However, the letter of 20 September 2019 is less categoric in relation to the Deal compared to the HIF, stating that “withdrawing the plan will also undermine the wider ambitions and commitments of the Housing and Growth Deal and therefore potentially impact future investment to support ambitions either directly or as part of the Growth Deal of Oxford-Cambridge Arc.”
The report put forward three options:
“Option A) Allow the emerging Local Plan to continue through its examination. Any modifications proposed during the examination will be considered at the sole discretion of the Inspectors.
Option B) Withdraw the Local Plan from examination and make changes to it ahead of a further regulation 19 consultation and resubmission to the Inspectorate for examination. The extent of the changes to the Plan that would be possible under Option B would be limited to no significant changes, in comparison to those that could be made under Option C. Any representations made at that Regulation 19 would be reported to and considered by the Inspector and would not be within the control of the Council.
Option C) Withdraw the Local Plan from examination. The Council would commence work on a new Local Plan. This will allow the Council to prepare a significantly different plan (subject to compliance with the law, and national policies and guidance). The Council would need to undertake at least two rounds of public consultations (Regulation 18 and 19) before submitting the new plan for examination”
Officers examined the advantages and risks of each option, together with the financial and legal implications, before concluding that “there are clear advantages over the disadvantages and officers therefore recommend Option A.”
The Cabinet voted down the recommendation in favour of a resolution that reflected option C:
•That Cabinet recommends Council to:
•(a) withdraw the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2034,
•for the following reasons:
•the uplift above the standard method from 627 homes to 775 homes a year is excessive, and the existence of the Growth Deal should not be used as a justification for this uplift
•the overall supply of homes in the Local Plan period is considered excessive as it is over 5,000 homes greater than the need identified for South Oxfordshire, even allowing provision for Oxford City’s unmet housing need.
•the Local Plan does not give sufficient weight to responding to the climate emergency that we face as recognised by the decision of Council of 11 April 2019
•concerns about site selection issues including:
•that the scale of Green Belt release is not justified
•flawed site selection having regard to the sustainability and deliverability of strategic allocations
•concerns about the impact of the housing mix delivery and density policy
•(b) withdraw from the Oxfordshire Statements of Common Ground linked to the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2034
•(c) agree to commence work as soon as practicable on a new ambitious Local Plan, to seek to address the above concerns
•(d) request a report on the merits of a joint Local Plan with neighbouring authorities
•(e) request the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to provide financial support to support a new ambitious Local Plan
•(f) explore other opportunities for funding
•(g) bring forward revenue expenditure on a new Local Plan currently estimated at £2 million into the next Medium-Term Financial Plan period, representing the most cost-effective option
•(h) ask officers to prepare a new Local Development Scheme and work programme and bring this to Cabinet for approval.”
The full council meeting to consider the resolution was to take place on 10 October 2019. If ratified, the submitted plan would be immediately withdrawn, as an authority is empowered to do at any stage prior to adoption pursuant to section 22 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.
MHCLG was clearly rattled by the prospect of the plan being torn up and its consequences for Oxfordshire housing and infrastructure planning more generally. The Secretary of State wrote to the leader of the council on 9 October 2019 in these terms:
“Following South Oxfordshire District Council Cabinet’s decision on 3 October to recommend withdrawing the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan (“the Plan”), I am considering whether to give a direction to South Oxfordshire District Council in relation to the Plan under section 21 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (“the 2004 Act”).
The government remains committed to making sure every community has an up-to-date and sufficiently ambitious Local Plan. Withdrawing the Plan at this stage is instead likely to create uncertainty and expose communities to speculative planning applications.
Therefore, in exercise of the powers under section 21A of the 2004 Act (inserted by section 145(5) of the Housing and Planning Act 2016), I hereby direct South Oxfordshire District Council not to take any step in connection with the adoption of the Plan, while I consider the matter further. This direction will remain in force until I withdraw it or give a direction under section 21 of the 2004 Act in relation to the Plan.
I would like to work constructively with you to ensure that South Oxfordshire is able to deliver the high-quality homes and infrastructure required to support jobs and growth in the local community. As I set out in my letter to you on 26 August 2019, progressing the Plan is an essential step to delivering the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal. I have therefore asked my officials to get in touch with your officers to discuss next steps and will keep you updated while I consider this matter further.”
The council’s chief executive responded the next morning, on 10 October in uncompromising terms:
“As you are aware, s.21A gives you the power to make a holding direction only where you are considering making a direction under s.21 of the Act. Importantly, section 21 gives you the following powers:
(i) Where you think a local development document is unsatisfactory, to direct the local planning authority to modify the document in accordance with that direction (s.21(1)(a));
(ii) To direct the Local Planning Authority to submit the local development document to you for your approval (s.21(4)). In circumstances where (as here) the Plan has already been submitted for examination, the Inspectors would have to report to you (s.21(5)); or
(iii) To direct that the Plan be withdrawn (s.21(9)).
We cannot see how you could properly consider that any of the directions that you could make under s.21 would accord with your clearly stated view that it is essential that the plan should be progressed. In particular, we do not understand that you consider the plan to be unsatisfactory in any way (s.21(a)); that there is anything in the Plan that needs your approval (s.21(4)); or that you think the Plan should be withdrawn (s.21(9)). Section 21A does not give you the power to make a general holding direction – it must be tied to a proper consideration of whether you intend to make a direction under s.21. Given that it would be inconsistent with your stated position for you to issue a direction under any of the powers available to you under s.21, it appears that there was no proper basis for your decision to issue the direction under s.21A.
Given the importance of this matter we require a response to this letter no later than 3pm today, either explaining the basis on which you consider it might be appropriate for you to issue a direction under s.21, or (assuming you accept that there would be no basis for issuing such a direction) withdrawing the s.21A Direction.”
The Secretary of State did indeed respond that day:
“You are correct that a holding direction made pursuant to s.21A of the 2004 Act requires the Secretary of State to be considering whether to give a direction under s.21 of that Act. As your Cabinet have stated they wish to withdraw the plan, the Secretary of State is considering whether to give a direction under s.21(4) of the 2004 Act for the plan (or any part of it) to be submitted to him for his approval instead of the Council.
In summary, this was not an attempt to issue a ‘general’ holding direction but to allow time for the Secretary of State to consider whether to give a direction under s21(4) of the 2004 Act.
I hope this has clarified the situation for you.”
The council meeting went ahead, but the local plan item was pulled from the agenda.
So what next?
The leader has issued this statement:
Surely, the council’s reading of the legislation is correct – under section 21 the intervention power applies if “the Secretary of State thinks that a local development document is unsatisfactory”. I doubt whether section 21 can be relied up to prevent a plan from being withdrawn, which would mean that the holding power in section 21A is also not available.
However, I’m not sure that this assist the council in practice. Whilst the Secretary of State may be reluctant to take this step, if the council were to seek to challenge the lawfulness of the purported direction, wouldn’t he simply use his default power in section 27, available where the “Secretary of State thinks that a local planning authority are failing or omitting to do anything it is necessary for them to do in connection with the preparation, revision or adoption of a development plan document”? He may “a) prepare or revise (as the case may be) the document, or (b) give directions to the authority in relation to the preparation or revision of the document”. Does this cover the current circumstances? If it doesn’t then the Government certainly missed a trick when extending the Secretary of State’s intervention powers by way of the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
The section 27 procedure is referred to in my 18 November 2017 blog post Local Plan Interventions. Reasons need to be given, but it is pretty plain that other Oxfordshire authorities are not impressed at all at the South Oxfordshire volte face, evidenced for instance by a letter from West Oxfordshire District Council dated 10 October 2019.
“The government has an ambitious target of delivering 300,000 new homes per year by the mid-2020s, but inherent problems at the heart of the housing planning system are likely to jeopardise this target. If the Government delivers 300,000 new homes per year, this would be a significant increase in the rate of house building, with the number built a year averaging only 177,000 in the period 2005–06 to 2017–18. While the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (the Department) has made some recent reforms to the planning system, much more needs to be done and it still does not have a detailed implementation plan for how it will scale-up house building.”
He knows something of the task ahead.
The report also says this:
“We were concerned about poor quality in the building of new homes and of office accommodation converted into residential accommodation through permitted development rights. The Department stressed that it was critical that quality was good enough. It agreed that there are issues—particularly when dealing with large office blocks— that the number of homes created out of that office block can be too high, with inadequate space standards and build quality. The Department told us that it has committed to a review of permitted development rights which turn commercial properties into residential accommodation. This review will look at the quality of those homes and what should be built.”
In the lead up to the new premiership, May’s Government seemed to have a renewed focus on the quality of homes and communities. I wanted to write something on the various strands within this theme, if only to capture a series of links to documents, before we lose the thread in a slew of new announcements.
Minimum dwelling sizes
My 23 March 2019 blog post We Have Standardsreferred to previous Secretary of State James Brokenshire’s March 2019 statement that he intended to “review permitted development rights for conversion of buildings to residential use in respect of the quality standard of homes delivered. […]. We will also develop a ‘Future Homes Standard’ for all new homes through a consultation in 2019 with a view, subject to consultation, to introducing the standard by 2025.”
Theresa May suggested in her 26 June speech to the Chartered Institute of Housing that, whilst it would ultimately be a matter for her successor, the nationally described space standard should apply “by regulation” to all new homes. As explained in my 23 March 2019 blog post, it is presently for each local planning authority to decide whether to incorporate the standard in their local plan as a policy requirement such that an applicant for planning permission then needs to demonstrate compliance.
“I do not accept that, in 2019, we can only have sufficient and affordable housing by compromising on standards, safety, aesthetics, and space.
That is why I asked the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to develop proposals for embedding beautiful, sustainable and human-scale design into the planning and development process.
I look forward to reading the interim report next month.
It is why the Ministry of Housing will shortly be launching a consultation on environmental performance in new build homes, with a Future Homes Standard that will give all new homes world-leading levels of energy efficiency by 2025.
And it is why I want to see changes to regulations so that developers can only build homes that are big enough for people to actually live in.
It was the Addison Act that brought modern space standards to English housing law for the first time.
During the Bill’s second reading, the architect of the standards, Sir Tudor Walters, urged MPs to “take care that the houses planned in the future are planned with due regard to comfort, convenience, and the saving of labour”.
It is a message we would do well to return to today.
Because in the years since, the pendulum has swung back and forth between regulation and deregulation, leading to a situation today where England does have national standards – but ones that are largely unenforceable and inconsistently applied.
Some local authorities include the Nationally Described Space Standard in their local plans, making them a condition of planning permission.
But others do not.
And even where they are applied, as planning policies rather than regulations they are open to negotiation.
The result is an uneven playing field, with different rules being applied with differing levels of consistency in different parts of the country.
That makes it harder for developers to build homes where they are needed most.
And it leaves tenants and buyers facing a postcode lottery – if space standards are not applied in your area, there is no guarantee that any new homes will be of an adequate size.
Now I am no fan of regulation for the sake of regulation.
But I cannot defend a system in which some owners and tenants are forced to accept tiny homes with inadequate storage.
Where developers feel the need to fill show homes with deceptively small furniture.
And where the lack of universal standards encourages a race to the bottom.
It will be up to my successor in Downing Street to deal with this.
But I believe the next government should be bold enough to ensure the Nationally Described Space Standard applies to all new homes.
As a mandatory regulation, space standards would become universal and unavoidable.
That would mean an end to the postcode lottery for buyers and tenants.”
[Creating space for beauty: The Interim Report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commissionwas published in July 2019, sans its now reinstated chairman Sir Roger Scruton, who will be able to influence the tone of the Commission’s final report, due in December 2019. The interim report is a wide-ranging discursive read ending with 30 “policy propositions”. There is much good stuff about, in Theresa May’s words, “embedding beautiful, sustainable and human-scale design into the planning and development process”. None of its policy propositions urge prescription as to dwelling size, although there is this passage within its commentary:
“Above all, polling and pricing data show that people are looking for homes that meet their needs and are in the right place. Every academic or commercial study we have been able to find has shown that, other things being held equal, bigger homes are worth more and so are better connected ones. For example, a study of every single property sale in six British cities showed that in, say, Liverpool, every additional bedroom brought an additional £15,000 of value. Similar patterns were visible in Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and London. In their response to our call for evidence, the RIBA also highlighted their polling research into user needs that highlighted the importance of generosity of space, high ceilings, windows that flood principal rooms with light and detail that adds character”.]
Some I know disagree, but to my mind Theresa May’s statement missed the real target in relation to minimum dwelling sizes. At present authorities can apply the nationally described space standard if they so choose. But what authorities cannot prevent (other than by removing the relevant permitted development rights in the first place by way of Article 4 Direction) is the creation of very small dwellings pursuant to the General Permitted Development Order, the adequacy of the accommodation to be created not being one of the matters in relation to which prior approval is required under the Order. Either this needs to be a matter for which prior approval is required or it needs to be addressed by way of separate regulation.
Other minimum standards in relation to permitted development rights schemes
There is still so much misunderstanding as to the operation of permitted development rights. General horror has been expressed as to the permitted development appeal in Watford for the proposed conversion of a light industrial unit to apparently windowless bed-sit/studio accommodation, allowed by an inspector in his decision letter dated 5 July 2019:
“Overall, I recognise that the proposed units are small and that, for example, living without a window would not be a positive living environment. However, the provisions of the GPDO 2015 require the decision makers to solely assess the impact of the proposed development in relation to the conditions given in paragraph PA.2. The appellant has also made clear that they are not proposing any external works at this stage.”
Photo: Watford Observer
The absence of any control over size of the proposed dwellings is indeed appalling, see my point above. But I am prepared to bet that the developer, now that he has prior approval to the use of the building as dwellings, will come back with an application for planning permission for the installation of windows and for the general recladding of the building. If it had all been applied for as one planning application, the authority would no doubt have objected to the principle of the change of use – just look at the sequencing of applications with most PD schemes and there is surely nothing wrong in that – the permitted development right just relates to use – and of course does not override other regulatory requirements.
Part B of the Building Regulations requires that every habitable room up to 4.5m from ground level either (1) has an openable window with dimensions of at least 45cm by 45cm, no more than 110cm above the floor or (2) (on the ground floor) opens directly onto a hall leading directly to an exit or (above the ground floor) with direct access to a protected stairway. Adequate ventilation is also required.
Since 20 March 2019 the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 also imposes specific requirements on landlords letting residential property for a period of less than seven years. In determining whether a dwelling is unfit for human habitation regard will be had to, amongst a range of matters, natural lighting and ventilation. MHCLG has published specific guidance for landlordsas to the operation of the Act.
In considering whether further legislation or guidance is needed, ministers will need to consider carefully the extent to which the planning system should duplicate systems of protection provided in other legislation and where genuinely there are gaps that would allow unacceptable outcomes.
The Future Homes Standard
What of James Brokenshire’s reference in March of consultation on a proposed Future Homes Standard this year, with a view to introducing the standard by 2025? This was a reference to the commitment in the then Chancellor’s Spring budget to:
“A Future Homes Standard, to be introduced by 2025, future-proofing new build homes with low carbon heating and world-leading levels of energy efficiency. The new standard will build on the Prime Minister’s Industrial Strategy Grand Challenge mission to at least halve the energy use of new buildings by 2030“.
There has not yet been any consultation. The House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, in its 9 July 2019 report, Energy efficiency: building towards net zero, urged a greater sense of urgency:
“We welcome the announcement of a Future Homes Standard. Any attempts by housebuilders to water down the standard should be blocked by the Government. The only barrier precluding housebuilders developing to higher standards before 2025 is a preoccupation with profit margins and shareholder returns. Despite receiving billions in taxpayer funds, most housebuilders will only raise the energy standards of their stock if forced to do so. Progressive housebuilders who want to go further are being held back by the laggards who actively lobby the Government to boost their profits, rather than help meet carbon reduction obligations.
We recommend that the Government legislates for the Future Homes Standard as soon as practically possible—and by 2022 at the very latest—to guarantee that no more homes by 2025 are built that need to be retrofitted. We recommend that the Government considers policy drivers at its disposal to drive early uptake. At a minimum, the Government should put in place a compulsory ‘learning period’ from 2022 in a subset of properties in preparation for the full-scale deployment. The Government should oblige bigger housebuilders to undertake regional demonstration projects to show how they will achieve the standard.”
How we will strengthen our communities and nation, expressed to be the “next step in refreshing the government’s aspirations for stronger, more confident communities. It provides a framework to build on a range of government activity that is contributing to stronger communities in different ways – from the implementation of the Civil Society Strategy and Integrated Communities Action Plan, to our efforts to boost productivity and inclusive growth through the Industrial Strategy and by supporting local industrial strategies across the country.”
It promised that the Government will:
“• Hold a national conversation with communities across England about their view of who we are as a nation, their vision for the future of their community and our country, and what local and national government can and should be doing to support their community to thrive.
• Establish a series of Civic Deal pilots to test how the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport put into practice the principles set out in this document in partnership with local areas.
• Publish a Communities White Paper to renew government’s focus on building stronger communities across England. The scope of the White Paper will be developed in partnership with communities and informed by the national conversation and Civic Deal pilots.”
I referred in my 23 March 2019 blog post to widespread concerns over development projects where affordable housing tenants are prevented from using facilities provided for private market housing residents, for example children’s play areas and entrance/lift lobbies.
The basis for such arrangements may well be economically rational to the developer (preventing service charge leakage and/or preserving a sales premium in relation to the market units), to the registered provider (which would not be in a position to impose service charges high enough to cover the cost of the facilities provided for the market housing) and to the local planning authority (usually keen to protect the profitability of the development so as to secure the maximum amount of affordable housing that can be viably be delivered). But of course there can be wider, more damaging, implications.
On the same day as the communities framework was published, an MHCLG press statement Brokenshire unveils new measures to stamp out ‘poor doors’ announced there would be “measures to tackle stigma and help end the segregation of social housing residents in mixed-tenure developments…planning guidance will be toughened up and a new Design Manual will promote best practice in inclusive design.”
Meanwhile, as to we wait to see what the new ministerial team at MHCLG delivers, the Mayor of London’s new London Plan edges forward. We await the inspectors’ conclusions following their examination sessions but in the meantime the Mayor has published a Consolidated suggested changes version of the plan July 2019.
A specific policy has now been included to require that proposals likely to be used by children and young people should include good quality, accessible play provision that “is not segregated by tenure” (policy S4 B (f)).
With due deference to the list of banned words circulated by Mr Rees-Mogg:
Due to the ongoing change in ministers, with the old lot out, apparently unacceptable and no longer fit for purpose, I can only speculate as to the future of these initiatives. Hopefully I will ascertain more very soon.
The Secretary of State sent a curious letter to the Planning Inspectorate on 18 June 2019, which was only placed on the Government’s website on 28 June 2019. (The delay may have been to allow PINS to update its procedure guide for local plan examinations).
It is in two parts:
Sharing information with MHCLG
The Secretary of State reminds inspectors and local authorities that Parliament has given him “a number of powers that, where justified, allow [him] to become involved in plan making. This includes powers to notify or direct the Inspectorate to take certain steps in relation to the examination of the plan or to intervene to direct modification of the plan or that it is submitted to [him] for approval”. He states that he is “frequently asked by those affected by the plan making process to consider use of these powers and must look at each of these requests on a case by case basis. This includes requests from Members of Parliament, who have a legitimate interest in the progress of local plans in their areas and are accountable to their electorates. I am pleased that the Planning Inspectorate’s published Procedural Practice encourages MPs to participate in the examination hearing sessions even if they did not make a representation and I would encourage their involvement in this way”.
He considers that more can be done by way of sharing of factual information so that his officials can advise him as to whether use of his powers would be appropriate.
He sets out two changes to the arrangements for sharing of information between MHCLG and PINS with immediate effect:
“1. On a quarterly basis the Planning Inspectorate will publish a report that sets out the plans that are expected to be submitted for examination in the following 6-month period. I ask that this report be published on the Planning Inspectorate website. Clearly this can only be as good as the information received from local authorities, and I am arranging for this to be drawn to the attention of local authorities to remind them of the importance of giving clear timetables;
2. The Planning Inspectorate will share all post-hearing advice letters, letters containing interim findings, and any other letters which raise soundness or significant legal compliance issues, as well as fact check reports, with my department on a for information basis, at least 48 hours in advance of them being sent to the Local Planning Authority”
In relation to the second change, can I ask that we have on one website each of these documents as soon as they can be made public. There is a fundamental lack of transparency in the ad hoc way that this information is currently made available only on the relevant examination page of the particular local authority’s website, meaning that ensuring consistencies of approach, reviewing trends and learning from similar circumstances is currently very difficult indeed.
And what local plans have escaped to adoption before the relevant MP could ask the Secretary of State to apply the knife? Local Plan Intervention: a question of MP influence published by the House of Commons Library in July 2017 summarises the four times since the 2012 NPPF (to July 2017) when the Secretary of State had used his powers of intervention: Bradford, Birmingham, Maldon and North Somerset. In all but Maldon the intervention was at the request of an MP. I note that the MPs’ interventions only achieved delay to eventual adoption of the plan, whereas the call in of the Maldon plan was in circumstances where an inspector had found that the whole plan was unsound, due to its policies on traveller provision, the council’s chief executive successfully sought call in of the plan and the plan was eventually adopted.
Aside from the Secretary of State’s sabre rattling in relation to authorities that have not made sufficient progress with their plans, which I will come to in a moment, what interventions have there been since July 2017? Do we discern a continuing trend? Wouldn’t it be nice to have the information in one place so that potentially straight-forward questions such as that could be resolved. Is MPs’ interest more often in the “progress of local plans in their areas” or is it in being seen to be pressing in relation to those issues of most concern to their electorate eg retention of green belt and/or opposition to housing?
Another Conservative MP on the “anti-housing in the Green Belt” campaign trail. Was this local plan perhaps “the one that got away” as far as MHCLG is concerned?
So how has the more general sabre rattling, in relation to delays in plan preparation, been going? My 18 November 2017 blog post Local Plan Interventions referred to the 31 January 2018 deadline given to 15 local authorities to set out any exceptional circumstances as to why they had failed to produce a local plan, to justify the Secretary of State not intervening in their local plan processes.
On 23 March 2018 the Secretary of State made a statement to the House of Commons, indicating that his attention had narrowed to three authorities: Castle Point, Thanet and Wirral:
“In three areas, Castle Point, Thanet and Wirral, I am now particularly concerned at the consistent failure and lack of progress to get a plan in place and have not been persuaded by the exceptional circumstances set out by the council or the proposals they have put forward to get a plan in place. We will therefore step up the intervention process in these three areas. I will be sending a team of planning experts, led by the Government’s Chief Planner, into these three areas to advise me on the next steps in my intervention.
I have a number of intervention options available to me which I will now actively examine. As it may prove necessary to take over plan production, subject to decisions taken after the expert advice I have commissioned, my Department has started the procurement process to secure planning consultants and specialists to undertake that work so it can commence as quickly as possible. My Department will also be speaking to the county councils and combined authority with a view to inviting those bodies to prepare the local plan in these three areas as well as exploring the possibility with neighbouring authorities of directing the preparation of joint plans”
Tough talk but it then took another ten months before intervention letters were finally sent to Wirral and Thanet on 28 January 2019.
The position in Castle Point is a mystery to me. Councillors voted down a proposed draft of the plan in December 2018. The council’s website simply says this:
“A Special Council Meeting was held in November 2018, whereby the Council resolved to not proceed with the Pre-Publication Local Plan. As a result of this meeting the Council are in discussions with the Minstry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in regards to the next steps. “
But no intervention letter yet.
Sadly, if I worked for an authority I would presently be more concerned about the risk of the Secretary of State intervening in relation to a plan that has passed its examination and is about to be adopted than the risk of his intervening due to the lack of a plan in the first place or due to the authority’s withdrawal of a draft plan. We are seeing various authorities taking decisions to withdraw their submitted plans (for example East Cambridgeshireand Amber Valley) because they find the inspector’s findings, usually seeking further development allocations or additional housing numbers, unpalatable and there is still such slow progress on the part of many authorities. Surely this is the scourge – not plans which are within a process that has been refined by independent examination, the outcome of which happens to contradict the views of an MP, now encouraged to participate in hearing sessions “even if they did not make a representation”? In any world other than one in which backbench MPs have to be pacified, isn’t this madness?
The importance of being pragmatic
On the subject of pragmatism…
The second part of the Secretary of State’s 18 July letter comprises this final paragraph which I have already seen trotted out at an examination by one authority seeking to paper over the cracks:
“Finally, on the substance of plan examinations, I wanted to stress to inspectors – who are doing a challenging job – the importance of being pragmatic in getting plans in place that, in line with paragraph 35 of the NPPF, represent a sound plan for the authority and consistent in how they deal with different authorities. We support and expect Inspectors to work with LPAs to achieve a sound plan, including by recommending constructive main modifications in line with national policy. In this regard, I would reiterate the views set out by the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP in his 2015 letter which I attach, on the need to work pragmatically with councils towards achieving a sound plan.”
I have since been trying to find an example of a local plan inspector in the last few years who has not been pragmatic in seeking to rescue a plan by way of main modifications rather than recommending withdrawal – and indeed the 2013/2014 spate of plans that failed examination were down to hard-edged legal failings in relation to the duty to cooperate.
Inspectors routinely allow pretty significant changes by way of main modifications, and general evidential backfilling, rather than recommend withdrawal. They routinely accept unenforceable assurances from the authority that the authority will carry out an early review – but at best “early” never means early and, at worst, as last week with the Reigate and Banstead plan, the authority’s (judge in its own cause) “review” determines that changes to the plan are not after all necessary!
So what is this paragraph getting at? If the Secretary of State were to be saying that inspectors should not be checking that legal requirements (eg the duty to cooperate and the need for adequate sustainability and habitats appraisals) have been met or that the plan meets the soundness test in NPPF, that would surely be wholly inappropriate. And shouldn’t we be protecting the independence of the Planning Inspectorate? Formal guidance is one thing, but “go easy” warning letters such as this surely just make an inspector’s task even more challenging.
Imagine equivalent guidance being given to appeal inspectors! Oh yes, bend over backwards to give the appellant time to amend elements of his scheme, overlook policy inconsistencies, fudge the approach to later phases of the development because the appellant has agreed, outside any enforceable timescale, to carry out an “early review” of those aspects. Doesn’t ring true, does it?
People Over Wind has removed the ability for the competent authority to screen out the need for appropriate assessment, under the Conservation of Habitats Regulations 2017, on the basis that a significant effect on a Special Protection Area or Special Area of Conservation is unlikely, where that conclusion is reliant on proposed mitigation measures. The result has been far more projects and plans requiring appropriate assessment to ascertain that they will not adversely affect the integrity of the relevant SPA or SAC.
Grace, Sweetman has removed the ability for the competent authority to reach a conclusion at appropriate assessment stage that there will be no adverse effect on integrity, where mitigation measures are relied on that in reality amount to compensatory measures for the loss of habitat.
Holohan now imposes more detailed requirements on the competent authority at appropriate assessment stage:
1. […] an ‘appropriate assessment’ must, on the one hand, catalogue the entirety of habitat types and species for which a site is protected, and, on the other, identify and examine both the implications of the proposed project for the species present on that site, and for which that site has not been listed, and the implications for habitat types and species to be found outside the boundaries of that site, provided that those implications are liable to affect the conservation objectives of the site.
2. […] the competent authority is permitted to grant to a plan or project consent which leaves the developer free to determine subsequently certain parameters relating to the construction phase, such as the location of the construction compound and haul routes, only if that authority is certain that the development consent granted establishes conditions that are strict enough to guarantee that those parameters will not adversely affect the integrity of the site.
3. […] where the competent authority rejects the findings in a scientific expert opinion recommending that additional information be obtained, the ‘appropriate assessment’ must include an explicit and detailed statement of reasons capable of dispelling all reasonable scientific doubt concerning the effects of the work envisaged on the site concerned.”
If you are relying on an appropriate assessment in relation to a project or plan, I suggest that you urgently check that it addresses these three requirements. An decision taken in reliance upon an appropriate assessment which does not cover off these points will be susceptible to legal challenge. If caught at the right time, deficiencies should be able to be addressed by some extra work. But it will be too late to rectify matters once the appropriate assessment is reached and the decision taken.
These CJEU rulings are unambiguous in their stated conclusions on the law, very different from our common law approach.
They are also likely to continue to be relevant, regardless of what happens with Brexit. After all, as set out in my 18 September 2018 blog post Planning, Brexit, Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs has committed that:
“Where environmental principles are contained in specific pieces of EU legislation, these will be maintained as part of our domestic legal framework through the retention of EU law under the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Any question as to the interpretation of retained EU law will be determined by UK courts in accordance with relevant pre-exit CJEU case law and general principles, subject to the other exceptions and restrictions within the Bill. For example, CJEU case law on chemicals, waste and habitats includes judgments on the application of the precautionary principle to those areas. This will therefore be preserved by the Bill“.
As set out in that blog post, we are still waiting for the draft Bill, required by section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act to be published by Boxing Day 2018, that will set out the environmental principles to be applied post Brexit and the body that will enforce them.
What we now have seen of course is the draft withdrawal agreement published on 14 November 2018. Who knows whether it will be concluded but it envisages that the CJEU will continue to have jurisdiction in any proceedings brought against the UK during the transition period to 31 December 2020.
In the event of the backstop being triggered at the end of the transitional period if the Irish border issue hasn’t been settled, a series of commitments in relation to environmental protection will kick in, as set out in Part 2 of Annex 4 to the Protocol on Northern Ireland/Ireland (pages 356 to 360 of the overall draft agreement). The commitments include:
– Non-regression in level of environmental protection subsisting at the end of the transitional period.
– The principles to be reflected in legislation:
a) the precautionary principle;
b) the principle that preventive action should be taken;
c) the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source; and
d) the “polluter pays” principle
– The Joint Committee shall adopt decisions laying down minimum commitments for:
a) the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants;
b) the maximum sulphur content of marine fuels
c) those best available techniques, including emission limit values, in relation to industrial emissions
– Commitment to meet international obligations as to addressing climate change
– Commitment to carbon pricing and trading of allowance consistent with EU system
– Finally, although much of this is already in hand via section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act and/or the subject of other international obligations, a commitment to effective enforcement of environmental laws as well as the following:
“The United Kingdom shall ensure that administrative and judicial proceedings are available in order to permit effective and timely action by public authorities and members of the public against violations of its laws, regulations and practices, and provide for effective remedies, including interim measures, ensuring that any sanctions are effective, proportionate and dissuasive and have a real and deterrent effect.
The United Kingdom shall implement a transparent system for the effective domestic monitoring, reporting, oversight and enforcement of its obligations pursuant to this Article and to Article 2 by an independent and adequately resourced body or bodies…
The independent body shall have powers to conduct inquiries on its own initiative concerning alleged breaches by public bodies and authorities of the United Kingdom, and to receive complaints for the purposes of conducting such inquiries. It shall have all powers necessary to carry out its functions, including the power to request information. The independent body shall have the right to bring a legal action before a competent court or tribunal in the United Kingdom in an appropriate judicial procedure, with a view to seeking an adequate remedy.”
Finally, fabulous timing on the part of UKELA to have secured for next week’s annual Garner lecture Professor Juliane Kokott, Advocate General at the CJEU (who has been at the centre of so much EU case law, including the People Over Wind and Holohan cases referred to above). It will be fascinating to hear her perspective.
Simon Ricketts, 16 November 2018
Personal views, et cetera
PS David Elvin QC has since reminded me that the CJEU also on 7 November handed down its judgment in the Dutch Nitrogen Deposition case, which also contains important rulings in relation to appropriate assessment, for instance the extent to which agricultural activities amount to a “project”, as well as the extent of certainty required if conservation measures are to be relied upon as mitigation. See James Maurici QC’s blog post.