Planning (as in town and country planning) for a revolution in local agriculture
Notes from a presentation to the Real Farming Conference
held in Oxford on 6 and 7 January 3014
This is an argument that we should be working collectively to make the planning system deliver what we (at the RFC) know to be important changes to farming that are dependent on the use and development of land – ie the job of the planning system.
The revolution does not depend on any change to the law but changes to policy and practice. There was a change in 2011 with the passing of the Localism Act that extended plan-making powers to parish councils and neighbourhood forums. This means that there are more organisations that might be receptive to new ideas and the hundreds of very local councils with no ‘baggage’ might be more receptive than the long established planning authorities. The revolution should encompass the production, processing and distribution of local food. The key to the argument to plan makers and decision takers is the contribution that ‘local food’ makes to sustainable development, the “golden thread" that, according to the National Planning Policy Framework, must run through both plan making and decision taking. The fact that the food supply chain is responsible for between 30% and 50% of carbon emissions that must be reduced by 80% by 2050 should interest policy makers.
It is important to understand that the planning system has inbuilt flexibility in that material considerations, those matters that could and should be taken into account in deciding planning applications, is not a closed list. Any matter that relates to the use of land (including buildings) and is of public interest can (must) be taken into account. Until the 1990s there was no such thing as “affordable housing" recognised by the planning system. After a High Court judge supported a local planning authority in the making of a distinction between a dwelling that could be afforded by local people and general market housing that could not, the affordability of housing was recognised as a material consideration and became a main theme in policies adopted at national and local level. There would appear to be a parallel for securing affordable land and associated residential accommodation for agriculture or horticulture. In a plan led system, if a public interest case can be made out, it would be logical for these objectives to be pursued through development plans produced at parish, neighbourhood or district level. This would represent a more ordered and effective harnessing of the power of the planning system than through relying on decisions on test cases, having applications refused and considered by the High Court.
Whilst there is no legal reason why planning authorities should not start to be proactive in respect of issues relating to food from ‘plough to plate’ (the neglected country part of town and country planning), planners lack the necessary knowledge and expertise in this area and will be very slow to change without receiving substantial assistance in their understanding of the related needs in terms of access to land, housing, buildings the impacts on local transport and the potential to create jobs. I am looking to the CRF, the Soil Assoc, the Permaculutre Assoc, the Landworkers Alliance and the ELC to do the educating of Government, local government and the planning and surveying professionals.
The potential for incorporating issues relating to food applies to both existing planning authorities and parish councils or neighbourhood forums embarking on the preparation of neighbourhood development plans. However, it would be much more effective if the required policy framework was set out in higher-level plans that cover large rural areas, including those where there is no appetite or capacity for producing neighbourhood plans. Innovating at the level of a planning authority has the very great advantage that it not only produces plans but also makes decisions on planning applications. It is easier to introduce new policy when a local plan or core strategy is under review. But it is also possible to adopt Supplementary Planning Documents covering particular issues, so long as the policies are not inconsistent with the adopted development plans. (I will be attending to the drafting of policies suitable for development plans or SPD on the DanthePlan blog where the issues are already being discussed.
It may be that change is more likely to be instigated by one or more parish councils out of concern about the way in which the land around their village is being used and how to realise its potential to enhance local food production. It is an important part of the localism agenda that, as neighbourhood development plans must comply with policies at higher levels (district, national and European), those responsible for planning at high levels can learn from the results emerging from neighbourhood planning in their respective districts. In fact the planning system is a quite good at disseminating information through formal (ie appeal decisions, professional institutes) and more informal (conferences and trade magazines/journals) channels.
Given that ‘local food’ epitomises much of what is said in the National Planning Policy Framework about sustainability, compliance with the Framework (that is a basic condition to be met by all neighbourhood plans) should not be a problem. This path would be made easier by relying on some of the growing evidence relating to the importance of local food. Perhaps the most important discussion to be had is how proposals that support the production, processing and distribution of food benefit from the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
The question was asked about what could or should be the main thread that could bring together the many strands of the Conference. I think that the concept with the greatest potential is “carbon”. With the food supply chain responsible for between 30% and 50% carbon emissions it is difficult to see how any development plan that is statutorily required to deal with the use and development of land could possibly be contribution go the achievement of sustainable development without a chapter on food and farming and policies consistent with the (at least) the carbon emission reduction target of 80% by 2050 and the interim Carbon Budgets.
Support for these new rural enterprises should also be the subject of employment policies in the local plan or neighbourhood plan with associated local job (and training) opportunities and the possibility of jobs in local food processing and distribution. Enhancing and maintaining biodiversity and reducing travel and transport are other important elements to be explained in order to qualify for the presumption in favour of sustainable development.
Planning for the revolution in local food is probably predicated on the fact that new residential development in villages is likely to be the most effective driver of change. The purpose of all planning policy should be to increase the sustainability of the village (or town) and the new local food policies would aim to increase the availability of local food supplies (the most common reason given by people surveyed by the Soil Association in respect of Community Supported Agriculture), allow more people to live and work locally, reduce transport and, in the case of CSA, increase community involvement.
The prospect for planning for a revolution in local food based on new policy frameworks will not mean that applications will not continue for setting up new agricultural/horticultural enterprises; ie the buildings and dwellings. However, for the scale of change to become a meaningful (particularly on the fringes of towns and villages) it is fair to assume that the necessary land and housing will have to be leveraged and enabled by the profits from new housing. Section 106 has been one of the most contentious parts of the planning system, many leading court cases the result of litigation led by Tesco. Fitting ‘local food’ into planning obligations might not be easy but planning develops by trial and error. S106 of the Town and Country Planning Act can be seen as the mechanism for securing community benefits (not normally or willingly proposed by developers). As well as the commonplace enhancements to village halls, playgrounds and allotments (which can, by law, be up to 2 acres), there is no reason why smallholdings should not be included in this list. However, it will be very difficult to secure these benefits unless these are listed and explained/justified in the development plans (local and/or neighbourhood plan), to which the profits from new residential development should be required to contribute in order to make both the new housing itself and the village location more sustainable. It will also be important to explain why such benefits relate to the development (e.g. compensation for the taking of greenfield/agricultural land for housing development and in terms of higher productivity of smallholdings compared with agriculture or horsiculture) as well as increasing the sustainability of the location for new housing/population).
Just as the affordability of housing has become a mainstream part of planning decisions and policy, there appears to be a relevant precedent for requiring contributions towards the provision of land for smallholdings. In Surrey a number of councils collect s106 contributions to green infrastructure (Suitable Alternative Natural GreenSpace –SANG) to meet the increased recreational needs associated with new housing developments. The contributions are set between £2500 and £3000 per dwelling. Once the ‘need’ for local food is established, financial contributions, £1000 per house could purchase the equivalent of the tenth of an acre to produce most fruit, vegetable and eggs/chicken meat. Alternatively land for horticultural purposes could be made available by the developer.
Another housing policy could require one dwelling or more of those being proposed, to be made subject to an agricultural occupancy condition. In itself, the “ag tag" would limit the price of such a dwelling and could reasonably be accepted as part of the affordable housing requirement (often about 40% of the total). In many cases a development of a scale appropriate to the village (say 20 houses) will occupy only part of the land owned by the applicant. It should, therefore, be possible to require some or all of the residual or remaining land to be sold or leased with the tied dwelling(s). To counter any argument that S106 is not designed to control the sale or lease of land, the residential smallholding might have to be proposed as an integral part of the application for residential development. Conditions and/or obligations can then control the establishment of the smallholding and also the future use of that land. It might be necessary for the terms of a lease to secure these benefits (possibly enforced through the PC or ELC).
It might serve to reinforce the effectiveness of this policy if the development plan explained that, by using the area around the settlement for small-scale agricultural enterprises there should be less need for these to be established in isolated locations in the open countryside. Food enterprises on the edge of villages would enable those involved and their families to be part of a village. It will also enable village residents to be involved in the agricultural enterprise.
Government reacted to failings in the use of s106 by introducing the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) that will gradually supersede the arrangements currently available under section 106. On-site benefits might still be secured through s106 but the payment of CIL might reduce what a developer would be willing or able to contribute in terms of land. Although local authorities (county councils) have powers to acquire land for smallholding, this can involve compulsory purchase which is not seen as a popular way of managing land use. In an area where CIL is introduced it would be necessary to include ‘local food’ as part of the schedules of “infrastructure" to which CIL receipts could be put. (see the reference to Green Infrastructure and SANG land above).
In the village where I live, 200 out of 1900 adults responding to the village survey said that they, “…would be interested in growing food locally on a small holding (i.e. land larger than an allotment)”. Assuming that there is the same level of demand of about 10% of the population in other towns and villages, there would seem to be a compelling case for planners to become involved. So, engage with the planners (professionals and politicians) at all levels and in both plan-making and decision-taking. Inform them of the public interest case in regenerating ‘local food’. Explain that affordable land and housing epitomizes ‘sustainable development and that planning controls are real and perceived barriers to people being able to realize these ambitions. Without food and farming policies neighbourhood plans should net be found to satisfy the basic condition of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development and local plans should not meet the test of “soundness”.
These comments and more about using the planning system for sustainable development particularly in housing provision (mostly co-housing and self building) at DanthePlan.blogspot.com