Friday, September 18, 2015

Q & A for the House of Lords Select Committee

Apologies for a longer than usual post. This is a response to the HOUSE OF LORDS 
SELECT COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL POLICY FOR THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT that I am now able to share. The Committee is raising some questions about the system that provides me with an opportunity to rehearse some of the issues covered by previous Blogs.


Government will be aware that the planning system is extremely hierarchical; with powers delegated to LPAs but under supervision by the Communities Secretary/Inspectorate through the examination of development  plans and conducting appeals against refusals of permission.  Although those working with the planning system are generally hoping for a period during which there will be no significant (or even minor changes) for them to learn, understand, communicate and implement,  the Communities Secretary does have extraordinary power to bring about positive change through what he says and how Inspectors are briefed. Many if not most changes are based on a misunderstanding of how the system could or should work and are often responsible for making things worse rather than better. Government then blames the ‘system’ for these failings and introduces further misjudged changes. Ministers seem incapable of taking or acting on a holistic or systemic view of the environment.

The recent successful challenge of West Berks and Reading BC to a written ministerial statement which was found to be incompatible with the existing statutory scheme should be taken as a lesson for Government (and its ministers) to be sparing with its interventions and ensure that changes are carried out through due process and are compatible with the system as formally established.

1.              Are the decisions that shape England’s built environment taken at the right administrative level? What role should national policymakers play in shaping our built environment, and how does this relate to the work and role of local authorities and their partners?
The most important consideration to be taken into account in our planning of town and country is the 2008 Climate Change Act and Carbon Budgets that are formulated by the National Climate Change Committee. It is essential that central government is seen to be adopting these budgets and providing advice to lower tiers of government that they must be adhered to and how. It is unacceptable that the Government appears to be retreating from the implementation of the well-established carbon reduction measures when even these were likely to prove inadequate without further innovation and development.
There does not appear to be any rationale behind the Government's insistence that the appointment/election of mayors is a prerequisite of regional devolution. It is true that the structure of local government is a mess, primarily due to the motivation of saving money. If, however, a more logical system could be (re-) introduced, including regional planning authorities, as were dismantled in 2012, then devolution should not be much of a problem.
Given the obvious problems that are being caused by further development in what is already a very congested South East region, there is also a strong case for a National Spatial Plan.  This should be drawn up primarily from the regions ‘up’ and not from central government ‘down’.
2.              How well is policy coordinated across those Government departments that have a role to play in matters such as housing, design, transport, infrastructure, sustainability and heritage? How could integration and coordination be improved?
Since 2010 the coordination of ‘sustainable development’  has been an unmitigated disaster. Different offices of the Communities Department and different inspectors have been operating like a random number generator in terms of the Code for Sustainable Homes. This, and the Zero Carbon Homes 2016 target have been removed by written ministerial statements of dubious legal authority (post the West Berks/Reading Borough judgement). Local Planning Authorities must be working on development plans and making planning decisions so as to “contribute to the achievement of sustainable development". It is unacceptable that they should be doing so without some coherent and consistent advice from the (new) Communities Secretary so that his offices, inspectors, LPAs, developers, neighbourhood planners, and the public know where they stand and can pull in the same direction.
The National Policy Statements are vague and obscure. The NPS on the national road infrastructure was/is incompatible with the 4th Carbon Budget, mainly in respect of the continued reliance on the growth of use of the private car. The interference by the Treasury in transport decisions (most obviously seen in the planning of new high-speed train services, and recently in regional improvements) results in a very incoherent strategy.  Transport should be the primary job of the Communities Secretary as part of spatial planning.
In respect of housing, the most urgent need is to address the unsustainable levels of under occupancy which could be done through a written ministerial statement, entirely compatible with the existing statutory scheme. There is no place for central government in respect of design, except to encourage adaptability in terms of new dwellings and Lifetime Neighbourhoods, both intended to improve the social sustainability and resilience of residential areas.
Heritage is a matter that has been satisfactorily divided between local and central ‘government’ (eg English Heritage).
The latest unwarranted interference was that by the Treasury/Chancellor the Business Secretary (‘Fixing the Foundations’), with the Communities Secretary’s name not on the document.
3.             Does the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) provide sufficient policy guidance for those involved in planning, developing and protecting the built and natural environment? Are some factors within the NPPF more important than others? If so, what should be prioritised and why?
The most important part of the NPPF is the “presumption in favour of sustainable development". The previous administration demonstrated such a low-level of understanding of or interest in the principles of sustainable development that the presumption became meaningless and/or discredited. The Communities  Select Committee has already investigated this matter and recommended that the definition be refined and made fit for purpose.
Whilst there or many advantages of the discretion available to decision-makers in the operation of the planning system founded under the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, on matters as important as the presumption in the NPPF there should be some clear and effective guidance from the Communities Secretary.  It should not be possible for one inspector to make the following findings:
60. If one considers locational sustainability i.e. being adjacent to an existing
built up area and able to take advantage of any existing services and
infrastructure, then developing this site would score heavily. On the other
hand, if we seek a Bruntland scenario, whereby today's development would
not impose environmental costs on future generations, we are a considerable
way from achieving that. There was certainly no expectation that the
development would 'consume its own smoke'. The application does not deal
in many specifics and targets, other than the aim to reach Code for
Sustainable Homes Level 4.

61. As for movement, there is little beyond broad principles and these are
largely internally focused. A Travel Plan was submitted with the application,
but this only covers a residential offer. There was nothing about the
employment or leisure uses. Similarly, there were no proposals for energy
generation on the site or firm sustainable drainage projects. When
additional draft conditions were suggested they were accepted, and the
saving grace is that this is an outline scheme and one that could be up-rated
as part of the submission of details, so long as appropriate conditions are
attached at this stage. Such matters as design, layout and even the
orientation of buildings are crucial in this context. 12
Appeal Decision APP/N2345/A/12/2169598

And, for this to remain an honorable exception to the ducking and diving of other decision-makers,  fearful that their considered and professional view of what constitute sustainable development would not be supported by the Secretary of State.
Nothing could be more important than the reduction in carbon emissions.  There is no model or precedent (outside wartime or deep recession) for the scale of carbon emissions required to meet the official carbon budgets (6% per year) or the Tyndall Institute estimate of 10%.  Planning guidance and development plans are fundamentally dishonest in the lack of attention being paid to this existential challenge. The Environmental Audit Select Committee ‘Reducing Carbon Emissions from Transport 2005/6 based its recommendations on an honest appraisal of the problem – advising the Government that a lower speed limit (evidence had been given of the need for a 55mph limit) was necessary, not just to reduce carbon but to send the right message to the general public. 10 years later, denial of the scale of the challenge posed by the required level of carbon reduction far exceeds the insignificant level of denial that climate change is being influenced by carbon emissions. This H of L Committee should take the same rigorous position based on the available scientific evidence but, with ten years of missed opportunities, the challenge has become very much greater. Carbon reductions have largely been achieved by exporting emissions from manufacturing/mining and by picking some low hanging fruit.  The reductions that are now required will have to come disproportionately from buildings, as transport (while the speed limit reduction continues to be rejected), agriculture, industry, and power generation (with the  Government retreating on renewables) sectors will all have more difficulty. New buildings can be carbon negative (solar positive) using existing and affordable technologies (with the added benefit of reducing the incidence of fuel poverty).  We have to talk about ‘one planet living’ starting from now, a time that we are living as if we have three.   
4.              Is national planning policy in England lacking a spatial perspective? What would be the effects of introducing a spatial element to national policy?
Possibly.  One element of a national spatial plan would be to put a stop to HS2.  Improving the regional rail network should be a priority.  Any capacity problems in the routes into London occur within a 50 mile radius that can be addressed by express coaches using the over-taking lanes on the radial m-ways and trunk routes. These coach services can access many more centres of employment than can rail terminuses. Cars would be limited to 50mph to meet the carbon reduction targets (see above reference to Environmental Audit Committee) and car drivers will soon become coach passengers. Commuting coaches will not add to the congestion in the area around Euston that will not be able to cope with the 30,000 additional  in and out movements were HS2 to be built. The few minutes saved on the high speed train journey will be lost on the already congested road and underground system within the Euston area. The regeneration of the area around Old Oak Common is a perfectly good idea but this is not a remedy for the congestion likely to be caused by HS2 and could happen with a normal rail connection.  Railways are essential to the country’s low carbon future but High Speed Trains need a far more objective assessment that the Government seems capable of delivering. The same seems to be the case of additional runway capacity.
5.              Is there an optimum timescale for planning our future built environment needs and requirements? How far ahead should those involved in the development of planning and built environment policy be looking?
There should be no problem with development plans being drafted for about twenty years with frequent if not continuous reviews.   A serious problem has arisen from a misunderstanding of the ‘five year housing land supply’ requirement set out in the NPPF.  If development in a particular area is booming then it could be argued that the lack of 5 years land supply would harm the forward planning of the house-building industry and employers in that area.  If development is sluggish, then a shortage of allocated and permitted land is not harmful and should not form the basis for allowing even more land that is not required (and would deflate the value of permitted sites making their development less profitable and slower to deliver). This leads to arguments about viability; s106 contributions and the proportion of affordable housing. By definition,necessary infrastructure - including housing affordable to key workers - cannot be sacrificed to artificially  inflated assessments of land values.  Hence, a 5 year housing land supply can only be a suggestion for what would be a sensible target averaging good years for building with bad, and not a justification for allowing more land that is actually needed.  This should be reflected in planning decisions where, in law,  weight should be given to the real harm being caused by a breach of policy and not simply to the breach itself.
The necessary trajectory of carbon emissions reductions does not allow the Government to delay showing that it is treating this matter with the required degree of seriousness and ensuring that their plans, and those of all LPAs, reflect the necessary annual reductions of between 6% and 10%.
6.              What role should the Government play in seeking to address current issues of housing supply? Are further interventions, properly coordinated at central Government level, required? What will be the likely effect upon housing supply of recent reforms proposed for the planning system?
Almost every intervention by the Government has been to the “demand-side"  (Funding for Lending, Help to Buy, discounts for 1st-time buyers) all of which have the effect of maintaining or raising prices and reducing affordability to all those not on that particular scheme. There has never been more housing space per capita and the Government which introduced the pernicious bedroom tax in the social rented sector (this could have been managed satisfactorily were there an adequate supply of smaller dwellings available) must be aware of the even more prevalent under-occupancy by owner occupiers. Under-occupation is, without exception, the most unsustainable aspect to our housing system. A very simple and easily implemented policy would be for the Communities Secretary to require LPAs (and inspectors) to ensure that all new housing is of 2 bedrooms, unless a special case has been made out for larger dwellings. Even in that case, such dwellings should be designed to be easily subdivided. Further, planning conditions should be imposed on new developments to prevent extensions in order to retain  the balance of the size of households (average size approaching 2) and housing (there is already a surplus of larger dwellings), and the energy efficiency. The Government should also revisit the very sensible and important concept of ‘consequential improvements’. This is one of the few ways in which the existing housing stock (80% of existing houses are EPC ‘D’ and below) whereby dwellings cannot be enlarged without upgrading the energy performance of the whole. Why must properties be upgraded prior to rent and not prior to sale? This has become urgent in the context of the demise of the Green Deal.
The government should not continue to change the scope of ‘permitted development’. The ‘permitted’ change from offices to residential without any contributions to affordable housing, infrastructure or sustainability should be revoked. The' permitted' change from agricultural buildings to residential in remote rural areas also comprises unsustainable development.
7.              How do we develop built environments which are sustainable and resilient, and what role should the Government play in any such undertaking? Will existing buildings and places be able to adapt to changing needs and circumstances in the years to come? How can the best use of existing housing stock and built environment assets be made?
Reference has already been made to the unsustainable level of under occupation of the existing housing stock. This should be the first matter for the Communities Sec to address by signalling his support for predominantly smaller dwellings.  Adaptability should also be a requirement of all larger dwellings to enable relatively cheap and simple subdivision (preferably exempted from further planning applications)
8.     To what extent do we make optimum use of the historic environment in terms of future planning, regeneration and place-making? How can more be made of these national assets?
There is a danger that the Government preoccupation with' Brownfield' sites could endanger some sites of very high heritage value. For example  the best examples of Cold War airbases have been substantially harmed by new development. Such sites are in unsustainable locations and their status as 'previously developed land' should not be a justification for inappropriate development.
9.              Do the professions involved in this area (e.g. planners, surveyors, architects, engineers etc.) have the skills adequately to consider the built environment in a holistic manner? How could we begin to address any skills issues? Do local authorities have access to the skills and resources required to plan, shape and manage the built environment in their areas?
The most topical and damaging shortage of skills has been the inability of LPAs to deal effectively with viability assessments. It is extremely encouraging that the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has been instrumental in setting up an All-Party Parliamentary Group to address planning and housing. Viability assessments have been used to justify material reductions in the provision of infrastructure and affordable housing. The  Communities Sec should ensure that such assessments are made available to both decision-makers and public and the RICS should use powers and influence under its Code of professional conduct to ensure that assessments genuinely reflect the profitability of developments and their ability to pay for necessary infrastructure.
11.           Do those involved in delivering and managing our built environment, including decision-makers and developers, take sufficient account of the way in which the built environment affects those who live and work within it? How could we improve consideration of the impacts of the built environment upon the mental and physical health of users, and upon behaviours within communities?
The Government has been supportive of self-building. This has probably being seen as a way of diversifying the supply of new housing. In fact, self/group/custom-building/finishing could be made into a large and viable and vibrant 'industry' were it to be treated with the required level of seriousness. There needs to be proper definitions of different types of delivery, training, supervision and funding. One of the benefits of these forms of building would be community development and place-making.
12.           How effectively are communities able to engage with the process of decision making that shapes the built environment in which they live and work? Are there any barriers to effective public engagement and, if so, how might they be addressed?
There is increasing evidence that neighbourhood plans are not being produced to include policies with the necessary level of precision, prescription or proscription. Most policies are of a 'permissive’ type that set out what might be allowed but say nothing about what should not be permitted. The fault lies with the supervision provided by LPAs that must now treat 'made' NDPs as the ‘development plan’ for decision-making purposes. This process should receive far more attention and is likely to result in a set of properly worded policies from which parish councils and neighbourhood forums can ‘pick and mix’.
One of the ways in which local people could be enthused about future development within their area would be neighbourhood competitions. Individuals and groups could receive small incentives to submit their development proposals for the use of empty, underused or derelict sites/buildings. The most promising proposals could then receive further funding to demonstrate viability and sustainability.
13.  Are there fiscal or financial measures potentially available which would help to address current issues of housing and land supply? Are there financial or other mechanisms that would encourage better design and place-making by private sector developers?
Since 1947  successive Government have failed to capture the additional value of land attributable to the permissions allowing for its development (see  2015 Housing Review by Sir Michael Lyons).  Most if not all of this value relates to the social and physical infrastructure  which has been created as part of the public domain and the only uplift that should be permitted in the interest of fairness to the landowner would be that sufficient for them to agree to sell. A system that condones land values of < 10,000x agricultural value cannot be in the public interest and is a serious impediment to the provision of housing of sufficient scale, at genuinely affordable prices and of the right quality (including zero carbon – see above).  The fact that developers should be made to pay for the necessary infrastructure (which includes depreciation/renewal costs of roads, schools and public transport as well as housing for key workers and others unable to pay market rates based on inflated land costs), should mean that in most parts of the UK development would pay its way. In fact there would be an immediate impact on land costs that should make all the housing more affordable, so that this would need less cross subsidy from the development.

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