Thursday, December 12, 2013

Where are the planners?

Where are the planners? This is the question I ask myself when at conferences discussing issues that should be of interest to individual planners, their employers and the professional institute.  It happens, in the last few weeks,  that I have been at conferences discussing community supported agriculture, the provision of co-housing, retro-fit co-housing and lastly the Radical Reductions conference convened by the Tyndall Centre at the Royal Society. Very grand and all of £250 for two full days - and not a planner in sight.  I can't check their reading matter or CPD diaries but I do know that planners have been notable absentees from the debates that evolve around the Q & A sessions at these conferences.  I suppose the absence of planners would not matter hugely or at all if they are marginal to the changes that have to come about in terms of food supply, adequate housing and carbon reductions.  That would be the case if they were honest about their marginal role but, instead, planners insist on occupying the space where planning is being, or should be carried out. Something should give - either planners vacate this space and allow others more knowledgeable (something about all those conferences?) and enthusiastic about change to take their place - or planners should join these vigorous debates about things that matter and start to plan our route to recovery.  Which is to be?


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread is the route the Government says must be followed by development plans and decisions on planning applications in order to benefit from the NPPF presumption in favour of sustainable development. In my village the thread has just snapped as  the first draft of the Drayton (Nr Abingdon) Neighbourhood Development Plan has just been produced and it looks very much like a development plan produced over the last 20 years rather than one that would contribute to and be consistent with a carbon reductions of between 5% and 10% per year that are now required to meet the levels compatible with a 2 degree global temperature rise.  The draft policies would not appear to even reflect the more modest targets implied by the Climate Change Act 2008 or the carbon budgetting by the Committee on Climate Change. 

This is not very surprising as the Government (see ministerial statements and decisions on appeals taken by Inspectors and the Secretary of State) is 'all over the place'.  One inspector says that new development "must consume its own smoke" whist Messrs  Pickles and Boles are responsible for decisions where there is no carbon reduction and on the same day will impose conditions (deemed by law to be 'necessary' to the grant of permission) requiring Code for Sustainable Homes Level 3 (or 4) and sometimes for 10% of onsite/or offsite renewables.

My resignation from having been on the Parish Council for over ten years, chair more most of that time and chair of the planning committee for the last 2 years, was caused by the lack of ambition being shown by the neighbourhood planners and the reluctance to privilege co-housing (50 villages said they were interested) or to secure land for smallholdings from the landowners looking to build housing estates.  Even the requirement of developers to contribute to the setting up of car clubs (including a charging point) was 'unrealistic'.

For those still reading - can I suggest that you engage with the development planning process at all levels.  Representations should explain why small scale agriculture/horticulture would compensate for the loss of productivity on development sites and would at the same time reduce the carbon footprint from the food supply chain. Holdings that become part of the Community Supported Agriculture movement would have even greater benefits and accord with the Golden Thread and presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Co-housing should be provided at a  scale where members might not need to be too concerned about the identity of other residents.   Developments of primarily 2 bedroom dwellings (terraced with southern aspect and possibly a shared combined heat and power energy system) would be suitable for those wanting a neighbourly environment or a more formal co-housing arrangement. A common house could be built later or provided under the guise of 3 or 4 rented dwellings owned by the local residents or a housing association with conversion to shared space carried out at a later date.  Retrofit co-housing is being attempted in traditionally built housing areas and should be anticipated in all new residential developments.  This should be supported by development plan policies and formal objections should be raised to any  other form of housing on the basis that it does not benefit from the NPPF 'presumption'.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

It's not rocket science

Prof Wulf Daseking, who has directed the development of Academy award-winning Freiburg, in South West Germany presented a paper to a conference in Oxford (The way we live) on 10 September.  He made three simple points about development in Freiburg that should put us (in the UK) to shame.
1. Building to Passivhaus standard  costs about 12% more but the payback in the cost of energy saved is about 7 years - after which the benefit continues of efficient, warm and comfortable homes.
2. Developments include a mix of privately owned, privately rented, social rented and co-operative housing.  We should asking why, if co-housing is so popular in Germany (and Scandinavia and the US), is it vanishingly rare in the UK? Could this be something to do with the planning system?
3. Infrastructure is put in place before the new housing is occupied.  Car ownership and use will not be reduced unless car clubs are in place to be available to the new occupiers.

If this is how it is done in Freiburg why would the lessens in energy efficiency, variety of housing and car dependency not apply to the UK?

There was an interesting point made by Peter Stoddart that builders  only prepared to build to Code for Sustainable Homes Level 3 should be persuaded to provide a show home to Level 4 and prospective purchasers could have the upgrade as an option.  Apparently most if not all elected for the higher standard.  Why then is the Government winding down the Code and raising the Building Regulations to an equivalent of only CSH 3.5 in April 2014? 


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The 'presumption' and the Taporley Appeal


Last week the decision was made by the Secretary of State to allow development of 100 houses in the village of Taporley despite the appeal inspector having recommended that permission be refused due to the harm that could be done to the neighbourhood planning process. Taporley  is a “front runner" in the neighbourhood planning process although no draft plan had been produced at the time of the appeal.

The Secretary of State had 'recovered' the decision on grounds of legal complexity. This appears to have been the concern about the weight to be given to an emerging neighbourhood plan. In the event the inspector gave  substantially more weight to the issue of “ prematurity" than the Secretary of State. However, and importantly, the inspector also gave weight to the impact that such a decision would have on other parishes and  neighbourhood forums were such a locally important development to be permitted that would prejudice  (in his words “crush") and demotivate. This  impact beyond the position that Taporley  was not tackled in an intelligible and adequate way by the Secretary of State despite this apparently being the reason for the 'call-in'.

The other matter that was dealt with in an inadequate  and legally doubtful way by the Secretary of State was the question of sustainability. Given that it is Government  advice set out in the Framework  that there is a 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' it is extraordinary that not only inspectors but the Secretary of State himself do not reach a finding as to whether a development  benefits from this presumption. The most that  this inspector was prepared to say is that the presumption is “engaged", but that was in the context of paragraph 14 and the absence of a five-year land supply. What the inspector had actually found was that the development was only on the positive end of the sustainability spectrum if, and only if, the strategic spatial planning aspects were left to one side. There were many indications that  were  strategic spatial planning factors to be brought into the equation,  the location and scale of development would be regarded as “unsustainable".  The Secretary of State  could be accused of dissembling in relying on a conclusion that was reached by the inspector on his consideration of only  a few of the 'material considerations'.  It could not reasonably have been the inspector's intention in “leaving to one side" the very material consideration of the sustainability of the development in terms of location and scale, to leave this out of the equation when the decision was actually reached through section 38 (6). The difficulty for the Inspector  was that the planning framework (local plan and neighbourhood plan)  was not at a stage where the sustainability of the development  had  recently been addressed. It was relying on an earlier assessment that Taporley was not one of the most sustainable locations (classified as Tier 2 even before sustainability rose in prominence through the Framework). In fact the inspector was critical of the public transport services (and the use of best and most versatile land) as matters to be taken into account when the presumption was fully engaged.

Since we had the Inspector (Ref 2169598) finding that to  benefit from the presumption a development should be seen to “consume its own smoke", we have a number of inspectors who fudge the issue and now the Secretary of State apparently confirming that the presumption is in favour of development with sustainability being an option. The impact  of this decision on neighbourhood planners will be profound. Those faced with planning applications  within the 2 years before even a draft plan is likely to be produced might not consider it worth starting. All those who are in the process should put their foot down on the accelerator  and hope that the decision at Taporley  is successfully challenged (the statutory review under section 288).

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Just three things

Three things

Most people (including planners and councillors) can feel powerless and bemused by the planning system.  I hope that my blog is part of the ongoing process of demystification and empowerment.  So here are three things that anybody can do who subscribes to the ideas in earlier blogs that co-housing, self-building (esp group self-build) and local food (esp new smallholdings and community support agriculture) are good things.

In fact these three things can all be accomplished with one visit to the offices of the local planning authority.  Ask to be put on the register of those interested in these three forms of development.  The self-build register should include any relevant skills and local qualification and whether you would be prepared to join a group.  The co-housing register should include details of household size and whether self-build would be an option.  The register of smallholders could also include past experience and whether the interest would be full or part time.

Although Cherwell District Council thinks that it can find 1000 (one thousand) self-builders for a site near Bicester in north Oxfordshire, and self-build is a housing choice referred to at para 50 of the NPPF, and Policy Exchange thought such registers would be a good idea I doubt that any are currently being kept.  The conversation at the desk (or by email) would have to persuade the council (and your interest might not just be confined to your local area) that these registers would assist the LPA in promoting these forms of development through their Local Plans.

The support for self-building from Government (including a £30m grant for group schemes) should be sufficient grounds for this register. That the food chain is responsible for about 50% of GHG emissions should be sufficient to persuade a council that local food (growing, processing and distribution) should get any help it can give.  Co-housing is simply the most (only?) sustainable form of new housing in terms of economic, environmental and social impacts/benefits and should receive the full support from the NPPG presumption.

If you work in a council so much the better if these registers can be a local government initiative.

Good luck and don't take no for an answer.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

What's wrong with house extensions?

This is going to make me unpopular with all those who see their house as their home and their castle and their pension pot...

The problem is that there is a very serious inequality and unfairness in the distribution of the national housing resource.  Those with the money have collared more than their fair share.  And having bought the largest pad that their money (and that borrowed from the bank) can buy they go and extend it still further.  More space and bigger pension and that is without going into the status and appearances and keeping up with the Joneses.  Messrs Pickles and Boles who conspired to increase the allowance to be added to houses without permission will not like this.

I firmly believe that houses should be left alone.  Every house should be brought up to a high level of energy efficiency either before it can be sold or within the next ten years.  At that point interfering with the fabric and the high levels of air-tightness will reduce the energy efficiency.  The materials used in the extension will have an energy cost (25% in the materials and 5% in the construction work). The new space will need extra energy to be heated (the remaining 70%) and putting minimalists aside, the space will attract stuff.   The outside space for growing, drainage and bio-diversity will all be reduced.   The end product produces a higher pension pot by becoming less affordable to those just wanting a house to live in.  If sustainable development has three pillars of environmental impacts, social inclusion and economic fairness (and efficient use of resources) then house extensions will not meet the presumption in favour of sustainable development in the Framework (term now being used for the NPPF).

So LPAs should be removing permitted development rights when granting permission for new housing and even make Article 4 Directions to have the same effect for  existing residential areas. Local plans and neighbourhood plans can include policies to indicate when and where house extensions would be permitted and subject to what conditions.  Whilst the increase in the allowance for permitted development was intended to simplify the planning system and relieve over worked planners, actually eliminating or severely reducing the number of house extensions would be more likely to have those benefits.

The hardship suffered by those who really need extra space would be alleviated by a greater movement between properties in order to meet functional requirements.   I cannot think of a system that would prevent people buying properties larger than their household needs but would repeat the plug for co-housing where all those facilities (and more) that do not fit in small and unextended homes are provided on a shared basis.

Proud of Planning?

When new Royal Town Planning President Dr Peter Geraghty took up his position he launched a Facebook page "Proud of Planning  Proud of Planners'.  At the risk of repeating thoughts from previous blogs (I have a limited number of points to be made about planning that could be of wider interest) I would like to add a strap line to the DanthePlan blog 'Ashamed of planning Ashamed of Planners'.  I do not do Facebook so I do not know where the President's page might interface with Dan's blog - if at all. In cloud possibly?

Am I being harsh?  Well the President has two choices.  He can be proud of the roles that planning has played and continues to play and agree to be judged on the results, or he can side with me and claim that planners have really had very little influence over the course of development over the last 65 years and seek no credit for or attach no blame to the profession.   Taking the former position the President would have to explain why the typical user of the built environment/settlement pattern created (planned?) over the last 65 years emits about 10 tonnes of carbon - approximately ten times the level that is believed to be sustainable (see the Climate Change Act and the reports of the 2011 Carbon Plan and other reports from the Committee on Climate Change).  Problems associated with carbon emissions have been known about for decades and I have not been aware of professional planners doing much about this growing problem.  Whilst 'planning' and 'planners' could reasonably be expected to react to early warnings, the abject failure of the system and its professionals to do so was regrettable.  Now that the problem is in the public domain, the fact that planners are still noted for their absence in leading the way towards an energy descent to sustainable levels of consumption and emissions should disqualify the planning profession from taking any serious part in resolving the problem.

Taking the alternative view that professional planners have been spectators rather than players in the development industry that has been run by architects, surveyors, politicians bankers and a variety of lobbyists might suggest that we (including me) should not be described as a profession.  However, the advantage of adopting what I believe to be a more accurate and honest view of the past could (not should) mean that we might be trusted with planning the future.

Peering through the blinds into a very murky future and putting my scepticism about planning and planners on hold, I can see that there might be a role for planning if the goal of sustainable development is to be realised.  Most of the urban and rural environment will have to adapt to a low carbon world in ways that will have little or nothing to do with the planning system.  However, in some important ways new development can be harnessed as a driver for change - and who is better placed to take advantage of this energy and put it to good effect?  Previous blogs will have discussed the components of a low carbon (and convivial) world but the list includes, co-housing, group/self-building, local food supply systems including new smallholdings and market gardens around all settlements, renewable energy in many different forms, public transport systems and car clubs leaving private car ownership for suckers, a massive increase (step change) in planting and biodiversity, MUGAs (mixed use games areas) everywhere and a cafe in every street and a pub on every corner.  Even if co-housing needs to be given time, almost all new housing should be of 2 bedrooms, or designed at the outset to be easily subdivided (this might need a separate blog) to be made attractive to the 5 million households wanting to downsize in the next few years to reduce the scandalous level of under-occupancy in the private sector, and/or to first time buyers and renters.

No Mr President I am not proud to be a planner but can see a role for us if we took the lead on what is and what is not sustainable. At present 'planners' are occupying the space where urgent action should be taken to save and replenish the environment and getting in the way of those who could be doing a better job of it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The presumption in favour ofsustainable development

Sustainable Development

In March 2012  the National Planning Policy Framework was finally approved incorporating the presumption in favour of sustainable development described as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking. (See paragraph 14 of the Framework). Although  there are a number of ways in which planning decisions can be disseminated (including this and other blogs) I can only refer to a very small sample of decisions taken under the auspices of the Framework. I should mention, that, as a first principle, the Framework  is a material consideration in making planning decisions to be balanced with or against the relevant policies of any development plan. I should also say that policies, including those within the Framework are open to interpretation,  as are planning policies in development plans.

There are 3 decisions that I would like to draw to your attention. The first  is a dismissed appeal for a house on the edge of the village. The Inspector decided that the sustainability of the proposal was a “main issue" and that the house would be unsustainable due to its location outside the village. This was in the face of evidence that the new dwelling would have been closer to the village facilities (including shops and mainline railway station) than many or most of the existing dwellings in the village.  in fact previous inspectors had found it even more remote locations to be sustainable. The challenge to this decision in the High Court  (under section 288) failed as the court found the inspectors reasoning to be adequate. No appeal was made, although in the case of a planning decision adequacy should go beyond some internal coherence and embrace all material considerations. In this case the inspector took a very (very) limited view of what should be the basis of sustainability. It is well understood that the High Court keeps the bar at a high level to prevent frivolous challenges. However, in this case it would appear to be set at a level that would deter many reasonable and sensible challenges to planning decisions taken locally  or at appeal.

The second decision  is the permission granted for 160 houses outside but on the edge of a market town. In this case neither main party (the planning authority and the appellant) discussed the sustainability of the proposals or came to any conclusion as to whether the proposal should or should not benefit from the presumption in the Framework.  The  reasons for refusal,  the evidence presented at appeal and the “main issues" identified by the inspector related to  only to traffic impacts, the protection of trees  and the absence of a 5 (or 6) year housing land supply.  I attended this appeal inquiry with the sole purpose of discussing the sustainability of the proposals.   In the decision letter the Inspector made 2 references to this evidence; accepting the appellant' case that car clubs do not work in suburban areas  (although this would appear to be a question of developer finance) and that  it is Government policy that the sustainability of housing is secured through the building regulations (and not, apparently, the Code for Sustainable Homes). Although the 6 week period to make a challenge has not just expired there does not appear to be any movement in that direction.

The third decision (12/2169598)  related to a mixed development of residential and commercial uses.  Although the  Inspector identified the “main issue" as  the  severity of the residual traffic impacts,   there is within the decision letter a discussion on “sustainability". The inspector  was surprised that little detail or objective evidence was submitted by the parties and suggested that this was because  “...sustainability, in the wider context, is misunderstood.". He found that the location in this case would be sustainable but, “on the other hand, if we seek a Bruntland scenario, whereby today's development would not impose environmental costs of 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." It is instructive that in 2012 even CHS4  was found by the Inspector to be “unsustainable". This is in stark contrast to the 2nd example although this more stringent decision had been drawn to that Inspector's attention. This 3rd decision goes on to say that in the context of an outline application such matters as the orientation of buildings, that would be crucial, could be  up-rated at the approval of details.

Whilst none of these decisions (or any other that I have examined)  does not discuss the presumption in favour of sustainable development as set out in the Framework, these  few examples show that there is considerable doubt about ability if not competence of inspectors (and the Courts)  to address this concept.  I share the inspector's surprise that the presumption has not been the focus if not the main and determining issue in all current planning decisions.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Neighbourhood development plan and permaculture

My parish ( google Drayton near Abingdon ) has adopted a draft housing policy to assist in responses to planning applications.  Weight must be given to these policies which have been drafted to comply with the NPPF (see para 216) although scrutiny by the public is  still to be arranged.  These policies are intended to make new housing as low carbon as possible in terms of materials, energy efficiency and occupation, but also, to make the village location more sustainable through contributions to facilities, services and employment opportunities.  There seems to be every justification for requiring the highest standards to avoid the need for refurbishment and retrofit in the years to 2050 when all housing will have to be close to zero carbon.

One of the contributions expected from new housing (through s106 until it is replaced by Community Infrastructure Levy) is towards allotments and smallholdings.  Cross referencing to countryside and employment policies (not yet adopted by the parish council) it might prove possible to secure one or more dwellings to be restricted by agricultural occupancy conditions (ag tags) and linked to land surplus to that being developed for residential purposes.  If these policies are to accepted by the village, parish council and the local planning authority and taken seriously by developers there will have to be evidence that local food production, processing and distribution could make a substantial contribution to carbon reductions (as well as other benefits recognised as contributing to sustainable development).  There can be promotion of permaculture, community support agriculture and agroforestry with supporting evidence of the benefits.  Whether co-housing and self-building (both being promoted in the draft housing policies) can be woven into the local food story remains to be seen.

And why use NDPs when LPAs have their development plans and will be determining planning applications?   Because district councils  (invc unitaries) may be more hampered by what they regard as normal planning considerations.. This does not prevent LPAs and other parishes from adopting imaginative polices for planning the future of village and particularly the edges where new development is most likely to happen.  If enough NDPs adopt this kind of policy and have these given weight by LPAs there is less reason for the LPA not to follow.