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.