Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why the system is bad for public and practitioners

I am told that the main reason why lawyers hate planning is the meddling of Government so that it is very difficult to be confident about the current state of the law/regulations. I have just read the amendments to the General Permitted Development Order which allow the change of use of agricultural buildings to schools or dwellings. I have to say that the provisions will test the legal brains of practitioners and processes within local government to an extraordinary degree. Although this is meant to be a freeing up of control the requirement for “prior notification" and the criteria on which this is requested and possibly triggering a planning application, cannot reasonably be described as cutting “red tape". All new regulations include an impact assessment which explains the minimal cost associated with the proposed change. Legislators simply have no idea of the real cost of even the smallest changes and the alienation caused to public and practitioners. I am the victim of another change introduced by the coalition government. Communities Minister Stephen Williams has confirmed the demise of the code for sustainable homes and the transfer of responsibility for sustainable housing to the building regulations. This was foreshadowed by the Housing Standards Review but was the subject of substantial objections from many of the affected parties ( E.g. Green Building Council and BRE). This confirmation arrived between me completing an article for The Planner on the random number generator being operated by both inspectors and of the Secretary of State to justify the “necessary"(!) conditions being attached to permissions for large housing developments. Code levels 3, 3.5 (equivalent to Part L of the Building Regulations), 4 or even more being required. Some lucky developers are also randomly being required to provide on or near site renewables. The substance of my opinion piece has been superseded but the extent to which sustainability can be properly incorporated into the building regulations is a mystery. A further question must be raised as to how planning decisions and planning policies can be seen, as they must, to be 'contributing to the achievement of sustainable development if neither are to regulate the energy efficiency (or water management) which is to be left to the Building Regulations? There are already a few signatures on DanthePlan's Protocol which seeks to ban CFCs. Changes for Change's Sake are extremely costly, time-consuming and bad for morale. Readers of my blog will know that there are many changes that need to be made to the planning system. It is meddling that makes the job so unrewarding when there is so much real work to be done.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sustainable housing

Last week I went to Eco-Build that is impressive display of the components of sustainable housing at the Excel Centre. A component of sustainability missing from the displays is 'co-housing' which is the way in which houses are used. This could be just good neighbourliness where many things are shared on an informal basis (ie tools, freezer space or even cars) but is also where the houses are designed with sharing in mind - a common house for group meals, guest accommodation, laundry, freezer room, library, office space, workshop etc. The ability of families to have relatively smaller areas and fewer rooms for their exclusive use with better facilities than they might be used to available on a shared basis, could make co-housing the most sustainable form of housing. And this matters in a planning sense due to the presumption in favour of sustainable development that applies to plan making and decision taking. This discussion arose in a session (probably the best attended of the (Wednes)day and featuring Kevin Mcloud, Paul Chatterton (from Lilac a co-housing scheme in Leeds) and Richard MaCarthy. It was the latter who said that co-housing was and would and could not be mainstreamed and would remain a minority pursuit while the volume builders would sort out the quantitative shortage of housing. I was allowed to challenge this assertion on the basis that building more of the unsustainable housing represented by the 'mainstream' would be contrary to the presumption in the NPPF and create an even greater need for sustainable housing. A wry smile from Kevin, and Paul responded that the demand for co-housing he experiences on his speaking circuit was substantial and enthusiastic (Lilac has a growing waiting list). This raises the most fundamental question running through my blogs - why is the planning system so bad at supporting and assisting with the supply of things that people say they want; access to affordable land and housing for small-scale agriculture, self/group-build/finish and co-housing. Why do potential co-housers have to battle with the system for years before giving up or eventually building their sustainable homes? The planners cannot claim neutrality as if this demand will be met without positive assistance. If the mainstream builders were challenged to design their estates in a sustainable way that these developments would resemble co-housing schemes and, as times get tough and/or people discover the advantages of sharing and neighbourliness, will be used as such. The main obstacle could be the commonhouse and I can only suggest that this is designed to be adapted to 3 or 4 dwellings and remains in the ownership of the social housing provider to be used as conventional housing if the demand for commonhouse use does not materialise within a couple of years of the completion of the scheme. Does anybody have any better ideas of providing co-housing in advance of the group intending to live together in this way? Mainstreamed it must be, and it would happen better and sooner with the help of the planners. It would also help if councils kept registers of those interested in housing themselves in this way (together with registers of potential self-builders and smallholders).

Monday, March 10, 2014

On Line Planning Guidance

I need somebody to tell me if I am wrong, but it does seem that the final version of the on line Planning Guidance published today has corrected a mistake in the original and repeated by the Planning Minister about the weight that should or could be given to emerging plans. The law allows this to be at the reasonable discretion of the decision-maker and previous attempts to limit this to the very last stages of the adoption process seem to have failed before being overturned by the Courts. This lifts a cloud that Mr Boles had placed above those making neighbourhood plans so that weight can and must be given to such plans according to the robustness of the evidence base, the consistency with the NPPF (including the golden thread of sustainable development) and then also the stage reached including the level of public involvement. The decision-maker must also take into account the level of opposition to the emerging plan. Mr Boles should have read NPPF para 216. But on the issue of sustainable development, it will now be possible for new dwellings to be made out of unused agricultural buildings whatever the carbon and material costs in the conversion works or the remoteness of the location. It does not seem that the current Ministerial team or its advisers are very keen to apply the presumption in favour of sustainable development and I have had to engage my MP to see whether some reasonable standards and consistency can be achieved in the application of the principles of sustainability between PINS and the DCLG.

Planning for a Better Future

This the letter sent to the Planning Officer's Society on 2014 03 10 in response to their Manifesto "Planning for a Better Future". Dear John I have read through the POS briefing note and thought I would email some thoughts. The POS almost by definition comprises those at the top of our profession who have reached these elevated positions through hard work and merit but also an amount of conforming to established norms. So, to the extent to which the planning profession is responsible for the 'town and country' which has been created over the last 60 years, it is the members of the POS who must take most of the credit and blame. If both town and country are in precarious and unsustainable states then 'planning for a better future' would be expected to make some references to what has gone wrong in the past and how an established profession could be expected to adapt so as to do better in the future. In fact the briefing appears to concentrate very heavily on building a future that is a projection of the present with a thread of the expectation of economic growth rather than the 'golden thread' in the NPPF that is the presumption in favour of sustainable development. This presumption barely gets a mention in decisions taken locally, by inspectors or the Secretary of State and when it does, there is an absence of the analysis of how the development proposal would be consistent with the carbon reduction path embedded in the Climate Change Act (and proposed by the Committee on Climate Change the the interim carbon budgets). Of course 'sustainable development' is referred to in the briefing note (eg 'Planning is the key to meeting housing needs and delivering economic growth through the creation of sustainable development') but, 'The major challenge facing the incoming government..' is described as '...delivering sustained economic growth. '. To be compatible with the Framework the POS should be reframing the challenge to how, or what kind of 'growth' could be sustained that would be compatible with environmental boundaries (including the statutory carbon descent). I have been giving some planning aid to groups and individuals comprising the younger generation for whom a 'postive legacy' should be planned for. In doing so I have re-examined the 'credentials' with which I preface my evidence given at planning inquiries. The POS see itself as the '...single credible voice for public sector planning practitioners.'. It seems to me that my 40 years of planning should count for very little and the voices of younger people, most of whom are not going to be part of our profession but will have to live with the outcomes of our advice/decisions should count for far more.(see latest blog on Regards Daniel

Monday, March 3, 2014


When expressing an expert opinion we professionals would like the audience to know the depth of our expeience and relevant knowledge. Proofs of evidence start by setting out a summary of our career as expert planners in an attempt to add credibility to what we go on to say. For example, I will explain that I have worked for 40 years in the public, private and voluntary sectors and have trained and taught planning and related environmental subjects. In response to a past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute's campaign 'Proud of Planning and Planners' my blog explained why I was ashamed of the profession. Part of my regret is around the way in which the profession excludes others from engaging in this vital activity. In fact the absence of a core expertise and a consequent lack of confidence has resulted in there having been many interest groups which have competed for this space; ministers, councillors, pressure groups and the development sector. I would suggest that the best qualified to join and even lead the debate on what and where new developments should take place are the younger generation. Instead of a boast of 40 years experience, a 30 year old could say that they have lived with and started to understand the consequences of 60 years of town and country planning and are now ready to express opinions about what comprises 'sustainable development'. The question of what might be 'sustainable' is a theoretical one for my generation of planners but a matter of life or death for people half our age. It has become a pressing issue for the 25,000 members of the RTPI to listen to what the younger generations think about their inheritance in terms of housing, employment, shopping, recreation,transport, food supply etc and to do what we can to assist them in achieving their vision for the future. The young should not try to mimic the professionals who have been responsible for planning for what now appears to have locked-in so much unsustainable behaviour,and created unrealistic and unachievable expectations. The younger generations must be helped to assert themselves by listening to and respecting their visions for an uncertain future. The credibility of the young is that they are not responsible for past planning mistakes (however inadvertent)but will be having to live with what is now created under the banner of sustainable development.