Monday, April 21, 2014

Planning and the Government

There are two consultations being carried out as the Government proposed to tinker with the planning system. The more important is review of the operation of the NPPF by the DCLG select committee and readers of this blog might want to visit the website and explain to the committee that the 'presumption' in the NPPF is being applied in favour of development with little or no understanding or requirement in respect of the ' sustainability'. in fact, housing development that disregards sustainability creates further needs and liabilities in the period during which carbon emissions should be declining at a significant rate. There are many hints in previous blogs but I would highlight the failure at any attempt to mainstream cohousing and the omission of policies in respect of local food production, processing and distribution. The second consultation is not of any great interest but provoked me into a response which explained the significant cost imposed on operators of the planning system by the obsessive tinkering by this and previous governments. The response from the "Planning Team" at the DCLG was to ask for evidence. By sheer coincidence I was clearing out some papers and stumbled on the following quote that relates to a previous proposal. In 1980 the Department of the Environment issued a draft circular in respect of the exercise of planning control which the Royal Town Planning Institute described as showing, " abysmal ignorance of how the planning system operates and why it exists." At that time Malcolm Grant (You can look up his credentials) said that, “Planning law is a subject which has for the most part been unsympathetically handled by parliamentary draughtsman and their departmental advisers, so that the resultant mass of legislation is highly technical and poorly integrated. It lacks any overall coherence, and comprehending and interpreting it is a difficult enough task professional let alone the layman." I sent this to the DCLG with the following comment, “I would suggest that the most fundamental problem has been the failure to understand the difference between legislation and policy. Whilst the NPPF has some claims to success as a distillation of existing policy (the only substantive change being the addition of the 'presumption', that itself has significant legal complications) all the changes to regulations/legislation introduced by this government would have been more effective through issuing ministerial statements or additions to national planning guidance." We are in a vicious circle where the system has become so complicated that it cannot be operated effectively and the government assumes that change is necessary. However through its " abysmal ignorance", the government introduces changes that simply add to the complications without having any measurable let alone beneficial effect.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Planning for privacy

Apologies to those who might have spotted this theme in earlier blogs but I don't think that the relationship between planning and privacy can be overstated - even if there might not be too many obvious things that can be done about the problems being caused (see blog on microhomes as one response). My undergraduate thesis (that came within one mark of a fail) was titled 'planning and privacy' and it is interesting to return to the subject nearly 40 years later. I could not have known the extent to which the 'profession' I was about to join would be dedicated to the job of providing people with privacy. Nor could I have known that, far from becoming an environmental professional I would turn out to be more of a pension provider - and one more successful in that regard than most of those plying the trade of financial advisers. Our collective energy has been spent trying to provide a home for every household that would embed a pension pot in its bricks and mortar and to act as a neighbour protection service by preventing overlooking, overshadowing or disturbance from any new developments that would reduce its value. That the supply of houses has been maintained below the level of demand (excluding the issues with the availability and cost of finance)has been blamed for the cost of houses that is seen to be a good thing by full members of the property owning democracy. Of course it is debatable the extent to which planners have been responsible for the shortfall or whether affordability is more to do with unequal distribution than any absolute shortage. I think that credit goes to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for promoting the concept of 'Lifetime Homes' designed so that the elderly can stay put and maintain their independence (close relation of privacy) into old age. At a recent workshop exploring the concept of 'caring environments' the convenor wondered whether we would learn by looking for examples of uncaring environments. This led to the subversive suggestion that in fact lifetime homes might be one component of uncaring environments and that the design professionals and the planning system should be looking at 'lifetime neighbourhoods'. These would comprise a mix of dwellings but including sufficient small dwellings to facilitate downsizing within the local area (I resist using the word community)as an attractive option rather than a move to sheltered accommodation or even nursing/care home due to need. There was also a suggestion that perhaps terraced housing (good in terms of energy efficiency and density) might be more conducive to caring and community than detached properties and high hedges, despite their larger pension pot. So are there any signs that planners are moving towards houses and housing layouts that would facilitate neighbourliness or are we still hostage to the obsession that bricks and mortar are the only safe investments for retirement and old age? If that is the case, then Government should be looking very hard for other ways to provide that security as, to do so, could have a liberating effect on the design of residential environments. And guess what? neighbourliness and inter-dependence and reduced privacy and social isolation might reduce the burden on the public purse of administering (child) care and nursing services. This is just one of many loops in the housing system, but one that will not turn into a virtuous circle while we, with the assistance of the planning system (and how many councillors would risk their seat on my hypothesis? - remembering that my student thesis nearly failed) cling so tenaciously to protecting indidual privacy.


Costing the Earth broadcast on Radio 4 on 15 April (available on iPlayer)analysed the costs and benefits of small homes down to about 12 sq m (a QB2). In fact the planners in London have minimum standard of 37 sq m. There are no minimum standards elsewhere. Googling 'tiny house' will reveal an assortment of homes in the 30sq m range. The costs are obvious - limited storage, the juxtaposition of functions that are normally in different spaces and the challenges of sharing and entertaining. However, with a minimum build cost to Passivhaus standards of £12k the advantages are also pretty clear. The living costs can be very low with the QB2 being a net exporter of electricity from the PV as the space is heated even in winter by body heat, appliances (although LED lighting and TV emit virtually no heat) and cooking. The programme did not touch on perhaps the greatest incentive to popularise microhomes that would be set into a c--housing scheme where the issues of limited private space are offset by the ability to share storage, guest accommodation, laundry, books, garden areas and some eating. So long as these shared areas are also designed and used efficiently the overall development could be very energy efficient, exceptionally sociable and relatively affordable. All planners should recognise these factors as the three limbs of sustainable development for which we all know there is a presumption in the NPPF. While the Royal Institute of British Architects and others claim that the UK is building the smallest dwellings in Europe, planners should be putting the case for this trend towards sustainability. The programme described the extent of under-occupation in terms of rooms (from one each to three for each of us in the last 100 years) and I hope that policy makers were taking note of the positive messages of compact and low carbon living that would be facilitated by microhomes. It would be for the downsizers and new households to explain that a co-housing setting would make these a mainstream alternative. Some homes of this size can be moved as a caravan to enjoy different locations - in fact thousands already live contentedly in static caravans/mobile homes, boats, pods and even converted sea containers - none of which encouraged by the planning system.