Friday, August 29, 2014

Theory and Practice

The obituaries describing the quite extraordinary achievements of Prof Peter Hall who died last week left me breathless and humbled.  He seems to have bridged the gap between academia and practice as an exception to the 'rule' that the British planning system in practice has operated in a space that has been remarkably free of theory.  It would take more than a Blog to explore the reasons for this disconnect but I would like to pick on two parts of Hall's work. 

Hall was preeminent in both understanding the part that urban containment played in post-WWII development in this country and in his advocacy of new settlements.  My Blogs have suggested other dimensions to these elements of our planning system; the limiting of supply has served to maintain the value of houses owned by members of our property owning 'democracy', and that we should be looking at how to use new development to re-balance the size of houses and households in existing settlements before (but not always instead of) building new settlements with the same imbalance and latent needs for more housing. Like Hall, Prof Danny Dorling (see previous Blog) is a geographer and has some important things to say to planners and politicians who care to listen.

Hall's puzzlement at the arrival of a Chinese translation of this text on British planning  reflects my bafflement at what readers in Moldova and Turkey are making of make of DanthePlan's critique of the British system? Hall was very engaged internationally and was able to develop a macro overview of planning as it was practiced in Europe and the USA.  DanthePlan has developed an essentially micro view of the planning system through 40 years' practice and is still looking for assistance from the academic world to develop a workable (and politically acceptable) definition of 'sustainable development' that could be used by decision-makers to apply the presumption in the NPPF put a stop to the building of hundreds of thousands of new dwellings (reports just today of an upturn in delivery to over 120,000 per year) that are adding to the problems associated with urban development eg excessive  carbon emissions, reliance on private transport and exacerbating social exclusion and isolation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sustainable Housing: manifesto items for next UK Government

With acknowledgements to Danny Dorling (All that is Solid Penguin 2014) and aplolgies for the length and formatting.

Manifesto for sustainable housing

The overriding objectives of the planning and housing portfolio should be to make the use of the existing and new national housing stock making it more – affordable, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable (taking into account measures of bio-diversity and carbon emissions arising from both construction and use).

Previous governments have taken the view that the remedies for the perceived failures of the planning system, including the provision of adequate housing, are to be found in changing the law or regulations.  Most if not all of the necessary measures can be achieved through changes to policy.  Such changes can be implemented very quickly and at little or no public expense.  All the suggestions would ‘contribute to the achievement of sustainable development’ (a legal requirement of planning policy and control) and would benefit from the presumption in favour of sustainable development described in the NPPPF as the ‘golden thread’ running through both plan-making and decision-taking.

Using new development to re-balance the size of households and houses should be given priority over new settlements which are likely to increase rather than address this need (as they would incorporate a level of under-occupancy that would then need to be addressed).  New settlements also imply a high cost of infrastructure provision (ie a 50% premium over urban expansion) and would are unlikely to make better use of existing physical and social infrastructure.

1.         Under-occupancy

In whichever way under-occupancy is measured (averaging over 1 spare reception room, 1 and more often 2 or more spare bedrooms – amounting to about 15million spare bedrooms or the equivalent of nearly 30 years supply of new dwellings at 250,00 per year), increasing the efficiency and sustainability of the housing stock would appear to be the most pressing issue to be addressed by the new Government. The ‘bedroom tax’ was introduced to address this issue in the social rented sector but under-occupation is more prevalent in privately owned and occupied housing and particularly by elderly households.  The levels of privately owned empty properties and second homes are also unsustainable.

            – to extend the council tax bands to cover the mostly larger dwellings that have become disproportionately more valuable since the tax bands were established in 1991 as an incentive to downsize. Remove the 25% discount for single person households and double council tax for both empty and second homes (an appeal process for   special cases will require new regulations).

            - the ‘bedroom tax’ regulations should be repealed.  The problem of under-occupancy  in the social rental sector should be addressed in the same way as in the private sector, through the provision of more smaller dwellings; affordable (including running costs) and conveniently located through either new build or conversions/sub-divisions.   

            -  a commission should be established to look at the potential of a  land value tax to           possibly supersede the council tax (and business rates).

            - through a revision the NPPF should require special justification for new   dwellings of more than  two bedrooms – suitable for both downsizers (that should include some with relatively large gardens) and new households.

- the NPF should be revised o require any dwellings of more than two bedrooms to be designed so as to be easily and cheaply re-configured to form two smaller dwellings (a condition on the original permission could permit this sub-division without further application  - a provision that might require an amendment to the General Permitted Development Order - GPDO).  Grants could be made available to pay for sub-divisions.

- the NPPF should be revised to support conditions being applied on planning permissions for new dwellings requiring planning permission to be obtained for extensions that would reduce the supply of smaller  (more affordable and more energy efficient) dwellings. 

- the GPDO should be changed to reduce the scale of extensions that could be built without express permission  that would make  housing larger, less affordable and less energy efficient.  Express permission and special justification should be required for significant extensions and all at two storey extensions – with support for extensions that would enable sub-division to smaller dwellings.

            - the Right to Buy should be repealed together with substantial improvements in the           law/regulations applicable to the social and private rental sectors in terms of  security,  and control over rent increases.  A ‘right to stay’ should apply to those defaulting on payments who have exercised the ‘right to buy’ – possibly through an equity release to a registered provider.

            - both Help to Buy and Funding for Lending should be repealed

            - the criminalisation of squatting should be repealed

2.         Energy efficiency and reduction of greenhouse gases

Under-occupancy is a substantial driver of carbon emissions; inefficient use of building materials, wasted space heating and, by lower population density reduces the level of use and viability  of local services, including public transport.  The difficulty that transport, energy production, manufacturing, agriculture and leisure sectors will experience in reducing their GHG emissions quickly and in accordance with the Climate Change Act/Carbon budgets and 2011 Carbon Plan, places an additional burden on buildings (including housing) where the technologies are available to reduce emissions to below zero (becoming net producers of low/zero carbon energy).


              - the confusion about the status of the Code for Sustainable Homes – currently being      addressed by the Building Research Establishment - places the onus on local planning authorities to find ways through the development plan system to prevent/refuse        permission for   development that does not benefit from the NPPF ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.  The Government should continue to rely on the planning system to make good the deficiencies in the Building Regulations in this respect; water conservation/consumption, low carbon generation/allowable solutions, bio-diversity    protection, creation and off-setting, post-occupancy evaluation and remediation.

            -  it should be made a condition of all ‘permitted development’ that the dwelling house as  altered/extended should meet CSH Level 4 or an equivalent standard (previously described as ‘consequential improvements’ when proposed by the Coalition Government).

            - it should be a pre-condition of sale or lease that a dwelling comes up to a minimum          standard (eg CSH Level 5) – with an appeal procedure that can substitute ‘allowable               solutions’.

            - the NPPF should explain why special justification should be required for new housing that is not terraced and with a southern aspect.

3.         Housing supply

The significant control and influence that a few large building firms have exerted over the supply of new housing suggests that a major reform to the supply of land for housing is required.  There are indications that this country (compared to examples in Europe) is short of opportunities for self/custom building by individuals or groups.  There is an even greater shortage of opportunities for co-housing – the most affordable, efficient, socially inclusive and, therefore, sustainable form of housing.

Housing in the countryside is an important component of producing, processing and distributing ‘local food’.  The supply of dwellings for which the occupancy was restricted to those employed in agriculture   has been depleted with the reduction of those employed on the land.


            - both co-housing and categories of self/custom-building need to be defined in the   NPPF and then privileged by housing policies at national (eg NPPF and Planning Policy Wales) and              local levels.  This should be done by requiring a proportion of all housing allocations and permissions to be reserved for co-housing and self/custom-building.

            - the NPPF should be amended to include co-housing and self-building (probably not         custom building) in the category of ‘affordable housing’ within the quotas being required by development plan policies (like affordable housing, self-building is  already exempt council tax).
- To reverse the loss of agricultural dwellings the NPPF should support local policies requiring  one or two dwellings on  developments on the urban/village fringe to subject an ‘ag-tag’ and be part of the affordable housing requirement (see previous blogs on planning and local food).


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Precise policies or warm words?

Some preliminary points before the main course. DanthePlan’s Blog attempts to refer to recent events or consultations but many of the earlier Blogs remain relevant and possibly more interesting that the most recent.  For example, I would not like to think that the issue of ‘local food’ is lost in the fog created by more recent changes to measures of energy efficiency.  Nor that the intergenerational justice Blog gets buried beneath how to deal with the lack of a five year housing supply. 

But, that reminds me to repeat that ‘unsustainabilty’ should be raised as an ‘adverse impact’ when deciding an application under NPPF para 14, and an absence of a five year land supply.  Of course it is not the breach of any policy than counts but the harm that would cause, so it is not the absence of the required housing land supply that should be given weight by the decision-maker but the harm arising from the shortfall.  This requires an analysis of the existing permissions and allocations and the rate of building in the area, as well as the number of properties for sale (eg see Rightmove).  It would be helpful to unearth the origins of the ‘5 year land supply’ mantra to see which of the original criteria apply in any current case.  Alternatively the decision-maker could seek evidence on the obvious points – who would be prejudiced or harmed by a refusal of permission in terms of the need for housing or the needs of the building industry? The same should apply to cases where there is 5 year land supply – permission being granted because no demonstrable harm would arise. I would submit that reasoning along these lines, relating to the real world, would be more transparent and acceptable to all users of the planning system except perhaps those currently benefiting from ‘lack of five year land supply’ bandwagon.

Arising from a look through a number of neighbourhood development plans that have been supervised by planners or been through inspection  by planners, there seems to be an acceptance that development plan policies can ‘encourage’ or ‘support’ without framing this in a way that specifies what the plan does not support.  Inspector Graham Self managed to approve the Lyn NDP only after re-writing policies so that it was clear what they both prescribed and proscribed.  Permissive policies (supporting and encouraging) are less helpful as they do not say what should not be approved  (without overriding material considerations).

A proposal for 5 large dwellings could not be refused as not being in accordance with a policy that supports co-housing, self-building or smaller dwellings. To achieve these important forms of housing the policy should say that no housing will be permitted that does not include ...

Policies can be prescriptive (what must be done),  proscriptive (what must not be done) or permissive (what can be done) all of which put the users of the plan; LPA, developers/applicants, public and NGOs/interest groups in a position where they know what the decision should be based on s38(6). ’…in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.’