Friday, August 28, 2015

Could the Communities Secretary please stand up?

Having seen one written ministerial statement set aside by the Courts for 'incompatibility with the statutory regime', the Chancellor George Osborne has collaborated with Sajid Javid the Business Secretary in issuing "Fixing the Foundations" which included planning policies equally incompatible with existing statutory framework (ie the removal of the zero carbon target for new housing and 'allowable solutions').  Now the Chancellor has collaborated with Elizabeth Truss the Environment Secretary in producing the Rural Productivity Plan to support economic growth in rural areas.  It says that, "   We will reform planning laws, making it easier for villages to  allocate land for a small number of new homes...". Assuming that the Chancellor (and Environment Secretary) don't know the difference between 'policy' and 'law', I am taking it that they only intend  policy to change.

I might have missed it, but I have not seen the Communities Secretary (or the Planning Minister) endorsing either of these publications.  As a practitioner, I would find it really helpful if changes to the planning system were proposed from the Department responsible for the planning system, properly consulted on and not issued from other departments on an ad hoc basis.  The danger is incompatibility with the system causing incoherence, confusion and rebound effects (actually part of the Judge's comments in the West Barks case finding Mr Pickles' attempt at removing the obligations from small developments to be counter productive - Mr Pickles having a more limited understanding of the purposes of the planning system than The Rt Hon Clark, his successor).  We must be grateful to West Berks and Reading Borough (and Cornwall Council) for challenging Mr Pickles' small development exemption, but cannot rely on similarly incensed and sufficiently endowed councils to challenge every misguided ministerial statement on grounds of 'incompatibility'.   However, it is doubtful that LPAs are getting in the way of small developments in villages (except perhaps in the Green Belt - that Osborne and Truss are unlikely to disturb) and that local plans are probably already addressing these matters in considered and balanced ways that might not be compatible with edicts from Defra and the Treasury.

The Chancellor's idea seems to take the concept of starter homes discounted for the first time buyers targeted at urban brownfield land and replicate such schemes in villages - again free of obligations.  So discounted free market housing is to be supported without the obligation to provide affordable housing for rent? Are landowners already looking to raise the price of potential sites to eat into the proposed discount?

Taking the systemic approach (ie how planning should be practiced) the need is for small dwellings for both starter homes (in high priced areas these are most likely to be for rent, self-build and/or equity share) and suitable for downsizing to release some of the larger family stock that is currently under-occupied, some of which could be divided into smaller units. Developments should mixed and not limited to first time buyers.  Building new smaller dwellings simply as starter homes is a typical narrow minded if not ideological intervention which will more than likely have unintended consequences.  It is likely to be the Communities Secretary who will need to make ad hoc adjustments to repair the damage caused by the failure to take a systemic approach in the first place.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

London Housing Commmission

I have to apologise for the  length of this blog   I thought it might be helpful to those engaged in providing evidence to the London Housing commission (before 12 October 2015). The Commission might find this evidence less than helpful to the particular questions being put by the IPPR; how to double the supply of housing, improve the balance between owning and renting and to raise the quality in the private rental sector.  However, it can be seen from these submissions that, due to the systemic nature of housing provision, other factors have to be taken into account even while concentrating on the important questions for which the Commission was primarily set up to address.

 London Housing Commission – Call for Evidence

1.   Introduction

1.01      These comments are based on representations made on the Mayor’s Draft Interim Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance.  To some extent the Draft SPG appeared to be leaving the same gaps as the introduction to this ‘call for evidence’.

1.02      This paper relates mainly to the specific areas of energy efficiency and housing choice, matters that are not referred to in the briefing but which are important components in the housing system. The Commission must never lose sight of the fact that the provision of housing is a complex system.  It would be futile and wasteful to introduce changes into a system that cause friction or rebound effects. The Commission should be looking for ways to create coherence out of confusion and to identify measures that take advantage of the potential within the system to create virtuous circles.  The severity of the housing crisis in London (and the South East) is such that effective improvements are only likely to be achieved through locking in the cumulative benefits or knock-on effects identified through this systemic approach.

1.03     It may be that the Commission finds the housing system too complex and conflicted  for interventions to have any useful or lasting influence.  In these circumstances the Commission could and should identify relatively discrete sub-systems where some limited but real progress could be made.  Alternatively there might be scope for creating new sub-systems, an example, as discussed in this paper, could be a step change in the self/custom/group – building/finishing – to include an element of co-housing.     

2.   Energy efficiency

2.01      The Government seems finally to have disposed with the Code for Sustainable Homes – without devising any replacement.  The Chancellor and Business Secretary have now decided to also abandon the 2016 Zero Carbon Homes target.  So long as sustainable development benefits from the presumption in the NPPF, zero carbon housing should remain a part of planning policy applicable to London through the boroughs or GLA/Mayorial office. All housing proposals should be considered against NPPF para 94, the Climate Change Act 2008 and the 4th Carbon Budget that requires a 50% reduction on carbon emissions by 2025 interpreted at of between 6% (by the CCC) and 10% (Tyndall Inst) annual reductions.  Zero carbon housing implies terraced housing and apartments, taking account of the southern aspect and potential for solar gain and PV generated electricity.  Developments should be expected to fit into ta 6%-10% carbon reduction trajectory and in the words of an appeal inspector seeking to apply the UN/Bruntdland definition (also in the NPPF) must ‘consume their own smoke’  (Ref 22169598). Incidentally, in that case, the inspector logically found that CHS4 (that is a higher standard than current Building Regulations) would have been inadequate, and that orientation would be critical (ie maximising solar gain potential) to a scheme before it could benefiit from the presumption in the NPPF.

2.02      The Commission could also support a preference for the use of terraced housing or apartments on grounds of energy efficiency/affordable living and restrictions on house extensions (ie conditions removing PD on new housing) and possibly, “consequential improvements” which would relate to the upgrade of existing housing if/when they are extended or even re-furbished.  “Allowable solutions” on top of zero carbon houses could be required when the need for carbon negative buildings becomes apparent ie when contributions from agriculture, transport, industry and power generation to carbon reductions fall behind budget.

3.   Housing Choice and under-occupation

3.01      There is a debate about the relative merits between  “senior co-housing” and inter-generational co-housing” that is academic in a country and city where neither is available. The Commission should investigate the contributions that senior (in fact all forms of) co-housing would make to sustainable development (esp addressing spiralling health/care costs). The Older Women’s Co-housing Group took from 2000 to 2015 for the first resident to move on-site which is clearly unacceptable and could be explained by the failure of the planning system to provide positive support. Being neutral is not enough. Senior and inter-generational co-housing  could be fundamental to providing attractive choices for potential downsizers; what should be a major theme throughout the work of the Commission.  Eg see the work of HAPPI. On this point it might be helpful for the Commission to include figures of the scale of under-occupation from the 2011 Census.  In round numbers there are about 2.5m spare bedrooms and a shortage of 800k within the London area.

3.02      All the LPAs should now be keeping registers of potential self/custom/group –builders/finishing (and co-housers would be simple but useful bolt-on). These need some greater definition as some of these categories should qualify as “affordable housing” and – until included as such in the NPPF- could be offset in any negotiations on the affordable housing contributions from particular sites. This would be consistent with the national relaxation of 106/CIL liability for social housing.

3.03      Self/group - building would also be consistent with the support for intermediate housing and equity share.  The value of the building could be held by the builder/finisher, while the land could be owned/shared by a Registered Provider.

3.04      With the support of the Commission self/group – building and the expectation that this could make a meaningful contribution to the required scale of new dwellings but would also need a much more positive approach to the supply of sites. This should be through a principle of the “reservation” of part of sites for these purposes (ie 20% of any site of 5 or more dwellings).  Anything less than 20% would not represent the increased scale of contribution wanted by central Government or the 50% being achieved in other countries.  This approach would be the equivalent of plots being sold “off-plan” (a well established concept understood and accepted by developers) and the area reserved could also be serviced by the developer, the operation that self/group-builders would find most difficult and would be sub-contracted in most cases.  The developer could provide some other skills and materials as might be required.  The principle of “reserving” parts of allocated and permitted sites could also apply to co-housing so that those on (and not yet on) registers could rely on a supply of sites in all areas (and potentially give some real meaning to Lifetime Neighbourhoods).

3.05      The “reservation” would come with a time limit depending on the size of the site – the development of larger sites normally having greater flexibility. In fact co-housing schemes might not follow designs very different from existing layouts, being predominantly of smaller dwellings with common-house and guest accommodation that could be designed (and even built) to designs that allowed sub-division into individual dwellings if no demand for co-housing manifests within a reasonable period.

3.06      The current scale of provision of opportunities for self/group – building/finishing  and co-housing, requires support from the LPAs under NPPF para 50.

3.07      Incidentally, co-housing is entirely compatible with the provision of fewer parking spaces due to the intrinsic level of cooperation between residents who would set up or join car-clubs.

3.08      The size/mix of housing should be controlled not just at the original development but also through conditions in respect of extensions.  Any larger dwelling should be designed to minimise the cost of any subsequent sub-division in accordance with the projected reductions in household size.

4.   Summary

4.01      The Commission is being established to address the challenges being faced by London in the near and longer term. The need to reduce carbon reductions by over 6% per year is unprecedented and has only occurred in war time or, briefly, in times of severe economic recession. Neither provide helpful precedents or lessons for how this could be achieved in a period of economic growth expected by the Government and GLA. A similar discrepancy applies to the extreme problems of affordability, the lack numbers being supplied and the lack of choice being delivered.

4.02      The Commission should include the measures of how all be development would be made sustainable/resilient and also contribute to the sustainability of the existing city housing stock and city/community living.  It is in this context that the terms of reference seem to be lacking.
4.03      The Commission should liaise with the GLA and its review of the housing SPG and ensure that both are compatible and strong enough to ensure that the scale and affordability of new housing would be achieved (accounting for the double whammy of accelerated rights to buy financed by council house sales) and insufficient numbers of new dwellings.  Affordable living (ie taking into account heating and travel costs) is more important than affordable housing, and both would be reduced by examples of self/group/building and co-housing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Is the Secretary of State up to the job?

I think that everybody involved in the British planning system should be made aware of a recent kicking that the office of the Secretary of State received in the High Court in respect a 'written ministerial statement' that was found to be incompatible with the statutory planning scheme.  This statement was an attempt by Mr Pickles to inflict further damage on the process of providing affordable housing (it required LPAs not to impose any affordable housing quotas or contributions to social infrastructure on sites of ten houses or less).  Although an officer from DCLG has already threatened an appeal against the judgement (the case makes embarrassing reading for all those who backed the statement and thought that it was lawful) this is an ideal opportunity for Greg Clark to concede the case as a demonstration that he has a proper understanding of the way in which the planning and housing system works, as was so clearly enunciated by both the judge and both claimants (West Berks and Reading Councils with honorable mention going to Cornwall who had made similar claims).

Mr Clark should also be wondering if not hoping that the removal of both the Code for Sustainable Homes by his predecessor, and the  Zero Carbon Homes target by the Chancellor and Business Secretary could also be considered to be unlawful, on grounds of being 'incompatible with the statutory scheme' comprising the 2008 Climate Change Act and the duty to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development under s39(2) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchse Act 2004, not to mention the presumption in favour of sustainable development in the 2012 NPPF to which he provided the Foreword.  There is also a letter from Mr Pickles written on 25 March 2015, just before his demise, telling LPAs that parking provision should not be controlled on new residential schemes.  This is in conflict with the need to reduce car dependency under the Climate Change Act.

It is becoming increasingly urgent that Mr Clark issues a written statement that represents a 'reset' on the application of the principles which relate to sustainable development that have been so discredited over the last 5 years.  The High Court has given him such an opportunity by accepting the error in his predecessor's statement, and then moving on to reverse some of the very damaging interpretations of policy (ie NPPF) reflected in appeal decisions over recent years.