Monday, September 26, 2016

Reclaiming the language of planning

It is a cliche that the professions use language or jargon to retain the mystique around their practices and form a barrier to involvement by non-professionals or lay people.  Land use planning has developed its own language including acronyms and abbreviations that enable experts to talk to experts and intimidate those wanting to engage.  When teaching planning I recommend that the subject be treated as a foreign language which would be best learned through regular repetition and also a need to know.  Those flirting with the subject matter on a single or irregular basis will find it difficult to master the lingo.

A much more serious matter is the corruption of the English language.   Those who have recent experience of the planning system will have noticed the extent to which the English language is being misused.   The normal meaning of words such as “affordable” (meaning unaffordable), “sustainable” (meaning sustaining economic growth) and “viable” (meaning profitable) are in common usage.  It is simply not good enough for those engaging in these discussions to have to use the prefix "genuine" before affordable, viable, and sustainable.

This abuse of language might represent a rare opportunity to effect a significant change to planning practice.  The Courts have declared themselves the arbiters when the meaning of planning policy is called into question.  The weight to be given to policies is clearly for the decision-maker, but the meaning of a policy is for the Courts.  Crucially, policies must be taken to mean what they say. This would prevent LPAs, developers or interested parties praying in aid of any policy by using some definition not clear in the wording which is commonly available and part of the plan adoption process. 

There is an opportunity for an individual or organisation with the resources and the determination to use the Courts to return the planning system to a place where normal English usage applies. Such a challenge would be so that contributing to the achievement of sustainable development means carbon neutral or negative, the provision of affordable housing will mean that sale prices and rents are closely related to local wage levels, and viability includes a land price when the costs of necessary infrastructure and affordable housing have been taken into account.  Reduce should also mean less than before and not just less than business as usual.  The Courts need to apply a definition of these terms that would be familiar to the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary and its users or the position they have declared as final arbiters of the meaning of policy would itself be meaningless.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

custom building and more

Gavin Barwell, the new planning and housing minister has said that he wants the rate of self/custom building to double.  Council's are expected to provide the necessary land (the Housing and Planning Act requires the actual demand to be taken from registers of individuals and associations of individuals to whom serviced plots must be provided.
So I have had conversations with  three national housebuilders active in my area; Cala Homes (linked to Legal and General), Miller Homes and Taylor Wimpey (as well as a niche builder called Blue Cedar in the course of a planning appeal). My first question was whether they would be building any  two bedroomed houses, with all facilities on the ground floor (the upstairs fitted out), with big gardens and very low carbon/running costs?  I didn't even mention the installation of PV.  None were shown on their draft or permitted plans.

The next question was whether they would sell me a plot and build a house to my design?  "We are national builders and build our own house types", is where they are still at, whilst denying any  knowledge  of the Housing and Planning Act, let alone any responsibility for helping LPAs to provide the serviced plots for people on the registers.

I see this as a teaching/learning exercise for them, me and in the case of Blue Cedar, the planning inspector. If 8 million people are really keen to downsize (see the All Party Parliamentary Group on Housing fro the Elderly and HAPPI), then the national housebuilders should be investigating how to meet this need - much of it from people with equity to be released from more valuable properties.

An important- no very important - point to make is that there is provision for non-material amendments to be accepted by LPAs without the need for fresh applications.  The judgement of what is non-material one for the LPA but has to be made in the context of the permission as a whole.  In the case of say development of 50 dwellings it would be entirely reasonable for the LPA to agree that a change to a house type (or two or three) would not require a fresh application.  This would remove one of the objections from the housebuilder.

On larger sites the builder might only be expecting to build 30 to 40 units per year so the sale of plots in a discrete part of the site should not interfere with progress over the rest,  From Gavin Barwell's point of view there would be greater certainty that self-build dwelling would be complete than those being built and sold into a precarious housing market. Win-win.

Jobs for the weekend: ask these questions at your local sales office.  Suggest that the LPA or neighbourhood planners support custom building in this way, and write to DCLG/Gavin Barwell making these points. If you have not already done so he also needs reminding that DCLG reasearch shows that subsidising the demand for home ownership through Help to Buy actually reduces the number of people able to afford to buy through inflating prices - as per schoolboy/girl economics.