Move over Eric – Dave and George want a go at crusading


    Mark Thackeray discusses recent announcements made about planning processes from the top players in the Tory party…

    Remember the good old days when the only person in the government interested in planning was Eric Pickles? The days when, if Eric hadn’t said it, it didn’t matter? Nowadays the planning system is fair game for each and every politician who thinks he knows his green belt from his brown field. Government policies and bright ideas (rarely combined) now come from a variety of sources, starting at the top. While there has been no major overhaul of the planning process for, what, several weeks now, there have been any number of terrific wheezes coming from all directions. In this article we can consider a few of them.

    The First Crusade – Local Plan Delivery

    In October the Prime Minister, no less, pitched in with the announcement of a “National Crusade to get homes built”. This came some time before the more recent crusade in a part of the world more familiar with them, so the two should not be confused. The key role, in what we can call The First Crusade, rests, as ever, with local councils and with their local plans.

    Twenty percent of councils do not have any sort of local plan at all and about a third do not have an adopted plan, this despite the fact that the requirement to produce them dates from about ten years ago. The crusading PM has set a target to enforce delivery of all missing local plans by 2017, a huge ask given the obvious lack of progress to date. Luckily, DC has a cunning plan, more Blackadder than Baldrick, so, if they are not delivered on time, the local plans will be produced by the government, maybe the Planning Inspectorate who seem to do everything else that local government can’t cope with, or perhaps by local people for whom DIY town planning is a popular hobby.

    The Second Crusade – Living in the Office

    Permitted development rights were extended in 2013 to allow the conversion of offices to dwellings, up to 2016 and subject to the convoluted Prior Approval procedure, more of an expeditionary force than a full crusade. Our Lionhearted Prime Minister, him again, has now announced that this will be made permanent, and, the very next day, Planning Minister Brandon / Baldrick Lewis said the same , (“right you are, Mr C”) so it must be true. In addition, the new PD rights will permit the demolition of offices and their replacement with dwellings, along with the conversion of light industrial factories and, wait for it, launderettes to housing units. A touch of Pickles about this latest new right – remember his long-overdue rewriting of the Advert Regs dealing with flags?

    If this is to contribute to the desperate need for starter homes – see below – then the new PD rights surely need to be tied in to ongoing changes to the CIL and affordable homes legislation. Changes of use by Permitted Development tend not to attract CIL; nor do they require the S106 agreements that deliver affordable homes, so maybe a bit more joined-up-thinking is to follow. The recent appeal case on the Thames near Tower Bridge, where a developer of luxury riverside penthouses pleaded an inability to afford all the due affordable housing contribution begged a number of questions in this regard:– why were the starter homes not on site? Why only £15 million to pay? If an office can now be redeveloped as housing as PD, what price any affordable dwellings in central London?

    The Third Crusade – Planning Permission in Principle

    Is it really such a radical change to promote more certainty for housing developers by introducing PPIP in the emerging Housing and Planning Bill? Didn’t this used to be called “outline planning consent”? – a red line round the site, “residential” written on the application form and a consent with about six conditions. Now that was certainty! Under PPIP, that consent will be automatic when local plans, neighbourhood plans and brownfield registers are in place beforehand, referring us back to the top of the page and the still–worrying lack of such documents in so many areas.

    Developers will be able to apply direct for PPIP – not to the government or the Inspectorate, as we are now coming to expect, but to the local council. Who would ever have thought of that novel concept?

    Brownfield sites, the intended target of PPIP, will therefore benefit from a sort of automatic planning permission. Shortcomings in the planning process are not, however, to blame for the country’s failure to delivery affordable new homes on brownfield sites. This goes far deeper than any delays in securing planning permission – if only it was as simple as a bit of pink colouring on the local plan map and a slip of green paper.

    The Peasants’ Crusade – Loosen your Belts

    Of course, not all brownfield sites are contaminated, inner city, ex-industrial plots. Many are in unsustainable countryside, even green belt, locations where, in time-before planning, country estates, factories and office HQs were built with no regard to what have become today’s land use criteria. The presumption of “brownfield-good, greenfield- bad” has always been a strange one, bringing with it the apparent right to redevelop an inappropriately located site on the basis that it had an equally inappropriate pre-planning history. This is to be compounded, following George (Lord Flasheart) Osborne’s own crusading venture, the recent Spending Review statement, which included the provision that Green Belt re-development for starter homes will be favourably treated in a manner similar to that for other “brownfield” sites. Most of these brown-field, green-belt sites are surely not in locations with good access to cheap public transport and are not best-placed to provide starter homes close to employment. If we are going to build in the Green Belt, and there is every reason why we should, let’s not pick the sites just because they were built on for a different purpose in a wholly different time.

    The recent announcements from the PM, the Chancellor and the Minister may in time set the wheels turning for up-to-date local plans, major housing developments in redundant buildings and on derelict sites and vast quantities of affordable homes for first time buyers in sustainable locations. Time is, however, of the essence and in relatively short supply, and, if we are to emerge victorious from The Crusades, this continued tinkering with the planning system, a-la-Pickles, has to be replaced with more fundamental strategy to address the problem of house and land-prices at its roots. Now that would be a cunning plan!!

    Mark Thackeray BSc DipTP MRTPI

    Principal Consultant

    Walsingham Planning,

    Tel: +44 1628 532244


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