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Planning news - 23 November 2017

Published: Thursday, 23rd November 2017

Celebrated landscapes under pressure from housing development, Javid threatens intervention in 15 councils for local plan failure, And more stories...

This weeks planning news in association with ThePlanner, the official magazine of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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The number of homes built in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has increased by 82 per cent in the past five years despite government commitments to maintain their protected status.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said 15,500 homes have been built in England’s 34 AONBs since 2012 while the number of planning applications for housing has more than doubled in that time.

It warned there is clear evidence of housing developers applying increasing pressure on local authorities to build new homes on AONBs by “exploiting poorly defined and conflicting national planning policy”.

CPRE research also shows that the pressure on local authorities is set to increase, with applications for a further 12,741 homes in AONBs currently awaiting decision. Based on the 2016/17 housing approval rate of 64 per cent, this could mean a further 8,154 homes resulting in 23,639 homes being approved in AONBs since 2012.

Pressure for development within AONBs – defined by the number of applications, approvals and housing units – is highest in the South East and South West. In these areas, just eight AONBs account for 74 per cent of all housing applications and 79 per cent of all approvals from 2012-2017.

Under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), “great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in AONBs, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty”. Government policy allows housing targets to be lower in designated areas and recommends that “major developments”, including housing schemes, should be refused except in “exceptional circumstances”.

However, the CPRE said both of these terms are poorly defined, creating loopholes that are often exploited by developers.

It calls on the government to amend the NPPF to state a presumption against proposals for large housing developments in AONBs and that demand for housing or the lack of a five-year supply of land are unlikely to justify such schemes.

The CPRE added that the government’s promised 25-year environment plan should include targets to ensure that development does not damage landscape quality. This would emphasise the importance of AONBs to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of the nation.

“While the CPRE advocates the building of right homes in the right places, AONBs are not the right place,” said senior rural policy campaigner Emma Marrington. “On top of this, current development on AONBs shows little evidence that what’s built will actually help solve the housing crisis, which is more to do with affordability than lack of land.”

20 November 2017
Huw Morris, The Planner

Fifteen local authorities have been served notice of government intervention after missing deadlines and failing to make progress in producing a local plan.

In a letter to the councils, communities secretary Sajid Javid said planning authorities are required to publish a Local Development Scheme under the Local Plan Act 2004, setting out when they expect to reach key milestones in the plan-making process, and the timetable for producing documents to maintain an up-to-date plan.

He told the councils they had failed to meet the deadlines set out in that timetable and February’s housing white paper had warned that such circumstances are a priority for intervention.

Javid asked the authorities to outline “any exceptional circumstances” to justify their failure to produce a plan as well as any measures to speed up its publication.

The 15 councils are Basildon, Brentwood, Bolsover, Calderdale, Castle Point, Eastleigh, Liverpool, Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Northumberland, Runnymede, St Albans, Thanet, Wirral, and York.

21 November 2017
Huw Morris, The Planner

The government must focus on modular housing and put more energy into encouraging offsite manufacturing or risk making the construction skills crisis worse, says a government adviser.

Mark Farmer, author of the joint DCLG-BEIS Farmer Review, which warned the construction sector needed “to modernise or die”, said current measures for tackling the housing crisis are “shifting deckchairs on the Titanic”. Offering greater incentives to small builders will merely use the same construction professionals as major developers.

“Incentivising small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will have the benefit of opening up more smaller lot size housing development sites that volume housebuilders (VHBs) aren’t attracted by,” Farmer said. “But this fundamentally misses the point that the SMEs and VHBs tap the same finite labour force – the same brickies and sparkies have just moved from small sites to big sites over the past 10 years.

“Small builders are in fact small developers – there is no magic untapped pool of construction resource sitting there idle because it can’t get a site, a planning consent or a loan to build a few houses on a small plot. You will therefore cannibalise the workforce that currently delivers most new homes in the UK, which will also stoke further build cost inflation on labour rates and the current deterioration in build quality will continue.

Instead, Farmer called on the government to incentivise ‘hybrid industrialisation’, where homes are part-created in factories then assembled onsite.

“The more demand you create, the cheaper it will get, and digitally assured processes will create a host of exciting new career opportunities for youngsters and retraining options for existing workers,” he added. “When you combine this with using the SME sector, you get really interesting opportunities around high-quality custom-build like in Germany.”

20 November 2017
Huw Morris, The Planner

The government must introduce measures to stop utility companies delaying housebuilding, according to the conclusions of a major pilot scheme.

The Housing and Finance Institute, which led the scheme, is calling on the government to introduce special powers forcing utility companies to deliver connections to new homes on time. It is also lobbying for a new housing innovation fund to promote different ways of tackling the housing crisis with housebuilding included as a national infrastructure priority.

Currently a water company may take between six months and a year to connect a property and still meet their regulatory target. Under the Utility Direction Powers, the Planning Inspectorate, the Homes and Communities Agency or the secretary of state could serve a direction requiring utility companies to bring forward connections to a site within a specified time. These would include a ‘take or pay’ guarantee to the utility company in the event that the homes do not come forward as expected.    

The recommendations follow a six-month government-backed pilot scheme launched in response to failing water companies severely infringing the ability of private developers to build more homes.

The pilot also calls for more transparency about what homes are being built and when, plus new independent arbitrators to bridge the gap between developers and utility companies.

“Too often, new homes are being delayed by hold-ups with utilities,” said the institute’s chief executive Natalie Elphicke. “Water, broadband and sewage connectivity is a particular problem, with some water companies completely failing to deliver what housing developers require.

“Infrastructure for housing is also at creaking point in some parts of the country. We won’t make the changes needed by doing things the same old way, which is why we are calling for a new housing innovation fund to promote different and better ways of addressing the housing crisis.”

The pilot scheme brought together representatives from across the country including South East Local Enterprise Partnership, the Home Builders Federation, Laing O’Rourke, Anglian Water, Keepmoat Homes, Kent County Council and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

20 November 2017
Huw Morris, The Planner

Businesses are facing increasing problems engaging with the planning system to find land and premises, with the drive for housing coming at the expense of employment.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which surveyed 944 businesses and convened a national panel of experts on the planning system, found 28 per cent of firms could not access the land and premises they need.

Its report says that only 15 per cent of businesses believe the planning system is now easier to engage with since the introduction of the NPPF five years ago, with 20 per cent saying it is more difficult to deal with and 27 per cent say there has been no change.

Businesses perceive a lack of prioritisation for economic development and growth, citing unacceptable delays in the time taken for planning applications to be determined. Around a third did not have their planning applications determined within statutory timescales, while more than a third of businesses did not receive pre-application advice within an acceptable timescale.

Changes in national planning policy are taking too long to impact at the local level, said the BCC, with companies citing the failure of the duty to cooperate between authorities, and an increasing resistance to economic development in neighbourhood plans, “aggravated by the undue weight given to them in planning decisions”. A quarter of firms said neighbourhood planning had a negative impact compared with 23 per cent who thought it had a positive impact.

The BCC said new housing must not come at the expense of jobs and councils should be required to maintain a five-year supply of employment land. Spatial planning at a city-regional level should be introduced on a statutory basis to help balance the need for jobs and homes.

The drive for housing is also leading to new homes being built too close to businesses, creating tensions between firms and residents, with 13 per cent saying they had been adversely affected by the planning proposals of others. Councils should also ensure an adequate supply of commercial office space to mitigate the conversion to residential uses of vacant space in towns and city centres.

At the same time, businesses are witnessing a reduction in skills and resources in planning departments, impairing the speed, quality and consistency of decision-making and increasing the cost of engaging with the planning system.

The number, range and complexity of conditions attached to planning permissions are another bugbear, particularly pre-commencement conditions, which are often disproportionate, contributing to increased costs and unacceptable delays. Around half of businesses had unexpected conditions added to their permissions and, of these, 51 per cent did not believe the conditions to be proportionate or reasonable.

21 November 2017
Huw Morris, The Planner

A round-up of planning news

Transport for the North to get more powers

Transport minister Jesse Norman has announced that new legislation aimed at transforming Transport for the North (TfN) into the first statutory sub-national transport has been laid before Parliament.

Backed with £260 million of government money, TfN will provide the infrastructure needed to drive economic growth, create jobs and boost skills.

The government said the move to put TfN on a statutory footing means it must formally consider any recommendations made.

At the same time, the Department for Transport (DfT) has awarded £18.5 million from a £150 government fund for TfN’s smart ticketing programme. This will be used to introduce paperless, smart card season tickets for Northern and TransPennine Express, and Merseyrail passengers.

Call to reform local government to resolve devolution deadlock

New forms of local government are needed to resolve England’s current devolution deadlock, according to a leading think tank.

ResPublica says existing counties should form the building blocks for taking on devolved powers. The county scale was the right size for councils to take the lead on creating local industrial strategies for their area, it said, which would unlock both local and national growth.

Reform to the existing two-tier system is urgently needed, it says, to deliver the ambitious changes and avoid the risk of counties becoming “left-behind” the cities.

The think tank proposes two models for future devolution. In the first, single unitary authorities at the county scale, should be responsible for all plans and services for that area. In the second, reformed two-tier arrangements, with county councils acting as the strategic authority with responsibility for strategic planning in housing, infrastructure, and economic development. Existing district councils would have cabinet-style decision-making powers.

Adonis unveils plans to create ‘brain belt’ powerhouse

A major new ‘brain belt’ linking Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford could create an economic powerhouse adding up to £250 billion a year to the UK economy and paving the way to the first new towns in 50 years.

National Infrastructure Commission chairman Lord Adonis urged ministers and council leaders across the arc between Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Northampton and Cambridge to “seize the opportunity” and harness the area’s economic potential.

He encouraged them to work together to deliver new and improved infrastructure, helping to unlock opportunities to deliver one million new homes and jobs by 2050, tackling the area’s housing shortage, improving local transport connections and creating new jobs.

Welsh housing associations urge review of affordable policy

Welsh social landlords are calling for a review of affordable housing policy to pave the way for building 75,000 homes by 2036.

Community Housing Cymru (CHC), which represents housing associations, unveiled a 20-year vision including a commitment to double the sector’s delivery rate by building 75,000 homes and creating 150,000 jobs by 2036.

Although the Welsh Government has placed housing as a priority in its Prosperity for All strategy, CHC is calling for “even more ambition, improved partnership working and recognition that affordable housing is the key to prosperity so that housing associations can do even more to tackle Wales’s housing crisis”.

Housing developers urged to engage ‘silent majority’ via social media

Developers should step up their efforts on social media to communicate with the ‘silent majority’ of the public who support housebuilding, according to latest research.

An analysis by Shelter of a YouGov survey of 20,000 people found housebuilding supporters are more likely to be members of social networks, particularly Twitter. Opponents of housebuilding are relatively light users of social media with more than a quarter not members of any networks.

The research, commissioned by consultancy Meeting Place Communications, found that although traditional news channels have wide appeal, active supporters of housebuilding are very close followers of websites, with opponents relying on radio and print. It suggests that billboard and direct mail are good channels to reach people who support development but who are not necessarily active.

UPS set for major expansion at East Midlands Airport

Parcel delivery giant UPS is planning a major sorting complex at East Midlands Airport.

UPS’s hub at the airport covers nearly 8,000 square metres and employs more than 340 staff. The new proposal involves investing more than £100 million into an 11.5-hectare site to the east of the airport, which is currently used for parking.

Planning documents submitted to North West Leicestershire District Council reveal that the 24-hour operation could employ more than 930 people within two years with nearly 1,400 jobs scheduled within eight years. The new hub would comprise nearly 42,000 sq m of floor space.

21 November 2017
Huw Morris, The Planner