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Planning news - 26 November 2020

Published: Thursday, 26th November 2020

Can biodiversity net gain meet the needs of people and the environment?, Digital is good for planning but not for its own sake, conference hears. And more stories...

Our planning news is published in association with ThePlanner, the official magazine of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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Should the biodiversity net gain system be focusing more explicitly on supporting human wellbeing? Is biodiversity recovery best served by working on individual sites or at a larger, more strategic scale? To what extent can the biodiversity net gain system contribute to nature recovery on a national scale anyway?

These were just some of the questions that a panel of experts from the fields of conservation, development and logistics grappled with on day two of the Planning Portal Virtual Conference 2020.

Speaking of one of the key conflicts within the aspirations to achieve a gain in biodiversity through development, Simon Marsh, head of nature protection at the RSPB, conceded that there was no simple answer to the first question.

"On the one hand it's really important to give people access to green space, particularly in the context of the coronavirus pandemic," he said. "On the other hand, we want to make sure we're delivering our strategic ecological objectives.

He went on: "If all net gain is delivered on site that becomes harder to do because you're not necessarily contributing to local nature recovery strategies."

In other words, there might be a stronger argument for moving the bulk of the work of achieving net gain to a site away from the development site, and to adopt a landscape scale perspective, rather than a site scale one.

Julia Baker, biodiversity technical specialist with construction firm Balfour Beatty, argued instead that human wellbeing should be front and centre in any assessment of how best to achieve biodiversity net gain from development. This was a glaring omission from the regulations as they currently stand. "The people side of things is not a nice to have, it's essential. If you think purely in a biodiversity bubble, it doesn't work in terms of sustainable development," she insisted.

Industry best practice principles that she had worked on in her role at Balfour Beatty emphasised participation, sharing the benefits of improved biodiversity fairly and making a measurable contribution to wellbeing. But, she said, despite enthusiasm for the principles, the results in the UK were poor. "The international community is marching ahead on the social aspects. They're saying you've got to measure this in terms of wellbeing," she said. "You've got to start with data - understand how important nature its to people's wellbeing."

The discussion that followed highlighted a number of strengths and weaknesses within the system of biodiversity net gain as it stands, with much emphasis being put on what may come out of the forthcoming environment bill. Simon Cox, head of project management and UK sustainability officer at logistics property developer Prologis, made the point that biodiversity was often misunderstood. For example, many brownfield sites were considerably more biodiverse than greenfield ones.

Marsh observed that even many of our designated landscapes such as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty have quite low biodiversity. Moreover, the government had calculated that biodiversity net gain delivered through development would only provide a fraction of the natural recovery the nation required. "Defra reckon it will deliver about 5,500 hectares a year," he reported. "That's only 20 per cent of the government's objective to deliver in terms of new habitats creation in the 25-year environment plan. Clearly that needs other sources of public funding to deliver."

He continued, in reference to the agriculture bill's' provision for tying payments to landowners and farmers to biodiversity gains, "I don't think it would be reasonable to give the development industry the entire responsibility for restoring nature. It's a contribution, and clearly famers and land managers have a very big role to play as well. The biggest driver of change is how we manage land, and particularly agricultural systems. That's why it's good that the agriculture bill has established the principle of public money to public good."

Cox observed that developers should "do our bit but there's limits to what we can achieve meaningfully within a development site. It varies, depending what you start with. The other aspect of this is around how you keep this mitigation area working and how its managed correctly in the long term." He recalled that when his firm, Prologis, had constructed the vast Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal they had worked with Natural England and the local wildlife trust to create a 193-acre wildflower meadow which was now being managed by the trust.

But such a scheme was an exception rather than the rule. It had been "really difficult and complex", not to mention lengthy, but the partners were able to accomplish it in part because they were operating under the Nationally Significant Infrastrcuture Project (NSIP) regime, which isn't part of the biodiversity net gain system. Becasue of their sheer scale, NSIPs were able to bring in the resources, create the scale of ambition and formulate the kinds of partnerships that could fulfil mitigation on a scale well beyond the scope of a regular planning application.

So should developments contribute a portion of their 'gain' to a central pot that would address biodiversity at a strategic or landscape scale? Should biodiversity net gain be incorporated into the NSIP regime as a matter of course? Should national organisations with large landholdings, such as Network Rail, be treating biodiversity net gain across their properties as a single project?

"That would be great if organisations like that took on net gain and were delivering it generally," Marsh remarked, "With NSIPs we think they should be contributing to biodiversity net gain, whether it's the same system or something different. Some of them are in the marine environment and that will require quite a different approach.

"We do see major developers taking on board, but others are not. HS2, they're not even really doing no net loss. It's not a good example for delivering for biodiversity."

Baker added: "We have to think about the big projects. It's extraordinary to think that in the environment bill the metric is being developed for half a hectare... it should absolutely be the case on a larger scale. We work across the landscape and we do change things, which means we can change things for the better."

Nevertheless, she stressed, while the biodiversity net gain metric was "incredibly powerful in terms of what we can achieve in terms of nature conservation, it comes back to people and data. Too often people living nearest the site are too far to benefit from it".

And there were reasons to doubt the ability of the system to deliver the ambition. In particular, local authorities often lacked the resources to manage biodiversity net gain and follow it up post-development - although Marsh highlighted that the white paper had emphasised the need for more skills and resources, including ecologists.

But, as chair Stephanie Wray, director at RSK Biocensus, observed, the white paper had made little mention of biodiversity and much of "landscape" and "beauty".

"There's a real danger in mistaking landscape for biodiversity," she cautioned. "I think biodiversity is the lens to look at sustainability. If you look outward from there, that's when you see the whole picture."

17 November 2020
Simon Wicks, The Planner

A more comprehensively digitised planning service could be more transparent, accessible and democratic - but only if it’s employed in ways that can genuinely improve the service.

In her keynote presentation on the final day of the Planning Portal Virtual Conference 2020, Alison Broderick celebrated the possibilities that digital technology can offer planning, but cautioned against pursuing “digital for digital’s sake.”

Taking the recent planning white paper, Planning for the Future, as her starting point, the Savills associate noted that it was insistent in its push for greater use of technology, mentioning digital or digitisation 53 times. It was ironic, then that it should be “a fairly clunky 84 page pdf.”

But this illustrated the problem. Too much of the data of planning remained bound up in unsearchable, often unreadable and certainly inaccessible documents. Their sheer wordiness and the absence even of machine readability in many cases rendered them inaccessible to the public who most need to know about what planning is doing.

“We don’t want to just do digital versions of paper documents” where data is “locked up in pdfs and form”, Broderick asserted. “There needs to be a complete mindset change, rather than ‘we’ve always done it this way, now we’re going to do it the same way online’.”

The white paper had identified four areas where digitisation could help planning to develop: in plans, in environmental assessments, in planning application documents and in public engagement. Technology, said Broderick, offered “exciting opportunities” to improve the way that all of these are done.

Indeed, planning was not starting from a low base in its digital revolution. There was already plenty of digital technology entering the sector and changing the way it worked – and this year has seen this trend accelerate, particularly around the use of digital tools for communication, engagement and collaboration.

She cited her own experiences of presenting at virtual planning committees as an example, and said that elected members had told her they found it in some ways a better process because meetings were run in a more orderly way, documents were easier to find and follow, and more members of the public could watch and participate.

Elsewhere, she noted that the consultancy AECOM working on Sizewell C had revolutionised the presentation of an environmental assessment with its online Interactive environment statement. This huge, 40,000 page statement had been broken down, simplified and made much more navigable through its online presentation.

This was just one example of how digital technology could make planning more accessible. Broderick also praised the use of 3D visualisations (such as VU.CITY) to support both the design process and the engagement process. They clearly met the test of streamlining processes and increasing their effectiveness. They could produce better outcomes.

The possibilities are clear: digital technology could make planning more effective, more accessible and more democratic. But there were challenges, too, Broderick warned. In particular, she cautioned against employing ‘digital for digital’s sake’. Information must be used effectively and digital technology only employed where it can actually improve the service.

The planning system must also be aware of the need to push towards an inclusive future, in which “no one is left behind”, especially those who are not digitally literate or digitally equipped.

Finally, planners must also be mindful of the need to find a balance between “standardisation and speed” on the one hand and, on the other, the ambition expressed in the white paper and elsewhere to “build beautiful”. While some elements of the service can benefit from the use of artificial intelligence, for example, the design and construction of places and buildings that are truly worthwhile is a complex process that is not easily reduced to a set of algorithms responding to policy prompts.

“There is a danger there in that we miss some of these nuances of planning,” she noted, such as “asking questions of a detailed, specific proposals in its context.”

Finally, she asked the crucial question: “How are we using tech as planning practitioners to make something meaningful out of what we are doing?"

19 November 2020
Simon Wicks, The Planner

Infrastructure is at the heart of government plans to kick-start the UK economy in 2021, with chancellor Rishi Sunak promising £100 billion of capital expenditure on infrastructure in 2021.

The chancellor’s autumn Spending Review has also promised a £4 billion ‘levelling-up fund’ to spend on local infrastructure, a new National infrastructure Strategy and a UK infrastructure bank, to be based in the north of England.

Beyond this, Sunak has pledged an additional £2 billion for public transport, £3 billion for local authorities and £250 million to help councils tackle rough sleeping. However, public sector pay has been frozen in thousands of jobs and the overseas aid budget is to be cut by around £5 billion.

The funding announcements come against a backdrop of bad news about the state of the UK economy, which is expected to contract by 11.5 per cent this year, while unemployment is expected to reach 7.5 per cent next spring, with 2.6 million people out of work.

Making the announcements, Sunak said: “Today’s Spending Review also delivers stronger public services – paying for new hospitals, better schools and safer streets. And it delivers a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure, creating jobs, growing the economy, and increasing pride in the places people call home.”

At a glance

  • £100 billion capital expenditure on infrastructure in 2021. This is described by government as “multi-year funding certainty for select projects – such as school and hospital rebuilding, housing and transport schemes” which “targets additional investment in areas which will improve the UK’s competitiveness in the long-term, backing new investments in cutting-edge research and clean energy sources”. The government says this spending will include almost £19 billion of transport investment in 2021, including £1.7bn for local roads maintenance and upgrades; more than £260m to continue the transformative digital infrastructure programmes; nearly £20bn for the long-term housing strategy, including £7.1 billion for a National Home Building Fund and more than £12 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme; a doubling of flood and coastal defence investment across England to £5.2 billion over six years; and more than £22 billion for HS2.
  • £4bn ‘levelling-up fund’, “that will invest in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on people and their communities and will support economic recovery. A refreshed Green Book will also better link projects and programmes to government objectives, including on levelling up and net-zero”.
  • A new National Infrastructure Strategy.
  • A new UK infrastructure bank, to be based in the north of England, which will “work with the private sector to finance major new investment projects across the UK”.
  • Overseas aid budget to be cut from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of total national income. This will be a reduction of about £5 billion in support for tackling global poverty.
  • Increased “core spending power” for local authorities of an estimated 4.5 per cent in cash terms, along with an extra £254 million of funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.


Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI: “While we understand the impact the pandemic has had on the country’s public finances, the government will not be able to achieve its ambitions to radically overhaul the planning system without adequate investment in local authorities

“While we welcome the £4 billion levelling-up fund and the £7.1 billion National Homebuilding fund, we are concerned that local democracy is once again being disenfranchised. Encouraging a bidding culture impacts on the ability for long-term planning, creates winners and losers and requires resourcing to apply for.”

Nigel Wilcock, executive director, Institute of Economic Development: “The funding review is disappointing in one regard irrespective of the financial black hole. The time has come for a different and radical compact between central and local government. Small-scale bailout funds for local government are too small to make a difference – but also completely miss the point. Covid has shown that local government is essential in delivering services for communities and we need a blank sheet of paper approach in devising the funding mechanisms and terms of reference between our capable local councils and a Whitehall that has long been fearful of losing its control.”

Michael Watson, partner at Pinsent Masons: “The National Infrastructure Bank has the opportunity to make significant strides towards the government's levelling-up agenda but it cannot simply be treated as a replacement for the European Investment Bank. The financing and funding of new technology at scale needs to be its number one priority to kick-start the UK economy and take proactive steps towards net-zero goals.

“The bank could at least, in part, effectively act as a large-scale venture capital fund – at a pivotal time when the infrastructure and energy sectors are at an inflexion point and intervention is needed to accelerate change and galvanise new technologies."

Roger Tustain, managing director of Nexus Planning: “There were few surprises in the chancellor’s statement today given the hurdles the economy and Treasury need to jump before the UK is operating a ‘business as usual’. However, local authority budgets appear to be further squeezed and this raises additional concerns. Namely, the UK planning system's ability to cope with the challenges of housing delivery and, importantly, the implementation of a new planning system and its increased reliance on ‘up front’ resourcing through local authorities."

Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of LGIU (Local Government Information Unit): “Today’s statement was a bleak account of the nation’s finances and a tightening of Whitehall’s centralising grip.

“The chancellor announced a 4.5 per cent increase in spending power for local government. Given the economic crisis councils are facing, an increase in spending power is welcome and essential but let’s be clear that it comes predominantly from council tax increases and the social care precept. The political and economic risk all sits on local government. There is no gift from the centre.

“When it comes to spending, the centralising tendency of the British state is on full display. The £4 billion levelling-up fund is to be administered by the Treasury, MHCLG and Department for Transport. Local areas will bid against each other and Whitehall will pick the winners. Proposals must have the support of their MP, but local government doesn’t seem to be part of the picture.”

Maria Machancoses, director of Sub-national Transport Body Midlands Connect: “The chancellor’s statement gives a much-needed boost to the levelling-up agenda. It’s great to see the publication of a National Infrastructure Strategy that focuses on speeding up the delivery of improvements, supporting our recovery from Covid-19.

“Now is the perfect time to invest in our roads, railways and the green technology central to our carbon-neutral future. We’re committed to working with our partners and government to ensure the improvements mentioned are implemented as soon as possible, and to ensure we secure the best possible transport deal for the Midlands.”

Peter Tooher, executive director, Nexus Planning Manchester: "The Chancellor's emphasis on the importance of place in driving the economic recovery is to be welcomed. The Levelling Up Fund, alongside changes to the Green Book, will create new opportunities for the North and Midlands to capture a larger slice of infrastructure and regeneration investment. However, it will be important that these place-based programmes are joined up by the National Infrastructure Plan and underpinned by a balanced, national approach to managed housing growth."

Tom Fyans deputy chief executive of CPRE: “The chancellor is absolutely right to be targeting funding on better place making to create the communities we can feel proud to call home. But we need to make sure rural communities get their fair share through increased spending on rural transport and housing. Done right, this could provide rural communities with homes and transport they can afford and could also deliver substantial returns for the wider economy – our economic modelling has shown that for every 10 new affordable homes built, the rural economy will be boosted by over one million pounds.”

‘That’s why we’re calling on the chancellor to ensure that government departments have the funding they need to breathe new life into rural areas and connect up countryside communities with essential services. This must be tied together with a clear and ambitious plan for rural areas backed by major investment.”

Martin Baxter, director of policy and external affairs,  IEMA: “At a time when the government seeks to claim world leadership on green issues ahead of the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP26) it is short-sighted to slash the overseas aid budget. The UK should be putting the development of climate resilience and mitigation at the heart of its overseas aid programme not least as this is a fundamental requirement of tackling poverty.

“Given the significant spending on infrastructure, it is critical that all investment is viewed through a green climate lens to ensure full alignment with our net-zero legally binding target.”

Mike Childs, head of policy, Friends of the Earth: “With billions of pounds earmarked for a climate-wrecking road-building programme and inadequate funding for home insulation, eco-heating, buses and cycling, this strategy falls woefully short of what’s needed to meet the UK’s legally-binding targets for building a green future. National infrastructure projects should be the cornerstone of the fossil-free economy we need to head off the climate emergency. Ministers must ensure every major development is in line with meeting the net-zero target.”

25 November 2020
Simon Wicks, The Planner

Office development in London has collapsed in the past six months, with volume of new-build and refurbished projects dropping by 50 per cent.

Deloitte’s latest London Office Crane Survey, a barometer of developer confidence, shows that construction starts fell to under 242 million square metres across central London in the six months to September.

However, Deloitte said despite the significant drop, the volume is broadly in line with long-term averages and exceeds new starts in the same period of 2019. A total of 40 per cent of new construction starts had already been committed, although Deloitte said at least six speculative schemes have been put entirely on hold until there is more clarity in the market, with many more postponed until 2021.

Demand for leases also plummeted in the second quarter as lockdown prevented prospective tenants from visiting buildings. Demand remained low in the third quarter, as staff largely continued to work from home, and businesses put longer-term workplace decisions on hold, with just 93,000 square metres of central London space leased in the three months to September – well below the 315,870 square metres recorded in the same quarter of 2019.

The government’s second lockdown for England, which started this month, has raised further questions about when London workers might return to the office, Deloitte added.

The largest new start between April and September was 20 Ropemaker, a 44,000-square-metre development close to the new Crossrail entrance at Moorgate station in the heart of the City of London.

Demolition work had begun in 2019 and the scheme had attracted a major pre-let from Linklaters shortly before the pandemic, leaving only a third of the space available. This office building is expected to be completed in early 2023.

Further details of the research are available here.

23 November 2020
Huw Morris, The Planner

Plans for a major urban neighbourhood have been submitted to set a benchmark for efficient living in Manchester’s Northern Gateway regeneration area.

Southvalley Estates, part of MCR Property Group, is proposing to build 1,202 highly energy-efficient homes, two commercial units and a pocket park as well as pedestrian and cycling routes through the site.

The Gasworks scheme will be the first residential development to form part of New Town, one of seven neighbourhoods outlined by Manchester City Council’s £1 billion Northern Gateway masterplan. The majority of the 2.7-hectare brownfield site, once home to the former Gould Street gasworks, is currently surface car parking.

The Gasworks – New Town will comprise a mix of townhouses and apartments in eight mid-rise blocks, staggered between eight and 17 storeys, built in three phases with the first homes expected to be completed in 2023.

Phase four of the development will culminate towards the end of the decade in the construction of a 33-storey residential tower overlooking the new open public realm.

The developers state that the scheme will provide an area of green space larger than the football pitch at Old Trafford or the City of Manchester Stadium, with 100 trees to be planted throughout the site

The scheme aims to save more than 300 tonnes annually. To further reduce emissions, the plans also aim to maximise cycle parking with more than 1,200 spaces for residents and pedestrian routes to encourage more environmentally friendly travel, with only a small amount of car parking in the basements.

“Our plans for this former gasworks site go above and beyond the minimum requirements for sustainable development to set the benchmark for other schemes in New Town,” said Eliot Baker, MCR Property Group planning manager. “We feel our bold proposals make the most of this core city centre location in a way that will significantly transform the New Town area and realise the ambitions of the Northern Gateway vision.”

The application follows a public consultation in August held with planning consultant WSP.

A total of 15,000 homes are due to be delivered over the next 15 to 20 years across the seven neighbourhoods in the 155ha Northern Gateway project, a joint venture between the Far East Consortium and Manchester City Council.

23 November 2020
Huw Morris, The Planner

Northern Powerhouse Rail routes unveiled

Transport for the North (TfN) has unveiled its preferred plans for a railway network to transform the region’s economy.

Its initial route plan – a combination of new lines and major upgrades to existing routes – has been submitted to the government as the official recommendation for Northern Powerhouse Rail endorsed by elected mayors, council and business leaders.

The plan includes the organisation's initial route preferences, such as new lines from Liverpool to Manchester via Warrington, Manchester to Leeds via Bradford as well as major upgrades to the Hope Valley route. It also proposes connecting Sheffield to HS2 and on to Leeds.

TfN is calling for the East Coast Main Line to be improved between Leeds and Newcastle, via York and Darlington, and the Leamside Line, which closed to passengers in 1964 and freight in the 1990s, to be reopened. Lines from Sheffield and Leeds into Hull should also be electrified.

The move comes ahead of the government’s integrated rail plan, which is due to be published before the end of the year.


Foreign investors look to real estate to drive UK growth

The proportion of foreign investors who see real estate and construction as a key driver of future growth in the UK has more than trebled since last year.

Analysis by global professional services network EY of the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign direct investment reveals that 31 per cent of respondents said real estate and construction would drive future UK growth, up from 10 per cent in 2019.

This places real estate and construction third among the most attractive sectors for overseas investment – behind digital with 50 per cent and health and wellbeing with 36 per cent.

“The government stated infrastructure plans have likely played a role in boosting interest in the real estate and construction sector,” said Russell Gardner, EY UK & Ireland’s head of real estate, hospitality and construction.

“But the significant impact of the pandemic on UK high streets and workplaces has also encouraged many investors to reimagine what real estate will need to offer in the future.”


Grosvenor to spearhead new community in East Sussex

Grosvenor Britain and Ireland has been appointed to promote the development of a new community of around 2,500 homes on land north-west of Hailsham in East Sussex.

The company’s strategic land team has signed a partnership with local landowners and will seek the site’s allocation within Wealden District Council’s local plan.

Grosvenor pledged to “design a place fit for 21st century living” alongside the community, reflecting how Covid-19 has changed attitudes to working patterns and people’s desire to have natural open space and facilities on their doorsteps.


Leisure World regeneration plans submitted to Southampton City Council

Sovereign Centros, the development manager for the proposed regeneration of Leisure World in Southampton, has submitted an outline planning application for it claims is one of the city’s most significant regeneration projects in over two decades.

Following a digital consultation process earlier this year, the proposals will now be considered by Southampton City Council with a decision expected in early 2021.

The proposals are for a mixed-use environment comprising 650 new homes, offices, two 150-room hotels, 80 serviced hotel apartments, relocated cinema, casino, and other leisure uses.

Plans include public realm to link to a new urban quarter with the wider city while improving connectivity with the historic waterfront.

The digital consultation, the first of its kind within the city, saw almost 2,500 people interact with the consultation website and 240 feedback forms completed, in addition to public webinars and virtual meetings with community and business organisations across the city.

If approved, the scheme will be built across four phases, beginning in 2022. Sovereign Centros is being advised by Montagu Evans, with the scheme designed by Corstorphine & Wright.

24 November 2020
Huw Morris, The Planner