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Planning news - 22 April 2021

Published: Thursday, 22nd April 2021

UK’s native woodlands in ‘poor’ ecological condition, Ease of access for SMEs would diversify housing supply, Developer withdraws legal action against Norwich regeneration scheme. 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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Native woodlands in the UK are ‘isolated and in poor ecological condition’, with just 7 per cent in good ecological condition, according to a report by the Woodland Trust.

It brings together evidence that identifies the compounding threats that could have “catastrophic” consequences for woods, trees and the flora and fauna they are home to.

The State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 finds that those in poor ecological condition have low levels of deadwood, few veteran trees and lack open habitats within woodland. Also, they have an insufficient diversity in the ages of trees. In some cases, there is low tree species diversity.

The condition of statutory protected woodland wildlife sites across the UK varies substantially, the report notes, likewise the reasons for their poor condition. In England woodland sites suffer from inappropriate management, sites in Northern Ireland suffer from alien and problematic species, and in Scotland, there are problems with browsing and grazing damage and invasive species.

Key threats identified include:

  1. Poor woodland condition.
  2. Climate change affecting woodland life cycles.
  3. Direct loss and resulting fragmentation.
  4. Pests, diseases and pollution.
  5. Slow rate of woodland expansion.

Abi Bunker, director of conservation and external affairs at the Woodland Trust, said: “The warning signs in this report are loud and clear. If we don’t tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK’s ability to address the climate and nature crises. Our wildlife havens are suffering, and we are storing up problems for future generations. 

“The first step is setting legally binding targets for the recovery of nature, including our precious and irreplaceable ancient woodlands and trees. The government’s new environment bill must provide the foundation for ambitious, effective and well-funded woodland policies and grants so that landowners and communities can protect, restore and create wildlife-rich, healthy wooded and treed landscapes, in towns, cities and the wider countryside. There is no success in hitting creation targets if our existing woods and trees are struggling and in decline.”

Research comparing the period from 1998 to 2091 with 1891 to 1947 shows that the beginning of spring is happening an average of 8.4 days earlier, which is compounding the problems. “This matters because not all plants and animals which are interdependent can keep up with this rate of change and it may create a mismatch in their food supply, as evidenced by, for example, blue tit chicks starving when the caterpillars they feed on are unavailable in years of early leaf emergence," the report states.

Ancient woodland is also lost or damaged through housebuilding and the creation of new transport infrastructure, while the planting of non-native trees or, for example, the invasion of the rhododendron genus, has damaged half of the remaining ancient woodlands.

Ancient and veteran trees are recognised in planning guidance as irreplaceable habitats or having significant value. The trust recommends that the Ancient Tree Inventory (ATI) be used as a starting point by local authorities, planners, developers, ecologists and tree officers when identifying hotspots for ancient trees.

Ancient and veteran trees are not legally protected. The trust wishes to see legal protections explored and more “robust” policies to better safeguard these sites.

Accessibility

Woods and trees are good for people's wellbeing, and accessibility to them is something the Woodland Trust has been making the case for. But in some parts of the UK, the report explains that “significant numbers” of people don't have woodland nearby they can visit. This is because woods are privately owned and there isn’t any permissive access or there is insufficient woodland cover.

This is compounded by cuts to public grant funding for the provision of woodland access.

The report states that planning guidance should include requirements for the creation of new woodland within walking distance of residential areas.

Additionally, areas of the greatest deficit could be identified using the trust’s accessible woodland dates alongside socio-economic data. Opportunities for accessible woodland should feature in local plans and strategies, with accessible woodland data used to underpin tree and woodland strategies.

Head of policy, practice and research at the RTPI, Richard Blyth, said: “Trees and woodland are priorities for the RTPI and we welcome the substantial addition to knowledge that the Woodland Trust has made in this report. We worked with the Woodland Trust to produce an RTPI Learn module on ancient woodlands for our members. We have called for Local Environment Improvement Plans to generate plan-based solutions to nature recovery over wide areas as the way forward for environment planning after Brexit.”

To reverse and address the threats, other recommendations and actions in the report include:

  • Threats to ancient woodlands from planning applications, and loss or damage, should be reported by statutory nature conservation bodies to provide a full and clear picture across the UK. This is currently being undertaken by the Woodland Trust, a charity with limited resources, that is not a statutory consultee.
  • Landscape-scale woodland planning, creation and management is required – focusing on site-level actions is not enough. Consideration should be given to how altering the woodland cover and composition in a landscape may alter the deer population and in turn the levels of browsing in existing woods.
  • Many issues can’t be tackled at a single-site level, so woodland managers need to increasingly work together to share knowledge and information on how best to respond to environmental change. Enhanced support for cooperation and collaboration would help to drive landscape-scale resilience and adaptation.
  • Native woodland must be a major part of woodland expansion to help nature recover. More native woodland connecting and expanding existing woods and replacing lost trees outside woods is needed. Native woodland should connect and expand existing woods and replace lost trees outside woods.
  • Improve evidence and monitoring, and the tools to look after woodland heritage. Data provides the tools for viewing past trends and tracking progress towards targets and in developing the tools for the future. Yet in some cases data to allow monitoring and an assessment of the state of UK woods and trees is incomplete, lacking or not readily available. Baseline inventories must be regularly updated, data gaps filled and regular assessments of woods and trees undertaken.

The State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 can be found on the Woodland Trust website.

19 April 2021
Laura Edgar, The Planner


A think tank has suggested that changing permissions to delivery contracts could help to deliver more homes and improve access to the open market for small and medium-sized (SME) companies in England to diversify housing supply.

The delivery contracts would need to be based on an agreed timeline, according to the Centre for Policy Studies, an independent centre-right think tank.

The Housing Guarantee notes that the top 10 housebuilders build 40 per cent of new homes in England. The top six control approximately 33 per cent of the market and have roughly one million plots in their strategic land banks – equating to nearly the target supply across England for the next five years. This leaves smaller builders struggling to obtain land and delivering around 10 per cent of homes – down from 40 per cent in the 1980s.

The report sets out that the delivery contracts could sit alongside or be built into the planning permission. As part of an outline planning permission, they would “set an indicative build out rate that would then translate into full planning permission”.

“For example, an outline permission for 6,000 homes would set a build rate of between 150 and 250 homes a year, over 16 to 20 years, with each full permission having to fit within this envelope,” the report explains.

Full planning permission for larger sites would confirm the time frame set out in the outline planning permission in detail.

If build-out trajectory falls below the cumulative total required, the housebuilder would need to sell enough land to make up the shortfall. “This land release would firstly occur at a pre-agreed reserve price to local SMEs, and then if that failed via auction to self and custom-builders, who all would have a year to deliver the shortfall in homes.”

Smaller sites would be exempt, but they would be required to be built out within a given period of work starting.

The report sets out two other “solutions”:

  • There should be a renewed emphasis on the Housing Delivery Test to ensure councils are assessed on the basis of the number of homes built, rather than on planning permissions granted - and they are not penalised if they do not deliver for their community. “This would increase not just the number of homes built, but their speed, diversity and quality," the think tank claims.

    It believes councils should focus on making sure that sufficient homes are built in their area that meet the different demographics, with penalties focusing on this.

    “This works hand in hand with delivery contracts – by forcing sufficient land into the system with delivery contracts attached we can be sure of housing delivery. A greater focus on meeting the Housing Delivery Test would also push councils to focus on a more diverse market in terms of a mix of tenures, builders and housing types, ensuring that the annual housing need is delivered," states the report.
     
  • SMEs should be prioritised when it comes to selling off public sector land, with “tough” delivery targets attached. The report explains that land should be sold using a fair valuation based on existing government use values. Also, all the SMEs in an area would “initially see land allocated in order to help diversify the supply of builders and create a varied market, with key variables already set out to help de-risk the site (eg, density, massing and so on)”.

The think tank maintains that these reforms would, over time, “modernise” the new-build housing market, make it more transparent, and ensure that the flow of land does turn into new homes.

Katherine Evans, partner and head of planning at UK law firm TLT, acknowledged the concerns about housing delivery and land supply but said the Centre for Policy Studies report does not take into account the “true level of complexity” involved in housing development.

“There is also a mistaken assumption that strategic land holdings are sites that have planning permission and, time and again, government policies aimed at penalising planning authorities have been toothlessly ineffective.”

She explained that the majority of housebuilders don’t land bank but are committed to development. “The vast majority of developers are committed to development and do not land bank because housebuilding is a cash flow business. The early stage viability review process that councils impose through planning obligations already incentivises rapid progress even though a start on site for a developer may still be in the hands of the local planning authority through discharge of planning conditions.

“It’s important that local authorities continue to work with developers and understand the challenges they may face, be those technical challenges in the building process or insufficient demand for sites that would put commercial viability at risk. The relatively recent Letwin Review proposed many solutions that would stimulate housing delivery. The focus really ought to be on implementing these measures.

“Legislating to capture the planning gain in land value or imposing delivery timeframes may prove counterproductive if landowners conclude on the back of those changes that now is not the time to release their land. If landowners disengage land will not be promoted and housing supply will be further constrained.”

The Housing Guarantee was authored by Alex Morton, head of policy at the think tank. It can be found here (pdf).

19 April 2021
Laura Edgar, The Planner


Developer Weston Homes and site owners Columbia Threadneedle have withdrawn a High Court challenge against the housing secretary’s decision to reject plans to redevelop Anglia Square in the centre of Norwich.

The controversial scheme was opposed by heritage campaigners. SAVE Britain's Heritage has welcomed the developer’s decision to rescind its legal challenge.

Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said: “We salute this decision from Weston Homes to withdraw from the High Court challenge, and to listen to our concerns and those of the local community, Historic England and the secretary of state. We welcome their pledge to reset their highly controversial 20-storey tower scheme, and to collaborate on fresh proposals. SAVE looks forward to seeing more appropriate, much lower-scale plans coming forward, that fit with the grain and character of Norwich as a magnificent historic city.”

Anglia Square is a shopping centre in Norwich city centre that opened in 1970. Weston Homes’s plans included a landmark 20-storey tower and other blocks of up to 12 storeys, to provide 1,250 new homes as well as a cinema, hotel and commercial floor space.

Noting its economic benefits, Norwich City Council approved the scheme in 2018, however, in light of fierce opposition to its decision, which included more than 700 objections and representations from various heritage groups, housing secretary Robert Jenrick called in the application.

An inspector recommended that Jenrick should approve the plans, but he found – contrary to the inspector – that the tower did not “demonstrate the exceptional quality” required of a gateway site by local policy, and was also “excessively” large. He disagreed with the inspector’s finding that the scheme’s benefits outweighed its heritage impact, given the “range and number of assets affected”. He concluded that the scheme’s benefits did not outweigh the heritage harm he had identified. He refused permission in November 2020.

Weston Homes sought to challenge the decision but last week withdrew the High Court challenge, and said it was seeking new plans.

According to the BBC, chief executive Bob Weston said the firm is “committed” to “providing a future for Anglia Square”.

“For this to be successful we need to be aligned with key stakeholders such as Historic England and others who, like us, are passionate about the site and Norwich. We are looking forward to working in friendly collaboration with everyone to create fresh proposals for this challenging site to get the best possible solution for everyone.”

19 April 2021
Laura Edgar, The Planner


In a bid to help the high street, hospitality and tourism sectors recover from Covid-19, chief planner Neil Hemington has written to all planning authorities temporarily relaxing planning control for specified development through amendments to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995.

This change to the GPDO will make it easier for businesses like pubs and restaurants to trade outdoors and will allow the flexible use of town centre units.

It includes easing restrictions on erecting and leaving up marquees and other temporary structures, putting street furniture outside businesses and changing the use of a unit. This latest round of relaxations will take effect from 30 April 2021 and will remain in force until 3 January 2022.

Hemington wrote: “As was evidenced following the end of lockdown in spring 2020, once restrictions upon the movement of people are relaxed and businesses begin to reopen, there is a demonstrable need for measures to be put in place to create safe environments, both on private property and within the public realm.

“Some of these actions constitute development under section 55 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 but where the adverse planning impacts are not significant, we do not want the planning system to act as a barrier to recovery.”

He added: "The government will be monitoring the impact of these amendments with a view to making broader, permanent amendments to the GPDO next year.”

More information can be found on the Welsh Government website.

16 April 2021
Roger Milne, The Planner


Sevenoaks District Council has pledged to protect the green belt after it was refused permission to appeal a judicial review decision against a planning inspector's reasons for refusing its local plan.

In October 2019, inspector Karen L Baker expressed “significant” concerns about several aspects of the plan. Her main doubt related to a “lack of constructive engagement” with neighbouring authorities to resolve the issue of unmet housing need and the absence of cross-boundary planning to identify how this need could be accommodated.

The council “strongly” disagrees with this conclusion.

In April 2020, the council launched a judicial review against Barker’s recommendation to withdraw its local plan.

In November, the council failed in the Planning Court challenge, with Mr Justice Dove saying that he was satisfied there was no substance to the grounds for challenge put forward by the council. He dismissed the case.

The council sought to challenge the ruling in December 2020, but was informed on Friday 8 April that it had not been successful.

Peter Fleming, council leader, said: “We spent the best part of five years putting together a plan that had broad community support. It protected the special environment of the district, which is 93 per cent green belt and 60 per cent areas of outstanding natural beauty, whilst balancing the need for new housing and employment growth. It became clear that even with a plan for sustainable development with infrastructure, homes and jobs, if we couldn’t find other councils to take the growth we could not plan for due to the constraints of the district, then despite all the mountains of evidence showing we had tried, the government planning inspector would find against our plan.

“I would like to thank the district’s three members of Parliament who have worked with us throughout this period and will be writing again to ministers to set out how we intend to take forward a positive plan that respects the district’s unique character.”

Julia Thornton, the cabinet member for development and conservation, added: “The ‘duty to cooperate’, the reason given by the planning inspector to reject our plan in 2019, has led to a number of other local plans being thrown out at the inspection stage. This duty is now set to be abolished in the government’s latest planning reforms. In our opinion, the removal of the ‘duty to cooperate’ is an open admission that it is neither effective nor workable in the local plan-making process.

“Our focus now moves to actions that we can take to continue to protect the beautiful, rural nature of our district and meet local housing and employment needs. We are definitely not an anti-development council.”

15 April 2021
Laura Edgar, The Planner


Self-build fund goes live

The Brownfield Land Release Fund (BLRF), including the £25 million Self and Custom Land Release Fund is now live on the One Public Estate website.

The Brownfield Land Release Fund, worth up to £75 million, applies to brownfield sites while the Self and Custom Build Fund is available for greenfield sites.

The dedicated scheme provides capital grant funding to bring forward local authority land that otherwise might be problematical – for reasons of preparation and groundworks and provision of small-scale infrastructure – for housing development. Local authorities will be able to progress sites with viability problems for custom and self-build projects. Eligible land must be wholly owned by the local authority.

Applications for the funds, which need to meet a range of criteria, are due by 2 June, and the awards are expected to be announced over the summer.

Mary Elkington, acting head of the Right to Build Task Force, said: “It is fantastic that the Brownfield Land Release Fund includes this £25 million allocation for self and custom-build, and we encourage as many councils as possible to apply. This will make a genuine difference to those authorities working to deliver a more diverse route to delivering high-quality housing.

“Support for replicable exemplars of this innovative route to housing helps in scaling up custom and self-build. These sites will help showcase the wide range of benefits that custom and self-build can deliver, complementing wider housing delivery.”

The fund was announced in autumn 2020. Most authorities can apply, with the exception of a few mayoral combined authorities.

 

Healthcare scheme approved in Lambeth

Lambeth Council has granted planning permission for an initiative led by King’s School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences with the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.

The London Institute for Healthcare Engineering (LIHE) will be delivered by HLM Architects, with the building to be embedded on St Thomas’ campus. It will bring together King’s research excellence, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust’s clinical practice, and the medtech sector’s commercial innovation, power and talent, engaging multinationals, SMEs, and start-ups simultaneously.

The project, which is “the first of its kind in the UK”, aims to create a “seamless pipeline to develop novel medical technologies from conception to commercialisation, and in turn transform patient care by accelerating the translational pathway and enabling early NHS adoption of technology”.

The building will be built on a site at the southern end of the St Thomas’ campus, opposite the Houses of Parliament. It will include research, office and meeting space; teaching and learning space; LAB and testing sites; and shared public space as well as areas for events and socialising.

The proposal also incorporates a landscaped roof terrace.

 

Affordable housing feature in heritage development in Bolton

Bluemantle has submitted proposals to Bolton Council for an affordable housing development at Rivington Chase.

The development of 116 affordable homes will be built on a 187-acre brownfield site on the former Horwich Loco Works and will consist of a combination of family houses and apartments. It will also feature open space and two pocket parks.

The site is being developed by developer Lane End Group for two social housing providers. It forms a part of the £262 million Rivington Chase regeneration scheme, which was granted outline permission in 2015 for 1,700 homes and associated retail and leisure space on the former industrial site.

The wider Loco Works development is being developed by Bluemantle alongside Bolton Council, Homes England, HKR, and Network Rail.

Bolton Council's planning committee will consider the scheme on 22 April. Officers have recommended it for approval.

 

Marylebone House redevelopment to go ahead

Westminster City Council has granted planning permission for the redevelopment and refurbishment of Marylebone House, Marylebone Road, London W1.

Beltane Asset Management and Angelo Gordon secured the permission for the scheme, which has been designed by Fletcher Priest Architects.

It will deliver about 75,000 square feet of quality grade A office space. The new design introduces three additional storeys on a 1960s extension and accessible terraces with urban greening.  

Duncan Roe, partner at Beltane Asset Management, said: “This is a significant milestone for the project and a vote of confidence in central London’s economic recovery. We will be starting on site later this year and look forward to bringing this new high-quality office building to the market in Q1 2023.”

 

Ebenezer Howard statue unveiled in Welwyn Garden City

A new 2.2-metre-tall bronze statue of Ebenezer Howard has been unveiled in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.

The statue has been created by artist Ben Twiston-Davies, who sculpted the Agatha Christie memorial in Covent Garden.

Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) was the founder of the garden city movement. He was responsible for establishing the world’s first two garden cities, Letchworth Garden City (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920).

The statue rests on a plinth of Welsh slate with three hand-carved rings of lettering including words from William Blake’s Jerusalem.

Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA): said: “It is fitting that Ebenezer Howard should be permanently and faithfully portrayed in one of the Garden Cities he founded. The Garden City movement offered a model for a different way of living, one with social justice at its heart. In the context of the challenges we face today, of securing decent homes for all, healthy green towns and beauty in design, Howard’s ideas are as relevant as ever. We must be inspired by his vision as we seek to emulate his energy.”

The statue was commissioned by the Welwyn Garden City Centenary Foundation as part of the town’s 2020 centenary celebrations. It was funded through a combination of public donations and private sponsorship, and supported by Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council.

 

New affordable homes venture launched

Ex-Sage and Home Group executive Brian Ham has teamed up with two developers Colin Peacock and John Parkinson to launch an affordable housing developer and funder – Swallowfield Homes.

Swallowfield will work with established registered providers and local authorities to help to boost their development capacity with “ethical investment from pension funds seeking long-term and sustainable ESG based returns”.

Its model will see investors buy development sites, Swallowfield will develop the homes, and they will then be leased on to an established registered provider or local authority to be managed for the duration of the lease.

The homes transfer to the registered provider at the end of the lease period or the registered provider can purchase them.

Co-founder Ham said: “We believe that ethical lease-based schemes are part of the solution to the UK’s housing crisis. Our model offers a solution for established registered providers and local authorities who want to build affordable homes and investors who want long-term, stable income streams. We’ve seen demand for this type of funding increase exponentially as pension funds put ESG at the heart of their investment strategy and RPs look to innovate.”

It is expected that Swallowfield Homes’s first deals will be created later this year.

20 April 2021
Laura Edgar, The Planner