THE JOINT RESPONSE TO THE ‘PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE’ CONSULTATION ON BEHALF OF THE PLYMOUTH AND SOUTH WEST DEVON JOINT LOCAL PLAN
The consultation response from our three Local Authorities is highly critical of the proposals, noting that: “the task force behind the ideas included in the White Paper did not include any local authority representative, which to us seems a glaring omission given that local government will be crucial to the successful implementation of a new planning system”.
‘The Prime Minister’s Foreword that the housing crisis is the fault of planning systems is unfounded.’
The consultation period on the government’s proposed radical changes to the planning system – including a new formula for assessing housing need – has now closed.
The proposals have been attacked by many of the government’s own MPs including former Prime Minister Theresa May. She described the plans as “ill-conceived” and “mechanistic”.
And Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely said the housing numbers algorithm would “hollow out our cities, urbanise our suburbs and suburbanise the countryside”.
The plans have also been criticised by the director of the National Trust. Speaking to the Times, Hilary McGrady said she had “significant concerns” and said it “must not lead to concrete deserts devoid of green space, lacking corridors for nature and sustainable travel”.
In the South Hams, Councillor Jacqi Hodgson, Devon County Council, South Hams District Council and Totnes Town Mayor wrote to the Government saying:
“It is a missed opportunity to address climate change, rebuild ecosystems and to bring forward proven solutions to the housing crisis including investment in local authority house building and a right to green space. The proposal seeks simple answers without understanding the complexity of the problems. It is not based on the evidence available. It should not have been presented as a White Paper as it is nowhere near ready for legislation – it is entirely lacking in the detail in key areas.”
The Chair of SHDC Development Committee, Councillor Julian Brazil, said of the proposals as they stand:
“The effect on the South Hams will be dramatic. If implemented, we will be instructed by Government to build over 12,000 new houses by 2034 — an increase of more than 7000 on present plans. Out will go the pretence of affordable houses on any development of less than 40. All based on the dreaded algorithms related to affordability”.
South Hams District Council noted: “To quote one Conservative MP, we agree
that it is an “imposition of housing numbers handed down by Central
Government and [we] strongly resist this new ‘Stalinist’ approach”.
Analysis box by Alex Forsyth, political correspondent
There is both nervousness and anger among the Tory MPs who oppose these planning reforms.
Nervousness that the government could press on with its new system for determining the number of new homes needed in each area as soon as next month, and anger at the prospect of their concerns being ignored.
The housing secretary was non-committal, saying only that the government would listen to views.
The policy here is crucial; the housing crisis is acute and new homes are needed in the right place at the right price. But the politics matters too.
The government has already burned political capital on its backbenches with the way it’s handled some aspects of the coronavirus crisis.
Pressing on with the proposed new system for local housing targets – as well as the wider planning reforms – will result in another backbench backlash.
Beyond that, there are local elections next year , and nervous Tories in the party’s heartlands fear any public anger at these plans will be felt at the ballot box.
The consultation response from our three Local Authorities is highly critical of the proposals
South Hams District Council Follaton House Plymouth Road Totnes Devon TQ9 5NE
Joint Local Plan Team Strategic Planning & Infrastructure Department Plymouth City Council Ballard House West Hoe Road Plymouth PL1 3BJ
West Devon Borough Council Kilworthy Park Drake Road Tavistock Devon PL19 0BZ
Contact: Jo Lee, Strategic Planning Manager (Joint Local Plan) Joanna.email@example.com
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE – GOVERNMENT WHITE PAPER CONSULTATION
Plymouth and South West Devon Joint Local Plan submission to the consultation
“This document sets out the joint response from the authorities responsible for the Plymouth and South West Devon Joint Local Plan; Plymouth City, South Hams District and West Devon Borough Council’s. Whilst there are two responses to this consultation from the JLP Councils, they reflect the impact of the proposed changes, some of which are different in the rural and urban elements of the JLP area. The response from Plymouth City Council is endorsed by South Hams and West Devon Councils and vice versa.”
“We have responded to each question asked in the White Paper, where appropriate. We have also commented upon parts of the White Paper where no specific question was identified. We would be very happy to meet with Ministers and Government officials to help improve and guide the detail of the proposals set out in the White Paper. We note that the task force behind the ideas included in the White Paper did not include any local authority representative, which to us seems a glaring omission given that local government will be crucial to the successful implementation of a new planning system. We can offer the experience many years of high quality engagement with the planning process from a local authority perspective.”
Whilst we would agree that some modernisation of the planning system is justified, we strongly disagree with some of the comments and analysis in the White Paper about the faults attributed to the operation of the planning system itself, when in reality it is the behaviours and actions of some vested interests that leads to some of the poor outcomes mentioned in the White Paper.
We consider the suggestion made in the Prime Minister’s Foreword that the housing crisis is the fault of planning systems to be unfounded. This suggests a predetermined view of the planning system and deflects from more fundamental structural reasons about why this nation has been unable to deliver sufficient homes of the right quality over many decades. For example, we are only 6 years into the 20-year plan period of our Joint Local Plan and nearly 90% of the housing requirement of 26,700 dwellings has either been completed, is under construction now, or already has planning permission. Planning is clearly not a barrier to housing delivery in Plymouth, South Hams and West Devon.
The White Paper (para. 1.3) suggests nine ‘problems’ with the current planning system. We comment on these as follows:
- “It is too complex” – we agree with this observation. An effective planning system for the nation has to have effective local political and professional leadership. The system is already more centralised than comparable systems in Europe and elsewhere. We welcome proposals which genuinely will make the planning system simpler to deliver, and would comment that it is the excessive tinkering of successive governments that has made the planning system more complex than it needed to be and created an industry for lawyers and legal challenges. Planners themselves have demonstrated time and time again that they can make whatever system they are working within operate effectively, but what frustrates them, and therefore local communities most, is a continuing shifting of the goal posts.
- “Planning decisions are discretionary rather than rules based” – we fundamentally disagree with this criticism of the existing system. It is naïve to think that a planning system could ever function in the benefit of society without the ability for case by case judgments, as circumstances inevitably vary and there can be no effective one-size-fits all. However, we do agree that greater certainty on the principle of development could be delivered through a reformed local plan system. We can see that this opinion of planning arises from a negative perspective that land use planning is merely a ‘form of regulation’ (para. 1.4). The planning system has always been a discretionary system rather than a zonal rules-based system of the type that exists in various forms around the world, allowing decisions on individual proposals to be tested against the policy framework set out usually in a local plan, but ultimately considered on its individual merits. This provides flexibility and quick adaptation to changing economic, social and environmental contexts, which in light of the impact of COVID-19 must be a basis of assessing whether what is put back as a new system is fundamentally better than the one that currently exists. The planning system has, on the whole, enabled England to respond to the various societal, economic and environmental challenges of a changing society over the last 70-odd years. The planning system created by the 1947 Act is inherently locally democratic and acts in the wider public interest. Although the system in England, compared to almost every other liberal democracy has always been heavily centralised, the basis of the system has always been predicated on democratically elected members and professionally qualified planning officers together comprising the local planning authority working with local communities to plan for the future of their areas. However, that is not how the Government sees the planning system in the Planning White Paper, describing it as “a relic” from the 20th century, “outdated, and ineffective”, and “artificially constraining the potential of the country”. Indeed, the White Paper suggests that “thanks to the planning system, we now have nowhere near enough homes in the right places”. While there are clearly planning regulations, we could not disagree with the overall tenet of this statement more. Land use planning is not about regulation, it is about identifying a vision for a place and a strategy for a achieving that vision. There may be elements of land use that need regulating for the sake of the environment etc. but at its core purpose planning is positive and proactive activity to deliver real and lasting change. Good local planning authorities get this and have been practising it for decades and have consistently achieved positive outcomes for local communities.
- “It takes too long to adopt a Local Plan” – we agree that this process does take too long and despite numerous reforms since 2004 this has never been addressed in any meaningful way. There needs to be a more proportionate approach to evidence-base requirements, a review of the examination process itself, and overhaul of the failed Duty to Cooperate process which does not effectively address strategic planning issues.
- “Assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts are too complex and opaque” – we do not agree that environmental considerations should be subservient to a pre-determined view about speed of decision-making. Decisions on developments that impact wildlife and biodiversity will have implications for generations to come and therefore must be properly assessed at the correct stages of the planning application process. We do agree however that the processes could be streamlined so that it properly contributes to more informed decision-making on planning applications. In the absence of a clear alternative proposal, it appears there is an inherent insinuation here that environmental considerations delay developments, yet the Planning White Paper provides little evidence to substantiate this.
- “It has lost public trust.” – we do not agree with this. Planning is an inherently democratic, open and transparent process, governed by professional and constitutional codes of conduct. It is not that planning that has lost public trust – it is that when local people realise that the planning system that has been created in recent years is so centrally stifling of local innovation, and subject to so much central dictate by the National Planning Policy Framework, their belief in the system delivering the outcomes they want is severely diminished. No part of the public sector is as heavily consulted upon and scrutinised in public than planning. Good local planning authorities are already creative and innovative in building community trust. Furthermore, the answer to increasing trust cannot be to de-democratise the development management part of the planning process, which is what the White Paper proposals will lead to.
- “It is based on 20-centuary technology” – we agree with the objective of modernising and digitising planning, whilst being mindful of issues of digital exclusion. For too long central government has refused to allow local planning authorities to remove inefficient and costly processes such as placing statutory notices in local papers because of a desire to set the requirements centrally.
- “The process for negotiating developer contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure is complex” – we agree, because it is central government who have made it unnecessarily complex refusing to give local planning authorities the powers and tools to secure an appropriate level of the uplift in the value created by the grant of planning permission for the benefit of the community.
- “There is not enough focus on design” – we agree, which begs the question why the Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment was abolished in July 2010. If the government are serious about the role of design in the planning system, the National Planning Policy Framework has to be altered to allow local planning authorities to refuse not only obviously poor developments, but also developments that do not address climate change: and be able to do so whether there is a 5-year land supply or not.
- “It simply does not lead to enough homes being built” – we do not agree with this analysis. The plan and planning system can provide the supply of land but it doesn’t guarantee homes are delivered. The government appears to be wilfully ignoring its own advice in the Letwin view, and the work that preceded it in the Barker and Lyons Reviews as to the real reason why this country is continually failing to deliver the homes its people need. It is a deliberate distraction to lay this at the door of the planning system as opposed to funding a new affordable housing programme and providing local planning authorities with the tools they need to ensure developers build what they have planning permission for. Whatever happened, for instance, to the “lose it or use it” powers previously promised? Will government not only roll out a more creative use of Completion Notices but look seriously at incentivising local plan allocations to turn allocations into planning permission and permissions into much needed homes? Why, for instance, could the government (through Homes England) not work with all local planning authorities and align funding streams in a strategic place-based partnership to drive forward the delivery of housing sites (and for that matter other allocations) to see homes delivered faster rather than imposing centrally devised bureaucratic and procedural devices such as the 5 Year Land Supply and Housing Delivery Test? It is accepted that many local planning authorities can do more to encourage delivery, and be more effective about bringing it forward and building themselves. The data on unimplemented consents and allocations demonstrates that supply through the planning system is not the reason for insufficient homes being built.
The White Paper (para. 1.12) suggests nine ‘aims’ for a reformed planning system and have the following comments on these:
- “To be more ambitious for the places we create, expecting new development to be beautiful and to create a ‘net gain’ not just ‘no net harm” – we agree with this statement, but there will need to be a step-change is resources available to local planning authorities to be able deliver this.
- “To move democracy forward in the planning” – we disagree profoundly with the rational for this statement because its corollary is to remove democracy for later stages of the planning processes which will severely disenfranchise local communities’ ability to influence developments coming forward in their areas. Front loading the engagement of local communities and other stakeholders is already part of the current local plan system so nothing new in that sense is being proposed – other than electronic and digital methods of engagement.
- “To improve the user experience of planning” – we do not agree that the measure of success of any new planning system is just about its user experiences: all citizens should have a positive engagement with the planning system and their rights should be enshrined in primary legislation linked to a clear definition of what the overall statutory purpose of planning is. Having said that, the Councils have already implemented a number of innovations in relation to citizen and user engagement in planning which we can share with government if it wishes to use these to help design any new system.
- “To support home ownership” – we do not agree with this aim as it is too limited. Government housing policy should support a range of housing types. The White Paper makes several references to the success of other European nations in delivering homes, but they also have reputations for high quality highly desirable social housing.
- “To increase the supply of housing land” – we do not agree that this should be an objective in its own right because land supply is only one factor in the delivery of the number of homes that the nation needs.
- “To support innovative developers and housebuilders” – we agree with this objective and we are prepared to assist government in drawing out the lessons from our experience, in helping to design new approaches which will genuinely help small and medium-sized builders.
- “To help businesses to expand with readier access to commercial space” – we do not support this objective as it is clear the government is seeking to extend permitted development rights limiting the role of the planning system in addressing the location and sustainability of commercial developments.
- ”To promote the stewardship and improvement of our precious countryside and environment” – we strongly oppose this aim as drafted as the suggestion that this is sufficient to capture the role of planning in tackling the climate emergency is woefully inadequate. The reform of the English planning system is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to place the climate emergency centre stage. Any overall aim of the planning system has to be much more than the status of green spaces and the environment. However, this aim is contradicted by the housing algorithm which priorities housing growth at the expense of the environment and undermines the good design agenda.
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