Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Fight For Planning Control

When the ConDem Government was elected it said it would put a ban on backlands development; to its credit it did. But it is now set out to scrap planning controls in favour of presumed development. The current debate about this concentrates on the growing opposition from organisations about the potential damaging effect on the Green Belt and the countryside. Yet the effects will be potentially catastrophic in urban areas. If the plans go through it will be the end of influence of residents on development proposals and open the flood gates for unsympathetic and unwanted developments. It is pandering to the profits that developers can make regardless of the needs of local communities of all types. So much for ConDem ‘Localism’ giving power back to the people. This is an issue that should unite both rural and urban communities and lobby organisations.

Because of the corrupting nature of Section 106 monies and the weak position objectors to developments have under the existing planning rules, developers are able to run rings round local authorities. Far from further weakening the controls over development, much tighter rules are needed and a lot more safeguards.

National Planning Policy Framework 
The proposals were published in July in a draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) designed to replace all planning policy statements (PPSs) and planning policy guidance (PPGs) and ministerial planning circulars that currently shape local planning. The Urban Forum Briefing says that some of the key proposals are being taken forward by the Localism Bill and that the final version of the NPPF will be a statutory document.
The briefing summarises the main features of the NPPF as:
1.    Fewer rules about what can be built, where, and how
2.    A presumption in favour of sustainable development
3.    The local plan becomes (even) more important
4.    Supports a growth agenda
5.    Introduces a duty to cooperate
6.    Replaces targets for development with incentives
7.    Supports neighbourhood planning and sets out expectations on consultation with
       communities by local authorities and developers.
Key and Alarming Elements

Some key and alarming elements in the Framework include:
  • Local authorities should not produce supplementary planning documents unless this can "help bring forward sustainable development at an accelerated rate, and must not be used to add financial burdens on development."
  • The "policy burden is to be minimised to help ensure landowners and developers get a "reasonable return 
  • The presumption should be in favour of development, which it describes as a "golden thread running through both plan making and decision making".  
  • "Decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is "yes", except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework."  
  • Councils will generally be required to give planning permission to all developments where "the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date." 
  • A New Homes Bonus will be a national incentive to house building for home ownerhsip, where the Government will match fund increases in Council Tax revenue raised through new homes being built.  
  • Proposals of developers who demonstrate good engagement with affected communities in designing developments should be looked on more favourably. 
Sops To The Critics
As a sop to their critics the ConDem Localism Bill: 
·    proposes that a "meaningful proportion" of money raised through the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which is to replace Section 106 charges levied on developers to pay for infrastructure, local services and environmental enhancements, must be put back into the neighbourhood, and placed in the control of neighbourhoods.
·    will enable parish and town councils and neighbourhood forums to write a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NPD) for their area, providing the framework for development for the next ten years. In some circumstances they can also identify ‘Local Green Space’ to protect green areas of particular importance to the community.
·     will establish a system of Development Orders (NDOs)  granting planning permission for specific types of development in a particular area, without needing a standard planning application, with the NDOs having to have the approval of the community through a local referendum, and being assessed by an independent examiner to check it is in line with national and local planning policies.
The achilles heel of these superfically welcome proposals is that Councils will be expected to pay the costs of independent examinations and referenda, at a time when the ConDem Government requires them to make massive cuts in their spending. It will also be very expensive for communities to develop Neighbourhood Plans.
While the Framework suggests that local authorities need to encourage more public engagement by developers before they submit a planning application and support them in this, there is to be no requirement on them to do so, unless they are required to by law.
The National Planning Policy Framework is being consulted on until 17 October.

The full Urban Forum briefing can be seen on:    

The Fight for Control Over Development
There has been a long struggle over trying to gain community control over what land is used for. It includes the fight against enclosures from the 16th C, the Diggers in the English Revolution, the development of the ideas of Thomas Spence in Newcastle for parishes to own all the land, the land nationalisation campaigns in the second half of the 19thC, the garden city movement, the introduction of the first Town & Country Planning Act in 1910 under John Burns, Battersea’s MP in his capacity of Local Government Minister, and the anti-developer fights in the 1970s in places like Coin Street. 

A common thread in all these campaigns has been the value people place on green environments. All over the country ten of thousands of people are engaged in green environment projects. It is not in developers interests to have to provide open spaces; that is why the width of the Thames Walk planning requirement is so narrow.

‘In the 19th and 20th centuries many of London's natural habitats were lost to housing, industrialisation, transport infrastructure and neglect.  More recently efforts are being made to restore what has been lost.’ So says the British Library announcing its sixth Shared Learning Project on the restoration of green London. Beginning in January 2012 it will be looking into the restoration and creation of green spaces and the effects on both wildlife and people.  The work will be undertaken with a team of members from U3As  in the Greater London Region.

‘A book was published recently suggesting that urban children are suffering from 'nature deficit disorder' and that this lack of engagement with the natural world should be of concern to all of us. The restoration and creation of natural habitats benefits not only the wildlife of our city but also the human population.’

Given the emphasis on growth, the presumption in favour of development and home ownership in the Framework, can local communities use the powers in the Localism Bill to ensure their opportunities to prevent the development of land which could be greened will be allowed? I think the conclusion has to be with great difficulty and possibly only in well organised well-off communities.

Looking Back 10 Years 
Back in 2001 when I was Policy Development Officer for bassac, the national association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, now merged with the Development Trusts Association as Locality, the Labour Government started a Planning Review. I worked on bassac’s submission.  
We argued that the planning system needs to be radically reformed into a tool for developing sustainable communities. If community participation in planning decisions was not strengthened then confidence in getting involved in urban and rural and neighbourhood renewal will be undermined.

Government's Positive Views

At the beginning of the Review the then Secretary of State considered that:
·          the planning system of the future must engage communities, and contribute to people feeling connected with the process of government
·          the system is a key lever to help create a decent society and quality of life
·          past planning mistakes contributed to the break-up and decay of communities
·          there ‘can be no question of allowing commercial interests to run rough shod over legitimate environmental concerns.’
·           he had ‘no doubts about the right of the community to express their views about decisions which affect them.’

These were very welcome but as the Review proceeded these positions were water down and the necessary strengthening was not including in Labour’s subsequent planning reforms.

Key Points Still Pertinent Today

A decade on the key points made by bassac seem even more pertinent a decade on include: 
·          Many communities are fed up with the way developers and property owners continually reshape the built environment in their neighbourhoods adversely affecting the quality of life of residents, and with large regeneration schemes that provide no benefit to neighbouring communities.
·          Communities often feel their wishes and interests are ignored in the planning system. This is why planning issues are often a catalyst for community action.
·           The community is, however, the weakest player in the current planning system. This is partly due to the limited rights to make representations, and the lack of a right to put in a community appeal against a planning approval. It is also due to the lack of a system of neighbourhood governance structures that would enable the different interest groups within the community to have a strong voice in deciding planning applications.
Victory for Developers

The ConDem proposals are a victory for the development and business lobbies. Back in 2001 business lobbying, as articulated by the Confederation of British Industries, was calling for planning officers and councillors on planning committees to have a better understanding of business, including economics and finance of developments. It suggested compulsory training in planning and business development for newly-elected councillors. In other words they should be ‘taught’ top be more sympathetic to developers.

The CBI’s views then did not reflect the fact that business is no more homogeneous than ‘the community’. The thrust of most of its then proposals would have benefitted developers and large businesses rather than local based businesses, especially the needs of local shopkeepers whose economic viability can often be undermined by the developments of large developers and businesses. In the last decade we have seen how their ability to manipulate the planning system has enabled the onward march of the supermarkets at the expense of small businesses in town centres and on high streets.

Bassac pointed out that often developers and businesses from outside a local authority area are seen to parachute in with proposals that have not been thought through in terms of their impact on the local area and community.
·          Some developers may have been slowly working over a number of years building up their land bank in the area, forcing out local businesses, creating boarded up buildings, and contributing to the cycle of dereliction, and then bring forward a development proposal which has not been worked on with the local community. Bitter planning disputes have resulted.
·          The imbalance in rights means that a lot of communities feel that proposals they are opposed to are forced upon them, and that their areas is changed bit by bit in a direction that they do not agree with. 
And what did we propose?

·           There should be a requirement on applicants of all planning proposals of a certain size to use community participation methods to enable local people to influence the outcome.
·           Neighbourhood governance structures should be established with the right to use the Citizens Jury approach to questioning local residents, community, voluntary and business organisations, the applicants, the planning officials and other involved agencies about the scheme.
·          Local planning authorities should be required to take into account the findings that emerge and the recommendations of the neighbourhood governance structure.  
Pre-Planning Discussions
Developers already have a major advantage in the current system, namely the secrecy of pre-application discussion undertaken behind closed doors, with planning officers becoming involved in shaping an application, so that often it is a foregone conclusion that they will recommend its acceptance to the Planning Committee. This leaves them open to accusations of personal compromise, and of compromising public consultation. Ten years ago bassac proposed that if  pre-application discussion is sought by an applicant it should be subject to public announcement, the availability of the ideas to public scrutiny and the opportunity for the public to discuss the ideas with the developer and Planning Officers. Absence of such a requirement will act against confidence in the Government's commitment on the role of community involvement.

Planning Aid 

The Planning Aid system has been an important resource for communities concerned about planning. However, it is dependent on the volunteer capacities of planners. There are few organisations like Waterloo Community Development Group whose sole function is planning.  There are a range of multi-purpose service and project organisations which already work in the field of community involvement which could take on a specialist planning role as well. Many advice service organisations could also take on a planning brief, alongside their existing specialist areas such as welfare benefits, employment, and education. This would enable volunteer planners to concentrate on helping in those areas where no specialist organisations exist. There should be funding specifically to ensure that every community has access to a planning aid service.
Community Right of Appeal
Finally we argued that as a last safeguard to community interests, community organisations should have the right of appeal against planning applications that they have opposed.

Neighbours Right of Appeal 
Ten years on I would add a further safeguard, especially given my own personal experience with the inadequacies of planning decision making in respect of the effect of development proposals next door to my previous home in Mitcham.

Neighbours whose views have been rejected when a Council approves a planning application should have an automatic right of appeal, and that the Inspectorate should be required to positively approach neighbours when an applicant appeals against rejection of an application.

See also my blog on Neighbourhood Planning 6 March 2011.

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