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Two become one

An examination of the current planning position on amalgamation of units. In recent years there has been a strong trend in the central London residential market for the creation of substantial residential properties through the reconversion of previously subdivided houses, the amalgamation of purpose-built flats or adjoining houses, and lateral amalgamation of units. As a consequence, there has been increased focus on decisions regarding amalgamation.

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This article was first published in Property Law Journal (July/August 2017) and is also available at http://www.lawjournals.co.uk/.

Planning and the General Election: keys to long term success

With the General Election drawing ever closer, planning forms the battleground for a several controversial issues close to voters’ hearts, such as fracking and safeguarding the greenbelt. In particular, persistent difficulties in delivering new housing and infrastructure unite the parties in a common cause. More homes are needed, quickly, together with greater certainty around delivery of supporting infrastructure.

The extent to which the next Government succeeds in solving these problems will be determined by its appetite to grapple with a host of underlying difficulties. These include devising an effective model for land value capture, making the CPO process fit for purpose and addressing the chronic shortfall in local authority resourcing.

Despite obvious distractions elsewhere during this campaign, housing delivery still sits atop the planning agenda, with the manifestos all setting targets and the broad route needed to reach them. The Conservatives will point to steps already taken along this long and winding road – most recently through the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 and its predecessor the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Similarly, the Housing White Paper affords us the rare luxury of a detailed annex to the aspirations commonly found in (deliberately) loosely drafted manifesto commitments. Whilst less “radical” than badged, it establishes a framework of policy changes aimed at speeding up housing delivery, through measures such as diversifying the market, getting local plans in place and holding the public and private sectors to account for delivery.

Housing delivery at scale is recognised as being paramount. This requires a commitment to supporting the growth of new towns and garden communities – where the worlds of housing and infrastructure collide most spectacularly. The Liberal Democrats propose at least 10 new garden communities whilst Labour also underline the need to start on a “new generation” of new towns. The current system already supports that drive with the introduction of a potentially significant power in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 allowing Regulations to facilitate the designation of areas as new towns and for development corporations to be established.

Whichever party emerges victorious on 8th June, there is a sense that the keys to long-term success are not entirely in their hands. We are witnessing a shift in emphasis towards the increased role of the public sector as an enabler of development. The extent to which they are willing and able to embrace that role will go a long way towards determining whether the same issues – and proposed fixes – will remain on the planning agenda in 2022.

More planning protection for pubs

In 2015, the Government removed permitted development rights from pubs listed as Assets of Community Value (ACVs).  As previously reported, pubs which are listed as ACVs, or have been nominated to become ACVs, require planning permission for changes of use or demolition, which otherwise could be carried out under permitted development rights.

Noting the importance of pubs to local communities, some local authorities have made Article 4 Directions to remove permitted development rights from pubs. The London Borough of Wandsworth made an Article 4 Direction in August 2016 removing specified permitted development rights for changes of use, demolition and alteration for 120 identified pubs and bars.

Following Wandsworth’s lead, the London Borough of Southwark introduced an Article 4 Direction removing permitted development rights from all 188 pubs in Southwark in March 2017.  The Article 4 Direction means that planning permission will need to be obtained for specified changes of use, demolition, demolition or construction of gates, fences and walls, and exterior painting.

After discussions in Parliament in connection with the then Neighbourhood Planning Bill, the protection afforded has been further extended by the Government to cover all pubs rather than just those listed as ACVs. Section 15 of the Neighbourhood Planning Act obliges the Secretary of State to as soon as reasonably practicable make an order to remove permitted development rights for changes of use and demolition of pubs, and to grant permission for pubs to change to pub and café/restaurant use.  This requirement has been met by the making of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (No 2) Order 2017, which comes into force on 23 May 2017.

The order removes permitted development rights so in most cases pubs will instead have to apply for planning permission to:

  • change to a shop;
  • change to a restaurant or café;
  • change to a state funded school;
  • change to a temporary flexible use; or
  • to be demolished.

The order includes a new permitted development right, to allow pubs to change use to “drinking establishments with expanded food provision” and vice versa without planning permission.

The order demonstrates the importance of pubs to the Government, by requiring a planning application for a change of use other than to a pub restaurant.  While this change negates the need for communities to list their local as an ACV to prevent changes of use without planning permission, listing could still be pursued.  A local planning authority can consider ACV status as a material consideration on a planning application, and so ACV listing could be an extra factor the local planning authority has to take into account when considering an application to change the use of a pub.  This then offers an extra layer of protection for communities wanting to keep venues operating as pubs.

The new New Towns Agenda

The third reading of any Bill in the House of Lords is normally fantastically dull. That was not true of what is now the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Lord Mathew Taylor introduced a new and apparently innocuous clause that allows a completely new and parallel way of bringing new towns forward. It authorises the rewriting of the existing new town legislation, by regulation, to allow local authorities, or groups of local authorities, to ask the Secretary of State to designate an area as a new town and for a development corporation to be set up.

If agreed by the Secretary of State, then the local authorities will, effectively, step into the role that the Secretary of State occupied in the old new towns. They will control the way in which their new town development corporation is governed, operates and delivers new communities.  They will be accountable for successes.  They will be responsible for failures. Some powers will, inevitably, be retained by the Secretary of State, at least in the short term – the power to confirm CPOs and to authorise Local Development Orders. In time, with true devolution, even these powers could be left to the parent authority.

What will this mean? Many authorities are already exploring the possibility of new towns and particularly garden communities. One of the real difficulties is educating landowners that the cost of developing the necessary community and social infrastructure up front is significant, and that the legacy costs of stewardship will eat into land values, as much as if not more than the traditional enabling costs. This means that the normal landowner model of a minimum land value + a share of net proceeds or overage does not really work.  There is also a need to ensure that all land is bound into the same broad vision and programme. If that is not the case then the allocation of costs can be unfair.  The first phases will have to bear significant infrastructure costs that then increase the value of the land in later phases. If the later phases choose to develop independently then it may be problematic making sure that they bear their fair share of the initial place-making investment. A development corporation model helps to solve this. It allows early and extensive acquisition. It also ensures that the underlying “scheme”, the new town, is more completely disregarded for valuation purposes.

In practice, development corporations should rarely be necessary. Local authorities already hold most of the appropriate powers. However, the use of, or the threat of the use of, a development corporation may well be a helpful bargaining tool. It should allow local authorities to reach agreements with reluctant landowners. It should ensure that all parties contribute and benefit equally. It should be a weapon of last resort.

The pendulum swings: case comment on David Wylde and Other v Waverley Borough Council (9 March 2017)

A new judicial review case concerning the interface of development agreements, judicial review and public procurement has recently been decided by the High Court.

The case concerned changes made to a historic development agreement (awarded in 2002) relating to the East Street area of Farnham.  Under the original agreement with Waverley Borough Council, the developer needed to pay at least £8.76m for the Council’s land.  The changes to the agreement appear to allow the developer to proceed with a far lower minimum land valuation of £3.19m (as well as other changes relating to the developer’s profit element).

The changes met with resistance in the form of five claimants, two of whom were parish councillors of Farnham, with the other claimants being members of local civic societies.

On its face, the case has some startling similarities with the Gottlieb v Winchester City Council case, where Cllr Gottlieb challenged his own Council’s proposals to unlawfully amend a historic development agreement (the changes also had the objective of making the scheme viable for the developer).  Cllr Gottlieb was successful and the development proposal came to a juddering halt after 12 years.

So in view of the similarities, was the same result reached here?  No.

Mr Justice Dove decided that the claimants did not have “legal standing” to bring judicial review proceedings, because they do not have a sufficient interest in the outcome of the competition (in contrast to the position of Cllr Gottlieb in his case).  So none of the arguments concerning public procurement were explored.  No doubt this is a bitter blow to those towns folk who are struggling to understand why a developer should be allowed to re-write the terms of a deal in their favour (resulting in the viability of a development scheme they vehemently oppose).

Standing in judicial review cases

There have been a number of cases on standing in judicial review, and Dove J’s reasoning is largely consistent with those rulings.  Some have resulted in permission being granted.  Others not.  This is a case where the pendulum has swung back in favour of the defendant public authority.

It cannot be disputed that the vagaries of the case law means that merely being a council tax payer is probably not enough (alone) to get standing to bring judicial review proceedings.

That said, Mr Justice Dove is critical of the Gottlieb decision.  We think that this criticism is misplaced.  Unlike a parish councillor complaining about a decision of the borough of which his/her parish forms part, Cllr Gottlieb was (and is) an elected member of the authority of who had taken the unlawful decision.  In our view this would have given him standing anyway, given his special ability to enforce the general public law obligations and fiduciary duties of the council – but this point was never properly addressed in the Gottlieb case.  The proper approach would have been for Dove J to distinguish the circumstances in Gottlieb from those of Wylde.

The judgment will no doubt be a relief to developers facing significant local opposition to their schemes, but, to make a broader point, we believe that it is in some ways regrettable that council tax payers are written out of the picture when it comes to judicial review in public procurement cases. The public procurement rules ensure fair play between bidders, encourage competition which is not only about price (or receipts for land disposal) but quality.  The inability to enforce those rules robs the public of an opportunity to influence place, something in which they certainly have a legitimate interest.

(Dentons acted for Cllr Gottlieb in his successful challenge against Winchester City Council.)

Court of Appeal Confirms Full OAN Benchmark for Sensitive Area Developments

We commented on Knight Developments saga applying for 100 homes in the Ashdown Forest last year. Although upholding the High Court’s decision to quash the appeal permission, the Court of Appeal has confirmed that authorities resisting applications in National Parks and AONB will need to push the boat out on the duty to co-operate at the Local Plan stage to avoid being caught out on appeal.

Mitigation certainty

The High Court quashed an Inspector’s decision granting permission following errors in relying on recreational mitigation measures to offset traffic-related nitrogen deposition impacts on the Special Protection Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC).  The Court of Appeal agreed – by failing to identify any ‘solid’ S106 mitigation proposals, it was impossible to establish with reasonable certainty that the relevant mitigation, including heathland management, would actually be delivered for the purposes of applying the precautionary principle to assessing SAC/SPA harm.

Exceptional Circumstances

The High Court also rejected the Inspector’s approach to considering Objectively Assessed Needs (OAN) when applying the NPPF116, which states that (emphasis added):

“Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:

  • the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy
  • the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way
  • any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.

The Inspector dismissed the alternative sites put forward by the authority not because they were unsuitable, but because ” the existence of other sites, which collectively still fall short of the full OAN, does not amount to an alternative“. He therefore did not use the constrained version which the Core Strategy was designed to meet (taking the SAC/ SPA and other constraints into account).  The High Court judgment appeared to suggest that alternative sites must be considered in detail, regardless of whether they would meet the FOAN.

Clunking Fist of OAN

The Court of Appeal disagreed:

  • There is nothing in the NPPF requiring alternative sites to be looked at across the whole of a local planning authority’s administrative area, or to an area larger or smaller than that. The area of search will be fact specific.  As a matter of fact, the Inspector had looked at both the local and the wider District housing land supply position.
  • Because most of the district was within the AONB, there were few alternative sites suitable for housing development that were “not equally constrained” as the appeal site.  The view that such other available housing sites were unlikely to meet unconstrained OAN was a matter of planning judgment.

Although it upholds the High Court judgment on the SAC/ SPA mitigation point, the Court of Appeal judgment nonetheless expressly endorses the use of FOAN as the benchmark for considering the relevance of alternative sites in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Where up to date Local Plans are adopted to deliver a constrained OAN, these areas are still open to appeals where the level of housing need not being met through the duty to co-operate is less than the up to date FOAN (and the decision-maker is prepared to give meeting needs exceptional weight).

Amalgamation of units still at risk

As we have noted previously, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (“TCPA”) is clear that the conversion of a single unit into several units requires planning permission. Although the legislation is silent on amalgamation, it may too be a material change of use requiring planning permission (see our 13 May 2014 blog).

In the recent Cheyne Gardens appeal an Inspector dismissed an appeal against Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (“RBKC”)’s decision not to grant a certificate of lawfulness for works to amalgamate two flats into a single dwelling. Planning permission had been refused and the applicant argued that a Certificate should be granted on the grounds that there was no material change of use requiring planning permission.  The analysis centred on two questions:

1          Is the change of use ‘development’?  ap

The appellant argued that the proposals should not be treated as development on the basis of Section 55(2)(f) TCPA and Article 3(1) of The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987. Both provide that where a building is used for a purpose of any class specified in the schedule to that Order, the use of that building for any other purpose within the same class shall not be taken to involve development of land. In Richmond upon Thames v SSETR & Richmond upon Thames Churches Housing Trust [2000] this was confirmed as engaged where the combined units were already in a single occupation.

The Inspector refused to apply Section 55(2)(f) and Article 3(1) on the basis that the two flats in this case were in use as two separate dwellinghouses, each occupied by a single household or person. The revised position would be one unit occupied by a single household or person.  Whilst the new arrangement, by virtue of the amalgamation, would be used for one of the uses within Class C3, it would not be the self-same building in the before and after scenarios.  The amalgamation was therefore development capable of amounting to a material change of use.

2          Is the change of use material in planning terms?

Richmond established that the extent to which a particular use fulfils a legitimate or recognised planning purpose (in terms of a purpose relating to the character of the land) is relevant in deciding whether a change from that use is a material change of use.   In particular, the loss of a particular type of residential accommodation where that loss was resisted by specific policies.

RBKC put forward evidence that de-conversions and amalgamations were anticipated to result in the loss of 400 homes over a five year period. Set against that, London Plan Policy 3.3 imposes a minimum 10 year housing building target of 7,330 dwellings for RBKC, with an annual monitoring target of 733 homes.  The Inspector considered that the loss of one unit should be considered against the annual target.  Despite accepting that this would be an “almost infinitesimal change” (and the loss of the single unit was under the 5 unit threshold set in the RBKC policy) he nonetheless decided that it would “as a matter of fact and degree have a significant impact in planning terms” concluding that circumstances had “changed significantly” since the adoption of that policy.

So what?

The focus of recent amalgamation appeals has been on the materiality of the change, rather than the question of whether there has been a change of use. The decision reflects the approach applied by the High Court in June, quashing CLEUD and Section 78 appeals on the basis that the Inspector should have taken account of generalised housing need arguments despite the lack of a specific policy threshold.

Although there is real scope to achieve permission on the basis that the loss of supply is clearly de minimis, the Cheyne Gardens decision confirms that decision makers will continue to treat general housing supply policies as a basis for regarding small amalgamations as material even though more specific policies on such changes do not necessarily warrant it.  The difficulties of doing so in the absence of such policies are illustrated by the 77 Drayton Gardens decision, in which the Inspector refused to grant a CLEUD (on the basis that a material change had occurred by virtue of amalgamation of two units, treating the existence of restrictive policies as weighing on the ‘threshold’ question of whether a change of use had occurred). He nonetheless quashed the related enforcement notice and granted permission on the basis that evidence of housing need (including for larger units) and actual supply outweighed the conflict with the development plan.

Autumn Statement: mood music?

In the absence of the Housing White Paper, the industry is still left needing to mind the gap.  We have simplified budgets – abolishing the Autumn Statement – but no hint of simplified planning for growth.

The overall commitment to housing is welcome mood music, but the lack of detail on powers and fiscal incentives to support locally-led Garden Towns to deliver at the scale needed leaves a hole.  Expanding grant funding for affordable tenures is great news but at £25,000 per unit is not going to be life changing.

hamThe £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund could be a game changer if it is used to reward areas for proactively planning for growth. Making an up to date housing land supply a condition for at least some of the funding would dangle the right carrot for authorities that currently only have the stick. The lack of fiscal measures for new settlements – incentivising forward funding of major infrastructure that can unlock delivery at real scale – is disappointing though.

Affordable Housing is heading towards life support – delivery in 2015-16 was 52% lower than last year.  The announcement in the Autumn Statement of a funding injection to deliver 40,000 affordable homes is welcome. It is a clear recognition that addressing the housing shortage is not simply about building more homes.  Yes, we need more but they must meet a variety of needs. There are further signals of a softening of the Government’s stance on Starter Homes – tenure flexibility replacing David Cameron’s commitment to a single tenure.

Without the Housing White Paper, there is also still a wait to see how the NPPF is going to be reshaped and in particular how housing land supply and Local Plan duties will be re-set following expert advice on accelerating delivery. If the Community Infrastructure Levy is to be replaced by a simplified flat national charge, the effect on infrastructure funding and the transitional arrangements need to be understood now, so that schemes in the pipeline do not get put into suspended animation.

The statement gives some clues about the Government’s direction of travel but, funding commitments aside, offers little substance.  We still await the detail in the Housing White Paper which we are told will be published “soon”.  Reasons for the delay are unclear. Have responses to leaks on more radical measures, such as penalising developers for slow delivery, prompted a re-think?

Vacant Building Credit – an own goal?

Vacant Building Credit (VBC) was re-introduced into the NPPG in May 2016 to less vocal opposition than it faced when originally introduced following a Ministerial Statement in November 2014.  The Statement remains intact following the Court of Appeal’s ruling that it should stand.

The broad premise of  VBC is that is acts as a credit which can be offset against the affordable housing requirement of new development.  The credit is equivalent to the existing gross floorspace of a vacant building brought back into use or demolished for redevelopment purposes.  However, neither ‘abandoned’ buildings or those vacated for the sole purpose of redevelopment are able to benefit from VBC.

Unhelpfully, the NPPG gives no guidance on how VBC is intended to be applied.  Two immediate issues arise:

  • buildWhat is meant by “vacant”?  There is a concern that VBC will incentivise landlords to force the vacation of offices, industrial buildings or even houses to benefit from VBC.  There is also little assistance on where the line can be drawn to assess whether a building is “vacant” or “abandoned”.
  • What is meant by the “gross floorspace” of the vacant building – GIA over GEA?  Once that has been confirmed, how that floorspace should be applied to calculate the off-set?

As a consequence, local authorities are left to make sense of how to apply VBC, and inevitably are creating methods and policies for approaching VBC in a way which will minimise its impact on affordable housing delivery.  Emerging practice includes:

(i)         interpreting “vacant” as being opposite to the “in use” building test set out in the CIL Regulations.  This ensures that a development is unable to benefit from both VBC and the demolition credit which can reduce the amount of CIL payable;

(ii)         requiring the entire building to be vacant, not just part of it;

(iii)        requiring the building for which VBC has been sought to have been actively marketed for a specified period (and for the method and details of marketing to be provided);

(iv)        requiring details of existing floorspace to be provided on a GIA basis when a planning application is submitted.

Of those local authorities that are putting in place policies for calculating VBC, it is clear that there is no standard approach; others will be reviewing whether they apply VBC at all.  The West Berkshire appeal confirmed that the VBC policy is a material consideration and is not capable of being applied in a “blanket” manner; many local authorities will be taking comfort from this, possibly even reviewing how Local Plan policies can be formulated to disapply VBC altogether.

VBC was introduced on the basis it would assist smaller developers deliver viable schemes, however the Government has failed again to build the necessary clarity into the guidance to ensure that it is only small developments which benefit from VBC.

Left to local authorities to put in place their own mechanisms provides no guarantee that VBC will assist those it was intended to; as a consequence VBC’s long-term impact on affordable housing remains potentially damaging at a time when the need for affordable homes remains critical, while the ability to rely on it to bring forward otherwise uneconomic schemes remains unclear.

Improving the use of Planning Conditions?

Too many unnecessary and overly restrictive conditions are still routinely attached to planning permissions, driving up costs and impeding development. It is against this backdrop that the Government proposed further reforms in the recently published Neighbourhood Planning Bill aimed at streamlining the use of planning conditions.

Long game

This is not a new objective. Since the Killian Pretty Review in 2008 successive Governments have been on a drive to minimise the use of unnecessary conditions. For instance, in April 2015 the Government introduced the concept of ‘deemed discharge‘, whereby an applicant can treat certain conditions as discharged if the LPA fails to reach a decision in the requisite time frame. Although the intention was admirable, it is debatable whether this reform has been effective given that the power is rarely relied upon in practice.  As we have pointed out before, part of the answer has to be improving the quality of some applications in the first place and giving a less risky route to appeal onerous conditions.

Current proposals

textThe DCLG consultation ‘Improving the Use of Planning Condition’ (the ‘Consultation’), which was launched in conjunction with the Neighbourhood Planning Bill, seeks views on the Government’s proposals to improve the use of planning conditions and closes on 2 November 2016.

There are 2 key elements to the Government’s proposals:

  1. Restriction on the use of pre-commencement conditions without prior approval by the applicant; and
  2. Prohibition of specific types of conditions.

1) Restriction on the use of pre-commencement conditions

LPAs would not be permitted to use pre-commencement conditions without prior approval by the applicant. By giving applicants an earlier opportunity to challenge unnecessary pre-commencement conditions, it is hoped that a consensus can be reached between the parties at the outset and the likelihood of appeals reduced.  Of course, there is a risk that front loading the process will lead to delays in planning applications being determined.  There are several practical implications:

  • Where an applicant refuses to accept a proposed pre-commencement condition the LPA will have a number of options at its disposal: (i) revising the condition so that it is agreeable to the applicant; (ii) allowing compliance with the condition post commencement; (iii) removing the condition in its entirety; or (iv) refusing planning permission.
  • The threat of refusal may do two things. Firstly, force applicants to consider whether they have really included adequate detail in the application itself. The answer will often be ‘no’. Secondly, accept unsatisfactory conditions in order to secure the permission (particularly where the grant of permission is a pre-requisite for the release of funds), and then use Section 73 to seek to remove the offending condition while avoiding an appeal scrutinising the merits of the entire application afresh.
  • The restrictions will not apply to outline permissions. The Consultation does not explain why.  However, the impact of delays caused by pre-commencement conditions is arguably lessened in the case of outline permissions given that development cannot commence until reserved matters have been approved in any event.

2) Prohibition of specific types of conditions

At present, LPAs have a broad power to impose “such conditions as they think fit” providing they meet the tests prescribed in the NPPF, its supporting guidance and case law.

The Government’s proposals are intended to provide greater clarity about conditions that do not meet these policy tests and should therefore be prohibited. The Consultation sets out examples of conditions that are categorised as unacceptable by existing planning practice guidance and seeks consultees’ views on whether such conditions should be expressly prohibited through legislation.

Given the relevant tests for using conditions are already enshrined in the NPPF and the example conditions set out in the Consultation are effectively prohibited (albeit through guidance rather than statute), the purpose served by this aspect of the reforms is questionable. A more productive use of this legislation would be to use the conditions as a benchmark for reasonableness, and allow binding decisions on them, via the mooted Dispute Resolution Service under the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

Conclusions

The reforms are unlikely to herald a new era in which conditions are used conservatively and pre-commencement conditions are consistently agreed upfront without the intention of resorting to Section 73. Bolder reform, providing a quicker right of appeal or up front, binding dispute resolution on this specific point, would be a much better outcome.