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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.

A layer of complexity, a review of the ramifications of the Localism Act five years on

The Localism Act 2011 obtained royal assent in November 2011, gradually bringing into effect a raft of legislation supporting the government’s communities-based agenda. Following the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto, subtitled ‘Invitation to join the government of Britain’, localism remained a focus of the coalition government, and remains a focus of the current government.

Read the full article

This article was first published in Property Law Journal (October 2016) and is also available at www.lawjournals.co.uk

 

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.

Affordable snakes and ladders on small sites

The judgment in the battle of wills over the Government’s small sites affordable housing and Vacant Building Credit policies has concluded, for now, with the Government victorious in the Court of Appeal. This blog considers the practical impact of the Vacant Building Credit.  What are the wider implications of the judgment for affordable housing decisions and policies?

Policy on the hoof

cartoonThe process by which the policies were introduced was surprising, but not unlawful.  However, two elements of the judgment may prove controversial:

  • firstly, the acceptance of a retrospective Equalities Impact Assessment where complying with the Public Sector Equalities Duty when taking the decision where the assessment was ‘adequate and in good faith’ and original decision “would not have led to a different conclusion“;
  • secondly, that Ministers are not required to have regard to material considerations when making national planning policy given that it relies on the exercise of crown prerogative powers. This will seem obscure to those living outside the legal bubble.

Common sense still allowed

Policy is just policy. The judgment confirms that:

  • government, whether central or local, may state policy ‘rules’ absolutely, but
  • decision takers must consider them without treating them as absolute – their discretion to weigh things in the balance and do something different cannot be fettered by policy.

For applications, that means:

  • complying with the duties to consider all relevant issues and determine in accordance with the development plan unless there are reasons not to (Section 70(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and Section 38(6) of the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act 2004);
  • local authorities are entitled to weigh the Government’s policy against their own plan policies, the demographic evidence on which they are based and any economic evidence on the viability of specific ‘small sites’.  There will inevitably be an upsurge in appeals as they do so, since applicants will generally expect the Government to follow its own policy on appeal;
  • where there are perfectly sound reasons for a Localist decision, there should be little scope for adverse costs awards.  The difference in weight to the national policy is simply a matter of planning judgment – which the Court of Appeal decision emphasises must be carried out diligently.

Making plans

Local Plan policies could still be promoted on the basis of evidence base and local circumstances which justify the LPA’s proposed thresholds. That will run the gauntlet at Examination in Public given the wider powers to intervene in the Plan-making process now available under the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

The reasoning given for the small sites policy in Government’s evidence (extracted at paragraph 53 of the judgment) provides clear scope for authorities to use evidence to show that their affordable housing policy thresholds are in line with the intended policy objective as long as requirements are:

  • viable, and
  • that contributions will be required at a time when they could not sensibly stall schemes (i.e. pre-occupation).

If local policies are supported by evidence that shows they would deliver Government’s stated intended outcome then they should survive Examination.

Planning for the future – the new Housing and Planning Act 2016

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Following a lengthy period of debate, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 (HPA 2016) has received Royal Assent and was recently published. We consider the main planning aspects of the new legislation and the implications for local authorities.

The starter homes duties are a challenge for the development and government sectors as a whole. The government is considering the responses to its technical consultation on the starter homes regulations and the development industry needs much more certainty about the product and the process, in particular how open market value and viability exceptions will work. The new product will be accompanied by changes to the National Planning Policy Framework policy on affordable housing so that it will essentially replace existing provision. As well as providing commercial opportunities, this new form of tenure brings its own uncertainties.

See the full article here: Planning for the future the new Housing and Planning Act 2016 – this article was first published on Lexis®PSL Planning on 9 June 2016. Click for a free trial of Lexis®PSL