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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/.

Care needed in applying local green belt policies

In R (Lensbury Ltd) v Richmond-Upon-Thames London Borough Council [2016] EWCA Civ 814 the Court of Appeal disagreed with the High Court and agreed to quash permission for a hydro-power installation at a weir on Metropolitan Open Land (MOL). The appellant hotel owner succeeded on the grounds that the authority had, in applying its own policies on MOL development, failed to apply the stricter London Plan policies.

London Green Belt

The London Plan gives MOL equivalent status to green belt (applying NPPF policies – i.e. inappropriate development should not be allowed unless there are ‘very special circumstances’ (VSC)). The local plan policies allowed the development to be classified as ‘appropriate development’ in a way that the London Plan policy did not. The authority considered only the local policies.

Failing to refer to the specific (London Plan) policy in the committee report which provided the rationale for the decision was not fatal when considering the extent of compliance with the development as a whole (under Section 38(6) Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act 2004). The analysis did, however, have to make clear that “a particular policy has been brought into account“.

VSC need to be clear

By failing to identify the development as inappropriate in the context of London Plan MOL policy, the authority had failed to ask whether VSC existed which justified the exceptional grant of planning permission. The S.38(6) duty – to determine in accordance with the development plan as a whole, or identify reasons for a different approach – had therefore not been discharged.

The judgment is a reminder that the Courts are pragmatic on the application of S.38(6). The duty does not require a mechanistic treatment of each policy (City of Edinburgh Council v Secretary of State for Scotland [1977] 1 WLR 1447).  An overall finding of “compliance or conflict” with the development plan as a whole is sufficient, whether express or implicit.

The judgment notes that the dilution of the London Plan approach by the local plan policy appeared to have been overlooked. One oddity of the case is that agreement between the parties that the two policies did not take precedence over each other does not appear to reflect S.38(4), which provides that where there is conflict the most recently adopted policy trumps the older one.

Assets of Community Value: chickens and eggs

Some recent cases have considered Assets of Community Value (ACVs) where the owner is both appealing a refusal of planning permission, and is also appealing the decision to list the property as an asset of community value.  These cases helpfully demonstrate how the interrelated appeals are considered from both a planning application and listing challenge perspective.

The Alexandra Public House in Haringey closed in 2012, and was listed as an ACV in 2015. The owner bought the pub in a semi-derelict state, and made a planning application to change the building into two dwellings, as well as appealing the listing of the pub as an ACV.

The local authority refused planning permission, but the Secretary of State granted permission on appeal.  The Inspector noted “the primary purpose of ACV listing is to afford the community an opportunity to purchase the property, not to prevent otherwise acceptable development“, and while some weight was afforded to ACV listing, the Inspector found it not to be determinative.  Weight was given to the additional dwelling which would be provided, the improvement in the quality of the existing flat above the pub, the reduction in noise and anti-social behaviour for the neighbours due to the change of use, and the provision of a viable use for a run down the building.

In considering the listing appeal after planning permission had been granted, the Judge referred to the decision in the Tumbledown Dick appeal, which stated that the grant of planning permission for an alternative use should not be ignored in the context of a listing appeal.

The Tumbledown Dick case considered a historic pub, which McDonald’s agreed to purchase before the Localism Act came into force.  Shortly before the First Tier Tribunal considered the listing appeal, McDonald’s obtained planning permission for a change of use to restaurant/takeaway.  The Judge considered that the grant of planning permission, along with the sale of the freehold, substantial expenditure being required to bring the building back into use and that it had been vacant for five years made a future community use unrealistic.

The Judge noted that where permission is refused, it might make it more likely that the building would be sold at a price which could support a community use, or allow the continuation of the current community use. In this case, as planning permission for residential use had been obtained, it was much less likely that the Alexandra would be sold at a price low enough to allow a pub use.  On this basis, the Judge allowed the appeal to remove the property from the list of ACVs.

The Ship in South Norwood closed as a pub in 2014, and was listed as an ACV in 2016. The Ship was converted to residential.  The Local Authority issued an enforcement notice for the conversion of the public house into seven flats and office space, along with physical works, which the owner appealed.

In considering the enforcement appeal, the Inspector noted that the ACV listing was being challenged on the basis the decision was made outside the specified time limit, and that if the ACV status was not confirmed, the building could be used as shops, financial and professional services or restaurants or cafes under permitted development rights. While a material consideration, ACV listing did not outweigh the benefits of providing additional housing and a viable use for the building, and the appeal was allowed and permission granted for the change of use.  The Ship remains on Croydon’s list of ACVs.

These cases are helpful in showing the Secretary of State’s approach to ACV status. While it is a material consideration, in neither case did it result in planning permission being refused for a change of use which will effectively end the community use.  This is a clear departure from the view expressed by the Upper Tribunal in Banner Homes, that any permission for a change of use was likely to be refused while the asset was ACV listed, as we discussed in a previous blog.  While owners of ACVs may be reassured that planning permission has been granted as part of an assessment of fairly ordinary planning considerations, nominating groups may be dismayed that ACV status did not afford these community assets greater protection against a change of use.

Short term rentals – a potential planning issue?

The recent decision in Iveta Nemcova v Fairflied Rents Limited [2016] UKUT 303 underlined the importance of reviewing lease terms (in particular, the user covenant) prior to letting residential property on a short term basis, as set out in our alert.  It therefore seems timely to reflect upon the potential planning issues raised by short term rentals, particularly given the rising popularity of websites such as Airbnb and onefinestay.

airWhat’s the use?

From a planning perspective, permanent use of residential property for temporary sleeping accommodation constitutes a material change of use for which planning permission is required.

Short-term lettings in Greater London are also subject to a further planning restriction in the form of Section 25 Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1973. This makes the use of residential premises as temporary sleeping accommodation for less than 90 consecutive nights a material change of use requiring planning permission.  The purpose behind the provision is to protect London’s permanent housing supply.

The Government introduced an exception to this restriction in the Deregulation Act 2015.  As a result, short term lettings in the capital are no longer deemed a material change of use if:

  1. the cumulative number of nights use as temporary accommodation does not exceed 90 nights in any one go (or any calendar year); and
  2. the person providing the accommodation is liable to pay council tax.

Such use may, nonetheless, be classed as a material change of use under Building Regulations. Consequently, upgrade works may still be required to comply with relevant standards.

The new rules also grant the Secretary of State power to create further exceptions by way of regulations, albeit subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament.

Motivating factors

The Government’s rationale for relaxing the rules was set out in ‘Promoting the sharing economy in London – Policy on short-term use of residential property in London’, which came out of a wider review of property conditions in the private rented sector.  In short, the changes were intended to give Londoners the opportunity to earn extra income renting out their property and expand the pool of competitively priced accommodation in the capital, while removing uncertainty caused by inconsistent enforcement of section 25 across London Boroughs.

Safeguards

The new 90 day cap was imposed to prevent permanent temporary sleeping accommodation use. As a further safeguard, local authorities can direct that the new rules do not apply to: (i) a particular residential premise (for example, where there has already been enforcement action against a statutory nuisance); or (ii) a particular area.  However, local authorities can only use this power with the consent of the Secretary of State where it is “necessary to protect the amenity of the locality”.  Time will tell whether these safeguards prove to be effective.

Policy conflicts?

The reforms are consistent with the Government’s broader objectives of relaxing planning laws and reducing the burden of unnecessary change of use applications. However, they would appear to be at odds with the Government’s drive to increase the supply of homes.  It is therefore doubtful that the Secretary of State will make further exceptions to section 25 in the near future.

CPO – gentrification or regeneration?

The recent refusal by the Secretary of State to confirm Southwark Council’s CPO for the next phase of the Aylesbury Estate development demonstrates a meticulous adherence to  parts of the CPO Guidance which have largely been paid lip-service to in many previous CPO decisions.

The mantra that a compulsory purchase order should only be made in the “public interest” is often justified by the inevitable regenerative benefits of development projects.

And that should be good enough, should it not?  – when not a day goes by that the news is reminding us of our housing crisis, that our town centres are failing, of the social divides which exist within our local communities and, as we wait with bated breath, to see what long-term impacts Brexit will have on construction, funding and development, once that axe is finally swung.

Indeed, both the Secretary of State and Inspector agreed that the redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate would provide social and economic benefits to the area.  However, it was concluded that these benefits were not so significant to justify the lawful interference with the Human Rights of those objecting to the Order.  This was largely based on the conclusion that existing leaseholders, without investing significant savings or taking out new mortgages, would not be able to afford to relocate into new properties provided by the redevelopment and therefore forced to move away from their local community.  He also reached the conclusion that not enough effort had been made to acquire the outstanding interests by agreement.

gentThe decision raises some real issues for the CPO industry.  It paints an uncomfortable picture of CPO being a tool of gentrification, driving residents and small businesses out of their communities on account of rising land values and rents; the polar opposite of what a CPO is intended to achieve, which should be to improve and restore vitality to a local area.

It also creates a real tension with the current reforms to CPO compensation, which essentially seeks to ensure that those subject to compulsory acquisition should not gain any benefit from any enhanced value created by the regeneration scheme underlying a CPO.

It raises the question of whether Council’s should wrestle back control from developers when seeking to engage with those affected by CPO.  Most CPOs are developer-led and their surveyors will be at the fore of seeking to negotiate acquisition of land by agreement, albeit with a duty of care to the Council.  This possibly creates the wrong perception that there is a lack of engagement by the Council.  Greater visibility of the Council promoting the CPO and a genuine strategy to engage will be important.

Whilst the decision is, in some respects, a breath of fresh air that reminds us the impact CPO and redevelopment can have on individuals and local communities must be given more careful consideration together with a thorough review of solutions which can be put in place to maintain the identity of the local community.  One does have to question how genuinely balanced the decision was when the majority of existing residents had raised no objection, the scheme was set to deliver over 800 new residential units and other benefits; yet the CPO failed on the back of only 8 outstanding objections.

Southwark Council has announced they will be judicially reviewing the decision; a sensible move given its ramifications.

Homes for London

London is falling lamentably short of delivering the number of homes that the city needs.  The mayoral election campaign was dominated by the housing crisis – and rightly so.  The chronic under-supply is a crippling social issue and a threat to London’s economic competitiveness.  London must double its rate of house building if it is to adequately house a growing population and maintain the city’s global competitiveness.  There is no silver bullet – increasing supply requires action on multiple fronts.

Homes-for-Londoners-212x300During the campaign the new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, made it clear that he wanted to see more homes built, particularly affordable homes.  The Mayor proposed the setting up of “Homes for Londoners” to bring together the Mayor’s housing, planning, funding and land powers.  Working together, London First and Dentons today launched “Homes for Londoners – A blueprint for how the Mayor can deliver the homes London needs”.  The report sets out the first steps that we believe the Mayor should take to deliver on his manifesto promise and to deliver much-needed housing in London.

We support the creation of Homes for Londoners – a body with the simple objective of ensuring that all of London government plays an effective part in increasing housing in London to 50,000 homes a year.

We believe that the initial focus of Homes for Londoners should be to bring public land forward for development.  The main pipeline of land under the Mayor’s control is owned by Transport for London (TfL).  Homes for Londoners should help to advise the Mayor in establishing a strategy to identify and release TfL sites for development from the perspective of maximising housing supply.  As part of the wider agenda of securing an effective pipeline of public land, Homes for Londoners should support the work of the London Land Commission by putting in place a strategy to ensure the disposal of land on the brownfield register.  A key focus should be on assembling sites around core public land-holdings by acquiring adjacent privately owned land.  Those sites should be released to the market with clearly prescribed density, quantum and mix (including affordable housing) requirements.

The recommendations in the report are predicated on the GLA evolving from being an organisation that sets policies and distributes funds, into an organisation that pushes, and where necessary, directly intervenes to support the delivery of more homes.  As part of this, we suggest a bolder approach to the use of compulsory acquisition powers is needed.  This should be supported by a loan fund for acquisition and compensation costs to de-risk the process for boroughs and other public bodies.

Delivering the steps set out in the report will need energy, conviction and muscle on the part of the Mayor.  This can be done.  It should be done and we ask the Mayor to step up and ensure that it is done.

The Mayoral Planning Manifesto – who will you be voting for? part 2

In London’s mayoral race, Labour’s Sadiq Khan and the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith are the main contenders, with a substantial lead over the rest of the field. We have explored their planning promises in an earlier blog. However, there are another 10 candidates in race:

Party Candidate
Liberal Democrats Caroline Pidgeon
UK Independence Party Peter Whittle
Green Party of England and Wales Sian Berry
Independent Prince Zylinski
British National Party David Furness
Respect Party George Galloway
Britain First Paul Golding
Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol Lee Harris
One Love Party Ankit Love
Women’s Equality Party Sophie Walker
UK Independence Party Peter Whittle

 

Here is our summary of the key planning promises made by the other 3 key contenders:

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The Mayoral Planning Manifesto – who will you be voting for?

Latest polls suggest Sadiq Khan is likely to be London’s next Mayor, but it will all come down to voter turnout (with turnout at the last mayoral election just 38.1%).

CaptureOur summary of the key Planning promises for the 2 key candidates (from a total of 12 candidates) highlights the planning commitments. A lot of grand promises are made, but as they say, the devil is in the detail and the detail is sorely missing for most of the key pledges (namely how they will be funded). There is arguably no standout performer on planning and not a whole lot between them on concrete pledges to solve London’s housing crisis. That is disappointing, given that most voters in London are concerned with housing, which is very expensive in the capital.

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Housing and Planning Bill – an uncertain future for social housing (part 2)

VACANT HIGH VALUE LOCAL AUTHORITY HOUSING (CLAUSES 67-77)

What is proposed?

The Government will require a payment from Councils with housing stock each financial year. The payment will be equivalent to the deemed sale value of vacant ‘high value’ council homes, less any costs or deductions but regardless of whether they are in fact sold.

What are the issues?

The key to the success (or otherwise) of the voluntary RTB lies in its funding. Councils are set to pick up the slack, with these payments intended for grants to housing associations, compensating them for selling RTB stock at a discount. There remain unanswered questions about how this complex relationship will work in practice. In particular, the method of calculating the payment and the assumptions upon which is based may prove challenging. There are also uncertainties around:

  • Definitions – drafting Regulations that work will be difficult. The concept of ‘vacancy’ has proven notoriously difficult to define in other contexts and was recently sidestepped altogether by Government in its ill-fated Vacant Building Credit policy. Similarly, determining ‘high value’ will be critical with the valuation exercise being notoriously difficult. Which method(s) will be used? How will it take account of regional variations?
  • Shortfalls – who covers any shortfall in receipts to top up grants? Will persistent shortfalls undermine the long-term availability of grant funding, diminish confidence and threaten the effectiveness of the measure? What happens if sums raised from sales are insufficient to cover the costs of replacement?
  • ‘Social’ housing – if replacement proves ineffective and stock further declines, the concept of funding the sale of (housing association) housing stock through the sale of (council) housing stock reinforces a perceived ideological shift, moving away from traditional notions of state provision.
  • Changes to the Bill during the Committee stage would impose a duty on the Secretary of State, the Mayor of London and London housing authorities to achieve the provision of at least two new units of affordable housing for the disposal of each of high value housing.  How viable that is remains to be seen. The key issue would seem to be the challenges, particularly in London, of achieving ‘one for one’ (let alone two for one) replacements of stock that is sold.  Local authorities will take a closer interest than ever in receiving and delivering new stock and partnership approaches to new development should reflect that.

Housing and Planning Bill – London calling

As the Housing and Planning Bill completes its Committee Stage in the House of Commons, this second part of our Q&A considers how the amendments to the Mayor of London’s call-in powers (Clause 110) and the Secretary of State’s power to determine applications (Clause 114) will influence local decisions.

Call-in powers for the Mayor of London

roomWhat are the Mayor’s current powers?

The Mayor can call-in, or direct a local planning authority to refuse, applications of potential strategic importance for Greater London. “PSI applications” are restricted to large scale developments or major infrastructure projects, as defined in The Town and Country Planning (Mayor of London) Order 2008.

What would change?

The wider powers would require London boroughs to consult the Mayor before determining specific applications. Directions to consult would apply to applications for development on safeguarded wharfs or developments that would affect key London sightlines, embodying the promised devolution of control over these developments to the Mayor.

PSI applications would also be broadened, allowing developments to be called-in on the basis of the elements of the London Plan, or other development plan documents. This would allow different thresholds for PSI applications to be set for Growth Areas identified in the London Plan, giving the Mayor greater influence over development in those areas.

Applications direct to the Secretary of State

What would the Bill change?

Clause 114 would expand the Secretary of State’s existing powers to determine planning applications for poorly performing local planning authorities. These are currently limited to “major development”, but the changes would broaden this to any type of application that the Secretary of State may specify.

Why are the changes required?

Clause 114 is part of a range of measures illustrating the Government’s increasingly tough talk on authorities with a track record of slow or poor-quality decision-making. The changes are part of the effort to give teeth, on paper, to the 2017 deadline for Local Plan adoption, and other amendments proposed in the Bill enabling the Secretary of State to take a more active role in plan-making noted in the first part of our Q&A.

Whilst Clause 114 and other sections of the Bill are designed to provide a practical alternative to the local route, there are some missing links:

  • the possibility that some overstretched authorities may happily cede the administrative burden of, and responsibility for, applications to the Secretary of State;
  • the way that a process for obtaining an independent view on objectively assessed needs and housing land supply could do more to promote investor confidence.