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Need for up to date local development plans

We consider a recent appeal decision for 601 houses at Overtown which confirms that unless Local Authorities keep local development plans up to date and demonstrate effective housing supply they will lose planning appeals, even on green belt land.

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The NPPF six years on

We consider the main proposed changes in the draft NPPF and whether these will be sufficient to deal with the housing crisis. On 5 March 2018 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published a revised text of the National Planning Policy Framework (the draft NPPF) alongside a raft of other supporting documents, government responses and further  consultations, including the revised Planning Practice Guidance text. The government has said that it intends to publish the final version of the NPPF ‘before the summer’, indicating that few changes are expected to be made as a result of the consultation.

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This article was first published in Property Law Journal (May 2018) and is also available at www.lawjournals.co.uk

Mind the Gap – Letwin Review should take care to avoid policy overload

The Letwin Review is considering why there is a significant gap between the number of planning permissions being granted and the number of homes built.

Initial findings are due to be published with the Chancellor’s Spring Statement 2018 in March (with the final report in the Autumn Budget).  There are a few things to think about before engaging in another orgy of Plan-Shaming and policy overload.

Apples and Pears

There is a need to be careful about how sites are looked at in the first phase of the Review:

  • Treating outline consents as if they are, or should be, immediately implementable is wrong. Outline consents can require significant work to reach detailed approval, let alone readiness for mobilisation and delivery.
  • Care is needed too, on what is treated as ‘delivery’.  Site mobilisation (for example enabling infrastructure) takes time and pre-dates construction of homes.

Defining what delivery and success look like is therefore important to avoid categorising sites that are being invested in – but have not yet yielded homes – as dormant. This will be significant in the context of the emerging Housing Delivery Test, which should be a fundamental part of the Local Plan system.

90% of percentages are wrong…

Various figures are bandied around on how many consents are ‘unimplemented’. Even adopting the higher level figure of 423,000 unimplemented homes with consent:

  • that is a tiny proportion of total supply – roughly 12-14 months of planning approvals
  • it illustrates the need for a deeper stock of permissions to achieve the heroic build out rates the Government is now committed to.

A Local Plan system which made more (and more detailed) site allocations, with clarity about infrastructure requirements, would make a big contribution to closing the gap between in principle approval for development and the detail needed for delivery. Likewise, a Local Plan system that sniffed and snuffed out unrealistic assumptions on delivery rates when trajectories are being examined would help ensure the right number of consents are granted in the first place to create the stock needed.

Diversification

Businesses will generally develop at the rate they are best able to achieve and which reflects the overarching price/demand relationship.  Rather than blaming the private sector for the speed it can – prudently –  build at, it would be more productive to look at how to achieve an increase in direct delivery (or directed delivery) by public bodies which have historically made up at least 100,000 of the gap to the Government’s 300,000 homes per year commitment.

In some cases that will involve more assertive use of land assembly and policy tools in a way that creates greater certainty about land values up front so that builders can build and sell more quickly.

Planning blame-fest?

Evidence from the sector on the non-Planning constraints to delivery is important.  Is there a skills gap, what will Brexit do to it and if Government is sponsoring Brexit how will it sponsor the solution?

From the frontline, a few of the  Planning matters that do slow things down are:

  • Length of time taken to deal with highways works agreements. The absence of a standard template agreement is a real blight on the development process.
    Constant reinvention of the wheel and imposition of poorly drafted and unreasonable requirements does have a real impact on the site mobilisation process. Government could sponsor a standard form and issue guidance recommending its use.
  • The bloat and general time-soak associated with unnecessary use of planning obligations. Our ‘speeding tickets’ blog flagged ways to speed things up without scarce Parliamentary time being needed.

Who GOVErns Planning?

Michael Gove has published a 25 year plan to improve the environment. It is wide-ranging, comprehensive and aspirational. If delivered, and the lack of a real delivery programme is problematic, the plan aims for us to leave the environment a better place than we found it.

The plan contains three themes that might lead to a profound change in planning. The first is a principle that development should have a net environmental gain. On a project by project basis this could mean a development having a natural capital account setting off the environmental costs against a compensating balance for either on-site or off-site benefits. If so there will need to be a proliferation of environmental land banks and habitat improvement schemes that development can use to ensure a net gain.

The second theme involves looking at how to improve the environment. Much of the plan focuses on managing, maintaining and enhancing the natural environment.  It is clear that we should be seeking opportunities to remedy past mistakes.  It might be worth thinking about how this could change attitudes to, for example, brownfield sites. It might lead to a move away from the lazy assumption that brownfield sites in the countryside can simply be replaced by less ugly development.  It might, instead, just mean saying “no” to the replacement of development that would never be permitted nowadays and a focus on sites that, although green, can make a better contribution to sustainable growth if carefully planned, designed and developed.

The final theme relates to the Green Belt. The language of the plan talks about making these areas more accessible, almost envisioning them as country parks. That has never been a Green Belt purpose.  With changes due to the NPPF it might, however, become a future factor when changing Green Belt boundaries or when designating new Green Belts.  Tying back to the first theme it might lead on to a scheme where, in exchange for planning permission, new development has to secure rights of access to Green Belt land as part of the environmental benefit offer.  And where that increase in accessibility is itself part of the balance to be struck in release of other Green Belt land.

If the plan follows through on these themes it could reshape the foundations of the planning system.

Common Sense Needed to Flush Out SPD Abuse

The High Court has confirmed the need to tread a common sense path through the mire of the Local Plan regulations, in quashing a supplementary planning document (SPD) that strayed into Development Plan Document (DPD) territory in William Davis Ltd & Ors v Charnwood Borough Council [2017] EWHC 3006 (Admin) (23 November 2017).

Light Touch

SPDs escape the examination process needed for DPDs.  They are often seen as simply elaborating on existing policies.  The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012 are more nuanced: SPDs are allowed to contain policy, but it must be justified and must not conflict with the adopted development plan (Reg 8(3)).  SPD policy cannot supersede development plan policy and is merely a material consideration.

Substance Over Style

Local Development Documents (LDDs) that have the characteristics listed in regulation 5 must (under reg 6) be prepared as Local Plans (i.e. DPDs).  SPDs are defined negatively (reg 2) as anything that is not a Local Plan. In practice, this means a document containing statements regarding “any environmental, social, design and economic objectives which are relevant to the attainment of the development and use of land encouraged by a [Local Plan]”.

The regime is messy and open to abuse where SPDs stray into Local Plan territory. SPDs cannot contain policy identifying development and use of land which the authority wishes to encourage, making site allocations or site allocation policies or setting development management to guide application decisions.

No Mercy

In Charnwood, Gilbart J quashed policies in a housing SPD.  The core strategy contained strategic policies with high level targets for housing types to meet demographic needs, with a “subject to viability” affordable housing target and a requirement that types, tenures and sizes of homes would be appropriate having regard to identified housing needs and character of the area. The SPD prescribed different percentages for all house sizes, and a 60-70% affordable housing requirement for some unit types.

The statements were quashed: they contained policies; and they clearly related to forms of development to be encouraged and imposed development management policies against which applications could be refused (or conditions to control unit mix imposed) (under reg 5). Although there was some legitimate SPD ‘guidance’ that did not save the offending policies (citing R (Skipton Properties Ltd) v Craven District Council [2017] EWHC 534 (Admin)).  They could only be adopted as a Local Plan (DPD), following examination.

Take Heed

The judgment emphasises several points that authorities and affected parties should pay attention to:

  • where an ‘SPD’ is promoted as a “stop gap” in the absence of  saved policies, by definition it cannot be supplementary (and is itself a primary policy assuming DPD status as in the Skipton case);
  • a housing mix policy which could lead to refusal on the grounds that the proposed mix is unacceptable (or an outline application condition imposing a particular mix) is a statement regarding the development of land and development management policy;
  • uncertainty arising from the “very poor” drafting of the Regulations should be dealt with in light of the “realities of development control” and the fundamental importance of robust and independent examination of the development plan;
  • viability impacts were material and had adopting the policies without consideration of those impacts was unlawful;
  • SPD should not be used for making an alteration to plan policy to address new evidence.

So what?

Authorities will need to be far more careful about the statements they include in what purport to be SPDs on issues such as housing mix and affordability but also density, height and other matters.  There is still a tendency to sneak swathes of untested, unjustified and ineffective policy in through the back door via dodgy SPDs.

The judgment comes when the Mayor of London’s Affordable Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) document is under legal attack for having strayed into the realms of policy, despite being clearly stated not to constitute policy and arguably not to extending beyond the policies in the London Plan itself.

It remains to be seen whether that challenge will be recast as a challenge to specific decisions which – wrongly – treat the SPG’s contents as a policy or a fixed position (which often feels like it is the case).

Free-Standing Sustainable Development Assessment a Mistake

In Reigate and Banstead BC v SoS CLG [2017] EWHC 1562 (Admin), Lang, J quashed permission granted on appeal for development on greenfield land intended for release in the development plan only if needed to boost housing land supply (HLS).

The recently-adopted Local Plan provided for almost a 5 year HLS, constrained so as to be unable to meet full objectively assessed need (OAN). Despite its “urban area first” strategy, the Inspector worked on the basis that sustainable development should be approved in the absence of harm.  He found that there was not basis for dismissing it because the proposal would reduce the HLS shortfall against OAN over the plan period and would not significantly prejudice the spatial strategy given its scale (45 homes).

The authority challenged the decision on the basis that the Inspector had inverted the statutory requirement to determine the appeal in accordance with the development plan, subject to material considerations otherwise (s38(6) PCPA 2004).

The judgment identifies ten key propositions for NPPF14 cases, including:

  • The need to distinguish between local and national policies which describe what qualifies as sustainable development (e.g. NPPF 6, 7, 18 to 219) and policies that determine when a presumption in favour of such development arises.
  • That the NPPF 14 exhaustively defines when a presumption in favour of sustainable development can arise. There is no general presumption outside NPPF 14 (applying Trustees of the Barker Mill Estates v SoS CLG [2016] EWHC 3028 (Admin) and Cheshire East BC v SoS CLG [2016] EWHC 571 (Admin)). The Inspector could – in theory – have reached the same outcome by applying the s38(6) starting point but giving in efforts to close the OAN gap greater weight.  However, the judgment implies that in the absence of something significant – such as evidence that local housing stress had worsened substantially since the Local Plan was adopted – the decision would be have been doomed to the same fate.
  • One proposition seems out of kilter with the rest – that the NPPF14 presumption “does not extend to a proposal which conflicts with the development plan“. Although not relevant in Reigate, NPPF14 is explicit that the presumption does extend to such proposals where (1) the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out‑of‑date and (2) any adverse impacts of granting consent would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits considered against NPPF policies in the round (and no specific restrictive NPPF policies apply – which should now include ‘related’ development plan policies following Suffolk Coastal District Council v Hopkins Homes Ltd & Onr [2017] 1 WLR 1865).

DCO Decision Confirms Heritage Approach

In R (on the application of John Mars Jones on his own behalf and on behalf of the Pylon The Pressure Group) v The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [2017] EWHC 1111 (Admin), the High Court dismissed the judicial review of a Development Consent Order made under the Planning Act 2008 by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.  The Order authorised an overhead electricity line to wind farms following developer requests to connect to the network. The Claimant, whose Grade II* listed Tudor farm lay within 125 metres of the route, challenged the decision to make the Order on several grounds, including the treatment of heritage effects.

The Secretary of State was required to regard to two relevant policy statements under section 5 of the 2008 Act – Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy (EN-1) (“EN-1”) and the National Policy Statement for Electricity Networks Infrastructure (EN-5) (“EN-5”).  The policy statements together required careful consideration of the feasibility of alternatives to overhead lines and the protection of heritage assets. He was required to determined the Order application in accordance with them unless, among other things, satisfied that the adverse impact of the proposals would outweigh the benefits.  He was also required to have regard to the desirability of preserving listed buildings or their setting (under regulation 3 of the Infrastructure Planning (Decisions) Regulations 2010).

The Order was approved, on the basis that in the absence of substantial harm, there was no need for the disproportionate costs of undergrounding the cable section.

Dismissing the challenge, Lewis, J held on the main grounds that:

  • The  approach to heritage effects had been correct – identifying the scale of harm and then weighing the scheme benefits against, among other things, the heritage harm.
  • The regulation 3 duty had been complied with looking at the report and decision as a whole. There was no duty to consider alternatives not forming part of the Order scheme and the option of refusal had been properly considered.
  • Permanent extinguishment of private rights – despite the temporary nature of the Order -was not a principal controversial issue and did not require specific reasons to be given on it.
  • The fact that the weighing exercise was in a different part of the  part of the report to the assessment of heritage harm did not matter. It is worth noting that the limited (30 year) duration of the Order was accepted as minimising the impact on the setting of the listed buildings (being for period which would be insubstantial relative to the life of the buildings) and offering a sensitive approach to heritage effects.

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 controversies demand clear reasons

A flurry of decisions on reasons have underlined the need for care in explaining planning decisions, from delegated reports to sensitive areas. Our comprehensive guide to the Oakley green belt case and other decisions is here.

The decision in R (Campaign To Protect Rural England, Kent (CPRE)), v Dover District Council [2016] EWCA Civ 936 is on its way to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, it is worth looking into the Court of Appeal’s approach to the standard of reasons required of an authority granting permission for development of a scale “unprecedented in an AONB” in that case. The judgment confirms that reasons for approval may be required in planning matters where basic fairness demands it, despite the absence of a statutory duty, particularly where significant policy breaches are being entertained. It also highlights the benefits of dealing properly with the need for statements of reasons under the EIA regime.

Controversial proposals

The authority’s officers had recommended a less dense, but – according to its advisors – no less viable approach to delivering housing in the sensitive area.  Members rejected that approach on viability grounds and objectors challenged by judicial review on the basis of inadequate reasons.

No reasons required?

The defendant authority started from the position that there is no duty on planning authorities – unlike the Secretary of State – to give detailed reasons for the grant of permission (adopting the ‘light touch’ approach in R (Hawksworth Securities Plc) v Peterborough City Council & Ors [2016] EWHC 1870 (Admin)) where the standards applicable to an inspector’s decision on appeal were distinguished from merely an ‘administrative’ decisions by local planning authorities).

The Court of Appeal recognised that this approach “needs to be treated with some care. Interested parties (and the public) are just as entitled to know why the decision is as it is when it is made by the authority as when it is made by the Secretary of State.”  In the circumstances of Dover, several factors justified detailed reasons:

  • the nature of protective NPPF policies means that decisions to authorising development which will inflict substantial harm on an AONB must be accompanied by “substantial reasons”;
  • a departure from officers’ advice;
  • the applicability of the statutory duty to make a statement of reasons and mitigation under Regulation 24(1)(c) of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011.

Costly admin errors

The Committee minutes in question failed – against that standard – to give legally adequate reasons:

  • firstly, it was unclear whether members accepted their officers’ assessment of harm; if they did, they would have “opted to inflict irreversible harm on the AONB” on the limited material before them;
  • secondly, it was unclear whether they viewed viability issues as a mere risk, which would have made their obligation to address the issue of harm was “all the more acute”;
  • thirdly, it was not clear if they had applied a simple unweighted balance to AONB protections; and
  • finally, they had reached conclusions on visual screening which were “fragile at best and would have to be supported by reasoning a good deal more substantial than the sentence in the minutes”.

EIA goalie?

The judgment helpfully confirms that while the lack of a regulation 24 statement may not necessarily kill a decision where reasons are adequate on the record, it could save it where they are not.

The Supreme Court judgment, when it comes, should provide a definitive position on the basis and scope for reasons for approval. In the meantime, a little transparency and coherence for controversial decisions can only be a sensible approach.

SEA change

There has been a spate of recent cases concerning the requirement for plan makers to consider ‘any reasonable alternatives’ as part of the plan-making process and the role Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) plays in how that should be approached. This article looks at the recent decisions concerning the role that strategic environmental assessments play in the plan-making process, and the consideration of reasonable alternatives.

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