In November the Government announced changes to planning policy in relation to the size of schemes that should provide affordable housing and make tariff style contributions, and the “credit” to be given for vacant buildings when calculating obligations. The policy was announced in Parliament and reflected in changes to the NPPG, see our previous blog. The stated aim was to make development easier for small developers. The policy changes have been challenged by West Berkshire and Reading Councils, with the support of a growing band of local authorities and public interest organisations.
One of the issues that the Courts will have to consider is the effect that the exemption of small sites from affordable housing/contributions will have in terms of the number of affordable homes that are secured and the level of public planning contributions that are achieved. Unfortunately, DCLG did not carry out any analysis of the numbers of affordable homes or cash likely to be lost before promoting the policy. Surprisingly, there was no regulatory impact assessment or any environmental analysis that might have explored this issue. Whilst there may well be good public policy justifications for the changes, promoting new policy without at least some public understanding of the consequences is just daft. It is tantamount to faith based planning.
A similar issue arises in relation to vacant building credit. Again, there is no evidence of the levels of affordable housing/ planning contributions that will be lost as a consequence of the change. Perhaps more importantly, at least in terms of the operation of the planning system, there is no clarity about how the vacant building credit will actually work. We have already seen different interpretations from different planning authorities.
The principle behind the credit is simple. Affordable housing contributions and planning contributions should now be based on the net increase infloorspace. This is meant to mirror CIL. However, unlike the CIL process, CIL rates are set taking account of viability and make assumptions about the likely level of net increase in floorspace. Critically, the vacant building credit does not address some important detail. At what point is a building judged to be “vacant”? Is it at the date of the planning application or determination? What if the building is deliberately made vacant? Is the credit meant to pro rate the floorspace or the number of units? What if the planning policies in the development plan already factored in net increases in development? The lack of definition about these issues will provide developers with some opportunities and local planning authorities with headaches. We will follow up this blog on the potential different outcomes depending on what interpretation is taken.
Faith based planning may just about be acceptable. After all we elect governments to reflect our prejudices. However, even if planning policy is being promoted without evidence to support it, there must be clarity about how the policy is meant to work in practice.