Another developer-led panel to advise the Government on planning

CPRE has a good relationship with the housing and planning minister, Brandon Lewis. He takes a practical approach and he listens. Of course he wants to see more houses built – so does CPRE – but he recognises that achieving this aim requires more than a weakened planning system and high housing targets. That is a welcome change from the approach of some recent planning ministers from both main parties.

It is therefore disappointing that last week Brandon Lewis appointed an expert panel consisting largely of developers and Conservative Party loyalists to advise him on streamlining the local plan-making process. The panel has not a single representative of community or environmental groups.

Who on the panel will make the point that current methodologies for assessing housing numbers are one of the main causes of slow plan-making? Who will query the role of unaccountable LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships) in driving through growth strategies that ignore environmental limits and are unacceptable to local people?

Who will query the CLG’s extraordinary claim that “local plans give communities more say in how their area will develop from the amount of housing they need to the infrastructure that has to be put in place to help them thrive”? CLG’s press officers need to get out more. It is hard to find a local councillor who thinks the local plan gives them much say over housing numbers, and I know (as, I am sure, does Brandon Lewis) plenty of local communities who regard the plan-making process as totally disempowering.

Brandon Lewis and I had a little twitter-exchange about the panel. I tweeted: “Oh dear, another developer-led panel on planning, without environment or community reps: outcome, depressingly predictable.” The minister came back with the argument that “local govt is accountable directly to local people & has two reps on the panel”. I am grateful to him for responding, but his response not only overlooks the lack of environmental representation; it misses the point of neighbourhood planning, the best planning innovation of recent years.

The UK’s local government units are some of the biggest in the world. According to Simon Jenkins’s Big Bang Localism, in Britain the average population of the lowest executive tier of government is 118,000, compared with 1,600 in France or 5,000 in Germany. Neighbourhood planning arises from the recognition that many communities do not regard their planning authorities as properly accountable. Ministers deliberately bypassed local planning authorities when they introduced neighbourhood planning; similarly when CPRE talks about community representation, we are not talking about local authorities.

My polite exchange with Brandon Lewis was covered in the Sunday Telegraph under the headline: “War on countryside fear as team is set up to speed new housing.” I do not think this developer-dominated panel signals a war on the countryside. I think it is more likely that CLG simply forgot about the environmental and community angle and, as governments do, unconsciously assumed that the business interest is equivalent to the national interest. But that, in itself is depressing. If the Government is going to get more plans in place and more homes built, it will need to win people’s consent.

6 Responses to “Another developer-led panel to advise the Government on planning”

  1. 1 Rupert Young September 22, 2015 at 5:52 am

    The panel appears to have one developer our of 8, and this is not a national housebuilder. How can this be called developer led?

    • 2 sspiers September 22, 2015 at 8:45 am

      I think perhaps you are being over-literal. The panel is chaired by a planning consultant who works principally for developers; it has a barrister who works principally for developers; it has the ex-chief executive of the British Property Federation; and it has a developer. Of course, any panel of this sort should have developers and I have no objection to any of the people on it. I am sure they are all good people. And for the avoidance of doubt, I have no problem with developers or development. Planning is largely about development. The country needs development. Etc. etc.

      But we get better quality development and quicker development if we give proper consideration to the community and environmental angles. My point was that these were forgotten when the panel was chosen. I think that is both unfortunate and telling.

  2. 3 Andrew Needham September 22, 2015 at 9:39 am

    There are worrying signs of a revival of interest in the concept of Green Belt swaps.

    A Number 10 source said “Protecting the Green Belt is a manifesto pledge and we will stick to it. If local councils want to build on Green Belt land they must designate other areas as Green Belt. There will always be parity. The Green Belt is safe under this Government.”

    Housing Minister Brandon Lewis added: “We have put strong protections in place for the Green Belt, which mean that apart from land reclassified as National Park, there were 34,000 more hectares in the Green Belt in 2013/14 than in 1997.”

    This will be a matter for the APPG. A new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Housing and Planning has been formed to address the national housing emergency, supported by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). It has a rep from the LGA and will report later this year.

  3. 4 Rodney Elliott September 22, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    The developers lobby does not need to have several direct representations on the panel. That industry is sufficiently wealthy, influential and devious to be able to pay for highest of skilled professional negotiators and lobbyists, whilst maintaining its low key profile behind the scenes.

    The reality is that, with introduction of that deliberately divisive planning instrument, NPPF, the last two administrations have systematically and surreptitiously shifted planning ground rules to ensure that any influence which communities can have over the development intents for their districts is now minimal. Indeed, although the potential for public involvement in the planning processes remains superficially as it has always been, the effectiveness of that has been reduced to being minimal and the reciprocal accountability of local authorities to their public has become token.

    The fact is that whatever local public opinion may be (and it is not always well informed and right!) because Government has made councils so strapped for cash, councils will now rarely challenge any planning appeal against an application rejection, simply because councils just cannot afford to lose an appeal and pick up concomitant costs. That is playing so nicely into the hands of developers that council planning committees, who are after the final arbiters in all of this, are now more inclined to cut their losses, save time and rubber stamp applications. To exacerbate the situation, we now have councillors who can be so ill-informed about planning issues that they are just as likely to make poor sound ones. Indeed, in one very recent instance in West Yorkshire one planning committee councilor was recorded in Chamber stating, “now then, this is also private land, it’s private land, so really how can you stop anyone doing what they want on their own private land”. That application was approved by 4 votes to 3! With that level of competence, or even ignorance, what can be the future for meaningful public consultation?

    The fact is that, regardless of the extent of ‘brownfield’ sites available for new build homes and, invariably, the superiority of those sites for that purpose because of extant services, developers prefer to decimate ‘green’ sites. Thereby, they can sell what are the same types of properties at much larger profit margins by dishonestly marketing dreams of ‘country living’ when, in reality the end game will be for most occupiers to end up living in a sprawling estate with little or no access to decent facilities.

    Shaun refers to population numbers for lowest tier governments and mentions that remarkable low figure for France. We lived in France for eight years and during that time I was amazed to learn that France has, as I recall, 36,000 mayors. That may superficially appear to be an extremely over administered system, but one needs to remember that, in France a quite small town or larger village will have its own mayor and council, but that will also embrace several hamlets. Furthermore, although France has that remarkable number of elected mayors, the remuneration of those mayors is directly related to the population numbers within their administrative jurisdiction. Thus, for the smallest of mayoral districts, that could amount to a mere few hundred Euros per annum, whereas for a large city the remuneration will reflect the much greater responsibilities. From that, one may postulate that many UK councillors are grossly over remunerated for their competence and what they actually do, let alone achieve!

    That apart, one does have the feeling of genuine localism being at play in France and, in that respect, one also gains an impression of their system being more reactive to community opinion. That is quite unlike our government’s much vaunted ‘localism’ which, in reality, is little more than the customary spin-doctor, meaningless gesture to which we are persistently being subjected.

    I will conclude by suggesting that, in his final paragraph, Shaun is being rather disingenuous toward the British public. The goal posts are now shifted so far that the entire planning process has been devalued to being all but meaningless. Furthermore, I just cannot agree that there is no war on the countryside. Indeed, there may be no ‘war’ on the more remote rural locations, but that is not the issue. There is a definite and undeniable conspiracy to ‘war’ against the green fringes of urban areas, areas which we have been repeatedly assured by this government will be protected from urban sprawl. Nothing could be further from the truth!

  4. 5 CPRE Local Supporter September 24, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    The Panel appointed by the Minister for Planning certainly excludes any conservation representative. But it is wrong to describe it as “consisting largely of developers and Conservative Party loyalists”. There is one developer (British land) and one Tory MP.

    Membership (not given in the article above):

    Chair John Rhodes of planning consultants Quod
    Adrian Penfold from developers British Land
    Richard Harwood QC from legal firm 39 Essex Chambers
    Councillor Toby Elliott from Swindon Borough Council
    Keith Holland, a retired Senior Planning Inspector
    Liz Peace, formerly of the British Property Federation
    John Howell MP, member for Henley
    Derek Stebbing, Local Authority Plans Manager for Chelmsford Council

    * Richard Harwood is not “a barrister who works principally for developers” – actually the complete opposite, a barrister who has represented more opponents of development (individuals or societies) than any other. He is usually instructed by Richard Buxton the Cambridge solicitor and they have won many cases against bad planning decisions by Ministers and Councils. If any barrister is going to give an independently-minded view to the minister, it is Richard Harwood.
    * Keith Holland is an idiosyncratic former senior Inspector with very outspoken views about how poor the planning system has become, and is a great cynic. He was educated in South Africa and has a direct Southern Hemisphere way of saying things.
    * The two local authority reps, one councillor, one chief officer, are going to warn Government that it is not possible to speed up the system or deliver more housing quickly – they will know the planning system well.
    * LIz Peace is one person who should not be there – because she has been a non-executive director of the Planning Inspectorate (whatever that means) so is an insider who will tell the minister what he wants to hear. And she has not been exposed to challenge for her attitudes over the years. However she has largely been involved with office development schemes and has not been a lobbyist for increasing greenfield development for housing.
    * It would be worth attacking John Howell MP (Henley-on-Thames) as unsuitable as he is responsible (with Caroline Spelman MP) for the very poor Conservative planning policy document ‘Open Source Planning’ issued just before the 2010 election. Mrs Spelman as front-bench spokesperson was largely responsible for its acceptance, but a more able man than Howell would not have offered it to her. He has a poor track-record, in other words. He isn’t considered capable of even a junior-minister post and gets this sort of ‘external’ job instead..

    So the make-up of the Panel can be criticised, but Shaun Spiers’s summary of it is misleading.

    Had the once-powerful Civic Trust not faded away in the 1990s and 2000s (it had effectively expired long before it went bankrupt in 2009) we would probably not be in this situation anyway – it wouldn’t have allowed the planning system to decay so much. But it doesn’t exist (‘Civic Voice’ isn’t an effective substitute for it). So it can’t even be asked for a nominee to the panel.

  5. 6 Ben Jamin' September 26, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    The CPRE is losing the argument because it fails to address fundamental economic questions.

    We all know the Greenbelt is to protect against urban sprawl.

    But what causes urban sprawl? And is there anything other than Greenbelt regulations that would protect the countryside against it?

    The answer is there is. And the same thing that causes urban sprawl also makes housing unaffordable.

    Land has no cost of production, so its value capitalised into selling prices/rental income merely represents a transfer of wealth/welfare from producers to non-producers. The purest of monopolies.

    So land rent is a £250bn per year free lunch to freeholders. And like all free lunches leads to overconsumption. The cause of vacancy, under occupation, land banking and urban sprawl.

    The answer ending this £250bn pa free lunch is a Land Value Tax. Which would mean property resources are always optimally allocated. So, if even a fraction of our vacant and underutilized housing were put to better use because of this, we wouldn’t need to build any extra new stock for the foreseeable future. And certainly not on green field sites.

    There would be a higher turnover of existing urban sites, which would then be able to respond to demand, leading to compact, efficient urban development.

    But most importantly are the distributional effects and those on selling prices.

    Simple calculations show that a shift away from taxing wealth creation to using land and other economic rents as public revenues would leave an average UK household around £10,500 pa better off in their pockets. If land selling prices dropped to zero, as in theory they should under a Land Tax, that would save that household around £6,500 pa in mortgage repayments.

    Taken together they result in housing becoming four times more affordable, as a ratio of discretionary income, for an average UK household.

    All without the need to build an extra new home. Although I personally think we should systematically be replacing the poorly built rabbit hutch rubbish we’ve been erecting for the last few decades.

    I have found no reference to a Land Value Tax on the CPRE website. Which is odd, because it is not just the best protection the countryside has got, but in the long term, the only one.

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