The developer-led planning system

One of my jobs at CPRE is to go round England cheering up our branches and regional groups. I am not sure I ever really succeed, but they often succeed in depressing me.

This is not, I hasten to say, because they are all miserabilists or because we are losing every battle. I always come away proud that CPRE has so many talented and dedicated people, and full of admiration for what they achieve with minute resources. CPRE saves countryside that would otherwise be lost and improves the quality of many developments. But our local volunteers are finding the going tough, and they are not shy about saying so.

Yesterday I gave my usual message to the CPRE South West meeting in Taunton: the Government is listening, our messages are getting through, we hope we can persuade it to change course. Very few people any longer think that weakening the planning system and releasing more land is the way to solve the housing crisis: that seven year experiment is nearing its end. Indeed, no one seriously thinks the private sector will build houses on the scale the country needs: the 37 year experiment of leaving housing to the private sector has spectacularly failed.

I genuinely think we may be at a moment for radical new thinking about housing – or perhaps a variant of old thinking, harking back to the years when Conservative governments prided themselves both on building houses and looking after the countryside.

For now, though, at a local level CPRE branches have to grapple with a system of mind-blowing, spirit sapping complexity and opaqueness, one that seems almost designed to discourage civil society from having its say.

For many CPRE branches, the ills of the current system are symbolised by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The Coalition abolished the previous government’s regional bodies on the grounds that they were undemocratic and unaccountable. It took some genius to replace them with LEPs. These, according to the minutes of a previous CPRE South West meeting, “are not democratic, not transparent and are pushing for huge developments at all costs”. But that, I fear, is the point. I can almost hear someone in the Treasury reading that and going “tick, tick, tick”.

In opposition, the Conservatives railed against unaccountable regional bodies, but it is hard to get anyone outside CPRE too exercised by the role of (sub-regional) LEPs. They are below the radar, too obscure, too secretive – and besides, they have local government representation so they must be okay.

Across the country LEPs are driving up housing targets on the back of unrealisable growth projections. The joint core strategy for Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury, for instance, is based on the local LEP’s aspirational target of 4.8% GVA, a rate of growth that has never consistently been achieved. It is a flimsy basis on which to release land for housing. It assumes that the area will economically out-perform other areas – but every LEP seems to think that its areas will be at the leading edge of something or other. The same logic applies to the new combined authorities. Each is competing for workers to fulfil its aspirations for growth, and each is planning to build houses for the same worker.

None of this is to deny the need for housing or economic growth, particularly in the places that need growth most. Nor is it to deny that some – a few – LEPs are relatively open and willing to engage local people or the Local Nature Partnership. What is clear, however, is that aspirational and often wildly optimistic growth targets, whether they come from LEPs or devolution deals, are no basis for calculating housing need.

The growth aspirations for the three Gloucestershire boroughs have led to the housing target being increased by 5%. The target will not be met and everyone knows what will happen: the local authority will be forced to release more land; the developers will cherry pick the best sites and build out slowly; the local authority will find itself unable to demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable land; and developers will start putting in speculative applications on inappropriate sites safe in the knowledge that the local authority will be scared to say ‘no’ for fear of losing on appeal.

This is not a plan-led system; it is a developer-led system that still results in too little development.

Not everything is bad – neighbourhood planning, for instance, is a very welcome innovation – but all-in-all the system is complex, time-consuming and deeply alienating. The cards seemed stacked against local groups trying to engage. The examination for the Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury joint core strategy, for instance, started on 18 May last year and looks unlikely to be concluded until next year. And in the meantime, in the absence of an up to date local plan, speculative developments are hard to oppose.

I heard similar tales from other South West branches. At the North Somerset local plan examination a couple of years ago, CPRE Avonside was the only environmental group present for most sessions – this in an area that is full of green organisations. Local plans have huge social and environmental impact, but the process was too complex and too dispiriting for other groups to want to engage. To give another example, in West Oxfordshire, the plan examination heard from 24 builders and landowners and only three civic or environmental groups.

And after all the effort of preparing for and attending the examination, what happens? All too often local authorities genuinely planning to meet housing need find they cannot demonstrate a valid five year land supply, the plan becomes unenforceable, and villages across the district are besieged by speculators.

CPRE’s volunteers really are the sunniest people, most of the time. But a planning system that is realistic about what is likely to be built, and which pays as much attention to the quality and location of development as it does to economic growth would make them even sunnier.

 

12 Responses to “The developer-led planning system”


  1. 1 New Moons For Old September 23, 2016 at 8:46 am

    I really do hope you are right that ‘Very few people any longer think that weakening the planning system and releasing more land is the way to solve the housing crisis’. Housing targets tied to local economic growth forecasts really do seem to confirm that old adage about using statistics as a drunk does a lamp-post – more for support than illumination – and the situation in Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury seems all-too symptomatic. On a brighter note and from the opposite side of the country, I was heartened by a week of reporting on Radio 4’s ‘World At One’ last week, covering the Neighbourhood Plan of Lavenham, in Suffolk. It’s clear from the associated website (http://www.lavenhamneighbourhoodplan.co.uk) that they have really put everything into achieving something viable and – more importantly – something that the local people actually want.

    • 2 sspiers September 23, 2016 at 8:55 am

      Many thanks for the comment, I like your ‘drunk and lamp-post’ image. I fear the Government will still want to arm-twist local authorities to release more land, but I also think they will do more to ensure that houses are actually built, and not just leave it to the market.

      And yes, the Lavenham neighbourhood plan looks very impressive. Neighbourhood planning is the best innovation in planning for years, and I hope the Neighbourhood Planning Bill can be amended so that neighbourhood plans get more protection from speculative development. The Bill is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough.

  2. 3 David Lewis September 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Take a look at Cheshire East. The first stage of the Examination hearings was in the autumn of 2014, the second in autumn 2015 and the third is due to end late this October with the findings due early 2017. Large areas of Green Belt are proposed for employment and housing because developers are pushing all the time for more land. But where planning permissions have been granted the build out is slow. Planning has been granted on a large number of sites on appeal because of the lack of a 5 year housing supply and it has yet to be decided if we have one that will stand up to scrutiny.

    • 4 sspiers September 29, 2016 at 7:35 pm

      David, many thanks for the comment. What a long-drawn out and gruelling process! Good luck with finalising the plan and (I hope) getting some protection from planning by appeal.

  3. 5 Manuel Golding September 30, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    As my friend David Lewis above states, he is chairman of our Residents of Wilmslow group & I am secretary, the real, overwhelming problem with trying to protect our Green Belt, and elsewhere, is the phantom 5 years land supply. The Council may refuse planning, the developer goes to appeal claiming no proven 5 year supply.Upon examination there isn’t and appeal upheld. Time after time we see this, not only in Cheshire East but throughout the country. Why is there not this mystical 5 years supply? The answer is simple. The developers do not build enough units to have a 5 year supply, thus giving them the golden opportunity to cite “no 5 year supply” before inspectors. They control the build rare, they control their ever increasing supply of land on which they ensure they will not have a 5 year supply, thus perpetuating for their own ends the continuing rape of our green and pleasant land.
    For all our Council’s planning faults, I cannot blame it for the 5 year problem. This is a result of government mismanagement allied with unscrupulous developers who have no care for the local environment – greed is their only raison d’etre.
    Until local councils band together to demand of government that the NPPF etc is re balanced nothing will change.

  4. 7 CPRE Local Supporter October 1, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    David Lewis writes about Cheshire East Council’s Local Plan. It has been under examination since 2014. In the Local Plan, as he states, ‘Large areas of Green Belt are proposed for employment and housing’. A significant element of the proposals now before the Examination result from changes to the Plan in 2014-15 when more allocations were added.
    Cheshire East Council’s Portfolio Holder for Planning at the time of the revised allocations were approved and submitted for the Examination was the Councillor for Knutsford, Peter Raynes (Con). He was a member of Cheshire East’s Cabinet before that when the original Plan was approved for submission to Examination. Mr Raynes was a Cheshire East Councillor from 2011 to 2015. Previously he had been Chairman of CPRE Cheshire Branch for a time. In 2010 he became a Trustee of CPRE Ltd (CPRE National Office) and this appointment was renewed in 2013. He served for six years (the entire time he was a Cheshire East Councillor and Portfolio Holder), ceasing to be a CPRE National Trustee in June 2016. In March 2016 Mr Raynes was appointed Chairman of CPRE North West Region and is on the CPRE Staff Chart in that capacity, reporting to CPRE’s Chief Executive Shaun Spiers.
    Cheshire East Council’s plans to develop significant parts of its Green Belt and other countryside are proposals made and approved by the Council when the then CPRE National Trustee and now CPRE North West Regional Chairman was in the Council’s Cabinet and (in 2014-15) the Portfolio Holder responsible for the Local Plan. Those who are fighting Cheshire East Council’s damaging proposals might wish to contact CPRE North West Region’s Chairman as he is responsible for a number of them.
    Peter Raynes’s term of office on Cheshire East Council is confirmed here:
    http://moderngov.cheshireeast.gov.uk/mgUserInfo.aspx?UID=1135
    The long history of the Cheshire East Local Plan is at
    http://cheshireeast-consult.limehouse.co.uk/portal/planning/cs/newsarchive

  5. 8 Peter Raynes October 5, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    While most residents group know my involvement it is worth explaining it Local Supporter. My position on Cheshire East was Finance Portfolio Holder and up to late 2014 I did not even involve myself in the Strategic Planning Committee to avoid managing conflicts of interest. As you would expect I was active representing my ward members in consultations.
    In late 2014 the Inspector stopped the hearing on the Local Plan and raised over 50 points to be answered before the plan could be progressed. Because I had not been involved in formulating the plan I was asked to carry out this review. There is clear Conflict of interest here and before agreeing I cleared this with both CPRE and Cheshire East
    Six months later in in May 2015 when I left the council the answers and proposed revisions had been largely prepared and were ready for submission to the inspector. Since then there will of have been 18 months of further work and consultation.
    Central to the Inspectors concerns was the challenges from Developers proposing housing numbers far in excess of those in the plan. Under the system we now work in any well-funded developer can and does resort to judicial review to insist on higher housing number. As such Cheshire East has no option but to produce a plan with the methodologies that will hold up in such in review and my duty to the public to act in a way that creates a “sound” plan.
    If only this could be the same plan that would be produced by the CPRE principles of protecting the environment and only providing those houses we can really prove are needed and can be built. If only it could give the weight I would like to the views of residents groups from Wilmslow, my town of Knutsford and our other communities. However Local Authorities cannot afford glorious failures when the result is uncontrolled development.
    I will finish with two points, one that I have engaged in many residents, including some of those who have contributed to this blog. I have found only support and understanding for the difficulty of the task I was set.
    Finally, I would ask you to examine your conscious as to why you chose to blog a personal attack instead of contacting me directly on a perfectly reasonable concern over conflict of interest. Such behaviour can only weaken the CPRE, discourage volunteering and set us against each other rather than working on potentially the greatest threat to well planned development we have ever seen. However, I do thank-you for joining the debate and contributing to the blog.

  6. 9 CPRE Norfolk October 12, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    COMMENT FROM CPRE NORFOLK

    The CPRE experience on housing and Local Plans will vary across the country, but underlying this there is much in common on the key issues we face. In our view it is certainly not all the fault of developers, or the LEPs. LEPS are the hand maiden to the broad thrust of Government policy, which is growth at all cost, with the emphasis on infrastructure. Around Norwich this means big roads which will facilitate housing delivery (unlocking the potential for development), and link major centres of employment sites and housing.

    Nor do all developers have the same view. I would divide them into two broad types. There are those who work their way through Core Strategies and are now involved with Local Plans; the new policy of Site Allocations being at the front end of the process, along with policy development; and note the environment is at the back end. Then there are others, far fewer but with significant impact, who stand back from this exercise. They look for Councils who are struggling to meet the five year land supply requirement. They look for permissions on sites outside a Core Strategy, and go for attractive sites where they can argue that what they propose is sustainable development. They may sell the permission on, and avoid the grind of the actual build. This is in effect is extending the ‘exception’ policy for affordable housing in rural areas in a very different way; a Government move to get more (mainly private) housing built and more quickly, in places where they should not be.

    The five year land supply is the sword of Damocles held by Government over the heads of LPAs. It dictates and distorts housing targets and spatial strategy. This is our concern for the growth area of Greater Norwich; not just Norwich but the rural districts of Broadland and South Norfolk. For decades there has been a Norwich Policy Area (NPA), designed to focus development relating to Norwich, close to Norwich. However, housing delivery in the NPA has been about half the target. In the much larger rural parts of South Norfolk and Broadland it has been about double the target. The response is to consider abandoning the NPA as an area, treating the GN area as just one instead of five planning areas. This is would in effect be a reversal of the Green belt principle, by an averaging approach to avoid falling into the five year land supply trap.
    Further, GN plan makers are asking developers what type of site they think would be most deliverable. The answer is 50-200 houses, likely near an existing settlement; preferably with no infrastructure problems such as drainage. Larger sites mean more land agents and developer company fingers in the pie, making it more complex, longer and uncertain on timing to completion. Think cash flow and you are not far off the mark. So their quite legitimate interests are for dispersal. In all this, brownfield sites are back of the queue; unlike greenfield you don’t know where or when they will appear, which is uncertain and unreliable if trying to fully meet the housing target.

    The GN planners also feel the need to go for over allocations in housing, on the thinking that there is a better chance of meeting the SHMA (Strategic Housing Market Assessment) housing numbers. But there is over allocation and over allocation. The SHMA figures for GN go beyond those derived from long term projections of population. They take account of the LEP/Treasury City Deal, which adds 20% for the extra jobs that it will generate, based on flaky evidence. On top of that, they are minded to allocate another 20% recommended by the national Local Plan Expert Group, which many Councils dispute as an excessive contingency measure in seeking to meet housing targets.

    So the mess we are in is not primarily the fault of developers, and certainly not the LPAs who regularly have it dumped on their doorstep by all and sundry. It lies with the great clunking fist of central Government, unfortunately connected to a brain which can only think of Growth.

    Dr. Ian Shepherd CPRE Norfolk October 2016

  7. 11 stella shackle October 17, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    I would love to see an expert like you, set up a campaign with an organisation such as 38 Degrees. This could be aimed at all district and city councils and the Minister for Housing – a support this charitable campaign group, and am impressed with the difference a really well thought through campaign can make. This is a national issue, and if more than 100,000 people sign up, then it has to be discussed in parliament – am I right?

    SM Shackle Norwich

    • 12 sspiers October 17, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion, it’s certainly worth considering. We’ve worked with 38 Degrees before – they have a good reach and an ability to cut through the complexities to get to the nub of the issue, in this case the unnecessary loss of countryside and what is driving it.


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