Update – March 2017

Housing White Paper

Almost a month on from the Housing White Paper and opinions still differ as to whether it will have any impact on the planning system, or indeed how many of the provisions will actually be taken forward into legislation.

Speaking on February 20 at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)’s annual lecture, planning minister, Gavin Barwell, said that he wants to ‘build a national consensus’ about how to estimate housing requirements, so that local plans start from ‘an honest assessment’ of housing need. He said that Britain “urgently needs to have an honest conversation” about housing because the lack of affordable homes is “one of the greatest barriers to progress that our country faces.”

The government will be publishing options to introduce a standardised approach to assessing housing requirements. According to Derek Stebbings, writing in Planning, this is expected to be in place by April 2018. He suggests that the standardised approach could be based upon the latest population and household formation projections, with various adjustments such as migration, local market signals, and housing and rental affordability. A key difference to current guidelines is that housing and economic forecasts will probably not need to be aligned.

The duty to cooperate is another area where the planning system is failing. Gavin Barwell continued: “The white paper accepts the fact that there are going to be some places that, given the land constraints they face, are not going to be able to meet all the need themselves, and they will have to have a conversation with neighbouring areas.

“But at the moment, that duty to co-operate is not working and what’s happening is that a lot of that need is just slipping through the system and not being dealt with. We can’t allow that to happen.”

The standardised approach in determining housing need will provide a good basis for future duty to cooperate discussions to take place.

Green belt has long been contentious, despite the original concept for their creation having been long abandoned. Although Barwell said the white paper aimed to provide clarity on circumstances justifying a green belt review, in the end he has simply reaffirmed the existing policy.

Another announcement in the white paper was the housing delivery test, also predicted to come into operation in April 2018. Never ending examinations, discussions and court sessions determining whether councils have or have not got a five-year land supply has wasted enormous amounts of time and effort needlessly, according to the Local Plan Expert Group (LPEG). It has proposed a meaningful, annually-monitored, plan-led supply approach which would be binding on all parties. Time will tell whether the government takes heed of these suggestions.

To view our summary of the Housing White Paper please click here.

Early 2017 local plan intervention threat still on table

Several local authorities around the country recently announced pauses in their local plans in order to take account of the Housing White Paper, Central Bedfordshire being one example. Perhaps they knew something everyone else did not; that the threat by CLG to take over local plans from under-performing councils which had not been submitted by early 2017 had been lifted.

The deadline was originally announced back in 2015 by the then planning minister, Brandon Lewis. This has been reiterated by current planning minister, Gavin Barwell, several times more recently.

Perhaps oddly, there was no specific mention of the deadline in the Housing White Paper, but when Planning magazine asked CLG whether the government still intended to intervene where the deadline was not met a spokesman said that the threat had not been withdrawn. The spokesman said: “We have been clear that we expect authorities to have plans in place by early this year. We continue to monitor progress on plan-making, councils that have not made satisfactory progress towards that target should be warned that they are at risk of intervention.”

The inclusion last year of a provision in the Neighbourhood Plan Bill, currently going through Parliament, for county councils to take over local plan processes, gave an indication of CLG’s intentions, and certainly focused the minds of many Labour-run councils. However, embarrassingly for this government, it may well be Conservative run authorities which fall foul of the rules.

Perhaps CLG will make examples of a small number of the councils blatantly flouting the deadline in the knowledge that this will focus the minds of the many yet to get their plans in place.

According to Andrew Whittaker, the Home Builders Federation planning director, the focus may well shift more towards the housing delivery test outlined in the white paper. Commenting in Planning, he said this would be a “very strong test” for councils to meet. Each council will have to produce an action plan setting out how it will deliver housing to meet the test – this will give a clear steer to CLG when deciding whether to intervene.

Divergent land market

Knight Frank published its periodic Residential Development Land Index earlier in February which showed that English greenfield land values had dipped again in Q4 2016, as did those in prime central London. However, urban brownfield land values continued to buck the trend rising by 2.1%, with strong growth seen in Birmingham

Average values for greenfield residential development land sites around England fell for the fifth consecutive quarter in Q4 2016. The greenfield land index, made up of a selection of sites across England, is 7% lower than its peak in Q4 2014, and is at a similar level to that seen at the start of 2013.

The urban brownfield land market has bucked the wider land trend, showing 18% growth over the last two years. The urban index encompasses sites across five major cities. It is noticeable that pricing in Birmingham has been strongest over the most recent quarter.

The full report can be viewed here.

Mid-Sussex woes

In a decision which may impact other councils, an Inspector has recommended that Mid-Sussex council’s local plan numbers should be increased from 800 homes a year to 1,026. This may have ramifications elsewhere in respect of assessment of housing need and duty to cooperate.
Planning Inspector, Jonathan Bore, published an interim report last week (Feb 20). He considered the full objectively assessed need for housing in the district to be 876 dwellings per annum, an uplift of 122 dwellings per annum over the council’s suggested need. He then added a further 150 homes per year arising from neighbouring Crawley’s unmet housing need, bringing the total to 1,026 per annum.

The inspector’s interim report was met with consternation from CPRE and local MPs. Nick Herbert MP (Arundel & South Downs) said that the inspector’s proposals are “totally unrealistic and go too far”.

In a statement, he said: “I am astonished that the inspector can conclude that this housing number is sustainable. The increase is far too great and fails to take into account local infrastructure constraints and the impact on the countryside, both of which should be considered.

“I simply cannot see how this level of new housing can be supported when we already have acute pressure on local public services, including a totally inadequate rail service.”
Michael Brown, CPRE’s Mid-Sussex’s representative, argued in the Mid-Sussex Times that the district’s rural character is in ‘grave peril’ and the only way the council could meet the ‘ridiculous’ new target would be to approve developments in ‘wholly inappropriate locations’. He said: “This is a dark day for Mid Sussex and for the countryside that makes it such a special place to live and visit.”

Waverley Local Plan

Inspector Jonathan Bore has also been reviewing the Waverley Local Plan. In considering the draft plan, which Waverley Council submitted late last year, he has already responded with a series of challenging questions in a letter to the council on February 6.

A key area of concern raised is Waverley’s lack of supporting evidence to underpin proposals to release green belt land to help meet its housing target to build just under 10,000 new homes by 2032. The letter said: “The Green Belt Review and Topic Paper are concerned principally with site identification, and on their own they do not amount to the exceptional circumstances required to justify altering the Green Belt boundary,” he wrote. “Where is the work demonstrating that exceptional circumstances exist for the release of land from the Green Belt?

“This would require a clear connection to be made between specific alterations to the Green Belt and specific amounts of development land to be brought forward to meet housing need, and also a convincing analysis that all or part of this land cannot be found outside the Green Belt.”

“The Farnham/Aldershot Strategic Gap and the Area of Strategic Visual Importance are strategic designations. Issues regarding these strategic designations have all been deferred to the non-strategic Part 2 Plan. Why hasn’t Part 1 of the Plan dealt with these designations and created a straightforward and clearly understood approach that is clearly linked to the National Planning Policy Framework objective of protecting and enhancing valued landscapes?”

More pre-inquiry questions to test the soundness of Waverley’s Local Plan are expected and the council said it will agree a timescale for its responses with the inspector and publish them on its website when they had been submitted. The date for the hearing will also be published, six weeks in advance.

“I don’t detect from this first set of questions anything that suggests that the Inspector thinks that the draft plan is fundamentally flawed,” Waverley Friends of the Earth planning spokesman Kathy Smyth said in the Haslemere Herald. “I think some of the questions will be difficult for Waverley to answer to the Inspector’s satisfaction so we should expect to see changes made to the draft plan to meet these concerns.”

Farnham Neighbourhood Plan

Independent examiner, Derek Stebbing, has approved the Farnham Neighbourhood Plan meaning it can go to referendum in May. The examiner concluded that the plan met the legal requirements, subject to some recommended minor modifications.

In Get Surrey, Councillor Carole Cockburn, leader of Farnham Town Council, said: “The plan is the result of years of hard work by residents and businesses. She said: “I am delighted that the examiner has found our draft neighbourhood plan to be a sound document and that we will soon be able to proceed to a referendum.”

The examiner also said that the Plan fits with the Waverley Local Plan, although it is not yet clear whether that is sound. The Inspector there, Jonathan Bore, has asked some very searching questions about Green Belt release and meeting the entire housing need. See article above.