Response to Proposed Changes to the Current Planning System (September 2020)

On behalf of the Federation of Residents Associations in Barnet our Planning Officer, Gordon Massey, has submitted the following response to the Government consultation on proposed changes to the current planning system.

From: The Federation of Residents Associations in Barnet

CONSULTATION PAPER

CHANGES TO THE CURRENT PLANNING SYSTEM

The following comments are submitted on behalf of the Federation of Residents in Barnet, an umbrella organisation representing the collective interests of some seventeen residents’ organisations in this London Borough.  The observations here are based exclusively on our experiences in Barnet.  As a general point, we do believe that housing delivery in London present major problems not found elsewhere in the country, and specific consideration should have been given to London’s particular circumstances.

Summary

1. This submission offers the following observations and conclusions:

  1. (a) A theoretical algorithm is wholly inappropriate to determine the potential for future housing delivery in London. (para 2)
  2. (b) The existing targets will result in population growth in Barnet way in excess of national population growth and the effort that has entailed should be recognised. (para 4)
  3. (c) The existing targets should be capable of delivery (para 5), but this will come at a price of fundamental change in many neighbourhoods, something already evident. (para 4)
  4. (d) All recent and current construction has been one and two-bed flats whilst provision of much needed new family houses of three beds or more is almost non-existent, with the added problem of the existing stock diminishing. (paras 6/7)
  5. (e) Dense high rise flat developments have limited appeal, exacerbated by poor design and construction weaknesses. Public sentiment against them has hardened. (paras 8/9)
  6. (f) Middle-income families are the bedrock of the suburbs and the strength they bring could be lost if more continue to move out of London. (para 10)
  7. (g) Doubling the target as proposed could only be achieved by large-scale incursion into Green belt land or by high-rise developments that could be ill-sited, taller, denser and of poorer building quality than what we have now. (para 11)
  8. (h) The alternative of replacing existing low-rise houses with smaller more dense low-rise developments is impractical. (para 12)
  9. (i) The differences between the housing aspirations expressed by Secretary of State, and the reality that we are faced with only more dense high rise flat developments, should be resolved. (para 13)
  10. (j) Alternative approaches for house delivery should be explored. (para 14)
  11. (k) The First Homes initiative offers little to solve the housing shortage for those on low-incomes. (para 15)
  12. (l) Increasing the limit for Sec106 contributions will not help small builders as intended, create an unacceptable loss of funds for affordable housing, and lead to more conflict with the community. (paras 18-22)
  13. (m) Extending PIP as proposed will enable developers to circumvent legitimate community concerns. The information requirements and the consultation period need to be substantially revised. (paras 23 – 27)

The method for assessing housing numbers in strategic plans.

2.  The press has reported extensively on the negative reaction to the proposed algorithm and the impact it would have on housing targets in individual localities.  We can add our support to the view that this approach is, to put it mildly, deeply flawed and potentially catastrophic.  The headline in one newspaper “Planning algorithm may destroy the suburbs” could be close to the truth.  Basing targets on a theoretical algorithm not tempered by reality is not a sound way to proceed.  We will demonstrate why using data from our own Borough.

3.  We start by providing our assessment of the background to housing provision in Barnet over recent years and expectations for the future.

4.  Over the past decade Barnet has struggled to meet a target of 2,349 new homes a year, though this figure has been achieved in the last couple of years. Barnet anticipates a similar level of delivery to continue over the next 13 years, with some certainty regarding supply over the next five years.  It is these figures on housing that underpin a population growth from 350,000 to 400,000 over recent years and a projection of further growth to 450,000 over the next ten years.  On any measure these figures are extraordinary and far exceed the national growth in population.  The Council should be congratulated on having done so well in their endeavours to provide the extra homes commensurate with this population expansion.  But the rapid growth already experienced has come at a price with pressures on infrastructure, including few improvements to transport and the loss of many employment sites.  The character of many areas has fundamentally changed as has the social and environmental impact on the quality of life.  The willingness of the population to tolerate such major changes is increasingly strained.  We have more to say on this below.

5.  The housing target has already been the subject of intense debate in the context of The New London Plan and the redraft of the Local Plan.  For Barnet, The Mayor proposed 46,000 homes over 15 years, but following the Examination in Public of the London Plan, the Mayor accepted the recommendation that the element of the targets based on small sites was unachievable and targets were accordingly reduced.  This would leave Barnet with a target over 15 years of 2230 per annum.  The current Borough trajectory of homes actually in the pipeline identifies some 2450 new homes per year over the next 13 years.  Though some ‘drag’ may be unavoidable, these figures are broadly commensurate with the current and proposed London Plan targets. 

6.  But apart from questions regarding the impact of population intensification on the quality of life there are major concerns regarding the mismatch between the type of property that has been built and what is actually needed.  Barnet has identified that in the past ten years 78% of all new homes have been one and two bedroom flats.  On the basis of what is currently being approved or built we are quite sure this proportion will continue to increase.  Yet the Borough’s  own housing needs assessments identifies that the future requirement is for only 38% of homes to be one or two bedrooms and 62%  three bedrooms or more.

7.  And it is here where the gap between planning based on numbers and the reality of the homes people need or desire becomes a chasm.  We recognise the available land in the Borough is so limited that there is no hope of building more houses in any significant numbers.   But we also know that developers are very unwilling to build three bedroom flats because they say there is no demand for them.  In contrast, there is an enormous demand for houses with any number of bedrooms.  To make matters worse, what we are finding is that existing family houses are under pressure from conversion to flats or demolition and replacement with blocks of flats.  So not only are we not building more family houses that people want, we are actually reducing the existing stock.  It is no surprise that house prices are so high.

8.  As to flats, as land has become more scarce so we are finding developments are going higher and becoming increasingly dense.  Whilst some people, largely young singles, couples without children, and families with one child, might find such homes to be acceptable, middle and upper income families with a choice on where to live most certainly do not.  We are led to believe more than 100,000 people a year leave London to find homes elsewhere.  Certainly local anecdotal evidence tells us that many young families are moving to the Home Counties in order to find a house they can afford.  There is historical research available which identifies the negative impact on the well-being of individuals living in high rise flats and the conflict with the expectation of families.  Also now evident is that the recent experience of flat living during Covid lockdown has apparently prompted many flat-dwellers to seek houses in leafier areas. 

9.  The design of many of these tall and dense developments leaves much to be desired, particularly the size of the units where minimum space standards invariably prevail.  The impact on the environment is consistently under-estimated, particularly traffic and supporting infrastructure.  Other problems have also emerged regarding poor quality construction, especially as it impacts on fire safety, and leases which can hold a tenant to ransom. 

10.  In concluding our background assessment, we would add on the distinctive character of the suburbs.  The bedrock of suburban life are middle-income families who provide the wealth that flows into these areas, and with their commitment to stay long term they underpin strong balanced mixed-generational communities.  And as the mainstay of civic and social institutions they are the ones who provide the cement that holds communities together.  By contrast many young people without families only see their flat tenure as transitory and consequently are far less likely to have a meaningful commitment to the area or engagement with the wider community.  Thus if an area of family houses is overwhelmed by small flats the character may change fundamentally, and with it the stability of the community will be undermined.   As confidence ebbs so the existing flow of families out of London could become a flood.

11.  When it comes to the targets proposed in this paper we believe this is exactly what will happen.  The proposals for Barnet would set an annual target of 5744 homes per year, more than double current expectations.  It is evident that such numbers could only be delivered by building ever larger numbers of the kind of small flats which so many of our residents do not want.  And as current planned numbers will soak up all the remaining identified sites, building these properties could only be achieved by a major incursion into the Green Belt land in the Borough or by large scale demolition of the existing stock of family houses.  There are major practical obstacles to acquiring land where existing houses exist and we are in no doubt that communities will react with furious opposition to any such development proposals.  We are also quite sure that ramping up the expectation of far more developments of this kind to be delivered, and much more quickly, limitations on land availability will lead to the use of sites the community find even more intrusive, whilst design and construction capabilities will be stretched up to and beyond the limits of what this country could comfortably deliver.  The outcome will be ill-sited, denser, hastily built developments that are even worse than what we have now.  The oft-used expression “slums of the future” would come closer to reality.

12.  The paper at para 41 indicates that targets will be met by “brownfield first and gently densifying urban areas including building upwards”.   As we have no brownfield land left not already earmarked for development, what exactly might be meant by “gently”?  – certainly building another 57,000 or so extra homes in Barnet over the next ten years would be anything but gentle – quite the opposite.  The Planning White Paper suggests how this intensification might be achieved, gentle or otherwise, by “the redevelopment of existing residential buildings … enabling increased densities while maintaining visual harmony …such as semi-detached suburban development”.  This suggests streets of detached and semi-detached houses could be rebuilt more densely without going higher, presumably with smaller houses including terraces.  We are not aware of any such redevelopment in Barnet and doubt there are many, if any, elsewhere.  It is not difficult to think through why reinventing the suburbs in this way on such a vast scale is utterly impractical, something we shall return to in our response to the Planning White Paper.

13.  We will conclude our comments in this area with reference to the letter of 13 March from Secretary of State Robert Jenrick to the Mayor of London and the recently published Planning White Paper.  In his letter Mr Jenrick chastises the Mayor for the failure of the draft London Plan to address the delivery of homes which people of “different ages, backgrounds and situations in life can live in”, saying the “Plan tilts away from this towards one-bed flats at the expense of all else, driving people out of our capital when they want to have a family”. He adds “The Plan will be to the detriment of family sized dwellings which are and will continue to be needed across London.  This is not just in relation to their provision but also their loss, particularly where family sized dwellings are subdivided or redeveloped entirely”.  It is also instructive that in his introduction to the White Paper Mr Jenrick describes the future as “homes with green spaces …. Where tree lined streets are the norm.”  But that could not be further from the reality that we face in the suburbs where we already have vast numbers of family homes in tree lined streets that appear destined to be destroyed on an industrial scale.  There is a conflict at the heart of Government thinking here that needs to be resolved.  We appreciate Mr Jenrick’s fine words, but they need to be supported with practical policies to match.

14.  Finally we feel we should express some thoughts on what an alternative to swamping the suburbs with flats might be like.  We acknowledge that there is no room to build more houses in any meaningful numbers.  We also accept that some dense developments of flats are unavoidable, though it should be recognised that they are often deeply unpopular and meet with fierce local resistance.  And such developments most certainly should not be at the expense of destroying large tranches of the existing stock of family houses.  Policies should be introduced to ensure that in principle existing family houses are protected.   Barnet’s current housing projections, with targets about half what is being proposed in the consultation paper, should be capable of being delivered with little damage to the existing housing stock.  Thereafter, with a sound assessment of what might be delivered on this basis across London, the overall shortfall on projected housing needs could be identified.  This shortfall will be for family houses, a problem which if placed solely on the shoulders of the Mayor or the Boroughs would be doomed to failure.  It should be a Regional issue that takes account of the capacity of the Home Counties to deliver additional housing with emphasis on family houses, along with examination of the potential to redistribute the London economy over a wider area.  The number of homes across the Region that have planning permission but are not being built should be identified, as should land banks held in reserve by developers, with mechanisms introduced to bring these forward.   Ideas such as new towns, which have ebbed and flowed down the years, should be revived.

Delivering First Homes

15.  We are very conscious of a variety of initiatives designed to help people onto the first rung of the housing ladder.  All appear to have had limited success and the fundamental problem remains, so any fresh thinking is to be welcomed.  The idea of 25% of developers’ contributions going to subsidise first homes does have logic to it and may indeed provide an additional way to stimulate this sector of the market.  But if we understand the proposals correctly there would be no new money, just the diverting of funds from shared-ownership and social housing.  In this respect we have major reservations as the provision of social housing, considered by many to be of far greater importance, would be diluted.  Indeed social housing provision would be further weakened by the proposal in the Paper to increase the lower limit for Sec 106 contribution from ten to 50 units. 

16. The Paper is not clear on what would happen when the purchaser of the home using this subsidy wishes to sell on the property.  Would there be mechanisms in place to prevent them from making a windfall profit similar to the constraints imposed on shared ownership?

17.  We have insufficient knowledge of Exception Sites to offer a comment.

Supporting small and medium-sized developers

18.  For many years we have witnessed something approaching a frenzy of residential construction on small sites as developers have trawled and trawled again for any plot of land that might be used for residential development.  It is small builders who undertake the work on these sites, as they do on residential extensions, which have appeared in vast numbers on the back of Permitted Development Regulations.  With a potential for much larger developments the larger building companies may be tempted to muscle in on this area (perhaps through the creation of subsidiary companies). Thus the sites available to small builders may diminish rather than increase, and ownership by the large builders may result in more land banking.

19.  So we see little need for incentives to support either developers or builders who are engaged on small scale developments.  Proposals elsewhere in the Paper are seeking to stimulate residential construction, as are proposals in the Planning White Paper.  There is far greater risk of a shortage of construction capacity rather than any concern about a need for other mechanisms to stimulate activity.

20.  In the previous section we have commented on the adverse effect on the provision of social housing.  The Paper acknowledges that raising the contribution threshold to 50 units would reduce Sec 106 affordable housing delivery by between 10% or 20%.  This would be a major loss and in our view unacceptable, particularly as it would be supporting a measure that we consider is not needed. 

21.  One obvious consequence of raising the limit is that on small sites developers would almost invariably be encouraged to go much higher and denser than they do at present.  Whist this may be superficially attractive as a means of increasing housing provision, many such small sites are in existing low rise residential areas.  Developments of up to nine units are invariably only two or three stories and so fit comfortably into the existing built environment.  They rarely have difficulty securing approval.  Anything denser or higher would be yet another source of conflict with the community, and as there are planning policies designed to protect the character of an area many such proposals would be faced with rejection.

22.  The argument that increasing the threshold would help small builders is flawed and indeed they could be weakened.  The expectation that the initiative would increase the pace of delivery is speculative at best given the constraints on sites becoming available, the capacity of the building industry, the risk of land banking by large builders moving in, and a greater likelihood of proposals being challenged.

Extension of Permission in Principle

23.  It is very rare that our member associations have reason to oppose the principle of development on a brownfield site, so in theory we should have no concerns about the notion of extending PIP to such sites with potential for housing units in excess of ten.  But larger schemes carry a greater risk of being unacceptably intrusive on the interests of the surrounding community, and the scope is proposed for widening by including sites not on the brownfield register.  There are many conflicts between communities and developers once proposals for sites emerge, and in most instances it is developers pushing the boundaries of planning policies that cause the major problems.  We are certain that if developers spot an opportunity to push through questionable proposals under the radar many will take advantage of it.

24.  So care must be taken to ensure the community has a clear understanding of the scope of any potential development before PIP is granted.  And here we have a major difficulty as the suggested requirements for information to be provided by the developer are just not adequate.

25.  What we are quite certain of is that whilst an indication of maximum or minimum number of units is evidently needed, when it comes to delivery developers will almost invariably go for the maximum.  And given experiences we have had, it would not be surprising if after PIP is granted developers may subsequently seek to increase the scale of the development.  The larger the site, so the potential for markedly varied approaches to what will be delivered increases.  The information required as suggested in the Paper is not comprehensive enough as it would provide nothing more than a very sketchy outline of what might be built.  The community not only needs the assessment of the number of units and the size of the development in hectares, which are the only tangible requirements proposed, but also information on the minimum and maximum footprint(s) of the proposed built area, massing, height, parking provision and availability of supporting infrastructure.  Only then would the community be able to form an adequate impression of what might be built and its impact.

26.  In tandem with the above we are also deeply concerned about the proposed timescale for consultation.  Two weeks for public consultation suggests that the intention is to either neuter such consultation or assumes that establishing the principle of development is not an issue that needs close scrutiny.  Community associations may not become aware of a proposal until several days after the consultation period has started, they then usually need to undertake wider consultation, as well as taking time to formulate their response.   The proposed consultation process in paras 108/9 of the paper adds nothing to meaningful community engagement and appears to be an exercise in trying to paper over evident deficiencies.  Adding a couple of weeks to the consultation period would be neither here nor there in the totality of the timescale for the development of a proposal, but that could be crucial regarding the ability of the community to formulate an adequate response.  The Planning White Paper makes extensive references to extending meaningful community engagement, so it is particularly disappointing to see proposals that point in the opposite direction.  As a minimum the consultation period should be four weeks.

27.  If the requirements as proposed are all that will be demanded we are quite sure that PIP will be used extensively, as developers are bound to view it as a way of circumventing potential opposition.  Proceeding as proposed will guarantee a major community kickback.

28. Finally, we are unclear what is meant in para 87 regarding the second stage being ‘technical details consent’. This suggests that what is fundamental has been decided on granting PIP and what remains is indeed just ’detail’.  Given that so little information is proposed for the PIP this only serves to reinforce our suspicion that the stifling of community opposition is a key factor in the thinking behind these proposals. The additional requirements we suggest above are certainly not details, and nor are design considerations, not mentioned in the Paper but highlighted in the Planning White Paper as being in need of far greater scrutiny to ensure beauty and quality are essential features of new developments.

29. The approach to PIP as indicated in the Paper is deeply flawed and needs to be fundamentally re-thought.  The community and the council should have a right to information and the time to consider it.  Only then will they be able to fully understand what might be built and thus be able to register any concerns.

Gordon Massey
Chairman
Federation of Residents Associations in Barnet

September 2020