"Planning for the future" White Paper Response (October 2020)

Response to the Government "Planning for the future" white paper consultation.

From: Barnet Residents Association

1. In the text below our references to ‘community’ embraces individuals, residents associations, the council planning team and planning committees.

2. Our comments reflect the experience of a well- informed residents group actively engaged on planning matters in an Outer London Borough. We are sure our experience is not unduly different to that of surrounding residents groups, but we cannot comment on whether the experience might be the same elsewhere in the country. As we have a lot to say, for the sake of brevity we have just addressed here Pillar 1 of the Paper.

3. We do have considerable difficulty with the whole of Pillar 1 as the problem lacks clear definition with many assertions that are not supported by analysis or evidence. What comes across is that the ‘problem’ has been pre-judged, with an assumption that all that is necessary is to address solutions. And perhaps because of the absence of a considered analysis, many of the conclusions and proposed remedies are not proven or just wrong. In this response we have focused on two major issues – the system for processing planning applications and the strategic approach to the provision of housing. For the rest of the Pillar 1 we have followed the questions posed insofar as they are relevant to our concerns.

4. We start however with a particular overriding concern. In the recent Parliamentary debate on these proposals many MPs referred to the eroding of local democracy. The proposals in the Paper, suggest that an ‘up front’ approach to local engagement with Local Plans would be an appropriate replacement for existing Local Plans and full local scrutiny of planning applications. This cut no ice with MPs and nor does it with us. This, and the setting at national level of parameters for determining applications, are yet more examples of weakening local engagement and control accruing to the centre. Planning is probably now the most significant area where local councillors can make a difference. It is well recognised that recruiting people of talent to become councillors has become increasingly difficult, a problem put down to people recognising that the powers are already so limited that being a councillor is not worth the effort. Weakening local engagement with planning can only make this problem worse. And with it public dissatisfaction with central government will grow as frustration with planning decisions grows, as surely it will.

WHY DO PLANNING APPLICATIONS RUN INTO DIFFICULTY?

What is the problem?

5. In the preface the Prime Minister says ‘What we have now simply does not work’. That assertion sets the agenda for everything that follows. Yet our understanding is that over 90% of planning applications are approved and the vast majority are decided within the set timeframe. This is not indicative of a broken system. Our own experience reflects that. In our area we have some 500 planning applications per year. The majority are domestic extensions which are usually addressed in the context of concerns from immediate neighbours. Many others are adaptations to shops. Processing these applications largely works well. Of the remaining applications, mainly small new housing developments, we scrutinise some 70-80 applications a year and object to around 20. More than 90% of the applications we oppose are refused. This experience is far removed from the tone of the paper which implies that community engagement with planning applications is somehow obstructive.

6. The reality is that the number of applications with potential for controversy is a tiny proportion of the whole, and our experience clearly indicates that opposition is almost invariably well-founded. We have more to say below on why some applications, though only a small proportion, end up mired in controversy.

7. It is evident, though not expressly stated, that the Paper is constructed around one narrow issue, namely large housing developments. We do recognise that it is these large developments that deliver most new housing, though perhaps less so in London. In the past 15 years, over which time we have observed some 7000 planning applications, only EIGHT have been what we regard as large schemes, and that is developments of 50 units or more. The progress on these schemes has not been significantly different to much smaller schemes, and where problems have arisen they have almost invariably been rooted in the actions of the developer. Whether our experience is typical we know not, but on this the Paper is strident in asserting there is a major problem with the approval process whilst providing no statistics or analysis to support this. The paper smacks of the overblown tail wagging the dog.

Why does controversy arise?

8. The paper is remarkably vague on what the problem might be regarding the reasons for the apparent slow delivery of new housing schemes, but the theme running through the paper is a presumption that the ‘community’ is THE obstacle to progress. The only acknowledgement that developers can be a problem is in relation to the build-out time. Again a lack of analysis of the actual experience is totally absent. So reflecting this failure we offer our experience of the minority of applications that run into trouble in terms of securing approval or time delays. This paints a very different picture to the impression given by the Paper.

9. Developers submit applications that are evidently in contravention of the Local Plan and Development Management Policies. This is either a ‘try on’ in the hope of getting away with it or perhaps, reflecting a common belief, that by seeking too much they expect to be scaled back to what they really want. This all has a time penalty as well as the risk of outright refusal.

10. For some larger schemes developers know that they are non-compliant with the Local Plan and likely to be refused, but they also know that the scheme may be referred to the Planning Inspectorate, London Mayor or Secretary of State, any of whom may make a decision that ignores the adopted Local Plan. This is a pernicious system guaranteed to encourage developers to attempt to exceed parameters which the community believed to be inviolable. Thus it should be no surprise why communities often push back.

11. For the majority of schemes on vacant sites it is not the principle of development that generates opposition but the nature of the development. Opposition is usually well-rooted in identified contravention of the Local Plan. ‘Nimbyism’, reflecting emotional opposition to a development without being rooted in planning policies or planning law, is rare, and is rightly dismissed by planning officers.

12. Where developers engage at an early stage with community groups such as ourselves when there are evident sensitivities with a scheme, the opportunity to have meaningful influence often neutralises opposition before the planning application is submitted. By contrast, an absence of meaningful early engagement frequently results in opposition.

13. Pre-application engagement with the Planning Authority can work well, but we have seen instances where case officers have become locked in by effectively committing themselves to supporting a development based on flawed judgement. Thus we end up with the planning committee refusing an application despite an officer recommendation for approval. This should not happen with the frequency that it does.

14. After approval even small schemes can still have many technical conditions to fulfil that require separate planning applications. These requirements do absorb significant resources on the part of the developer and officers, and often take some considerable time to work through. Rarely though do we see instances of refusal of these supplementary applications.

15. We are often surprised by the length of time that passes following full approval to work starting. We are led to believe this can be because developers are ‘banking’ approvals both to spread their workload and to ensure there is no risk of over-supply leading to falling prices. Also, understandably, much of the detailed technical planning is only undertaken after approval of the planning application and can be very time-consuming as we indicate above. It is also not unusual for developers to change their mind and submit a revised application, sometimes by trying to improperly slip an unchallenged application through under the guise of a ‘non-material change’. These areas of delay are unlikely to change whatever measures are introduced to refine the planning process. We appreciate this problem is recognised in the paper but is perhaps more complex than the paper acknowledges.

16. Barnet’s Local Plan is supported by largely well thought-out policies setting the parameters to which developments conform. We find the criteria are clear and easy to use when we are assessing the merits of a development proposal. All considerations and decisions focus on compliance with these policies. The system is well tested and understood. Inevitably there are grey areas no matter how tightly the rules are drawn. In submitting planning applications developers usually provide reams of information explaining how their proposals comply with the Local Plan. But when the community addresses what is said they can perceive compliance very differently. It is these different interpretations that become the prime source of conflict. This will not change however tightly the rules are drawn up.

17. We welcome the aspiration to expect new development to be beautiful. Certainly many developments are somewhat utilitarian. We have yet to see a planning application where the architects admits that the scheme is ugly – quite the reverse indeed as they all appear to consider their creations to be wonderful. But the community can often disagree – both with regard to the actual design or, more often, because of the setting where the design clashes with the character of the surrounding area.

18. We would however reiterate that the difficulties we identify here relate to only a minority of applications and the problems need to be addressed in this context. There is no need for wholesale changes. But to solve the difficulties with the minority of proposals that generate conflict we recognise some corrections are needed to smooth the path of the decision making process.

Does the Paper offer solutions to these problems?

19. Instead of focusing on problems with developers, or at least offering a balance, the Paper presumes that removing perceived community-generated obstacles is the way to the smooth delivery of more homes that conform to pre-ordained parameters, all wrapped up in excellent design. This is just fanciful. There is an underlying premise that developers are good guys who behave in the best interests of the community. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like most businesses they seek maximum profit from least input. They do not exist for the public good. But communities do. And substantially weakening community influence, as the paper seeks to do, risks the most dreadful outcomes.

20. There is a welcome indication that the adopted Local Plan should be binding on all interested parties and therefore not open to being ignored by a higher authority.

21. There is no discussion in the Paper of the pre-application process and how it might be improved.

22. We cannot identify in the paper any proposed measures that might streamline the requirement for preparation and scrutiny of technical requirements.

23. There are no measures to encourage developers to speed up delivery after approval, not to ensure that a sham token start is not made just to fulfil the requirement to start within five years.

24. The Paper is proposing to put the entire onus on the community to draw up in advance appropriate guidelines for every identified potential development site and all other localities in their area. This is an expectation that defies imagination, whether in terms of the resources needed or the ability to have products that provide enough detail to pin down any development in the way the community envisages. Of the 67 sites our Borough has identified as having potential for development, we are quite sure most would not become available for many years, and a sizable proportion are unlikely to ever become available. Thus there would be an immense amount of pointless effort and much of it would be out of date if years later a development proposal emerges. We are not sure if this process has been proposed without appreciating that it would be unworkable, or whether it is deliberately designed to ensure community input will be largely nullified. The effect will leave an open door to enable developers to effectively claim unchallenged that their proposals are compliant with the guidance. Of all the proposals in the Paper we consider this to be the most ill-judged.

25. The paper recognises that public engagement with the preparation of the Local Plan is dismally low. We would dearly love to see far wider community engagement in the formulation of the Local Plan but alas interest is only triggered – and often vehemently so – when residents are confronted with the reality of a planning application. The expectation in the Paper to achieve more community engagement with the Local Plan, intended to be the cornerstone of community involvement in planning, flies in the face of reality. All past experience tells us this will not happen. And simply blaming the community for failing to engage early on when they complain about unwelcome planning applications will only engender increasing resentment. This is a guaranteed source of future conflict between the public and the authorities. In a paper that is seeking to smooth the path of the planning process this proposal risks achieving the exact opposite. And forgive our cynicism, but the suggested boosting of engagement up front may be regarded as an ill-disguised fig-leaf designed to compensate for the removal of meaningful community scrutiny of actual development proposals.

26. We have no direct experience of Neighbourhood Plans but are aware that in our Borough of 400,000 people only two such Plans have been initiated, and after several years neither has yet to come to fruition. This suggests the process is far too complicated. Also not mentioned in the paper is the role of Planning Briefs. They are resource intensive but do have a place where they can be deployed.

What changes should be made?

27. Though the system does largely work satisfactorily we do believe that a number of helpful changes could be made that would be nowhere near as radical or as risky as the proposals in the Paper.

28. We do support more frequent updating of the Local Plan including the addition of a brownfield register and all sites identified with the potential for redevelopment. But as many will not become available and a detailed study would be too resource intensive, any assessment of the potential of these sites should be limited. Such an approach is proposed in the Paper and we do support this. Scoping what type of development would be appropriate, e.g size of footprint, houses or flats or either, overall maximum number of units and maximum height would give the community an opportunity to raise any concerns over the parameters for individual sites during the development of the Local Plan. In particularly sensitive locations where there is every expectation of an early development proposal emerging, the community should be able to request the preparation of a Planning Brief.

29. But it must be clear that as only broad parameters are being set these should not be binding on the ability of the community to later challenge a development proposal. And what would be unworkable is that broad parameters should be set across the Local Authority area governing what may be built. That indeed, in a rather different form, is what we have now with Development Management Policies, but they are broad enough to be tailored to specific sites when a development proposal emerges. Contrary to the assertion in the paper, they are not difficult to understand and we, as an organisation of ‘amateurs’ find them easy to work with. Developers, with all their professional expertise, do not give any indication of finding difficulty either. The proposals in the Paper however would introduce an element of conformist rigidity that on closer inspection will just not fit many specific sites. The existing tried and tested approach to assessing schemes against broad parameters works well and should remain.

30. Design guides may have a place and we reserve judgement on just how useful they may be. Architectural fashion regularly changes and a block of flats is a block however tastefully it might be presented. We anticipate such guides will not prove to be fundamental in judging the acceptability of a development. Issues such as setting, size, massing and environmental impact will continue to be far more important.

31. An approval process that binds all players at whatever level to conformity with the Local Plan would remove one major difficulty that is frequently encountered.

32. Pre-application consultation should be compulsory for larger developments and meetings with officers more transparent. Ward councillors should be allowed to see the notes of any meeting so they could voice any concerns. Similarly developers should be encouraged to consult recognised community groups and share their early thinking. This early engagement should remove many potential areas of difficulty or at the very least ensure that all parties are alerted to areas where conflict might arise.

33. We lack the expertise to offer potential solutions, as similarly the paper fails to do, but efforts should be made to try and streamline the process for progressing technical requirements following planning approvals.

34. Once planning consent has been given there should be a system of penalties for failure to proceed.

35. Neighbourhood Plans are encouraged in the Paper and we do see merit in them. But to make them workable the process needs to be simplified.

36. Although the intention to set certain parameters for identified sites should be sufficient in most instances, more detailed Planning Briefs should be an option open to the Local Authority for all major sites where there are evident sensitivities with potential for conflict.

37. If community engagement with planning applications were to be weakened then there should be a compensating right of appeal. Conditions would need to be devised specifying the circumstances where such an appeal would be allowed to proceed.

MEETING HOUSING NEED

38. In this section we address the particular circumstances of London in the context of redevelopment to provide more homes. We also addressed this area in a response from the Federation of Residents Associations in Barnet to the consultation paper on proposed changes to the current system.

39. The paper proposes identifying land under three categories. We have no difficulty with Growth or Protected, but only in Protected areas will development be restricted. The remainder will be classified as Renewal. Most of the London suburbs are fully developed including vast number of settled streets of family housing. The residents in these streets will be astounded to learn they are all earmarked as having potential for redevelopment, apparently through “gentle densification” (para 1.16) achieved 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 in London. It is not difficult to think through why reinventing the suburbs in this way on such a vast scale is utterly impractical. And what would happen of course is that once developers get the green light we will get the wholesale replacement of family houses by small flats, whether through conversions or demolition. It would be anything but gentle.

40. In a letter of 13 March Mr Jenrick chastised 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”. Here in Barnet 78% of new homes built in the past ten years have been one or two bedroom flats. The housing needs assessment identifies a future requirement of 62% of new homes to be three bed or more. With all growth land already developed or earmarked for yet more small flats in high rise developments, it is unlikely that any of these three bedroom homes will be built, a problem compounded by developers telling us they shy away from building three bed flats because they do not sell. And even worse, the proposals allowing “densification” will result is a substantial quantity of existing family homes being destroyed contrary to Mr Jenrick’s concerns, let alone any new ones built.

41. 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. We appreciate Mr Jenrick’s sentiments, but they need to be supported with practical policies to match. A crude dash to “renewal” will produce the opposite of what he appears to envisage. Some MPs have indicated these policies would lead to the “destruction of the suburbs”. And that would be true even if the targets proposed in the now somewhat notorious algorithm are substantially reduced. There is a conflict at the heart of Government thinking here on what kind of housing should be built and that needs to be resolved. We consider a starting point should be to recognise the vital importance of the existing stock of family homes and policies introduced to protect them. The concept of “renewal through gentle densification” should be abandoned until a more rational approach to meeting housing need in London is developed.

SPECIFIC QUESTIONS POSED IN THE PAPER

Q1 What three words do you associate most with the planning system?

Democracy   fairness   transparency

Q2 Do you get involved with planning decisions in your area?

Extensively and in considerable detail. (Paras 5 and 7 above)

Q3 Our proposals will make it much easier to access plans and contribute views?

We find the current system easy to use, both in terms of accessing and interpreting the Local Plan and examining planning applications. We have no desire for change, opportunities to contribute views on planning applications will be far more difficult under these proposals and we strongly oppose this (see para 4 above).

Q4 What are your top three priorities in your area?

a) To protect existing family homes and the character of the areas where they are located.

b) To provide more homes for key workers that are genuinely affordable.

c) To ensure that over-development with small flats does not irreversibly change the appeal of the suburbs to middle income families and drive them to leave London.

Q5 Do you agree that local plans should be simplified?

Absolutely not. We have had significant input to the development of our Local Plan and appreciate the complexities. Issues vary considerably across the Borough and broad brush policies, especially if centrally determined, will just not be adequate. (Paras 24 and 25 above)

Q6 Do you agree with streamlining development management plans?

The principles remain the same as in the answer to the question above. The plans are vital to guiding developers and the community and need a local dimension to ensure their relevance. The current approach works well and the proposals in the paper will lead to more conflict, not less. (Paras 24 and 25 above)

Q8a Do you agree a standard method for housing requirements?

We addressed this area in detail in our response to the consultation on proposals for changes to the current system. For London, the whole approach to housing provision is in a mess. A complete re-think is required embracing need in terms of quantity and type of housing, linked to a realistic assessment of land availability across the South-East and the potential impact on existing communities. (Paras 38-41 above)

Q9a Do you agree that there should be automatic outline permission for Growth areas?

This extra stage in the approval process is more likely to add complexity to the system rather than simplifying it. We predict that rather than speeding up delivery, this is more likely to slow it down.

Q9b Do you agree proposals above for consent arrangements for Renewal and Protected areas?

It will be impossible for Local Plans to set development parameters across their entire area, as circumstances will vary, from site to site, area to area, and often street to street. Just having general development parameters, which is all that would be achievable, would in effect just take us back to existing development management policies. These are tried and tested mechanisms to be used for assessing individual planning applications. A broad brush approach that assumes consent if a few basic parameters are deemed to be satisfied is just not good enough and will not work. (Para 24 above)

Q10 Do you agree with proposals to make decisions faster and more certain?

We have said in our opening section that a presumption that the approval process is at fault is fundamentally flawed. Many in the community believe the system is already weighted in favour of developers and, as we have demonstrated, there are many aspects to developer behaviour that could be more profitably explored to make the process smoother. Weakening community engagement, as the proposal will do, is a recipe for more conflict and poor outcomes. (paras 6 to 16 above)

Q11 Do you agree with accessible web-based Local Plans?

The existing Local Plan is readily available on-line and we have no difficulty using it. We see some merit with the concept of maps identifying specific vacant or brownfield sites and linking these to narratives on development potential. But this activity should be subsidiary to the policies which should continue to be the backbone of Local Plans. And preparing development maps across the whole Borough would not only be impractical in terms of resource needed, once they are in the public domain some homeowners may find they are trapped by planning blight and unable to sell their properties. And yet in many instances no development will ever take place, or not for many years. This should not be permitted to happen.

Q12 Do you agree with a timescale of 30 months for Local Plans?

We defer to the Local authority regarding their ability to do this. We are however conscious that aspects to the Local Plan can quickly become out of date. A compromise may be that the policies and development parameters remain in place for ten years but an annex listing development sites should be frequently updated.

Q13a Do you agree that Neighbourhood plans should be retained?

Yes, but the process and content need to be substantially simplified. We also endorse the use of Planning Briefs for major sites where there are evident sensitivities that could lead to conflict.

Q14 Do you agree there should be stronger emphasis on build out of developments?

Yes. This should be done by imposing penalties where approval is not followed by building starting – and being completed - within set time frames. These timescales should be agreed with the builder as part of the consideration of the planning application, with appropriate conditions attached to the approval notice.

Gordon Massey
Planning Officer
Barnet Residents Association
October 2020