The housing market in England is broken. This seems to have become a universal truth and, as such, it’s hard to deny. A harder proposition is to fix the blame for the failure and to fix the problem, whoever or whatever is to blame. The latest in a long line of potential fixers is the newish Communities Secretary, Sajid Javed. In February he released the long-awaited and long-overdue Housing White Paper – but is it a cure for what ails us or just another sticking plaster slapped onto the wound that never heals?
Never one to miss the chance of a football analogy in an article on planning, I’m writing only hours after the unbelievable sacking of Claudio Ranieri, the original Tinkerman, and here, in government, we have yet another tinkerman, pressing all the buttons in no particular order, in the hope that, by chance, he gets the combination right. Sajid should know that it was only when Claudio stopped tinkering that he found the answer, if only for one season – but what an answer it was.
So, what’s in the White Paper that might give us hope or lead to more despair?
Fundamental to SJ’s strategy seems to be a welcome departure from the Thatcherite ideal which, to many observers, broke the housing market in the first place – the ideas that 1) every Englishman/woman should own their own castle, and 2) the country’s prosperity went hand-in-hand with universal home-ownership. Much of the thrust in the White Paper is aimed at making it easier to instead develop purpose-built schemes for the private rental market. Affordable privately-rented homes, rather than home-ownership, is to be made easier, though this will be part of a long-term strategy change rather than a quick fix. In fact, the whole White Paper is very much a statement of intent rather than an action plan for producing the vast number of new homes that the country needs – leading to much criticism, in the press and online, that SJ has already missed an opportunity to shift the market into the higher gear that is needed.
A private rental strategy that provides young couples and families with a place on the housing ladder has got to be better than one in which rented accommodation is actually more expensive than a crippling mortgage. Truly affordable housing for rent, allowing time for all the other lifetime commitments – saving for a deposit, pensions, etc - must better than one false promise of home ownership for all. On the continent, that far-off place to which we no longer belong, most families don’t even think of home ownership until they are in their forties, simply because the private-rented market is affordable and it works. It is to be hoped that SJ has it in mind to use the German or Dutch system as a model and to aim for one like it. Let’s not call it Council Housing this time, but those decades up to Thatcher’s cut-price dismantling of the public rented housing market were perhaps not so bad after all.
Councils no longer build housing, so there is a certain irony in the conclusion reached in the White Paper that blame for the underperformance of the housing market rests with local planning authorities. This is apparent in the “housing delivery test”, to be applied as the means by which LPAs are held accountable for the delivery of new homes, or, more particularly, a failure to deliver. The Local Plan, as ever, is the tool used for establishing a level of assessed housing need, and, if the delivery rate falls below par (25% in 2018, 45% in 2019, 65% in 2020) then, to misappropriate Russell Crowe’s words in Gladiator, the government will “unleash hell”. In this context, hell will appear in the form of uncontrolled but “sustainable” (Hurrah) development in unprepared, but still not Green Belt, locations.
The five-year land supply, for so long a pipe dream for many planning authorities, may, thankfully, have had its day, with the option to agree land supplies on an annual basis. A more hand-to-mouth approach may help, but, when the simplest housing application can take a year or more to resolve, it is not the only answer.
The big stick approach implicit in the White Paper – “deliver housing where you want it or it will go where it’s not wanted” – cannot surely be the answer; nor can it be right that local authorities, no longer building houses, and local planning authorities, facilitating but not delivering housing, should be made the scapegoat for the broken system. There was a sense, a hope even, that the White Paper would also apply the big stick to the housebuilding industry, in the hope that those whose role is actually delivering new homes would implement the permissions that they have, but this hasn’t’ really happened. The hint that councils might use compulsory purchase powers to bring forward stalled developments is not, in this decade of austerity and local government cost-cutting, going to open that particular floodgate, nor is the threat of “completion notices”, stipulating completion in two years of commencement. This big stick is pretty limp and there is a distinct lack of carrot.
New housing, for purchase or for rent, is only going to come forward when those in need of it can afford to buy or rent it. The sort of threats contained in the White Paper is not going to force housebuilders to implement consents when purchasers simply cannot afford their product. That the definition of a starter home in Greater London is one costing up to £450,000 surely tells the government where the housing problem starts and ends. Having to borrow way beyond your means to get on the housing ladder is what got us all into the mess that we’ve been in since before 2008.
The White Paper does away with the legal requirement that new developments must include 20% starter homes, though it will surely come as a relief to most young families that starter homes should only be available to people with incomes below £80,000 – on which planet? – an income which thankfully just allows MPs to qualify. Backtracking from the commitment to starter homes, only on the table since 2014, has been justified on the grounds that such a commitment would adversely impact on the delivery of other affordable homes. When most LPAs are seeking 40% affordable housing from major schemes, having half of that as heavily discounted starter homes for first-time buyers seemed, to me at least, like a sound idea, with the other half given over to rental or shared-ownership schemes of all shapes and sizes, but apparently it’s not. The government has given up on it before even giving it a chance. For those who aspire to home ownership, giving them access to such houses was surely an idea worth pursuing. Ministers have apparently “listened to concerns” as to the wisdom of their starter homes initiative and, as a result of these “concerns”, given it the elbow. Hopefully, those whose views so swayed the government were concerned at the 20% threshold and not at the concept of a threshold, per se, allowing that the initiative is merely down and not out.
As ever with a government exercise in tinkering, the White Paper promises so much more than it delivers. Maybe expectations were too high. It actually says more about the way in which the housing crisis has been mismanaged by previous governments, of all hues, than it does about how the current government intends to turn things about. Recognising that home ownership is not the be-all-and-end-all of life is a good start, as is a commitment to affordable, good-quality rented housing rather than buy-to-rent slums, but these are ideas and not answers. Much of the press response to the White Paper has been negative – a damp squib, a missed opportunity, etc. When the only organisation that sees the White Paper as a success is CPRE, then we know that we’re still in deep trouble.
When the coalition government decided to make development control a “Noddy and Big Ears” sort of business, easy to understand, even by development control officers, their plan was to make everything Permitted Development. We were going to have new housing, converted from each and every land use that was not housing to start with, huge extensions to houses, factories, warehouses and loads of other freebies that would make the junior DC officer’s role redundant, except for their regular losing battle trying to understand and apply the Advert Regs. Said planners could be diverted to local plans, in an effort to get the Development Plan finished by 2011, no 2012, oh all right 2015, last chance 2017.
Of course, it didn’t happen. What sort of idiot was it who thought the planning system should be or could be simple? Had he/she never been a planning consultant or DC officer, desperate to maintain a degree of mystery about what they do? How could it possibly work if the GPDO was written by Enid Blyton? Regular readers will know that the government were persuaded, instead, to make the system more complicated, rather than less so, by introducing into the team the “holding midfielder”, Prior Approval. He was an untested, probably foreign, player whose role was to slow things down, put his foot on the ball and stop all the long-ball nonsense that the previous Director of Football wanted to play.
So, how has he done? His transfer has been made permanent, he’s a regular player, but has the new system worked? Do we have a Leicester City on our hands, burning bright for a season and mediocre in the difficult second, or are we still Sunderland without Big Sam? (say no more).
If the new GPDO changes of use system, post-Prior Approval, were a success, would Martin Goodall’s recent volume “A Practical Guide to Permitted Changes of Use” really need to be 341 pages long? Would it be needed if “Enid” had, after all, re-written the GPDO?
Setting aside the ongoing crisis over new-build housing, DCLG figures for 2015/16 suggest that 12,800 homes were created through offices converting to residential use, so that sounds like a promising start, notwithstanding that 10,400 homes were demolished in the same period. The first figure is actually on the low side, mainly because, as it’s PD and as there is not yet a requirement for a Register of PD applications, no-one really knows how many conversions have actually taken place or how many are in the pipeline. What’s more, we can’t really tell whether Prior Approval has been a hindrance or a help in this process because the figures don’t tell us how many PA submissions were rejected. The third option, under Class W (11) of the GPDO, is even more of a mystery, because, if the LPA makes no decision in eight weeks, the Permitted Development conversion can take place anyway, probably with no record until Council Tax catches up.
The DCLG data shows 30,600 dwellings created through changes of use, but not how many involved Prior Approval and how many needed planning permission. It’s all a bit hit and miss.
Top of the pile for office conversions is Croydon, with nearly 600. Well done them, though it probably just tells us that they built too many offices in the 1980s.
If the jury is still out on the numbers game, there remains a good deal of concern among local authorities over the loss of affordable housing, the loss of s106 contributions, the quality of the resultant accommodation and the surprising number of agricultural buildings that are suddenly capable of residential use.
12,800 new dwellings would, on a good day, give up over 5000 affordable units and vast sums to spend on classrooms, library books and a swanky system to tell you that your bus is late. The loot has been diverted, and, while most of the new dwellings will be in the rented sector, control is clearly lacking as to their allocation and, maybe, their quality. The planning office has no control over the size of the dwellings and no authority to determine a PA submission on the basis of housing size, mix, quality or tenure, but, if they did, you might as well require a full application.
The lack of quality control in the PA system does not seem to stop planning authorities from turning down more PD/PA agricultural conversions than they support. 226 new dwellings in a year has got to be a disappointment. Of course, some of the prospective dwellings were a couple of beams held up by string and their “conversion” was not too far from a total rebuild. Newer rules, which overcame the usual presumption that rural buildings were, by definition, in unsustainable locations, have tightened up on the rules as to what “conversion” actually means.
So, has Prior Approval been worth the inflated transfer fee, or would Team Planning have been better off with another free-wheeling midfielder creatively passing the PD ball to the striker to score a tap in? (Grealish to Kodjia - GOAL). Early days, perhaps he needs another season, but you’d have to say that, so far, Prior Approval has not yet proven his worth. He’s confusing planners, slowing down the game, compared to the original “free PD” idea and he’s doing no favours to Council finances or affordable housing targets. What price on a re-think when the team next gets a new manager? 2017??
With the Rio Olympics a recent and glorious memory, let’s think back to an earlier golden age for British Olympians, a time when Team GB ruled the world and claimed the Gold Medal in a far more taxing and important event than horse dancing, synchronised smiling or slow cycling. The year is 1932, the place is Los Angeles, the event is Town Planning??? And the winner, ahead of a dangerous Dane and a battling Belgian, was John Hughes of Great Britain for his work on a sports stadium and leisure centre in Liverpool.
Can it be true? Was it Anfield or Goodison Park that claimed the accolade of Gold Medal Arena? It was true, but actually it was neither, as the stadium was never built. That’s the thing about planning as a profession – you train and train and train and you put in a podium – finish performance on the day but if no-one turns your dreams into reality, you are soon forgotten, perhaps like poor John Hughes (1903-1977) who, when Googled, comes way down the list, beyond the John Hughes who directed Home Alone.
1932 was an Olympic year when, as you won’t recall, Team GB did not exactly cover itself with glory. John Hughes’ gold was one of only five that we achieved (town planning, mens 800m, mens 50,000m walk, coxless pairs and coxless fours, if you really want to know), so maybe his efforts deserve a belated “thank you” (if you’re listening, Claire Balding).
The Arts were celebrated at The Games between 1912 and 1948 and Team GB gloried in a total of nine medals over seven Olympiads, really hitting their stride in 1948, in London of course, when, in what might have been termed Amazing August, John Copley took the silver in Engraving and Etchings, Alfred Thomson won gold in Paintings, Rosamund Fletcher was awarded a bronze medal in Reliefs (for “The End of the Covert”) and who can forget Chintamoni Kar’s silver medal-winning Statue “The Stag”. One might have felt especially sorry for Ms Fletcher who, justifiably proud of her bronze medal, may have been concerned to find that neither the gold nor the silver were even awarded, like coming third in a one-horse-race. Times were particularly hard for our Artist-Athletes in those days, all the more so when the whole concept was dropped after 1948.
Thank heavens for the Royal Town Planning Institute and its annual, sought-after Placemaker Awards, not be confused with the Laying-the-Table Oscars. If only the RTPI secured lottery funding, maybe Placemaking could relive the glory days of L.A. in 1932. Maybe the BBC would jump on the bandwagon, with Strictly Come Placemaking or The Great British Placemake. The opportunities open up before us, and ahead of the World Cup in 2018, maybe the RTPI can become official sponsors to the Team GB Placekicking team. What’s in a name?
Art and artists continue to play an intriguing role in town planning and architecture, not least in the penchant for naming buildings as if they were statues. The Shard, The Gherkin and The Cheese-Grater, in presentation-model form, may well have given The Stag or The Sulky Driver (Gold for Sculpture 1936-Berlin) a run for their money.
At Walsingham Planning we’ve had a couple of run-ins with the Spencer family, Sir Stanley (1891-1959) and his lesser-known brother Gilbert (1892-1979). Stanley Spencer’s work in his home turf of Cookham is well-known, and rightly so, but his paintings of the area, done in the 1930s, have now formed the basis of a conservation area extension and the motivation for a local pressure group seeking to resist development in the area, despite the artistic licence used by Sir Stanley in his placement of local landmark buildings. Gilbert’s residence in Upper Basildon and his use of a shed in the back garden as an artist’s studio prompted, mid-appeal, the listing of the said structures and the dismissal of that appeal, in part on the basis of a painting that Gilbert knocked off of the garden. You never know when art and planning are going to cross swords, but it is clear that works of art can indeed be material considerations. Better check, before building that changing room by the swimming pool, that David Hockney did not get there first.
Back to the Olympics and our efforts to have town planning restored to the event. It is, as we know, a multi-disciplined event and, sadly, it is more often than not run over a long distance and with very slow performance times. With all due deference to Ms E-H and Ms J-T, the planning application process is at least a heptathlon. You start with the sprint, hoping that pre-app will be over quickly, though it rarely is. There are any number of hurdles races, though the submission, validation and consultation processes, with validation maybe the highest. For weeks you may be throwing stuff at the LPA, hoping that your persuasive arguments will travel farthest (shot putt) or skewer the opposition (javelin). There’s a long jump before you get to the committee, maybe with a couple of no-jumps along the way, and a high jump in dealing with the members’ curve ball questions on the night of the meeting. If all goes well, you struggle through to the last event, the long-distance haul that is the s106 agreement and the discharge of conditions, never forgetting the Anti-Doping Agency of the planning world, the judicial review. Hopefully, it’s a team event. Go, go, go Team TP.
If you can mix more metaphors than this in one article, than it would indeed be a PB and worthy of Gold at the next Olympics. Roll on Tokyo 2020. Start training now!
For centuries, back to Roman times and still in places such as Croatia and Slovenia, the dormouse was considered a delicacy, stuffed and then roasted or fried – yum, yum. To distinguish him from his from dormouse chums, Glis glis (according to Linnaeus in 1766) has become known as the Edible Dormouse or the Fat Dormouse – so much for political correctness, when such fattist comments are permissible. What bad luck when, had Glis been less portly and less appetising, he might have been protected by law and kept from the oven, in the same way that his relative Muscardinus avellanarius has been. Maybe Glis should have acquired a posher Latin name.
as this got anything to do with planning or has Thackeray finally lost his marbles? It has in fact, become increasingly more important to planning and to developers, though I think poor Glis is still on the menu somewhere.
The Hazel or Common Dormouse (Muscardinus etc) is one of the UK’s most endangered mammals, although, with a population of 45,000, you might be forgiven for agreeing that it is indeed common and questioning whether it needs protection. It is, nonetheless, afforded a very high level of legal protection and it is Natural England’s advice to LPAs that survey reports and mitigation plans are required when protected species might be affected, as a part of the planning application process and not as a condition of planning content.
Ok, we are becoming accustomed to having to take account of badgers and great crested newts or, in the Thames Valley, the dreaded Dartford Warbler (wasn’t that Mick Jagger?), but the common dormouse is becoming a particularly tricky customer. If the LPA will not deal with your planning application without a survey and mitigation and if your Stage 1 ecological report suggests a possible common dormouse habitat, then you’re stuffed, not quite in the same way as poor old Glis, but enough to make him chuckle, go on a diet and reach for the hazel Just For Dormice.
The problem is three-fold (as opposed to Penfold, who was, I believe, a mole and, therefore, not protected). Firstly, the dormouse is a particularly lazy fellow and, if it’s a bit chilly, can hibernate for up to nine months of the year. Secondly, through recent research, it has been shown that the dormouse habitat is far more extensive than was once thought, now happily living in hedgerows, scrubland, conifer plantations and coppiced woodland as well as the traditional chez dormouse areas, mature woodlands with a good supply of hazelnuts. Thirdly, the surveys required to establish a presence, or indeed a non-presence, are onerous to say the least.
The cuddly dormouse appears to have made the planning application a seasonal event, only to be submitted in the winter after an exhaustive and possibly fruitless search that has taken up all of the previous summer and extended across both the application site and neighbouring land with the same habitat characteristics.
Of course, the government has helpful advice on measures to be adopted by way of mitigation, top of the list being “persuasion”. This is probably not the same gun-law as might be used in Somerset or Gloucestershire to persuade badgers to leave town. It involves clearing the affected area, by hand, a bit at a time and only during the winter, so that, on waking, the dormice find that the habitat is not quite as nice as they thought it was when they went to sleep. This might take two winters for large development sites, and, even when the little darlings have been persuaded to move on, tree stumps and earth cannot be moved until the following summer, in case some of them overslept.
If, after all this, you have no option but to relocate them, subject to licence, they should not be moved to an area with an existing dormouse population. Hopefully, someone else will have spent the previous year checking that one out.
This is indeed the Dormouse’s Revenge for all those years when he was nothing more than a tasty snack. A creature which, according to Countryfile, weighs as little as two £1 coins has the capacity to cost house-builders and, consequently, house-buyers several million times its own weight, in delays to the building programme for the much-needed upsurge in new homes. For most of us, our knowledge of dormice began and ended with a fat chap sitting next to the Mad Hatter and nodding-off during a tea party, so it should come as no surprise to find elements of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland here, in the level of protection afforded to these creatures and in the unreasonable demands placed by the government and by Natural England on applicants and LPAs charged with being pro-active in delivering ambitious housing targets. Perhaps Alice grew up to be ecologist.