Decisions, decisions: how does planning work during the pandemic?

Planning by remote in the 2020s…

The Covid-19 crisis has curtailed public involvement in almost all aspects of life, so it is important for us all to see that fairness and the democratic process do not suffer as a result, as a CPRE planner explains

Are you still getting your say at planning committee?
Since Saturday, April 4, 2020, councils have been able to hold public meetings virtually – using video or telephone conferencing technology – hence removing the requirement for physical attendance at meetings.
The decision was announced by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to in a bid to ensure effective local decision-making and transparency during the coronavirus pandemic.
Did you know that not all planning (and other) applications must go before councillors at a committee meeting? 
Under the 1972 Local Government Act, local planning authorities can discharge some decision-making to an officer – in the case of planning applications this is what is commonly known as a delegated decision.
Planning permission can still be granted (or refused) for individual schemes. The only difference is that, compared with a committee decision, the process is faster because there is no need to wait until the next planning committee comes round.
As it is up to individual councils to draw up their own delegation scheme, decisions that can be delegated in one authority may not in another.
Unless a local planning authority has changed its delegated scheme, all planning decisions that would normally have gone to a planning committee continue to do so.
While the decision-making format will not have changed, it is possible that meetings may have been cancelled in the early days while councils made the necessary arrangements to move committee meetings online.
It might not be the same for all councils, but I know one Kent authority minutes at the beginning of each session that meetings are being conducted in accordance with the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panel (Coronavirus) Flexibility of Local Authority Police and Crime Panel Meetings (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 No. 392.
And that in welcoming councillors and members of the public the chairman states which council officers are in attendance.
The procedure for my local council is that members of the public are advised in the normal way of the committee date for schemes in which they are interested.  As usual, the procedure for speaking at committee is explained. In accordance with the regulations, interested parties are invited to dial in to the meeting and, where pre-arranged, get to speak for their allotted time.
In addition, participants are asked to provide a written copy of the statement they wish to make so that in the event of technical difficulties their views can be read out.
At this specific council, members of the public can not actually see what is going on at the meeting (they dial in by phone). Any papers that are likely to be viewed by councillors at the meeting are added to the council’s website in advance.
Audio recordings of the meetings held are posted on the council’s website within 10 days of the meeting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2021

London Resort theme park makes it to examination stage

You never know, this is what the proposed theme park could look like (pic LRCH)

Plans to build a huge theme park on the Thames estuary have passed their first hurdle.
The Planning Inspectorate has accepted the application for a Development Consent Order to build the London Resort theme park between Greenhithe and Northfleet.
This means the project, submitted by London Resort Company Holdings on New Year’s Eve and received by the Planning Inspectorate on Monday, January 4, can proceed to examination.
The decision to accept the 25,000-page application was announced in a Planning Inspectorate letter dated Thursday, January 28.
The project, targeted for the wildlife-rich Swanscombe peninsula, has been roundly condemned by conservation groups including the RSPB, Kent Wildlife Trust and Buglife.
There is also widespread concern about the scheme being designated a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), the first ‘business or commercial project’ to be accepted as such by the government under the Planning Act 2008. It is feared such status means it will not be subject to the same scrutiny that would be applied through the regular planning process.
The examination, in which CPRE Kent intends to take part, is expected to begin two to four months from now and must be completed within six months of the start-point.
Although it is too early to comment extensively, it is apparent that plenty of work needs to be done in relation to transport.
The Lower Thames Crossing proposed for nearby does not appear to have been factored into the plans, while the developer will need to show how it can take people to and from the site on the existing transport network.
Once the six-month examination has been completed, the final decision on the project will be made by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

  • For more on this story, click here
  • To learn more about the Save Swanscombe Marshes campaign, see here

Monday, February 1, 2021

Councillors revolt over government plans to dismantle planning system

We need new homes… we also need some say in how and where they are delivered

CPRE, the countryside charity, and Friends of the Earth are joining more than 2,000 local councillors to call on the government to rethink its planning proposals and work with locally-elected representatives to create the places and homes communities so desperately needed.
A total of 2,062 local councillors have called on the government to abandon the most damaging elements of its changes to the planning system in an open letter to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
More than 350 of the councillors, or one in six of those who signed the letter, are Conservatives, which shows the breadth of opposition to the damaging changes within the Conservative Party itself.
In the letter, councillors warn that the proposed changes to planning will undermine the trust the public has in the planning system and “could radically reduce protections for nature, local green spaces and fail to tackle climate change”.
Local democracy is a major concern for the signatories, with the proposals as they stand leading to “an unacceptable loss of local democracy, scrutiny and accountability and worse outcomes for communities”.
The letter goes on to highlight the need for a strong local planning system to support sustainable development, community cohesion and a healthy environment but highlights that the government’s proposals as currently set out “will not achieve these goals”.
Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, said: “The message from MPs, communities and now more than 2,000 councillors is clear, but it is not too late for the government to rethink its controversial upheaval of the planning system.
“Planning done well can create the affordable and well-designed homes that communities are crying out for. We can create low-carbon and nature-friendly homes, with an abundance of green space on their doorsteps, all connected by low-carbon public transport.
“Investing in a locally-led democratic planning system that empowers local councils to create these places should be the government’s top priority.
“We stand with these councillors in urging ministers to work with us to develop and deliver a better set of planning reforms that can actually deliver our country’s environmental, economic and social objectives.”
The government’s proposed changes to the planning system would be the biggest change to the planning system since the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947. But the proposals put forward by ministers have already faced fierce opposition from local councillors, communities, MPs, former cabinet ministers and even the former Prime Minister, Theresa May.
A recent poll off Conservative backbench MPs, conducted by Savanta Comres, also found that more than half of Conservative MPs (55 per cent) on the backbenches are considering opposing the government’s upheaval of the planning system as set out in the Planning White Paper.
Notably, more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of MPs surveyed think it is important that local councils should choose and prioritise the most suitable development sites, which is something the proposed zonal planning system would exclude.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson, senior planner at Friends of the Earth, said: “It’s clear to so many MPs, councillors and local communities that the Prime Minister’s vision for decision-making on development in England is not one that guarantees local control and centres local voices.
“The privatisation of the planning system so far, where so many decisions are no longer made in principle by councils but by developers, like the conversion of offices into homes, tells us what this government thinks of local control.
“The proposals in the White Paper will drown out community voices, stifle local democratic responsibility and weaken legal protections for the environment.”
The letter from local councillors concludes: “The right development in the right place has the potential to deliver social equity and sustainable economic growth, as well as meeting our environmental ambitions.
“The government’s proposals as they stand will not achieve these goals. With this is mind, we urge you [Mr Jenrick] to rethink the proposals you have set out and work with elected representatives in developing a positive vision for planning.”
With the 2021 local government elections just around the corner in May, CPRE and Friends of the Earth are joining local councillors to call on the government to rethink the planning proposals they have set out, trust in local expertise and work with elected representatives in creating the places and homes communities need, especially in rural areas.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

CPRE Kent supports county MPs in attack on ‘inherently unreasonable’ new housing targets

CPRE Kent, the countryside charity, is backing a group of the county’s MPs who have written to government powerfully expressing their concerns over increased housing targets.
Kent fares particularly badly in the revised totals proposed in the Changes to the Current Planning System consultation, with almost all its district authorities facing annual housebuilding hikes of up to 125 per cent.
If the figures, based on what has already been described as “another rogue algorithm” and following analysis by Lichfields and Savills development consultancies, are accepted as part of planning policy, Kent will need to build an extra 2,835 homes a year on top of current targets, which are already eye-wateringly high.
In total, the county would be required to build 14,908 homes a year – up from the current figure of 12,045. And even the latter figure is critically flawed as it is based on outdated household-projection statistics from the Office for National Statistics.
The 2014 ONS figures used by the government have been superseded by two further forecasts, in 2016 and 2018, each forecasting a much-reduced figure for necessary new homes.
The MPs’ letter, addressed to Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, has been headed by Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) and signed by 10 other Members.
The burden on Kent does seem particularly unacceptable given that it has already delivered so much housing in recent years.
As the letter, which pulls no punches, says: “The proposals also appear inherently unreasonable, particularly to those local authorities in Kent who have already successfully worked with the Government to build the homes we need. One has to question the propriety of constantly increasing targets with completely unrealistic timescales…”
A report from the UK Centre of Ecology & Hydrology released in July this year showed Kent had already lost more land to urbanisation than any other county between 1990 and 2015.
The report revealed a net increase in urban areas in the county of 33,606 acres, substantially ahead of anywhere else – Essex (27,923 acres), West Yorkshire (27,182) and Surrey (24,711) came the closest.
Mrs Grant’s letter to Mr Jenrick has been signed by Rehman Chisti (Gillingham and Rainham), Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells), Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford), Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet), Damian Green (Ashford), Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey), Gareth Johnson (Dartford), Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) and Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling).
Dover faces the greatest increase of all – a scarcely credible 125 per cent hike on its current target. It could be told to build 1,279 homes a year, almost three times the number to have gone up over the past three years.
Other substantial increases would be imposed on Dartford (85 per cent on top of current target), Tonbridge and Malling (71 per cent), Swale (43 per cent) and Folkestone and Hythe (38 per cent). 
The current situation has echoes of a government consultation three years ago into changing the planning system in a bid to boost the amount of homes being built, notably in the South East.
The proposed change in methodology, laid out in the document Planning for The Right Homes In The Right Places: Consultation Proposals, detailed a total of 3,400 extra dwellings a year – a rise of 8 per cent – on targets across the region.
Staggeringly, two-thirds of these were earmarked for Kent, a county already having to accommodate some of the highest levels of housebuilding in the country.
It appears the inequitable focus on Kent has not disappeared.
The consultation closes at 11.45pm on Thursday, October 1.   

Sunday, September 13, 2020

‘Landmark’ planning reforms: will they really benefit the Kent countryside?

CPRE Kent, the countryside charity, has given a cool response to “once-in-a-generation reforms” to the country’s planning system proposed by the government today (Thursday, August 6).
Described as “landmark reforms to speed up and modernise the planning system and get the country building”, the changes proposed in the Planning for the Future White Paper are unlikely to benefit our countryside, John Wotton, chairman of CPRE Kent, said. 
Mr Wotton was responding to a statement from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick saying “an overhaul of the country’s outdated planning system that will deliver the high-quality, sustainable homes communities need will be at the heart of the most significant reforms to housing policy in decades”.
According to the statement, core reforms will mean:

  • Local communities will be consulted from the very beginning of the planning process. By harnessing the latest technology through online maps and data, the whole system will be made more accessible
  • Valued green spaces will be protected for future generations by allowing for more building on brownfield land and all new streets to be tree-lined
  • Much-needed homes will be built quicker by ensuring local housing plans are developed and agreed in 30 months – down from the current seven years
  • Every area is to have a Local Plan in place – currently only 50 per cent of local areas have a plan to build more homes
  • The planning process is to be overhauled and replaced with a clearer, rules-based system. Currently around a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned at appeal
  • A new simpler national levy to replace the current system of developer contributions, which often causes delay
  • The creation of a fast-track system for beautiful buildings and establishing local design guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities
  • All new homes are to be ‘zero carbon ready’, with no new homes delivered under the new system needed to be retrofitted as we achieve our commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050

One of the more contentious aspects of the proposals is the concept of zonal planning, with land designated in one of three categories: growth, renewal or protection.
It is also stated that “valued green spaces and Green Belt will continue to be protected for future generations, with the reforms allowing for more building on brownfield land”, while “local community agreement will be at the centre of the proposals”.
However, Mr Wotton said: “We find hard to see how the planning reform proposals, unveiled by the government this morning, will benefit the Kent countryside.
“The policy driving the proposals, of building more homes, more quickly, appears to override the safeguards in the present system ensuring that local communities’ needs are taken into account and that harm to the environment and landscape from building new homes is prevented.
“If local authorities are to lose their ability to approve the details of new developments, by what means can the views of local communities continue to have real force?
“We support the efficient provision of sufficient sustainable, affordable homes in Kent, in the places where they are most needed and where they will not harm the countryside, especially our much-valued Green Belt and two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and we support, as a general principle, the use of brownfield sites first.
“We are concerned that a standard infrastructure levy for housing developments, in place of Section 106 Agreements, will hand over the responsibility for the provision of both the additional infrastructure required as a result of new development and the provision of affordable housing from developers to local authorities, who may not have the resources to make these things happen.
“We will be studying these proposals in detail, in conjunction with the wider CPRE network and will participate actively in the coming public debate.”
Echoing Mr Wotton’s concerns, Tom Fyans, CPRE’s deputy chief executive, said: “The key acid test for the planning reforms is community involvement and on first reading, it’s still not clear how this will work under a zoning system.
“Although we welcome the government’s commitment to all areas having a Local Plan in place, we also need robust legal guarantees that the public are consulted regarding new development.
“Red lines on a map are not going to build trust in the planning system. As things stand, the government seems to have conflated digitalising planning with democratic planning – they’re not the same thing. 
“The government’s aim to deliver carbon-neutral new homes by 2050 is pitiful and represents 34 lost years given that the Code for Sustainable Homes aimed to achieve the same thing by 2016 and was dropped by government.
“If this government is serious about tackling the climate emergency, it needs to be much, much more ambitious on new-build. 
“On affordable homes, our concern is how this approach might play out in the countryside. In many rural areas, house prices are often more than 10 times average earnings, and so the 30 per cent discount won’t cut it. Local authorities should be able to provide the sorts of homes needed in their area – homes that local people can afford. 
“We have long advocated for a genuinely brownfield-first approach and on this aspect, the government seems to have listened. But if a brownfield-first approach is to work, local authorities need to be able to prioritise the building of those sites and reject unnecessary losses of greenfield land.” 

  • Read Planning for the Future here
  • You can also read the document and learn more about the consultation here 
  • Read the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government press statement here
  • Read more on planning reform here and here

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Remember localism? Now prepare to meet zonal planning and development corporations

How much say will local authorities have in future development?

If you thought the planning system was already loaded in favour of developers, things might be about to get a whole lot worse.
The government is reportedly considering a ‘zonal planning system’ in which “key decisions will be taken from local councils and handed to development corporations”.
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, is said to be influencing the government’s approach to planning and working with Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, on a plan to “kick-start housebuilding and infrastructure spending”.
The Sunday Times reported that a “committee of experts assembled by the duo” has met to “think about very substantive changes” to planning regulations.
The panel includes Bridget Rosewell, a commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission, property developer Sir Stuart Lipton and planning barrister Christopher Katkowski QC.
The newspaper said one of the proposed measures would allow high-street businesses to change their use “with complete flexibility”.
Further, there would be a “move to a zonal planning system where key decisions will be taken from local councils and handed to development corporations — though building on the Green Belt will not be permitted”.
In what appears part of an ominous trend, a document was published in March alongside the policy paper Planning for the Future, saying the government’s forthcoming Planning White Paper would “propose measures to accelerate planning”.
It added that the government would “trial the use of templates for drafting local development orders and other zonal tools to create simpler models and financial incentives to support more effective use”.
The Sunday Times has also reported that “Cummings and Jenrick are backing a new fast-track system for developers of high-quality, well-designed buildings”.
Asked about the media reports, a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Planning spokesman said: “The government has already set out an ambitious programme to modernise our planning system.
“Our Planning for the Future reforms will support the delivery of homes that local people need and create greener communities with more beautiful homes”.
While some local authorities in Kent can often appear less than sympathetic towards our natural environment, moves to take away their responsibility for “key decisions” and hand it to development corporations surely detract from the principle of democracy. Whatever happened to localism?     

Tuesday, June 16, 2020