Desperation planning policies emerging

From reading an item pitching Eric Pickles as the saviour of the English bowling green! I’ve been reminded of little gem from earlier this year.

Grant Shapps: Communities to be given a right to reclaim land

Published 2 February 2011
Housing Minister Grant Shapps today announced plans to give members of the public the right to reclaim and develop hundreds of acres of unused public sector land and buildings, which are currently trapped in a bureaucratic quagmire. The new Community Right to Reclaim Land will help communities to improve their local area by using disused publicly owned land for new development.
Given all the rhetoric surrounding the NPPF, the housing shortage and now the recent piece of planning policy desperation- house boats – all I can do is repeat my previous observations on this piece of nonsense.
The reason why it is nonsense is two fold. Firstly, a large amount of the land owned by the public sector is remote areas unconnected with existing development and therefore falling outside of the definition of sustainable development. Of course that was the definition of sustainable development that made some sense, as opposed to the abstract one DCLG seems to favour now. The second reason this is nonsense, is because of it’s reference to communities rushing out to scoop up redundant land and develop it as a way of improving their area.
There may well be one or two communities wishing to grab and build, but they will almost certainly be the exception. Of course, if communities were able to acquire redundant land in order to prevent anything being built on it, now that would be a completely different story!

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Developers are far from hungry

I see the developers are taking full advantage of all the publicity about the housing shortage, to take yet another swipe at the planning system, in cahoots with various ministers of Government.

Behind all their whaling and whining, hides the fact that, difficult times or not, the industry still has hundreds of thousands of planning permissions they have not implemented. Why isn’t Greg Clark berating the building industry and asking why they aren’t building what they’ve already got, instead of moaning about wanting more? to paraphrase Oliver Twist, ‘Please sir, my bowl is already quite full, but can I have some more anyway!’.

Planning Inspectorate will be busy

All the concern being expressed by organisations such as the National Trust and CPRE, about the presumption in favour of sustainable development, as enshrined in the NPPF, is in danger of over-shadowing one of the NPPF’s potential negative outcomes – planning by appeal.

One of the strengths and, it has to be said, occasional weaknesses of having elected members involved in making planning decisions, is that we can occasional be a cumudgeony bunch. The officers do their professional best to come up with a balanced decision, based on the council’s policies and then make their recommendation – members then go and take the opposite view! Where this view is in favour of an application, then the appeal process doesn’t really apply, unless somebody has enough cash to go to the high court. However, where an application is refused, either by officers without going to committee, or by a decision of the members at committee, the applicant has the right of appeal to the Secretary of State through the Planning Inspectorate.
With the implementation of the NPPF, developers will be waving the presumption in favour of sustainable development under the noses of every local planning authority in the country, demanding the right to build on just about any spare bit of land they can lay their hands on. Meanwhile, the public will be realising the floodgates have been unlocked and will soon be swinging wide open, with elected members telephones’ ringing off of their hooks. Public concern and in some cases outrage, will ultimately lead elected members to become more and more concerned about the political fallout from runaway development.
Given the vague and abstract nature of the term, ‘sustainable development’, the requirement to give a presumption in its favour and the potential for a lack of up to date planning policies in many councils, members are going to feel that they have every right to give significant weight to the public’s and in particular any neighbour’s concerns. Once the NPPF becomes law, PINS, as the Planning Inspectorate is known, is going to become very, very busy.
Worse still, a planning inquiry can be a very expensive business, especially when it goes to a full- blown public hearing. Even if the appellant is not awarded costs against the planning authority, the cost of an inquiry can easily reach 4, or even 5 figures. Whilst planning officers will always advise members against making a decision that isn’t based on sound planning reasons, they would be extremely reluctant to use the cost of fighting an appeal as the main reason for not refusing a planning application.

Media needs to pick the right target

In today’s Sunday Telegraph, Christopher Booker is taking a swipe at rising levels of public pay, bonuses and benefits, in these times of public sector austerity. He is of course right to be seriously concerned on behalf of the public. It cannot be right that, whilst everything else in the public sector is shrinking, the wealth of those at the highest levels continue to inflate.

However, targeting those benefitting from a corrupted remuneration system, is hardly going to achieve the desired outcome – the wholesale realignment of public sector pay. The present system has evolved over many years of negotiation between recruitment bodies, unions and even individuals seeking senior positions. Much of this negotiation, especially involving unions, has been based on claims that public sector workers are poorly paid, because they have greater job security and receive earlier pensions than those in the private sector. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, and this is where Christopher Booker is right to voice his concerns. Public sector pay has not just caught up, it has, especially at the more senior levels, surpassed the private sector, whilst all other benefits have stayed the same. It is this increasing disparity between the public and private sectors that is creating the current media outrage.

There is also one group that tends to be overlooked when it comes to responsibility for pay inflation – local government elected members. I myself have sat through more than a few debates and subsequent votes on decisions related to the chief executive’s next pay rise. Invariably discussions always focussed on how we needed to pay at least the going rate, having taken soundings from what was called our family group. This family group was based on councils of the same type and size as ours and was supposed to ensure that we didn’t loose a good CX, because we were not paying the going rate. The problem with this approach, is that it automatically builds in inflation which is then made worse by members often unfounded concerns at the possibility of loosing the devil they know. Also, somebody will often throw in a comment about the high cost of seeking a replacement for a senior management post and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve added 5 or even 10% to the cost of employing your chief executive.

Some councils have attempted to justify pay inflation within it’s senior management team, by introducing performance related bonuses. This farcical approach is also widespread across Whitehall and only adds to the outrage felt by those in the private sector, when reading reports such as Christopher Booker’s. If you can’t measure somebody’s performance against a well understood outcome such as profit, you’re stumbling around in the dark, basing your decision on personality and not performance and inviting the sort of pay inflation now common across the public sector.

John Howell, villain of the piece!

The letters page of today’s Telegraph carrys a letter from John Howell MP, who is actually claiming responsibility for the Tory Party Open Source Planning document. It’s therefore not surprising that he is criticising the recent Telegraph article by Clive Aslet, that itself criticised the National Planning Policy Framework. Given John Howell’s reference to ‘his’ Open Source Planning document, the NPPF might be better named Open Door Planning Framework.

Incidentally, having had a swift look at John Howell’s CV, apart from a degree that refers to something to do with geography, I can see nothing to confirm that his views on planning are any better informed than my own.

John Howell’s letter makes an extraordinary statement that to me, displays a fundamental lack of understanding of how the planning system actually works or what the repercussions of the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ being enshirined in the NPPF will be. He claims that, far from being an open goal for the developers, it’s only there as ‘tool for putting plans together’. I assume he means neighbourhood plans as opposed to local plans, but even then, his ignorance is breathtaking. You only have to read the extremely enthusiastic comments of the development industry, to get their take on how wide a door they previously had to knock on, will now be thrown open by the NPPF. His claim that it will not be used as weapon by many developers, to force through approval of their individual applications, bears no relationship to what the reality will be.

Mr Howell’s claims that a town in his own constituency supports what the NPPF is trying to achieve, because they have been successful in their ambition to become a Neighbourhood Plan front-runner. What he doesn’t say and I suspect never thought to ask, is what do those promoting that neighbourhood plan want to achieve? Given that Thame is in the well heeled county of Oxfordshire and given how unpopular proposals for major development have been in the south of England to date, I would put some money on this particular neighbourhood plan being the opposite of what Mr Howell’s hopes it wil be.

Actions required not just fine words Mr Clark

Greg Clark gets more than his fair share of column inches in today’s Daily Telegraph, continuing to promote his already much criticised National Planning Policy Framework.

The minister demonstrates his myopic view of this issue with comments like, ‘I can’t think of a single place I’ve been to where they don’t want housing’. What he doesn’t tell us is where he is getting these rose coloured views from. My suspicion is, that it was either the Party faithful, who would never dare to question the minister who has honoured them with a visit. Alternatively, it was through orchestrated meetings with local landowners and developers, who already see him as the second coming and think the NPPF is his version of the Holy Bible.

Mr Clark is obviously a very clever man, but his naivety with regards with the public’s attitude to large scale development is writ large by the statements he makes on the subject. Although he has been elected and must therefore have a regular postbag with at least some of this correspondence relating to development proposals, it’s clear from his CV that he has never been a local councillor and therefore has never been at the sharpest end of the planning process. Also, his CV shows little in the way of proper jobs, with all of his ‘working life’ being spent in the rarified world of politics. A spell with the BBC as some sort of policy wonk hardly qualifies.

If Mr Clark had spent any time as a local councillor, he would of come face to face with ordinary local people, those who don’t own land or build houses, expressing real concerns, something he dismisses as NIMBYism, about the impact a development could have on their community. I don’t believe there’s anything unique about my experience of the less than enthusiastic public response when a new housing development is proposed. That response is magnified six-fold when that development is for affordable or social housing, just the thing Clark is claiming will be promoted by his policies and our communities are supposedly so desperate to see happen.

Having passionately promoted the merits of localism and how important it is for communities to take back control of how their area develops, Mr Clark goes on to reveal the actual limits of localism when it comes to the development process. Apparently, where a local council, having listened to the local people and written a local plan to reflect these views, attempt to avoid large scale housing development, they will be ‘directed’ to think again, as per the Eric Pickles’s version of ‘guided Localism’ no doubt.

There are however a couple of comments attributed to Clark that, if true, would offer me some hope, if only they were clearly refelcted in the NPPF. He talks of better design, greater individuality and, most significantly, a drive to eliminate the shoe box sized houses foisted on the British public, by our greedy development industry, since the second world war.

Unfortunately, his fine words do not appear to be supported by anything substantive in the NPPF. If my own local planning authority were to produce a policy requiring room sizes to return to their pre-war dimensions, would it gain the support of the planning inspectorate the first time this was challenged by a developer?

Mr Clark, If you want the public, not just the landowners and the developers, to turn your naive words into reality, you need to confirm to us that the quality of new housing is just as important to you as the quantity.

Time for action on Big Society

As MPs went through the motions in Parliament, having been recalled, I hope at least a few of them, including those on the Tory benches, took the opportunity to ask David Cameron how, given the events of that triggered the recall, he intends to put his Big Society vision in to practice.

Surely, the recent, both horrifying and depressing, events across mainly England, are a confirmation of what David Cameron has been saying since he became Party leader. His biggest problem now, is the risk of being accused of being all talk and no action. Can he really expect all those people who turned out on the streets of London, armed with brooms and bin bags, to keep doing so from now on, without something more than words of encouragement from his government? If he does, then his vision is doomed already.

Just like a train needs tracks to run, Big Society will only work if it has the right sort of infrastructure to support it. People are demanding no more cuts in police budgets, so that more officers can be put on the streets and that is one solution. However, the heavy hand of authority is the way regimes such Syria, Lybia and Zimbabwe control their populations. I don’t think any right minded citizen would wish to see the UK go down this route, if only because it fails completely to address the underlying issues. Policing is the answer, but not neccesaraily high police numbers. Policing focussed on and based in the community, in other words, a return to a form of the good old village bobby.

If David Cameron believes that the Big Society can work, he could do worse than start by reintroducing genuine local policing. This could be in the form of a proper community based police officer, complete with office and house – sound familiar? Or, as works in other European countries such as Holland, community wardens living and working in their communities. Recent events in Japan also highlighted their system of community based officials. I also understand that it is common practice to see mini-police offices on many street corners, providing genuine community based policing.

The key to this approach is ensuring that there are enough boots on the ground, as they say in the military – over to you Dave.