Minimum room size standards – if you can afford it.

This extract from the DCLG press release, really gives me the willies, as my old dad used to say. I don’t have a problem with making sure homes work for older people – as I will be one, sooner than I wish to admit – and disabled people, so they should be. What I don’t like and what makes me both suspicious and, as usual, extremely cynical, is the bit in bold. How can one local authority have different room size needs, compared to another? Are there any secret pockets of pygmies or giants DCLG know about and we don’t?

Or is this DCLG speaking out of both sides of their collective mouths? They give you an opportunity to make an improvement in your policies, but only if you are willing to invest in proving that it is justified for your particular area? This is of course standard practice in Local Plan preparation. Producing the evidence required to justify NOT providing enough housing land, being the most obvious one. Gypsy and Traveller sites, leisure, public open space requirements and road infrastructure, are all evidence based requirements that are totally appropriate, as somebody has to pay for them and they should not be required just for the sake of it – but room sizes, really?

This statement is clearly designed to con people into thinking that DCLG are, to quote Eric Pickles, “on the side of hard working taxpayers”, whilst at the same time discouraging cash strapped councils from actually doing the evidence gathering required. If DCLG were genuine in their wish to see our rabbits hutch homes consigned to history, they would simple produce a national standard to be applied in the same as the building regulations are. Score another one for the vested interests of the planning industry me thinks.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the administration was inviting views on “minimum space and access standards that would allow councils to seek bigger homes to meet local needs, including those of older and disabled people”.

Bristol, we have a problem!

I attended a planning workshop in Melton Mowbray yesterday. It was wrongly named, because there was no work done by those attending, just a lot of listening, with a smattering of heckling. The purpose of this ‘workshop’ was to give elected members, from East Midlands councils, some insight into the planning reforms introduced by the National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF for short.

Although I already knew that this has always been an issue, I was nevertheless disappointed to hear members confirm their lack of understanding when it comes to the origins of the planning policies used to determine planning applications. Two members, in particular, displayed a lack of understanding about the status of the document we are all being encouraged to work our socks off to produce by April 2013 – the Local Plan.

The first councillor, who admitted she was a new councillor and therefore the planning system, made what I considered an extraordinary and rather damning statement in respect of member training at her council, it went something like this. ‘I don’t think members actually make any decisions when it comes to planning applications, they just ratify what the officers have recommended in the report’. One of the speakers did his best to put her right, but unfortunately was prevented from saying what I was thinking, ‘Madame you are clueless and worse still, clearly incompetent when it comes to serving on a planning committee’.

A second member raised his hand to speak and despite this being a Q&A session, uttered the words that always make my heart sink – ‘It’s just a comment really’. Such opening lines are then normally followed by an irrelevant anecdote, or a claim that his or her council is doing what has said is good good practice, but with bells on. This particular gentleman, didn’t offer either of these, just a criticism that demonstrated his complete lack of ownership, when it comes to the policies being used to determine planning applications in his council. His complaint, was that officers were able to make planning decisions using delegated authority, rather than applications going to committee. He then went on to criticise the lack of any reference to the democratic process in the presentations and that state that councillors are there to represent the people. He clearly felt that having to approve a planning application, when local people had objected, just wasn’t right! The existence of a Local Plan, that made the application acceptable, didn’t seem to matter.

Finally, a very interesting comment came from a speaker who was an elected member from Birmingham. He was lamenting his colleagues practice of making site visits, often to stare at some innocuous residential extension, that was perfectly acceptable and completely in conformity with their Local Plan. Even though he said he enjoyed planning, he doesn’t do it at his council anymore!

These comments, along with several other, ‘Its just a comment really’ contributions, combined with the general tenor of members questions and heckles, confirmed my worst fears. These members have not made the link between the Local Plan they and their fellow councillors have created, the planning decisions made by their officers using delegated authority and the decisions made by members at their planning committee. Put another way, the Local Plan doesn’t belong to them.

Why Bristol? Well that’s where our beloved Planning Inspectorate is based. It is from here that, the DCLG Minister, ‘General’ Eric Pickles, coordinates his army of planning inspectors, charged with confronting the hordes of elected members rejecting planning applications with gay abandon and all under the banner of local democracy and dare I suggest, Localism.

A timely warning to all of us

Here’s an interesting piece (for those of us interested in planning issues that is) from a planning website where local government planners pose questions to colleagues. It should serve as a timely warning to any council concerned about how to deal with neighbourhood plans. For those who don’t wish to read the whole thing, it’s all about neighbourhood plans being used by some parties as a way of promoting their own vested interests.

Having found no interest in these at all, suddenly here in (location deleted for obvious reasons) we’ve got 3 suggestions coming forward and need to act fast if we are to bid for CLG grant – assuming they could be runners.
What worries us is that they all propose housing developments that run counter to our recently adopted LDF (Core Strategy, Development Policies and Allocations DPDs) and therefore could fail at the first hurdle of not being in general conformity with the strategic policies of the local plan.
Being a large rural area we have a sustainable settlement hierarchy in our core strategy to promote development in the towns and larger villages with a good range of services, etc and we severely restrict new housing development elsewhere, including small villages. We now have a small village of 20 houses with a supportive parish council (covering a wider area) wanting to promote 2 dwellings for the families of well respected local business people, whose planning applications have previously been refused.
So only 2 dwellings – hardly a general conformity issue you might think? but it could be repeated and it undemines our strategy of delivering sustainable development, yet is probably in line with national policy.
What do you think? Anybody else proceeding with a neighbourhood plan for 2 dwellings? The other 2 proposed neighbourhood plans relate to secondary service villages with no housing allocations and tightly defined development limits and developers wanting to promote relatively large sites.
One sites was even rejected for allocation by the LDF Inspector last year. It’s not certain they would get 50% community support, but with a referendum not until the end of the process it’s an unknown and potentially a waste of money.
In one village several members of the parish council have direct interests in the site promoted, so presumably couldn’t vote. Is anybody else struggling over how to proceed with neighbourhood plans that don’t comply with the LDF and have PC members with vested interests?