A planning committee doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons

A salutary tale for all those planning committee councillors, who continue to make ‘political’ decisions on planning applications.
It’s a lengthy article, but the lesson to be learned from it is a very simple one – there’s no place in the development control process for the Localism agenda.
It’s particularly disappointing to read the chairman of this council’s strategic planning committee comments. Assuming that’s this not the title of their committee for determining planning applications, he’s failed to acknowledge the completely different roles of these two committees.
The strategic planning committee is the one that produces the council’s Local Plan and the one charged with challenging job of balancing public opinion and national planning guidance and policies.
If the public wants to influence the planning process, then they need to do so during the plan making stage, which is what, is a slightly obscure fashion, the Localism agenda directs. Waiting until a planning application is submitted, to object to a major housing development, or to a proposal for a large industrial site, is far too late and unlikely to succeed, at least in principle, no matter how loud, or well organised the public outcry is. Yes, the planners will listen to concerns about the details, or even about the layout of the development,Mobutu if the land to be built on is identified in the council’s adopted Local Plan, then the game is almost certainly already lost.
As the article details, failing to apply the council’s planning policies will cost the local tax payer dearly and still not win councillors any votes.
Finally, the appeals process isn’t perfect, but is an essential element in the planning process, especially given the aberrant behaviour of some council planning committees.

Cornwall Council’s bill for costs rises as developers win more planning appeals. By West Briton | Posted: December 18, 2014

The number of successful appeals over refusal of planning permission, where costs have been awarded against Cornwall Council, is rising astronomically.

The figure for the amount the council must pay to cover the developers’ costs in fighting appeals against it is on target for an eight-fold increase this year, and the process has already cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

According to the chairman of the council’s strategic planning committee, Rob Nolan, the local authority is being penalised by the Government for turning down applications because it is going against national policies – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was introduced in March 2012 to help speed up house-building.

“The Government has said it wants to build its way out of the recession, and the NPPF has been described as a developer’s charter,” he says.

“At the same time, the Government bangs on about localism, giving people the impression they have a say in local development.

“Yet when we listen to local views, and refuse planning permission on what we think are sound planning grounds, we find the (Government’s) planning inspector not only turns around our decision on appeal, but grants costs against us.

“Until recently costs were only awarded against the council where we had been cavalier in our decisions.

“But now it seems they’re being used to punish us.”

Between April 2013 and March 2014, costs were awarded against the council in only eight cases. In the past six months alone, costs have been awarded against the local authority after 16 appeals.

“This is a worrying trend,” he says. “We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

“We want to listen to local people, we want to do what is right for Cornwall, but we can’t keep paying out awards of costs to developers.”

According to the figures from Cornwall Council, released following a freedom of information request from the West Briton, the amount of costs awarded against it – which it must pay to the developers that appeal – in 2013/2014, was just £47,000.

In the first six months of this financial year alone, the appeal payout bill was £174,000.

The council has even been penalised financially in cases when the appellant was not successful.

Most appeals are dealt with in writing between the appellant, the council’s team and the Planning Inspectorate, a government agency in Bristol.

But some go to public inquiry, with a full hearing, which escalates costs drastically because of the fees of legal teams on both sides, which often includes a QC. These inquiries can be held locally and last up to two weeks.

One such public inquiry against the refusal of plans for 12 industrial units at Pool Fields in Falmouth landed the council with a £27,000 bill after it lost the appeal.

The planning consultant on this application was CSA Architects. Its managing director, Justin Dodge, said it has received £87,000 in costs awarded against the council from three appeals alone within the past year.

He adds that another planning consultancy was awaiting confirmation of a payout in the region of £200,000 from a successful appeal against the refusal of a development of 100 houses at Upper Chapel in Launceston earlier this year.

He says that, since the NPPF, and in the absence of the Cornwall Local Plan, which would set out guidelines for granting or refusing planning permission, consultants like CSA were winning more and more appeals. Costs were increasingly being awarded against the council – a trend which looks set to continue.

“We have not needed to appeal historically,” he says. “It has only been in the last 18 months, since the new cavalier planning committees were appointed, that we have needed to take more of our cases to appeal.

“They have a complete and utter disregard for policy. They are reckless and out of control.”

During the appeal process, the appellant’s argument is usually upheld when the council has acted unreasonably.

According to Mr Dodge, the reason for CSA’s success in recent cases is that the council failed to provide enough evidence to support its reasons for refusal – which is judged at appeal as unreasonable.

“It is particularly frustrating when the professional planning officer from Cornwall Council makes a recommendation which is completely disregarded and overturned by the (councillors on the) planning committee, without any compelling rationale,” he says.

“Sadly, this has become commonplace in the last 18 months, with most committee decisions being against officer recommendations and therefore we expect to pursue more planning appeals than ever before.”

But Mr Dodge adds that most of his clients spend, on average, £15,000 to £20,000 on submitting an application, and some can spend as much as £100,000 on launching an appeal against a refusal decision, spending heavily on legal teams and consultants.

“We know planning policy inside out,” he says. “This is our business. We don’t go into planning applications light-heartedly.

“But the true cost of a planning appeals can never be fully established, including the council’s own time and resources, as well as the time delays to the projects affected by the process.”

Since the NPPF was introduced, Cornwall Council has been developing the Cornwall Local Plan – a blueprint for the amount of development and where it should be located (see panel).

This policy document, which has received input from local town and parish councils, developers and members of the public, is due to be debated at full council next month, before being sent to the Government for approval.

No-one knows how long this process will take.

Until the plan is approved, says Councillor Neil Hatton, Cornwall Council member for Constantine, Budock and Mawnan, near Falmouth, it is “open season” for developers.

“The NPPF is there to support sustainable development,” he says.

“It has certainly encouraged a lot more people to put in applications and challenge the system through the appeals inspectorate – people are testing it out.

“A lot more appeals have been based on the sustainable argument because of the lack of the local plan – it is more difficult to refuse these.

“Cornwall’s weakness is the local plan [or lack of it].

“It has not been put to the Government for approval and, while it carries a little weight, it doesn’t carry a huge amount at the moment.

“It is open season for developers at the moment without the policies in place under the local plan.”

On Tuesday of last week Mr Hatton attended an appeal against Cornwall Council’s refusal of planning permission for 153 houses on Bickland Water Road. CSA was the planning consultant on the project. After a hearing in Truro and a site visit, the planning inspector’s decision is likely to be made next month.

Planning consultant Stephen Payne says the NPPF was designed to encourage “more positive decision-making” regarding rural and urban growth – to grant more planning applications – particularly with regard to housing.

“We didn’t find that quite to the extent that we expected,” he says.

“There was a change of attitude initially. But gradually they have fallen back into their old ways.

“We are seeing worse and worse decisions as we are going along.

“And it was disappointing that when we got to appeal they didn’t follow the Government’s lead.

“We would expect the planning inspectorate to toe the Government line.

“There are a lot of developments that should have been built that have not been.”

For Councillor Nolan, the whole system is flawed.

“I’m not sure that the appeal system does work well,” he says.

“Cornwall has a unique character and a delicate infrastructure – we cannot keep up with unlimited development, and an inspector who might be based in Swindon may apply judgements that work for Swindon, but not for St Ives.

“Essentially, inspectors are too remote, and not accountable for their decisions.”

Last month the council approved budget cuts of £196 million over the next four years. This, he says, only adds to the problem.

“Budget cutbacks are already causing problems,” he adds.

“Officers have a heavy caseload, and ironically it’s the developers that are complaining that it’s taking too long to process applications.”

He says that Mr Dodge’s comments would “ring hollow” with residents of Launceston, Gwinear, Goonhavern, Truro, Probus and many other communities who have fought, or are fighting what he calls “inappropriate developments driven by developers’ needs, rather than sensible planned growth”.

Neither Phil Mason, the council’s head of service for planning, housing and regeneration, nor Councillor Edwina Hannaford, Cabinet member for environment, heritage and planning, were available for comment.

Read more: http://www.westbriton.co.uk/Cornwall-Council-s-costs-rises-developers-win/story-25738782-detail/story.html#ixzz3NZgKfiD2
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Something every planning committee already knows

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

Homeowners prevent housebuilding, report finds
24 October, 2014 | By David Paine

House-building rates are lower in local authority areas with higher proportions of homeowners, according to analysis by the Institute for Government (IfG).

The report,‘Housing that Works for All – The Political Economy of Housing in England’, covered the period from 2001 to 2011.

It follows the publication of the Lyons housing review, which outlined how up to 200,000 new homes a year could be built by the year 2020.

The IfG said there was a risk of planning decisions being biased in favour of current homeowners.

This was in part because of a lack of city or region-wide planning co-ordination, which meant planning policy operated “exclusively at the local level and is responding to the interests of local residents”.

It said new developments often created new infrastructure costs for councils, and extra demand for public services, yet the increase in revenues from developments was “limited”.

The report also warned that the requirement for planning permission to be granted for any change of land use made decisions “slower and more uncertain”. Homeowners were among the most likely groups to oppose new homes, it said.

Miguel Coelho, IfG fellow and co-author of the paper, said: “A common accusation is that planning decisions tend to cater for the interests of current homeowners, rather than allow for a wider, more balanced set of interests. New empirical presented in this paper lend support to this hypothesis.

“Our analysis shows in particular that in the decade to 2011, housing stock grew significantly less in local authorities where there were higher proportions of owner-occupiers amongst local households.

“Credible proposals to reform the planning system should address this problem and ensure that planning decisions allow for the full breadth of interests affected by development.”

However, the paper acknowledged reforming the planning system would be difficult.

It claimed there had, so far, been a lack of public support to do so, and that the wealth of households and health of the UK financial sector had “become inextricably intertwined with the macro-economy, thus undermining the case for fast, radical reform”.

It also claimed that “successive governments have struggled to find a sensible balance between regional/national planning co-ordination and local democratic legitimacy”.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Is localism preventing the development of new homes?

Copied from housing network website article by Hannah Fearn
Friday 1 August 2014 10.33 BST

They are both government priorities, but involving communities in planning decisions appears incompatible with housebuilding

Redbridge Council has taken planning decisions out of the hands of elected councillors.

It was the big idea of the coalition government, a cornerstone of localism, a foolproof way of getting things done without scaring off the traditionalists in the Conservative heartland. But after just three years, is neighbourhood planning already dead?

There are few signs of life left in the policy. Nick Boles sounded the first notes of funeral dirge when he admitted that the scheme, which involves local people designing and signing off new housing schemes, was too complex to function. He found that multiple objections from local people actually holds up the development process (who’d have thought it?). Instead he called on councils to who had already given up and come up with a better idea to share their it with other authorities.

The Financial Times reported this week that Kate Barker, who conducted a review of housebuilding for the Labour government in 2004, does not blame government policy for the slow rate of development in recent years. Instead, she says, it’s partly the result of nimbyism.

The turning of the tide against localism in planning goes even further: now even councillors can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. In Redbridge, the council has ruled that all future decisions on planning applications will be made by staff in the planning department because they have the skills and training to ensure they are qualified to make the right decisions; elected members simply do not. Redbridge also claims the move will save £45,000 a year.

Council leader Jas Athwal told his local newspaper that councillors added nothing to the planning process. “These planning officers have a huge amount of education and it seems egotistic that councillors can overrule them,” he said.

Meanwhile, central government is meddling again: it’s offering a slice of a £3m funding pot to councils with the largest number of planning applications for new homes in the pipeline, to speed things up and get those homes built. It’s a reward, but it’s also another opportunity to bypass the planning process that this government put in place.

This is not the first example of government finding new ways to get out of its own promises. Plans to create a new generation of garden cities mean the establishment of development corporations or sub-regional planning bodies which will be tasked with getting these new settlements built; there will be little room for debate once the decision to create a new town has been agreed upon.

In fact, writing for Planning magazine, former Whitehall advisor and planning consultant Ben Kochan says that the best way to win approval for a new garden city is to involve a whole host of organisations which are about as far removed from the neighbourhood planning process as you can get – not just urban development corporations, but also local enterprise partnerships, which give the business community funding and powers to boost economic growth.

It’s somewhat inevitable that in focusing on the end result – seeing more homes built in areas where there is an urgent need – will mean taking difficult decisions that not everyone in the community welcomes. Removing these decisions from the responsibility of local councillors (or simply by circumventing the planning process) will either be seen as a wise attempt to force progress or a cynical attempt to avoid blame for unpopular developments.

Whether you’re in favour of neighbourhood planning or not, it is being quietly removed from the pre-development process in the run-up to the 2015 election. This might be a good thing for housing in terms of numbers, but it’s also a blow to the heart of democratic localism.

Personally, I don’t agree with Redbridge, if they have indeed completely killed of their committee, as officers don’t always give the right weight to the concerns of non-planning experts. Local people are ‘experts’ when it comes to local concerns and local knowledge and you ignore this at your peril.

I do however agree that the system is becoming too vague, the government’s approach far too developer friendly and the overall process too open to abuse by vested interests, to remain as it is.
Telling councillors that they can still make the decisions, even if they’ve campaigned against it. Also suggesting that being pre-disposed to an opinion, is not the same as pre-determination, is complete nonsense and falls apart as defence, as soon as the high court gets involved.

Wind farms – power to the people?

Although my last post highlighted the supposed new powers being given to the public when it comes to wind farms, I don’t believe it.

Just like Localism, the public are being mislead and sold a pup. Unless the government intends throwing all previous case precedent out of the window and telling a PINS that appeals by wind farm applicants are now out of bounds, people are going to be very disappointed by the outcomes from this latest bit of planning system spin.

Locals to get wind farm veto

Daily Telegraph 6th June 2013

By Robert Winnett, Political Editor

LOCAL communities will be given the power to block wind farms under planning rules to be unveiled today.
Senior Conservatives claim the move will effectively end the spread of the controversial turbines which have been blamed for blighting picturesque landscapes.
Ministers will announce that residents will have to be consulted over new wind farms with applications barred if there is significant opposition.
Councils are currently prevented from even considering applications for larger turbines.
However, under the plans, energy firms will be able to offer “incentives” – such as discounts on electricity bills – to persuade communities to agree to new wind farms.
When planning applications are submitted, officials will have to take into account topography and the impact on “views” and historic sites. Inspectors will also have to assess the “cumulative impact of wind turbines” amid fears that some areas are being overwhelmed by applications.
Currently, councils can be forced to accept new wind farms as national planning guidance states that renewable energy schemes should usually be permitted.
A senior Conservative source said: “The Prime Minister strongly feels that this is a real local issue and if people don’t want to have wind farms they don’t have to have them. This is a bombproof set of safeguards to protect the wishes of local people.”
Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, will today announce that legal planning guidance is to be altered and he will write to all councils and the Planning Inspectorate demanding that they use the new principles in current decisions.
Last night, Mr Pickles said: “We want to give local communities a greater say on planning, to give greater weight to the protection of landscape, heritage and local amenity.”
Despite senior Conservatives heralding the end of new onshore wind farms, the Liberal Democrats – including the Energy Secretary – believe that the new system of incentives could actually lead to an increase in turbines.
The Energy Department says that a community agreeing to a modest wind farm could see their power bills fall by an average of £400 per household.
Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, said: “We remain committed to the deployment of appropriately sited onshore wind, as a key part of a diverse, low-carbon and secure energy mix and committed to an evidence-based approach to supporting low carbon power.
“This is an important sector that is driving economic growth, supporting thousands of new jobs and providing a significant share of our electricity and I’m determined that local communities should share in these benefits.”

Letter to Local Government First magazine – Localism and planning

Dear sir,
 
I was both interested and concerned to see First, Issue 542, peppered with complaints regarding the relationship between the planning system and Localism, some even calling for the abolition of PINS because, apparently, they don’t get it.
 
The Localism Act has introduced much confusion for the public when it comes to influencing the planning process.  Comments made by members of the public on recent contentious planning applications in my own area, clearly indicate a belief that the Localism Act increases the public’s ability to prevent development from going ahead if enough of them shout loudly enough.
 
This mis-interpretation of the Localism Act’s intentions is, in turn, increasing pressure on councillors to be more outspoken and forceful when speaking at committee.  This pressure is increased further by the Localism Act’s guidance to councillors that advises that they can somehow express an opinion and even campaign on a planning issue, without being accused of pre-determination!  I wonder if any high powered planning barrister would be prepared to defend a decision made by a committee populated by such campaigning members?
 
Whilst I very much sympathise with the councillors who made these comments and understand their wish to represent fully their electorates’ views, I’m afraid it is they, not PINS who don’t get it.  
 
There is a clear need for the government to restate its intentions when it comes to how the Localism Act can be used to influence the planning system – through the process that makes the policy, not the one that determines individual applications. 

 

My best regards, 
 
Councillor Roger Gambba-Jones, 
Planning Committee Chairman, 
South Holland DC, Lincolnshire

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.