In the Eye of the Beholder? The Planning White Paper Has Big Risks for Local Democracy.

A shorter version of this post appears on the Sussex Bylines news website

Archery Road housing development - picture shows housing and flats under construction.
The Archery Road housing development resulted from a controversial planning application with many objections. In the future, will such developments not need permission at all?

Earlier this month, the government published ‘Planning for the Future’, a consultation White Paper on the future of the planning system, promising the biggest shake up since 1948 with a ‘fast track for beauty’ through the planning system.  The proposals were immediately criticised by many, with the Royal Institute of British Architects branding them as ‘disgraceful’, and the Royal Town Planning Institute describing the White Paper as a ‘serious error’. So what exactly is proposed in the White Paper and how’s it different from the current planning system?

Planning decisions are made by district and unitary councils, apart from a few decisions on, for example, mineral extraction, waste disposal and schools that are made by county councils.  There are two parts to the way these councils use planning controls to shape their area: the Local Plan, and ‘development control’.  The Local Plan is by far the most important part, as this identifies land across the local authority that’s suitable for different types of development, as well as protected land where development won’t normally be permitted.  It also includes a set of local policies that can include design standards, housing density, height restrictions, provision of affordable housing, environmental requirements, and even details such as the design of shopfronts and windows, particularly in defined ‘conservation areas’.  The process for producing these plans is slow, expensive and cumbersome.  It’s also constrained by national government policies through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Producing the Local Plan involves a lengthy public consultation process and thousands of pages of supporting evidence, mostly commissioned from private consultants. Several drafts are produced before the plan is submitted to a government planning inspector. The inspector then conducts an ‘examination in public’, where objectors can present their case to the inspector. Before the council adopts the plan, the inspector has to declare the plan ‘sound’.  All this take several years.

Once this plan is adopted, it’s used to judge whether a planning application can be approved. This is the ‘development control’ part. If an application complies with the Local Plan, then it will be recommended for approval. The number of objections makes no difference, and can’t be taken into account in considering a planning application. It must be decided purely on whether it complies with the Local Plan, and national policies in the NPPF. This approval is usually given by planning officers, who will refer the application to the Planning Committee where there are a lot of objections.

It is true that local plans are not ‘set in stone’ – planning committees are free to make whatever decision they want. However, if they refuse an application that conforms with their plan, they risk the applicant making an appeal to a planning inspector, where the council’s decision will almost certainly be overturned and permission granted. In such cases, the council usually has to pay the applicant’s costs, potentially tens of thousands of pounds.  So as a general rule, planning committees won’t turn down applications that conform with their Local Plan policies, regardless of the number of objections.

That’s how the system works at the moment.  So what’s new in the White Paper?

The main proposals in the White Paper are:

  • Local Plans would divide the local authority area into four zones:
    • Growth areas, where planning permission is automatically granted by the council where a development proposal conforms with local plan policies, without the need for a formal planning application;
    • Renewal areas, where some types of development will be dealt with as above, but other development would still need a full application;
    • Protected areas, where all development would still require a full planning application.  These protected areas would include Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), National Parks and green belt, as well as locally-defined green spaces;
  • Local Plan policies will be different, with zone and site-specific ‘rules’, rather than general policies, and the plan-making process simplified with a statutory time limit of 30 months for plan-making;
  • Public engagement in producing the Local Plan will be increased, but the opportunity to object to individual planning applications will be reduced;
  • There will be stricter targets for the numbers of new homes to be built in each council area, with more severe penalties for not achieving these targets;
  • The requirement for developers to provide social and ‘affordable’ housing will end, to be replaced with an off-site financial contribution (although this could be met ‘in kind’ by building social and affordable housing as part of the development);
  • Ensure new developments limit climate change, benefit the environment, and enhance the ‘beauty’ of local areas;
  • Make councils pay back planning fees where an appeal to a planning decision is successful.

The intention of these proposals is to place more emphasis on making a local plan, and less on individual applications.  In some ways, this makes the system clearer and more honest.  Local people think that if they object to a planning application it will be more likely to be turned down – but that has never been the case, it’s compliance with the Local Plan that counts.  Making councils pay back fees if they lose an appeal means turning down applications that comply with the local plan is even less likely.

The idea of the three ‘zones’ in local plans is interesting, although more detail needs to be revealed about how this would work.  Presumably, councils won’t be able to simply declare the entire council area a ‘protected’ zone and carry on as before. The automatic designation of green belt, national parks and AONBs as ‘protected’ is perhaps not surprising, as these areas are almost entirely represented by Tory MPs. But in Sussex, this means a lot of housing development will be squeezed into a relatively small area, as National Parks and AONBs cover over two thirds of the two counties.

There’s a big emphasis on building homes, with these new, stricter (and higher) targets for councils to achieve, a burden that will fall heavily on councils in the South East. Here especially, there’s a huge need for social rented housing and other genuinely ‘affordable’ housing, but there’s nothing much on how these will be provided.  

If the intention of this White Paper is getting more homes built, then it’s aimed at the wrong target.  It’s not councils who mostly build the homes – they only grant the permissions.  What’s preventing housing development is the failure of developers to build on land for which they already have planning permission.  In some council areas, ‘land banked’ land on which planning permission has been granted accounts for more than the council’s entire housing target.  Simply granting planning permission doesn’t get homes built, it just pushes up the value of the land.  Councils need to be able to force developers to build if they’re to meet their housing targets.  And there are no proposals for that in this White Paper.

And there’s a strange emphasis on ‘beauty’ in new developments – the word appears 15 times in the White Paper, including some fairly extraordinary statements such as ‘better off people experience more beauty than poorer people’. But there’s no explanation of what that means, or who will be defining what is beautiful.

But whatever’s in the Planning Act that emerges from this White Paper, it will only be a small part of the story. The detailed rules on how councils determine planning zones, the kind of policies and rules they can include in their plans, standards to prevent climate change, requirements for public involvement in making the Local Plan, and much more, will emerge in secondary legislation.  And this doesn’t have to be subject to any consultation.  It doesn’t even have to be agreed by parliament.

Overall, the ambition to simplify the planning system is a good one. Some of the proposals in the White Paper will achieve that. However, the emphasis on ‘beauty’ is suspiciously abstruse – beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s too subjective to use as a concept in a supposedly objective consultation White Paper. And it won’t mean more houses are built, particularly ones that people can afford.

The key proposals in this White Paper are ‘neither useful not beautiful’.  They could take away significant control from councils over both the plan-making and development control process. That would be deeply unpopular, and damaging for local democracy.

Cost of COVID: Councils Can’t Cope

A similar version of this article is also published on the newly launched ‘Sussex Bylines’ news website:

Hastings Council street sweeping vehicles
How will councils continue to provide basic services with no money?

Dramatic cuts in income have left councils with big budget shortfalls, and no way to get the money they need to provide day-to-day services. Had the Covid-19 crisis happened back in 2010, there wouldn’t have been such a problem. Ten years of austerity have left councils in no fit state to cope. 

The government has so far come up with around £3bn in additional support for councils, and after saying there would be no more money, an additional scheme has been floated to replace at least some of councils’ lost income. However, it remains to be seen whether this saves all, or even most, councils from insolvency.

Up to 2010, most council funding came from council tax, business rates and government grants. These grants accounted for well over half of council funding. Income generated from fees and charges was an important, but relatively small, portion of the money used to run council services. 

A survey carried out by the Local Government Association predicted a gap in English council budgets, caused by loss of income and additional COVID costs, of £10.9m. Here in Sussex, reported shortfalls in council budgets include:

  • £50m in Brighton and Hove City Council;
  • £23-£25m each for East and West Sussex County Councils;
  • Between £1.5m and £10m for each of the 12 district councils.

A recent study by the Centre for Progressive Policy revealed that out of 151 ‘upper tier’ English councils, including county councils and single-tier unitary councils, 131 do not have sufficient reserves to cover the shortfall that has occurred because of the COVID crisis. Many of the 188 ‘lower tier’ district councils will be facing similar problems.

But during the last 10 years, the government grant element has been slashed to virtually nothing, forcing councils to find other ways to raise money to pay for the services they provide. This meant increasing, and creating new, fees and charges. Councils started to charge for services that had previously been free, as well as significantly increasing other fees – for example, home care services, residential care, car parking, cemetery and crematorium charges, and pest control. 

Commercial property purchases are an easy way to generate income quickly. Councils can borrow money from the government at very low interest rates, buy tenanted commercial property, use the rental income to pay back the loan, and have a fair chunk of money left to pay for local services. 

Over the last three years, councils have spent £6.6bn on buying commercial property – that’s a 14-fold increase on the previous three years. In many ways, this is a good thing. Most large commercial tenants would far rather have the local council as their landlord than a faceless, inaccessible corporation based in Bermuda with no interest in the local area. But the current COVID financial chaos has left many big companies in difficulty, and unable to pay their rent. 

Poundstretcher, John Lewis, Debenhams, Monsoon, Laura Ashley, Oak Furnitureland, and many more have reported that they’re in trouble, and will be closing stores, while renegotiating rents on others. Many of these will be in council-owned retail parks and shopping centres. But councils also own factory estates with small industrial units as well as pubs and cafes, many of whom will also be in difficulty. In some cases, rent deferrals for these small, local businesses have been agreed. It remains to be seen how many of them will be able to pay when the deferral period is over.

Other council income has been hit too. Income from car parking pretty much disappeared during lockdown. Other tourist attractions, for example the cliff railways in Hastings, the theatres in Eastbourne, or the i360 on Brighton seafront, provide their local councils with significant income that has been lost during lockdown.

And of course, there have been additional costs. The government has been a little better at funding these additional costs directly related to the COVID crisis, but there have been other costs that are not being funded. Costs of homelessness have risen dramatically, with more families becoming homeless because they can no longer pay their rent. Also, the government told councils that they had to get rough sleepers into temporary accommodation. Additional homelessness costs are estimated at £600,000 a year in Hastings alone. 

Then there’s the cost of the council tax support scheme, where those on low incomes or benefit get money off their council tax. The government grant councils used to get for this was scrapped some years ago, although the requirement to have a local support scheme remains. While claims to council tax support schemes have not yet increased much, that’s likely to change as the national furlough scheme ends.

But the problems don’t end with this year’s budget shortfalls. Reductions in the amount collected in council tax and business rates are inevitable, but these aren’t included in the current shortfalls: local taxes collected this year don’t impact until next year’s budget. So councils could potentially be facing even bigger problems in 2021.

In the end, the government will have to come up with the money to cover the shortfall in council finances. The prospect of several hundred councils simply running out of money to pay for adult social care, children’s services, refuse collection, parks and open spaces, libraries and so on isn’t something they could contemplate. 

It will cost a lot – probably significantly more than the £9bn currently quoted. That’s because the problems won’t end at the end of July. The final figure could well reach £25bn – ironically, the sum the government has ‘saved’ through those austerity cuts to council grants since 2010.