The West Berkshire Council Liberal Democrat Group have responded to the Government's White Paper on Planning:
- Liberal Democrats are the main opposition party on this Council, which on 10th September 2020 discussed its response to the White Paper prepared by its officers, at a meeting of the Full Council. Council approved a resolution proposed by the Conservative ruling group’s Executive Member for Planning, which was seconded by her shadow spokesperson on this Group and supported by all but one Member of the Council (not a Conservative) present, with no votes against. Hardly any of our Council’s responses to the 28 questions asked in the White Paper were supportive of the proposals. In a few cases, our objections would have been even stronger and we elaborate on this later.
- As a Unitary Council since 1998, albeit a small one, we pride ourselves on having taken full advantage of current planning policy. We have developed and maintained our Local Development Plan through numerous frustrating and often seemingly counter-productive changes in national policy and generally retained the support of the local development industry. Our Section 106 system for securing developer contributions was regarded as exemplary by civil servants and both political groups here opposed the introduction of CIL in 2015, which resulted in substantial loss of income for infrastructure.
- We have delivered the homes we need despite some of those changes seeming to us – on a cross-party basis – to have made it harder to achieve anything like affordability for those most in need.
- We totally reject the Prime Minister’s assertion in his Foreword to the paper that it is “thanks to our planning system” that “we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places”, nor that “people cannot afford to move” because of the planning system alone. As the other MHCLG consultation on “Transparency and Competition” says, there is clearly “market failure” in land for housing. Sites that could take around one million homes have planning consent for housing but no actual homes being built on them. Homes that are on the market for sale or rent are almost everywhere beyond the reach of those in need. So-called “affordable” homes are not affordable to most. Stamp Duty Land Tax imposes a major cost to those wishing to move home to find jobs. The planning system is far from perfect but there is no evidence that it is the main, let alone sole, cause of failure to build enough affordable homes.
- The White Paper presents no evidence to support the Prime Minister’s assertion. Therefore we cannot regard the proposed measures as seriously evidence based. As our Council’s official response says many times, we need to see more details of the evidence and of the proposals themselves to see how – if at all – they might help fix the land and housing markets. Although we are always told, as members of Planning Committees, that financial consequences of our decisions are “not a planning matter”, it is patently absurd to keep the financial and planning systems separate.
- We agree that there are serious flaws in the planning system and we support most of the aims of the White Paper. However we do not believe the measures proposed are, in the main, the right ones. Indeed we think many will make matters worse for most communities, for trust in local democracy and for the quality of the built environment. We note that polls show that most Conservative councillors in all regions of England agree with us.
- We are largely content with the answers given by our planning officers to the questions asked in the White Paper, so we will not repeat all of them here. However we wish to comment on the arguments made by Government to persuade us that wholesale reforms are needed, in the Introduction section of the White Paper. We will then elaborate on the reasons why we would have wished our normally loyal Conservative colleagues on this Council to have agreed to stronger objections in a few of its answers.
Flawed Fundamental Assumptions
- It is first claimed that the system is overly complex and “works best for large investors and companies”. It is true that the system is complex but that is inevitable so long as the operation of the land market is opaque and societal wishes, expressed through democratic processes, require needs of many interest groups to be weighed in the balance. Quite rightly, we have become more aware of the many ‘externalities’ that can follow from a poorly designed development and Parliament has decided to impose many restrictions on developers, which LPAs are bound to take account of. Each proposal is unique and has to be considered on its merits with reference to many unique factors.
- No land market can be ‘free’ in the ideological sense, because land is in finite supply: an increase in its value cannot result in more being created where it is needed. Those in possession of land title have a monopoly on any particular site by virtue of its geography. Mere possession of a desirable site, through good fortune, attracts those with wealth, which is almost effortlessly transferred to the land owner. This is not like any other market and it directly results in a dysfunctional housing market because only “large investors and companies” can afford to participate in it. The rest scramble for scraps – but the market sets a high floor even for scraps of land.
- The other consultation paper referred to above admits that our national land market acts as a barrier to entry for small and medium companies, generally those locally based and with the best understanding of the local housing market. We support the measures proposed in that paper to improve transparency and competition, which will begin to redress the balance in favour of local developers.
- Next the paper claims that “planning decisions are discretionary rather than rules- based; nearly all .... are undertaken on a case-by-case basis, rather than determined by clear rules for what can and cannot be done.” In this LPA, we profoundly disagree. We rigidly follow the NPPF and our own Local Plan policies, which are clearly set out. It is quite right that each decision is made based on its own merits, i.e. “case-by-case” but that is not seen by those we represent - nor by most local developers - as a flaw in the system.
- The paragraph from which the above quotation is taken includes a note, but it is hard to find where any of the three referenced documents in that note support the implication being made that the English planning system leads to poor decision making. It is true that there is no overarching system for zoning land but no country has a zoning system anything like that which the White Paper proposes. We would not object to zoning land if there was more local discretion as to the nature of development to be allowed in each zone, rather than the overly simple “growth”, “renewal” and “protected” categories which are proposed.
- The same paragraph continues with an implied criticism of local decision making based upon the tiny proportion of applications that go to appeal. The vast majority of applications receive consent from officers under delegated powers within the time allowed. Few decisions are challenged. Yet it should not be a surprise that a significant proportion of this very small number of appeals result in the local decision being overturned. The fact that about two-thirds of decisions that are almost by definition finely balanced are upheld on appeal seems to us to endorse the current system.
- There will always be finely balanced decisions which could go either way but these are generally brought to Committee for a decision, either by our officers or by a Ward Member who knows the local area best. These are then subjected to careful scrutiny, with public participation. This achieves full transparency. We believe this is a merit of the present system, not a flaw. The White Paper proposals would be a huge backward step in democracy and transparency and almost totally remove local accountability from spatial planning. The general public are overwhelmingly only motivated to engage with the planning system when a specific development proposal affects them. It is unrealistic to limit public participation to the earlier Plan Making stage and to cosmetic aspects of design.
- We totally agree that Plan Making takes too long and is overly complex. However we cannot see how the measures proposed in the paper will significantly improve public participation, for the above reason.
- We do not understand why the original concept of a continuously evolving “loose leaf file” Local Plan was abandoned before more than half of LPAs had made their first Plan under the 2004 Act. LPAs needed more financial resources to undertake effectively this inevitably complex process, yet we are still very underfunded and required to make the system work on the basis of subsidising the private sector development industry.
- Even with a less complex system as proposed – perhaps especially, because it is such a radical set of reforms, requiring new skills from our planning officers – LPAs will need to be better resourced to make any system work as it should. It would achieve better outcomes and cost less overall to first allow LPAs to be self- financing and see if that enables the current planning system to work as it should. If then it still did not work – in particular if some LPAs still failed to produce a Local Plan – then and only then look at a totally new system.
- We agree that “assessments of housing need, viability and environmental impacts” are complex but we cannot see how these inevitably competing factors can be resolved without better clarity of the different roles of national and local government. We regret the abolition of a regional tier of democratic spatial planning, which we believe can achieve a better balance. Central government should stick to those decisions that need to be taken at national level and as far as possible leave regions and local government to make decisions that only affect their communities. Our fundamental belief is that decisions made as close as possible to the people affected are best. There is already far too much micro- management of spatial planning by Whitehall and rules and guidance are changed far too often.
- As for trust in local councils, there is much greater trust in local councils and their elected leadership generally than in central government and its decision makers. Polls have consistently shown that for decades. Putting more power in the hands of remote authority in Whitehall and unelected national developers will further alienate public opinion and increase NIMBYism, not reduce it.
- The alienation of young people and marginalised groups is not a problem for spatial planning decision making alone. It requires a range of measures which are nowhere to be seen in this White Paper. We would greatly welcome more work done in this area of policy
- We support those measures in the paper that would improve the speed and accessibility of decision making through use of modern technology – but not at the expense of removing local democratic control. Nor must we forget that a significant proportion of the population will remain unable to use digital technology for various reasons.
- We strongly disagree with the conclusion in the White Paper that because “negotiating developer contributions” is “complex, protracted and unclear”, CIL has to be replaced by a national infrastructure levy. As the study referenced here says, when it was conducted in 2018 less that half of LPAs had adopted CIL and there was strong support for it compared with S106. We should stick with CIL until it has been adopted by far more LPAs and they have had experience of it. Where used, as in West Berkshire, it “accelerates the planning process” and “may enhance LPAs capacity to recover some of the uplift in land values resulting from planning consent” – as was intended.
- We agree that there is “not enough focus on design” and “little incentive for high quality new homes”. However we fail to see how the measures proposed will do anything to improve that. It is largely the result of market dominance by a few large national home builders whose ‘pattern book’ properties are very hard for LPAs to reject when the alternative is lengthy appeals and failure to deliver the required numbers of boring little boxes. Greater competition and more opportunities for local SMEs to contribute to the newly built stock would greatly help.
- The unflattering comparison with other European countries is deserved but is not the fault of LPAs and the planning system. The way the land market operates results in far too much land value remaining with the original land owners and those with whom they make deals – the kind of “land control” deals that Government’s other proposals under “Transparency and Competition” will expose.
- Reform of the 1961 Land Compensation Act, which sets a floor for Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) by public bodies at development (including ‘hope’) value needs to be pushed through urgently and would immediately reduce house prices and improve quality. We are aware that the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Land Value Capture (LVC) has presented a draft Bill to Parliament which aims to achieve that. In most European countries compulsory purchase operates on the basis of current use value plus an uplift in the region of 20-25%, which largely explains why homes are larger and generally of better quality: the UK land market extracts a far higher proportion of the value difference (known as ‘economic rent’ or ‘unearned increment’) that flows with the development process.
- Just one of our 16-strong Group abstained on the Conservative resolution to endorse the responses to the consultation questions drafted by our Planning Policy team. Most of us agree with him that we are more firmly in opposition to the Government’s proposals on these points than the Council’s response indicates. However we felt that it was more important to show cross-party agreement than to differentiate ourselves. Therefore we end this response by explaining where we would go further:
- Question 5. “Do you agree that Local Plans should be simplified in line with our proposals?” No. We agree that Local Plans should be simplified but not in line with the proposals in the White Paper. If ‘simplified’ means largely setting aside environmental aspects and losing coherence, then we certainly oppose that. If it means central government honouring pledges to impose stricter national controls on developments that harm the environment and go against the need for climate change mitigation and adaptation, then we support simplification that leaves less for LPAs to have to specify for their local areas. We do not believe the Governments proposals in the White Paper will result in simplification without also giving free rein to developers to ignore necessary constraints. The Council’s response focuses on the simplified zoning system proposed and we support everything our officers say about this. We are not against zoning but the kind of zoning proposed is completely untried, over- simplified and simply will not work.
- Questions 9a & 9b. These go into the proposals for Growth, Renewal and Protected areas and again we say “No” to both, for reasons given by our officers. There is in our view simply no case for changing the current system.
- Question 13a. “Do you agree that Neighbourhood Plans should be retained in the reformed planning system?” No – because, as our officers state, neighbourhood plans would not “fit into the proposed system”. We very much support neighbourhood plans but local communities cannot be expected to undertake the work involved in producing them if the overarching Local Plan process changes in the way proposed. The White Paper demonstrates more clearly in this section than anywhere how detached from reality its authors are.
Cllr Dr Tony Vickers
Liberal Democrat Planning Spokesperson, West Berkshire District Council
26th October 2020