Evidence to HoL Select Committee

HOUSE OF LORDS SELECT COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL POLICY FOR THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

EVIDENCE FROM THE CANTERBURY SOCIETY


 

1.1  In presenting our evidence we have aimed to answer the questions which the Select Committee listed in the Call for Written Evidence.  So our responses below are set out following each numbered question.  We have not sought to answer all the questions listed by the Select Committee but only those where the Canterbury Society has relevant experience, highlighting our key points with a bold font.

1.2  The Canterbury Society is the city’s leading civic society, bringing together a diverse group of local people with a shared sense of civic pride and an interest in improving the built environment and the quality of life of local residents. The Society comments regularly on planning applications, is engaged in consultations over the Local Plan, works to enhance the built environment and has produced its own Vision for the Future of Canterbury.  It is a founder member of Civic Voice, the national body for civic societies in England, with 275 civic societies representing 75,000 individual members. Representatives of the Canterbury Society would be happy to appear before the Select Committee if that would be helpful.


Question 3.  Does the NPPF provide sufficient policy guidance for those involved in planning, developing and protecting the built and natural environment? Are some factors within the NPPF more important than others? If so what should be prioritised and why?

3.1  Paragraphs 6 to 10 of the NPPF define sustainable development as “a balance between the economic, social, and environmental roles of development” and states that these roles cannot be carried out in isolation from each other. Specifically paragraph 10 states that: “Plans and decisions need to take local circumstances into account, so that they respond to the different opportunities for achieving sustainable development in different areas.”

3.2  Our experience in Canterbury is that central government places undue pressure on local authorities to give the utmost priority to economic considerations, and to downgrade social and environmental impacts. Central government policy makers seem to take the view that sanctioning development, regardless of local circumstances, will feed through to a better quality of life. This is a questionable hypothesis to say the least. In our view local planning authorities and the communities they represent should be allowed to decide for themselves, within a broad framework, how best to interpret the requirements of the NPPF in a way that recognises local opportunities and constraints.

3.3  This cannot be achieved without meaningful participation by the local community in the Local Plan process at a much earlier stage than is presently the case; we refer again to this issue in our response to Q12 of the List of Questions.


Question 4. Is national planning policy in England lacking a spatial perspective? What would be the effects of introducing a spatial element to national policy?

4.1  The second of these two questions implies that the answer to the first question is already known! The NPPF is certainly lacking specific references to spatial objectives but much of the content is of an implicitly spatial nature – as is inherent in planning. In the Local Plan (LP) for the Canterbury District there was almost no explicit spatial strategy. The problem here is that there is a conflict between having a spatial plan that attempts to optimise location versus the NPPF demands which simply state that a LP must be “sound”. To be sound is effectively saying that the content of the Plan must be must be “passable” or “adequate”. To achieve these rather minimal aims means that optimum spatial considerations can be ignored, as indeed can the optimisation of any element of the LP. There is thus no compulsion to be cognisant of spatial perspectives.

4.2  In the case of the Canterbury District LP there was no compulsion to undertake proper, spatially variable, traffic/transport analyses, though this would seem to be an essential spatial element in planning. Canterbury suffers from severe traffic congestion round its small medieval core. The LP proposes 4000 new homes located in one quadrant of the city, meaning that the current levels of congestion will be significantly exacerbated.

4.3  However, strategic housing and employment land allocations across the whole district were selected solely on the perceived deliverability of large greenfield sites. The limited traffic modelling that was undertaken indicated that these sites would again result in increased traffic congestion but this was ignored by the PINS inspectorate.

4.4  We would propose that a strong spatial element must be explicitly stated in the NPPF and that it should be compulsory for planning authorities to optimise locations for built developments.


Question 5. Is there an optimum timescale for planning our future built environment needs and requirements? How far ahead should those involved in the development of planning and built environment policy be looking?

5.1  There is no optimum timescale for planning our future built environment – this depends upon the facet of the built environment being examined.  For example, a new high speed train link needs a very long term time span compared with smaller scale planning provision. We believe that a 10 year time span is to be preferred, but with an important review at year 5. In order to ease pressure on local authorities, perhaps there could be overlapping tranches of planning for development in process, so that that they were not occupying the same 10 year periods. For instance, employment land considerations could form an individual tranche, housing a separate one, the natural environment a third, and so on. A main advantage of this would be to ease the huge pressure felt by local planning authorities under the present 10 year LP cycle. Clearly smaller scale Examinations in Public could take place for each tranche. A well-managed Planning Department could readily integrate the work on various tranches where required.  Contingency arrangements would need to be in place for when “emergency” planning is required.


Question 6   What role should the Government play in seeking to address current issues of housing supply? Are further interventions, properly coordinated at central Government level, required? What will be the likely effect upon housing supply of recent reforms proposed for the planning system?

6.1  There are several ways in which the government could intervene to address current issues of housing supply. Chief among these would be the initiation of a programme for the building of affordable housing by local councils or housing associations.  This would require central government support, as it did in the past when the country was faced with a shortage of housing which people could afford.

6.2  Action on empty homes could also help.  There are many empty houses which could be renovated to provide decent homes.  Some valuable work has already been done, but we would hope that the work of the Empty Homes Agency will be supported and extended.  One problem is that VAT is charged on housing repairs, but not on the building of new homes.  The effect of this is to increase the incentive to build from scratch, as opposed to repairing existing stock.

6.3  The incentive to let empty houses lie vacant is increased by the reduction of council tax in many areas.  In order to increase the use of such homes, council tax should always be levied on empty properties.

6.4  Inequality of income and wealth has led to a situation where some people can afford to own two or three homes while others cannot afford a home at all.  Some of these second/third homes are in areas of acute housing need, such as London.  Others are in rural areas where average incomes are low and housing costs have risen.  It might be hard to devise a system for charging higher council tax on such second homes, but if this could be done it would go some way to redress the current housing crisis in these areas.

6.5  Action on housing supply should focus on building more affordable housing, bringing empty homes into use and limiting second homes in areas of housing need.


Question 7. How do we develop built environments which are sustainable and resilient, and what role should the Government play in any such undertaking? Will existing buildings and places be able to adapt to changing needs and circumstances in the years to come? How can the best use of existing housing stock and built environment assets be made?

7.1  In order to be both sustainable and resilient the built environment needs to achieve high qualitative standards. For too long new housing stock has been mass produced to standards that, compared to most of western Europe, are of very poor quality. Here quality is represented by materials used, quality of workmanship, density of dwellings, and the amount of open space and “natural” planting of shrubs and trees. Estates have tended to be both sprawling and lacking in variety or any conception of “attractiveness”.

7.2  It is easy to think in Canterbury of several developments that were so shoddily built that after just a few years they have deteriorated so badly that one almost suspects that builders or developers are constructing with a view to built-in obsolescence. The buildings we have in mind will be virtual “slums” within a few decades. Developers and local authorities must adopt much higher design standards and insist that these are adhered too. Too often we see development briefs that paint a glossy picture of what is to be built, but which turn out to be “mirages” dreamed up to draw us in.

7.3  Higher design standards also require that qualitative energy efficiency standards are built into all new dwellings (and other buildings). Some planning authorities, such as Woking Borough Council, already insist that new dwellings are built to what used to be Level 6.  This ensures real sustainability in terms of impact on the environment.  We deplore the fact that the government has withdrawn the Code for Sustainable new homes, except for legacy cases.  Additionally, it would be immensely beneficial if the retrofitting of older buildings with enhanced insulation, plus efficient heating, plumbing and lighting, became obligatory. This could be achieved via the aid of grants, or interest free loans to be repaid over a suitable time scale, and this investment would have a strong positive effect on the local economy.

7.4  Creating sustainable dwellings depends on local authorities being able to enforce high standards in the energy efficiency of new buildings and to encourage the more efficient insulation of existing dwellings


Question 8. To what extent do we make optimum use of the historic environment in terms of future planning, regeneration and place-making? How can more be made of these national assets?

8.1  The heritage based tourist economy directly accounts for at least £5 billion and 134,000 jobs across the UK (Oxford Economics, 2013).  However, in a place like Canterbury heritage plays an even more important role, attracting some two million tourists and being part of the reason why around 37,000 students choose to study in the city.  Despite this, the historic environment often seems to be neglected, with priority given to new developments and short term commercial interests.

8.2  Civic societies in a number of historic cathedral cities have become increasingly concerned about the tension between the conservation of the historic fabric of the city and the current drive for growth.  Many of these cities are threatened with over-large developments, which endanger the very qualities which make them so attractive.  This concern has led to some excellent research (Green Balance 2014)  and to the setting up the Civic Voice Historic Cathedral Cities Alliance, which will be launched at the Civic Voice annual conference at the end of October 2015.

8.3  The value of heritage means that protecting and conserving the historic built environment is vital.  The following specific changes would demonstrate the government’s real commitment to heritage and quality of place:

  1. Urge local authorities to ensure they have the necessary expertise in conservation and that councillors understand the value of heritage
  2. Require every local authority to produce a Place Improvement Strategy
  3. Strengthen policy to support collaborative community planning for major developments and local plans
  4. Enable local authorities to control use classes and permitted development rights to meet local need

8.4  Addressing these issues does not have to be at the expense of economic growth. On the contrary the measures we are proposing would protect and enhance the historic framework and bring about a revival of our towns and cities, making development more acceptable to local people, rebalancing the economy, unlocking the potential of heritage and helping places retain graduates and attract visitors and investors.

8.5  Research has shown that the most important factor affecting attention to the historic environment is the cultural approach of the local authority.  It is vital to impress upon local authorities the importance of protecting the historic built environment to enhance the quality of life and prosperity of towns and cities.


Question 9.  Do the professions involved in this area (e.g. planners, surveyors, architects, engineers etc) have the skills adequately to consider the built environment in a holistic manner? How do we begin to address any skills issues? Do local authorities have access to the skills and resources required to plan, shape and manage the built environment in their areas?

9.1  We consider that the issues raised in question 9 are very relevant to the poor quality outcomes that can be seen in our built environment today.

9.2  Our experience in Canterbury is that the local authority planning department has lost much of its expertise over the last 5 years or so, especially in the areas of conservation, enforcement and tree preservation. The reductions in central government funding have forced local authorities to severely downgrade the number and quality of the staff they can engage in planning, shaping and managing the built environment.  Planning has now become largely a matter of numbers and meeting targets rather than quality of outcomes. Central government policy is focused on economic growth and speed of decision making and whilst the NPPF makes reference to the necessity of good design local authorities no longer seem to have the resources to implement these parts of the NPPF. This pursuit of economic growth above all other considerations has resulted in the abandonment of any holistic approach to the planning of the built environment in our towns and cities.

9.3  There is no shortage nationally of skills amongst planners, architects and engineers but these are now to be found mainly in the private sector.  In the private sector these skills are employed first and foremost to deliver profits and shareholder value. A holistic approach to the delivery of quality in the built environment is low down the order of priorities. Central government needs to ensure that local authorities have sufficient financial resources to enable them to deliver quality as well as quantity as the NPPF envisages.

9.4  Not only is there a lack of skills available to local authorities from amongst their officials but there is an equally noticeable lack of any appreciation for the quality of the built environment amongst elected council members. We have observed in Canterbury that in the absence of any expertise themselves, councillors often rely on officer recommendations to cover their own skills deficits. For the reason given above this is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs as neither officers or elected members have the skill sets to deal with these important issues.

9.5  It is important to give local authorities the necessary resources to deliver the requirements set out in Chapter 7 of the NPPF and to provide proper training for elected members, many of whom have never heard of the NPPF


Question 10   Are we using the right tools and techniques to promote high quality design and ‘place-making’ at the national level?  How could national leadership on these matters be enhanced?

10.1  Chapter 7 of the NPPF (56-68) Requiring Good Design states: “The Government attaches great importance to the design of the built environment. Good design is a key aspect of sustainable development, is indivisible from good planning, and should contribute positively to making places better for people.”

10.2  The Canterbury Society considers that the issues raised in question 10 are at the heart of so many poor quality design outcomes that can be seen in our towns and cities. Local authority planning departments have lost much of their design expertise over the last 5 years or so. The reductions in central government funding have forced local authorities to severely downgrade the number and quality of the staff that they can engage in assessing design. This, coupled with the relentless pursuit of economic considerations above all others has resulted in almost complete disregard for design issues in the consideration of planning applications. These two factors taken together account for a noticeable reduction in examples of good quality design.

10.3  This is particularly noticeable in a small historic city such as Canterbury where we have seen recently seen controversial planning applications nodded through at committee despite considerable public concern about the design issues. In one particular case, where the local authority were both property owner and planning authority, officers overrode design problems in favour of short term financial gain, despite the proposal being in an important conservation area within the city walls and close to the Cathedral Precincts. At the planning committee meeting most members criticised the design then proceeded to grant consent. In this particular case, it was clear that elected members, on their own admission, had no expertise on design in the built environment and were unaware of the guidance in the NPPF.

10.4  We would recommend that in the case of Local Plan allocations and large scale development proposals, or where the quality of design is a matter of public concern, planning authorities should be required to undertake an Independent Design Review and to have regard to the recommendations of the design review panel, as set out in Paragraph 62 of the NPPF.  It would also be good to adopt design standards such as the Greater London Housing Design Guide.


Question 11. Do those involved in delivering and managing our built environment, including decision-makers and developers, take sufficient account of the way in which the built environment affects those who live and work within it? How could we improve consideration of the impacts of the built environment upon the mental and physical health of users, and upon behaviours within communities?

11.1  It has been striking to see how little consideration of health issues there is in the Local Plans currently being prepared by local authorities.  The quality of the built environment impacts on health in a variety of ways.  Air pollution is responsible for much morbidity, in the form of chest and lung disease, and for increased mortality.  Poor housing impacts on health and welfare, while those who are homeless have a much reduced expectation of life.

11.2  Now that Public Health has been moved into local authorities there is a real possibility that these sorts of health inequalities could be ameliorated.

11.3  We would urge central government to ensure that local authorities see the public health input as crucial to the development of Local Plans.


Question 12. How effectively are communities able to engage with the process of decision making that shapes the built environment in which they live and work? Are there any barriers to effective public engagement and, if so, how might they be addressed? Page 3 of 4

12.1  Currently there are many barriers to public engagement with the processes which shape the built environment.  Many civic societies, including the Canterbury Society, have experience of a pattern of community engagement which essentially involves consultation after, rather than before, decisions are made.

12.2  Typically local authority officers work on a given issue, produce a draft report, discuss it with elected members – and then invite the public to comment on the draft report.  Comments then come in from interested members of the public.  However, by this stage so much work has gone into the report that all those involved are very reluctant to make any serious changes.  The result is that those members of the public who did engage see that their comments have had little impact on what is finally proposed.  The end result of such ‘public consultation’ is public disillusionment.

12.3  We would suggest that councils be urged to, ‘Consult on the question and not the answer’.  That is to say, consultation should take place at the time when the issue is still being discussed, questions are still open and solutions to problems have not yet been firmed up.


Question 13  Are there fiscal or financial measures potentially available which would help to address current issues of housing and land supply? Are their financial or other mechanisms that would encourage better design and place making by private sector developers?

13.1  The quality of the built environment is not just about the design of buildings but whether the built environment we create adds to the quality of life for the people who live and work in it. Those who create our built environment need to develop this wider vision rather than a narrow view based solely on financial considerations.  Creating built environments that communities enjoy and value is well within the skill sets of those concerned but more often than not finance is an obstacle to providing the holistic solutions that communities need. These might include social infrastructure such as schools, medical centres, community buildings, parks, playing fields community woodland and so on.

13.2  When a local authority grants planning permission for residential development on previously undeveloped land the value of the land can increase anywhere  from around £8,000 an acre to £1.5m to £2m per acre or more in the south east of England outside London. This increase, though subject to general taxation, is released to the landowner, whilst the future liability to support the new communities that are created is left with the local authority.  In a free market economy the competition for land with planning permission keeps land values and house prices high and this acts as a constraint on the quality of the built environment.

If a fair proportion of the increase in land value were captured and managed locally for the benefit of improving the built environment and the quality of life for local communities this could produce a step change in the quality of our built environments.

13.3  Trying to capture land value in the past through such mechanisms as Development Land Tax have failed but if we are to address the challenges that we currently face to create better quality built environments then we need to introduce policies into the NPPF which enable local authorities and the communities they serve to capture locally a fair proportion of the increase in land value.  This can be used to secure some of the wider built environment policies in the NPPF.

13.4  The Select Committee might consider recommending that a Royal Commission be set up to investigate how a proportion of the large increases in land values created from the granting of planning permissions can be captured to improve the built environment. 

13.5  The reform of council tax is long over-due.  At present this is a highly regressive tax, in that poorer households pay a higher proportion of their income than richer ones. The bandings have not been revised since 1991, despite the enormous rise in the value of property.  The result is that those living in a house worth £5 million can pay the same council tax as those in a house worth a tenth as much.

13.6  Extending the bandings for council tax, so increasing the council tax paid for larger houses, and charging council tax on empty houses, could provide more income for hard-pressed local authorities.  This in turn would enable them to do more to enhance the built environment.


Contacts

Professor Jan Pahl  CBE  D.Litt,  Chair of the Canterbury Society

John Walker, Deputy Chair of the Canterbury Society, Trustee of Civic Voice

Dr Geoff Meaden, Canterbury Society committee member

5 October  2015

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