Planning

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By Professor Neil Crosby, Professor of Real Estate & Planning, University of Reading

With the increase in house prices in London since 2008, and resultant increase in land values, there might be an expectation that the number of affordable homes provided within residential development schemes would meet local planning authority policy expectations.

However, this has not happened. Instead, the percentage of affordable housing delivered within schemes has actually fallen. These were the findings of a research project I co-authored, which was commended in the recent RTPI Awards for Research Excellence.

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By Professor Gavin Parker, Professor of Planning Studies, University of Reading

The passing of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill today took many by surprise, as the government pushed it through and the House of Lords backed amendments to the Bill just before Parliament was dissolved ahead of June’s snap General Election.

The new Neighbourhood Planning Act builds from the 2011 Localism Act and refines the ways in which members of the public can engage with and develop plans for their local areas. Myself and PhD Researcher Katherine Salter in the Department of Real Estate and Planning department at the University of Reading have  worked on several strands of research that have  influenced government in thinking about how neighbourhood planning has progressed and  could be altered.

Some of the amendments discussed in Parliament were aimed at altering the examination stage of neighbourhood plans, and we – along with Hannah Hickman at the University of the West of England – have recently carried out research looking into the examining of neighbourhood plans. This is where an independent inspector looks at the Plan to check it passes the tests set out for such documents by government.

We have informed the proposed legislative changes by preparing an extensive briefing document outlining our findings, after analysing feedback and comments from those who had examined the majority of neighbourhood plans over the past five years. See the full briefing document here.

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By Professor Gavin Parker, Professor of Planning Studies

Housing has been a key political issue for longer than I can remember, but that may not be saying that much.

The much anticipated English housing White Paper released on Tuesday reflects a clear shift in policy orientation but still reflects much of the same lever pulling and button pressing as seen over the past six years and more.

There are some changes that will alarm some people in the professions and out in the country but it also falls short of the decisive action that many had hoped for, despite the claims in the paper about it reflecting a radical agenda.

Greenbelt – the sacred cow of the planning system is pretty much left with its only “in exceptional circumstances” protection but some adjustments are included i.e. around existing settlements and where infrastructure is present.

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Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Professor Tim Dixon from the School of Construction Management and Engineering discusses the importance of investigating the social sustainability of housing developments.In an era dominated by climate change debate and environmentalism there is a real danger that the important ‘social’ pillar of sustainability drops out of our vocabulary. This can happen at a variety of scales from business level through to building and neighbourhood level regeneration and development. Social sustainability should be at the heart of all housing and mixed-use development but for a variety of reasons tends to be frequently underplayed, and the English city riots last year brought this point back sharply into focus. The relationships between people, places and the local economy all matter and this is as true today as it was in the late 19th century when Patrick Geddes, the great pioneering town planner and ecologist, wrote of ‘place-work-folk’.

In the current recession, where house-building has fallen to an all-time low in the UK, it is therefore not only important that we build more homes in the right place but that those homes link and integrate with existing communities. Two key questions stem from this: what exactly is social sustainability and how do we measure it?

One way in which social sustainability can be understood is in terms of an outcome of place-making, or designing places that are attractive to live in. So social sustainability can be seen as being about people’s quality of life now and in the future, and describes the extent to which a neighbourhood supports individual and collective well-being. Social sustainability therefore combines design of the physical environment with a focus on how the people who live in and use a space relate to each other and function as a community. It is enhanced by development which provides the right infrastructure to support a strong social and cultural life, opportunities for people to get involved, and scope for the place and the community to evolve.

However house builders have historically shied away from confronting how to measure what is seen by many as a ‘slippery’ concept.  Despite this, the Berkeley Group recently commissioned research to assess and measure the social sustainability of four of its housing developments using an independently developed framework consisting of three dimensions: ‘infrastructure and social amenities’, ‘voice and influence’ and ‘social and cultural life’, which are underpinned by 13 indicators. Data from 45 questions tied into national datasets were used to underpin the indicators, and primary data was collected from face to face surveys and a site survey on the housing developments.

The research is an honest and independent appraisal of one house builders’ new housing developments. In the four developments (which were all in London and the south east) the research found that whilst people in the developments felt they belonged to the community, talked to neighbours regularly and planned to stay in the community, there were also negative feelings about feeling less like they played an important part in things and are less likely to pull together to improve the neighbourhood. Overall though, the developments scored well on well-being and safety compared with comparable places and national benchmarks.

Recent changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, and the emergence of localism and well-being agendas have started to move social sustainability centre stage, and the next phase of this research is set to examine how new developments impact directly on the communities in which they are located. Long-term stewardship of housing developments is therefore likely to become increasingly important.

 Tim Dixon is professor of sustainable futures in the built environment in the School of Construction Management and Engineering. He also leads the new University of Reading’s Sustainability in the Built Environment (SustBE) research programme and is a research associate of the Walker Institute. His personal research revolves around the interface between the sustainability agenda and its impact on property development, investment and occupation. The research is based on a strong interdisciplinary approach which incorporates policy and practice impacts and futures thinking. The research (carried out by Social Life and University of Reading) on which this blog is based has recently been published by Berkeley Group in their report, ‘Creating Strong Communities’ (www.berkeleygroup.co.uk/sustainability/socialsustainability).

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Professor Gavin Parker is Chair of Planning Studies in the School of Real Estate and Planning at the University of Reading. He has a strong interest in policy instruments revolving around citizenship, participation and governance – an interest that spans the urban and rural divide and a number of policy fields. He has been actively researching community and neighbourhood planning with reports and publications that have been shaping policy agendas in this regard.

Introduction

This is a brief scene setting piece concerning the recent and highly publicised changes to the town planning system in England. Rarely has planning ridden so high on the national political agenda and only occasionally do higher profile national cases merit a brief mention in the media. When such planning stories come up they are often couched in terms of environmental impact concerns or with headlines of ‘Developers thwarted’ and centre on conflicts between interests. Yet the reasons for and importance of planning is never really opened up for debate. Recent changes to the planning system in England at least afford an opportunity to relook at the basis and rationale for planning in England. And accompanying the changes has been a hard fought debate over the bigger issues at stake and as such the fundamentals have been re-aired.

Planning may be seen as a key lever in shaping and enabling development and in setting the direction for sustainable growth. Planners aim to think long term and in cumulative terms over the best and most efficient use of land and actively think about the spatial distribution of activity ‘where is it best placed?’. Planning has also been recognised as a tool to help to realise the UK government’s aspirations in terms of localising decision-making.

Yet the Government’s planning recent reforms also carry an underlying critique of planning, as supposedly a brake on growth and the initial proposals for reform issued in 2010 carried with them a frustration at the way that development has been slowed in this latest period of credit squeeze, recession and austerity. As such the aims of government in the reforms have been to simplify, as well as re-orientate, the system towards growth and at the same time to try and use planning as a key tool in their localism agenda – not an easy thing. As the debate has developed over the past year or so recognition of the need for a planning system that balances economic interests and aims with the protection and enhancement of environmental and social goods has, thankfully, been largely achieved as a product of extended public debate. However the proof of how this is maintained will only come over the next few years. I now briefly turn to outline some of the most salient changes and why I say this.

The basis of the reforms

There are two main loci for change, these are the Localism Act which was passed into law in December 2011 and many of whose provisions come into effect on 6 April 2012. This legislation is far ranging and the planning elements involve important changes – it encourages a more localised approach to planning for example. The second is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) published in final form on 27 March 2012. This is a document that sets out the national guidance for planners, developers and others interested in shaping the built and natural environment.  In broad terms this document will inform planning decision making in England and act to guide the general thrust of local plans.

The Localism Act

There are several headline changes included in the Act. One of the key changes for planning is the removal of the regional tier of planning activity – this move has abolished  Regional Spatial Strategies and the Regional Development Agencies as part of the much vaunted ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and in the name of both simplifying and reorienting the  ‘top-down’ approach involved with strategic planning. There has been instead a shift downwards with more emphasis on the local authorities and on other local actors, including business. As such the replacement of regional planning is a duty to co-operate across boundaries and the unveiling of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) as groupings of businesses, local authorities and third sector institutions who act to identify and orchestrate around key issues affecting local economies. The Thames Valley has one and the University is involved in it (see link below).

The second important innovation is with the instigation of a form of community level planning, which should result in the production of a new tool – Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDP). The argument used is that people want to engage with local issues and to be empowered to consider development as growth on their own terms. Overall the Act seeks to encourage more responsibility over policies and decisions taken at the local level and for more emphasis to be placed on the local authorities and constituent neighbourhoods to shape growth – the other pillar of the government’s agenda. Overall the Localism Act places a considerable emphasis on local authorities to produce a local plan, and quickly, and to support neighbourhoods embarking on NDPs. The question persists however that, in a resource-shrinking environment, can they perform as required? Government are hoping that neighbourhoods will establish neighbourhood forums and will produce their own NDPs over the next year or two. Seeing the potential for inertia they have initiated the process early by providing some funding to around 230 ‘frontrunner’ neighbourhoods (see link below).

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)

Decision makers trying to decide whether to invest, develop or when to say ‘yes, no or maybe’ to development need substantive clarity; they need clear ‘decision rules’ to guide their actions. The express intent of the NPPF has been to reduce the amount of planning guidance and to make such guidance that remains clearer and more accessible for users of the planning system. Some claim that government has confused brevity for clarity and while the aim of reducing the quantity of guidance has been achieved, whether the intention to make policy clearer only time will really tell. The NPPF itself stands at just over 50 pages and the main highlights are the test of sustainable development and 12 ‘principles’ of planning that are indicated in the Framework (see link below).

Sustainable development and questions about what this means have been addressed with the 5 pillars derived from the previous government’s Sustainable Development Strategy (2005), used alongside the well worn definition of sustainable development: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. How this plays out on a case by case basis is the real issue however and past practice and thinking had produced a series of criteria and cross-cutting policies aimed to assist planners and others to shape development proposals and support decisions expressly to achieve sustainable outcomes. One fear is that this wisdom will be substantially lost or ignored, (or quite possibly reinstated piecemeal) begging a question about why the changes were embarked upon in the first place.

Many commentators question the impact and usefulness of the document given that planning covers such a wide and complex range of circumstances and issues, such that the 50-page document can scarcely act as a manual. Instead it is very much scene setting – it is more of a manifesto for others to interpret and refine. As a result look out for more guidance to be produced more quietly over the next year or so… In the meantime there are concerns that the perceived gaps will produce more ‘planning by appeal’ with developers testing the system and of course, as with much change, the uncertainty that this produces is likely to prove lucrative  for the lawyers.

Overall the changes are radical in intent but many planners are wondering just how much difference all this will make on the ground and whether in times of austerity they may actually now serve to hold growth up (and may not bring forward localist activity in a deep, meaningful or inclusive way), particularly when there is little or no resource to back this up. Indeed quite the opposite is happening – many local authorities have been cutting back on their planning budgets since 2009 (latest figures show a 24% reduction on average). The final point is that the environmental and amenity lobby groups in particular have been upset by the changes as they fear that, at least in the hiatus, developers will be able to work the nascent system. The concern is that any inadequacies of the policy framework in some local authority areas may be exploited to successfully push through dubious developments in locations previously considered unsuitable.

Note:

Many of the key ideas and principles underpinning planning are outlined in a new book: Key Concepts in Planning by Gavin Parker and Joe Doak (Sage, 2012). See also: Lynn, T. and Parker, G. (2012) Localism and Growth? Neighbourhood planning and housing. Town and Country Planning, Vol.  83(1): 15-19; CPRE, National Trust and Friends of the Earth (2012) Inexpensive growth? Report published February, 2012. The NPPF is located: http://communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/nppf; and the link to neighbourhood planning and  the relevant provisions of the Localism Act are located at: www.communities.gov.uk/planningandbuilding/planningsystem/neighbourhoodplanningvanguards/ The webpage of the Local Enterprise Partnership covering the Thames Valley can be viewed through: www.businessinberkshire.co.uk/tvep

 

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