Current Planning Issues

As we settle into the first quarter of 2014 it seems an appropriate point to reflect upon the planning world that we operate in and some of the projects that we are currently steering through the planning system.

A number of these involve major residential developments where the promotion costs can easily exceed £100,000 and planning application fees are frequently £25,000 plus.

This type of application brings us into contact with some of the main issues facing planning in England today, including firstly, the delivery of housing, a cornerstone of Government policy as laid down in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and the argument that development of a particular site is “premature” and secondly, Councils Duty to Cooperate under the Planning Act 2004 and Localism Act 2011.

From our perspective 2013 saw some of the largest housing applications that we have dealt with in the recent past. Examples are:

  • Stafford East – This involves phase 1 of a new strategic road link plus 373 dwellings as part of an overall proposal for 650 dwellings.
  • Burton upon Trent, East Staffordshire– This is a mixed use proposal including local retail or public house, specialist care housing, plus 500 dwellings focused around a new primary school.
  • Gnosall Stafford – This one involves up to 150 dwellings with new open space on the edge of the largest village in the rural part of Stafford Borough.

Relating our projects to just two of the press headlines that have featured over the last 12 months:

  • “Councils struggle with prematurity”
  • “Neighbouring councils clash”
  • “Councils struggle with prematurity”

With many local authorities yet to adopt up-to-date plans, tensions often arise where applications for new homes conflict with emerging policy on housing allocations and councils reject proposals as premature. Emerging policy is a material consideration in the determination of applications. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) requires the weight attached to such policy to reflect the stage of plan preparation, the extent of unresolved objections and general consistency with the framework.

The 2005 document The Planning System: General Principles states that “prematurity” may be a reason for refusal where the proposed scheme is so substantial, or its cumulative effect so significant, that granting permission could prejudice emerging policy by predetermining decisions on new development. Otherwise, refusal is not usually justified, particularly where a plan is at consultation stage with no early prospect of submission.

This issue is currently on the planning radar in Stafford Borough. However our timing with the submission of the Stafford East application in February 2013 was ‘spot-on’ and the absence of a five year land supply in Stafford Borough as required by the NPPF (only 2.23 years land supply is achievable), together with our agreement to submit a policy compliant application, proved acceptable to the Borough Council when we went to Committee in August. However barely has the dust settled and we are a mere four months further on and there is now a backlog of planning applications seeking to exploit the absence of the five year land supply for sites on the edge of the main rural villages in Stafford.

As noted earlier Gnosall is the location of one of our current application projects. Gnosall is also the largest and most sustainable of the rural villages in Stafford Borough outside of the county town of Stafford. Our planning application for Staffordshire County Council will reach Planning Committee around March 2014. However between September and December 2013 three other major housing applications have reached Planning Committee for peripheral green field sites on the edge of Gnosall. Only one of the three has been approved, the two others have been refused as “premature” and are now the subject of planning Appeals.

The Gnosall situation serves as a reminder that although there are limited circumstances in which applications can be properly rejected on the grounds of “prematurity” this could result in local politicians, who take planning decisions, using “prematurity” as a reason for refusal, particularly where there is a Neighbourhood Plan in the offing. Even when applicants threaten to go to Appeal this does not stop the local politicians siding with the local community to resist housing development, especially if local elections are looming. By doing this however they only pass the buck to the Government and a planning inspector to take the final decision in the context of an Appeal which involves additional costs for the developer, delay and uncertainty, none of which assists the government’s drive for the delivery of new homes.

The second press headline that I have selected is:

“Neighbouring councils clash”

The question of the adequacy of housing provision in the West Midlands region is causing concerns amongst authorities and examining Inspectors in the region. Often these councils are under different political control and consider they should plan for the minimum local need that they think they can get justify.

Of perhaps greatest concern is Birmingham City Council’s most recent objective assessment of housing need indicates a requirement for between 80,000 to 105,000 new homes over its revised plan period 2011 – 2031 with only sufficient land within its own administrative area to accommodate 43,000 new homes. At a minimum housing need of 80,000 there is an un-met need of 37,000 homes.

Birmingham City are now exploring the release of substantial Green Belt sites within their own boundaries, however the this exercise has so far only come up with one location for around 5,000 homes.

Coventry City Council proposed to reduce their housing from a 33,500 homes requirement to 11,373 provision. Needless to say the Coventry Core Strategy has been withdrawn.

Housing need and land supply issues brings into focus ‘The Duty to Co-operate’ established by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and the Localism Act 2011, and now reinforced under paragraphs 17, 157 and 178 of the NPPF, whereby neighbouring authorities should work jointly together and co-operate to address planning issues which cross administrative boundaries and on matters that are larger than local issues. Moreover in accordance with paragraph 181 of the NPPF, LPAs are expected to demonstrate evidence of having effectively co-operated to plan for issues with cross- boundary impacts when their Local Plans are submitted for examination. This co-operation should be continuous from engagement on initial thinking through to implementation.

Whilst neither the Localism Act nor the NPPF define “co-operation” in the case of, for example Stafford Borough Council, this was debated at the Core Strategy examination held in November 2013. It has nine neighbouring LPAs adjoining its boundaries, namely Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, Newcastle under Lyme, Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire Moorlands, East Staffordshire, Lichfield, Cannock Chase and South Staffordshire. It is also at the junction of four Housing Market Areas C1, C3, West and Northern as previously defined in the former West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy. Just as LPA administrative areas are not self-contained entities with border controls neither are Housing Market Areas.

So it is not ‘business as usual’ post revocation of the West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy (WMRSS). The former WMRSS was informed by an objective of urban renaissance, whereby the Major Urban Areas would absorb large numbers of future projected households from across the region which the authorities (the MUA authorities and the surrounding Shire authorities) were all required to sign up to and which were only approved following examination of the most up to date national housing projections. Unfortunately today, this strategy is beginning to unravel as it emerges that the West Midlands MUAs, such as Coventry and Birmingham, are demonstrating an unwillingness (Coventry) or inability (Birmingham) to accommodate substantial housing numbers within the existing conurbations potentially undermining the previous urban renaissance strategy.

It has been said that The Duty to Co-operate is what has replaced “strategic planning”

So there remain many unresolved issues on overall housing numbers, unmet housing need and cross boundary migration patterns between Districts and Boroughs in the wider West Midlands region.

In conclusion many plans are falling at the first hurdle by failing to persuade Inspectors that they have discharged the “Duty”. Whilst it is acknowledged that the Duty to Co-operate in itself does not infer a requirement to agree it is expected that agreement may result from working together.

Meanwhile, Planning Minister Nick Boles has told MPs that preparing guidance for councils on the Duty to Co-operate is “particularly important”.

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