Sunday, 26 October 2014

Inside out

All posts tagged: National Planning Policy Framework

Saved by the inspector

Tue, 7 May 2013

Regular readers of this blog will know that I was very involved in the debate over the new National Planning Policy Framework during 2011/12 and tried to stand up to the anti-growth brigade in the National Trust and the CPRE. I was described by a senior figure in the National Trust as one of its fiercest critics. I’ve long held the view that our backward approach to land use compared to countries like Germany is a major cause of our dysfunctional housing market and its crippling cycles of boom and bust. So it seemed to me that the NPPF, which talked about significantly boosting the supply of housing and a presumption in favour of sustainable development offered the potential to take a leap forward in housing supply.

My enthusiasm was short-lived because the coalition’s localism agenda and the abolition of regional spatial and housing strategies led many local authorities to sniff an  opportunity to pander to their nimby voters and downscale their housing targets. Last December Policy Exchange reported that English Councils had knocked a total of 272,000 homes off the previous regional targets. In retrospect this was to be expected. Given the demographic profile of those who engage with their local planning system it was quite clear that giving local people the right to decide on housebuilding in their area was akin to giving turkeys the vote on whether to celebrate Christmas. Sometimes there is a lot to be said for centralism!

But the cavalry appears to have come to the rescue in the form of the planning inspectorate. A recent study by Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners (NLP) looked at the 55 local plans examined or submitted for examination in the year since the NPPF was finalised and found that 55 per cent had proposed reducing their housing targets and only 20 percent proposed an increase. But the planning inspector stepped in and required nearly half of local authorities to raise their target in order to be found acceptable. Of the total plans submitted, only four local authorities were allowed to get away with a housing target that was lower than the figures in the Regional Spatial Strategy, and of the 18 plans found to be sound following examinations nearly 80 percent had met or exceeded the previous RSS target. It is clear that the inspector is putting significant weight on previous RSS targets even though they have been abolished. This is very good news for housing.

Cue much gnashing of teeth from the National Trust and others, who now view localism as a farce. Well perhaps it is. There are times when governments have to take tough decisions in the national interest and override local views, and this is one of them. But it is important that housing providers keep a close eye on the local planning process in their areas of operation and make sure that housing needs assessments and housing targets are are sound.

They should do this even if it brings them into conflict with their local authority partners. After all, isn’t it part of our job to stand up for housing?

Garden City Blues

Tue, 20 Mar 2012

If you are interested in the genesis of current housing policy you could do worse than visit the Policy Exchange website.

Founded by Francis Maude and Michael Gove in 2002 Policy Exchange has become the most influential right-of-centre Think Tank. Many of the ideas in Alex Morton’s 2010 “Making Housing Affordable” report have been taken up as government policy and Morton’s latest wheeze, the revival of the Garden Cities, was enthusiastically embraced in David Cameron’s speech on planning and infrastructure yesterday.

To summarise what Cameron said:

“We need homes for people who need them, in the places they want them, while protecting our fine landscapes and preserving the greenbelt…Some people feel we’ve lost the art of creating great places with the right social and environmental infrastructure….in the last century, private and social enterprise also created places like Hampstead Garden Suburb, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City - not perfect, but popular - green, planned, secure, with gardens, places to play and characterful houses…we  urgently need to find places where we are prepared to allow significant new growth to happen. That’s why we will begin consultation later this year on how to apply the principles of garden cities to areas with high potential growth, in places people want to live.

This is encouraging news. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that we need to build at least 3 million homes on greenfield land over the next twenty years, and new settlements and urban extensions are the only sensible way forward. It’s interesting that Cameron referred to Hampstead Garden Suburb in his speech. Built by Dame Henrietta Barnett with Raymond Unwin as chief architect in 1906 it is a city suburb, and this raises the possibility that the garden city concept could be applied to similar city extensions

Of course the originator of the Garden City idea was Ebenezer Howard, who built Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City in 1903 and 1920 respectively. That’s why Grant Shapps is also a fan. Howard’s vision was set out in his 1898 book “Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform”, re-issued in 1902 as “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”. Howard’s ideal Garden City was an area of 6,000 acres, developed on cheap agricultural land, where only 1,000 acres would be built upon, housing 30,000 people at 30 to the acre. The surrounding “green belt” would contain workshops, market gardens, institutions, and power and sewage works, where the food for the town would be produced and sewage would be used to fertilise the fields. Income from rising ground rents would be used to fund a local welfare state – paying for pensions and the dole, as well as the usual municipal functions. This is a thoroughly modern and revolutionary concept, an Eco-Town Plus if you like, although like most revolutionary concepts only a part of Howard’s vision was put into practice.

But if the government is to be successful with its Garden City vision it will need to be bold and face down the countryside lobby.  The eco-town fiasco proposed sites that were too small and in the wrong places. Garden cities will have to be large enough to be self-sufficient in terms of jobs and amenties. This means a population of at least 30,000 - big enough to support secondary schools, swimming pools, cinemas etc - and they will have to be remote from existing towns and cities to avoid excessive car journeys, but also well connected with public transport. Urban extensions willl need to be ambitious, well-planned suburbs that are connected to both countryside and city. 

The final version of the National Planning Framework is due to be published within the next few days. It will be intersting to see if the revised national policy can put Ebenezer Howard’s modern vision into practice.

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