Chelgate Local Newsletter – January 2021
This month we bring you a review of 2020, the latest news on the St Albans local plan, Sevenoaks Council’s Judicial Review ruling appeal and more…
All at Chelgate Local wish you a very happy New Year
By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property
The past year has been one many will understandably want to forget, but it will be remembered for a long time. Chelgate sent its staff to work from home on 10th March which, at the time, seemed a little drastic. The firm worked throughout the lock down although much of the industry did not.
Not content with just dealing with Covid, the Government also had other plans. It should be remembered at the start of the pandemic it was only a few months since the General Election – this was a new Government with manifesto commitments it wanted to deliver.
Planning White Paper
MHCLG decided the middle of a nationwide lockdown was a good time to bring forward proposed reforms to planning in the form of a Planning White Paper for consultation. It was perhaps a little taken aback by the 40,000+ responses it subsequently received. It does, however, broadly accept that there is more work to be done to refine the proposed reforms. The reforms were viewed politically as being difficult: imposing centrally devised planning policies locally and shifting the focus to the plan making process were seen as reducing democracy not improving it – the future role of planning committees appeared to be simply to ‘rubber stamp’ applications and not hear and consider public opinion. There is likely to be a response to the consultation in the spring and it is expected that many of the key proposals will be moderated.
MHCLG also had to backtrack on the New Standard Methodology for housing, which it consulted on in September. Many councils, especially the Conservative shires in the south, raised understandable concerns about the higher numbers they were expected to achieve and the potential impact not only on the green belt but on their majorities in the local elections which will happen this May.
The Government has reverted to the 2017 methodology except, that is, the 20 most populated (and mostly Labour-controlled) urban areas where an additional 35 per cent of new housing will be required. This includes London.
Local Government Reforms
On top of the planning reforms, the Government also decided to informally table even greater potential change through local government reforms. A manifesto pledge, this involved dissolving counties, districts and boroughs into unitary and combined authorities with elected mayors.
This ‘tabling’ resulted in many councils and councillors going into something of a frenzy with a whirlwind of speculation. Informally, MHCLG wanted proposals from all counties by Christmas with the first tranche of unitaries to be created in 2021, with all to be completed by 2024.
Although it would have meant almost all future councils being Conservative controlled, it was the backlash from Conservative grassroots which suggested that this was a step too far. The proposals were subsequently pushed into the long grass for the time being.
Permitted Development (PD) Rights
The Government is currently consulting on even greater PD rights to be allowed. This is on the back of notable disasters with existing PD rights. Some developers saw opportunities to meet housing demand resulting in London councils placing their homeless people in far cheaper accommodation in the Home Counties. There were significant concerns over the standards of these homes including room sizes, light, lack of amenity and quality of construction. In addition, the impact upon local services such as schools, health centres and on local social services as many had significant support needs, none of which could be met from S106 contributions.
The proposed revisions include wider class E uses being potentially suitable for conversion. These include most non-residential uses such as shops, restaurants, gyms, surgeries and nurseries, and many more.
The consultation concludes at the end of January and is expected to have prompted mainly negative comments. The Government has already addressed some of the concerns, such as room sizes, and is likely to push ahead with the revisions as it sees this as a way of bringing under-utilised buildings back into use.
There has been much opposition to the planning reforms citing affordable homes as likely to fall as a result. The Secretary of State and other senior politicians have gone to great pains to reassure people that affordable housing will be ‘at least’ the same following the reforms. There are, however, rumours that the exemption threshold for affordable homes could be changed for smaller sites (40-50 homes).
Viability is already an issue in many urban applications and areas with low house prices/land values resulting in affordable housing provisions and S106 contributions being cut, sometimes to nothing. Any change which potentially reduces the provision of affordable homes will be politically difficult.
Hopefully some further information will be forthcoming in the next few months.
Mayor Khan is hopeful that the new plan he has just approved has addressed the various issues raised by the Secretary of State and will be adopted in February. An early review and revision of targets is expected however, especially to address the shortfall on delivery.
Delivery of new housing in the capital will be helped from 2021 by Homes England. It has been given a new role within London to facilitate the release of public sector and brownfield land. We will see how that works during the coming year.
In the aftermath of the trade deal being done with the EU, the Prime Minister took the opportunity to reiterate his pledge to ‘level-up’ the country. Brexit and the trade deal, he said, provides ample opportunity for the whole country to take advantage of our new position in the world, irrespective of whether in the north or the south.
Closer to home, the change to the new Standard Methodology is seen as part of the general levelling-up to take place, in effect shifting new housing further north. The Government has also announced that it will be providing funding to target brownfield land for development, especially in the West Midlands and north west.
Over the Christmas break, the winning bids for the £1billion Future High Streets fund were announced which appeared to favour more towns and cities outside the south east. Of the £831million allocated Sunderland, Tamworth, Kidderminster, Swindon and Birkenhead all receiving more than £20million each, with Worcester, Bishops Aukland, Stockport, Sheffield and Stretford all receiving £10-20million each. The south east was not completely ignored with Southwark in London receiving just under £10million.
It is anticipated that the Government will continue to use the various other funds, such as the £3.4billion Towns Fund, to continue this levelling up in the coming months.
So, what do we have to look forward to in 2021 apart from the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines? Although that in itself will please everyone, we also have the response from MHCLG on the Planning White Paper to look forward to in the spring. Perhaps we will also see more information about affordable homes thresholds, the adoption of the London Plan and probably the watering down of the new PD rights currently being consulted on.
Of particular interest in the post-Brexit and hopefully post-COVID world will be the local elections in May. These will be a complicated affair caused by the postponement of all elections in 2020. It means we face district and county elections together, as well as London, Police and Crime Commissioner elections. In some places there are also by-elections, parish elections and referendums for neighbourhood plans. The electorate will be confused, and the count will be long and complicated.
Sevenoaks Council is not giving up on its Local Plan
By Kasia Banaś, Account Director
Sevenoaks Council is not giving up on its Local Plan. Following a firm rejection of a judicial review of the Planning Inspectorate’s decision on the local plan by the High Court, the authority has now lodged an application to appeal against the ruling.
The Planning Inspector, Karen Baker, published her damning final examination report back in March. It concluded that the Council did not fulfil the duty to cooperate process with its neighbouring councils over the district’s unmet housing need. This decision sparked a huge amount of criticism from the Council, which claimed that there were more than 800 pages of evidence of cooperation and that “the Planning Inspector has incorrectly interpreted key parts of the Local Plan requirements”. They also voiced suspicions that being the first plan to be assessed under a new planning framework, failing to meet the Government’s housing figure was the real reason behind the Inspector finding the Plan unsound, as it would potentially impact on subsequent local plans across the country.
Sevenoaks Council was granted permission to bring a judicial review against the Planning Inspector’s decision in June, giving the authority hope of overturning the Inspector’s decision. However, in the ruling from 13th November 2020, the court said that, contrary to the Council’s allegations, is it clear that the Inspector had regard to all of the evidence and that the reasons for coming to her decision were also “clear, full, detailed and justified.”.
Given the strong language in support of the Inspector in the ruling, the decision to apply to appeal is surprising. By putting off starting on a new plan, the Council is running the risk of missing the Secretary of State’s 2023 deadline for adopting local plans and facing intervention. Ahead of the ruling, members were confident that even if they failed in their challenge, they would not need to be starting from scratch. They would ‘only’ need to address the duty to cooperate issue and resubmit the evidence that will be out of date by now. This is a very optimistic view.
However, councils postponing work on their new local plans, is something we have seen many authorities do in the recent months (article). With the planning reforms not yet set in stone and the pandemic at its height, members might be inclined to delay this politically and financially costly exercise.
By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property
Essex County Council (ECC) ran its first developer engagement event in November. This initiative has been instigated by Michael Hardware, in his role as ECC deputy cabinet member for economic development. The concept is based on Chelgate Local’s successful live planning events which we ran during lockdown. The aim is to provide developers and their consultants with access to the senior politicians and officers who make policies and strategic planning decisions on a range of topics for the county.
This first event, on skills and training, was chaired by Cllr Tony Ball, cabinet member for economic development. There were presentations from Cllr Ray Gooding, ECC cabinet member for education and skills, and Hassan Shammi, ECC commissioner for skills development. Industry and education perspectives were given by Richard Davidson, director of contractor Wilmott Dixon, and Will Allanson, deputy principal at Harlow College, respectively.
Discussions surrounded three main topics: youth unemployment, levy transfers and shared apprenticeships.
Even before the pandemic, youth unemployment was disproportionately high. The onset of COVID-19 has led to a massive increase in unemployment generally, but particularly for younger generations, exacerbated this divide further. It is set to increase even more as the furlough schemes conclude this year.
The Government is looking to stimulate the post-pandemic economy through construction and housebuilding. These industries are the best paths for training and retraining for the unemployed, especially younger generations.
The lack of awareness among young people of construction and the wide range of careers available was mentioned. With reduced careers advice, the industry must do more with schools to address this. Richard Davidson from Willmott Dixon pointed out that parents were also a key audience as they are obviously important influencers. They are currently viewed as an obstacle to more young people entering the industry due to the perceptions they hold.
ECC has introduced new skills plans in the revised Developers Guide. These will be used with S106 negotiations during planning applications and very much viewed as being a help in providing more skills and training opportunities locally. ECC’s plan to reduce the threshold from 200 to 50 units will bring more projects within the scope and provide even more opportunities.
Training levy transfers
The potential of levy transfers was also raised. This is where instead of returning unused training levy money to the government, it is transferred to another body that can deliver training. Many smaller organisations do not have the time or facilities to provide training, although they do have the need. There has been a successful system for pooling levy monies operating in London for some time and it is hoped a similar scheme can be created in Essex.
Another interesting concept was shared apprenticeships. Smaller construction projects are not long enough to support a full apprenticeship. With shared apprenticeships, young people are employed by a third party which can then move them around from site-to-site to ensure they complete their training and achieve their apprenticeship. Again, it is hoped a similar system can be created in Essex.
This was the first in a series of engagement events being organised by ECC over the coming months –
The next event will be on 28th January and will be about the development industry’s role with climate change. This will look at the Essex Climate Commission, in particular the Built Environment Workstream, and the role of developers in the Commissions deliberations and delivering the outcomes. The event is again being run in conjunction with the Essex Developers Group and will be chaired by Cllr Tony Ball. Cllr Simon Walsh, cabinet member for environment and climate change action will be a speaker with other speakers to be announced during the coming weeks.
Other topics in the coming months will include infrastructure when participants will hear about future plans from Cllr Kevin Bentley, cabinet member for infrastructure and ECC deputy leader, garden communities and the long term impact of COVID-19 on development.
If you are interested in attending any of these please email firstname.lastname@example.org and you will be added to the invitation list.
St Albans Council fails …again!
By Ruby Burdett, Consultant
St Albans Council has withdrawn its Local Plan for a second time. Unlike previously (2017), it decided not to judicially review the inspectors’ findings, and did not wait for the outcome of the Sevenoaks High Court challenge (article). The council still has the second-oldest Local Plan in the country (1994) and it now needs to start again – it will need to motor if it is to meet the Government’s 2023 deadline.
Local plans have been falling like dominoes recently. St Albans District Council (SADC) is the latest to accept defeat following closely in the footsteps of Chiltern and South Bucks and Sevenoaks, both due to a failure to cooperate. Part One of the joint North Essex Local Plan and the Uttlesford plan also fell but this time over the reliance on undeliverable and unviable garden communities.
SADC’s plan was heavily criticised by the inspectors and it was decided at the October Planning Policy Committee (PPC) to await the outcome of Sevenoaks as it was in a similar situation to SADC. Interim advice though acknowledged that the plan needed to be withdrawn, and this was to be discussed at the November PPC meeting. The Conservative members, however, had different ideas, boycotted the committee meeting, meaning it did not achieve a quorum and could not proceed with the vote.
Conservatives leader, Councillor Mary Maynard, raised concerns about the lack of cooperation and increasing politicisation of the committee by the Liberal Democrat councillors. She made clear the boycott was directed towards the lack of productivity of the committee, rather than the avoidance of withdrawing the Local Plan.
The proposal to withdraw the Plan instead went to the Cabinet, which met on the 19th November. Members were mindful of the failure of the Sevenoaks judicial review (article) and had no real choice but to approve the withdrawal.
Cllr Day suggested that starting from scratch will award the council an opportunity to include measures that had been neglected. The council leader, Cllr Chris White, declared he will be pushing for stronger sustainability policy in the next Local Plan.
The MHCLG Chief Planner, Joanna Averly (article), recently urged councils not to “take their foot off the gas” in preparing their local plans to avoid being hard hit by the approaching planning reforms. There does not seem to be any real sense of urgency to adopt a new Local Plan in St Albans. This is because the abundance of green belt protects them against much speculative development. This will not, however, protect them from possible intervention from MHCLG, as the council is one of the councils on its watch list.
Local Plan updates
Chelgate Local brings you Local Plan updates for Aylesbury Vale, Basildon, Brentwood, Central Beds, Chelmsford, Chiltern and South Bucks, Dacorum, East Herts, Epping, Epsom and Ewell, Harlow, Medway, Milton Keynes, Mole Valley and many more…
The impact of the Planning White Paper could have a major impact on future Local Plans – keep up to date with our monthly summary!
Consultation goes contactless!
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