A series of recent decisions by communities secretary Eric Pickles have attached increased weight to community-level planning and are worrying developers.
Fans of the Dr Dolittle books will remember the pushmi-pullyu, a fictional animal with two heads, one at each end of its body.
As a result of its unfortunate evolution, the poor creature pulls in two directions at once and is unable to make any progress either way.
It has been clear from the get-go that the pushmi-pullyu is a fitting metaphor for the coalition’s planning policy with efforts to remove barriers to development at one end running against a drive to give locals more say over plans at the other. However, a series of recent decisions by communities secretary Eric Pickles that attach increased weight to community-level planning has resulted in the pullyu gaining strength — and will trouble housebuilders and developers up and down the land.
The coalition’s contribution to England’s planning system will be remembered for two flagship policies. The first is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), a radical reworking and streamlining of national planning policy aimed at speeding up development. The move was heralded by many developers, but seen as the end of the world by organisations such as the National Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Then there was neighbourhood planning, which introduced a new level of planning beneath the NPPF and local plans drawn up by councils. The idea was that groups operating at a sub-local authority level could draw up plans for their areas and have them formally adopted, thereby guiding the development of their communities.
It was self-evident the two policies would come into conflict, with rural communities in particular excited by the prospect of using neighbourhood planning to block the pro-growth agenda of the NPPF. So a hierarchy was put in place, with local plans having to conform with the NPPF and neighbourhood plans having to conform with local plans.
So far, so good. The planning system would be pro-growth — greatly pleasing HM Treasury — but communities would have some control over the shape, if not the volume, of development. Surely everybody would be happy? Not so.
Having talked up neighbourhood planning as handing “power to the people”, ministers should not have been surprised that “the people” were deeply frustrated that their new-found “power” did not actually enable them to do what they wanted. As a result, take-up of neighbourhood planning has been slow, with the bureaucracy involved and expertise required — not to mention lack of funding — adding to the inertia.
The problem was compounded by the structure the government put in place to manage the new system. Councils rejected development proposals in areas with actual or nascent neighbourhood plans, only to have their decisions quashed at appeal as a result of deficiencies in their local plans, or as a result of the absence of a five-year housing land supply as required by the NPPF. In short, having put a lot of work into a neighbourhood plan, people saw developers being granted permission on sites they deemed inappropriate — and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
“People took neighbourhood planning to mean they could do whatever they liked,” says Sue Rowlands, a director at planning consultancy Tibbalds, which is a specialist in neighbourhood planning. “But they quickly realised how hamstrung they were by the need for it to conform with higher level policies.”
Naturally enough, the situation was unacceptable to Pickles, who had invested significant political capital in neighbourhood planning: the NPPF was always a government-wide initiative, but neighbourhood planning was Pickles’ baby. And now it has become apparent Pickles is not willing to see the apple of his eye die a slow, painful death.
The first indication of Pickles’ intent came in May 2014, when he overturned a Planning Inspectorate decision to grant permission for a 111-home development in Leicestershire. The application had been made in 2012, but by the time it crossed Pickles’ desk a neighbourhood plan had been adopted for the area in question that conflicted with the developer’s plans. The secretary of state ruled in favour of the neighbourhood plan, despite the fact the council lacked a five-year housing land supply.
“The decision in May was a huge legal shift,” says Rowlands. “Up until that point the absence of a five-year land supply outweighed a neighbourhood plan, even if it was adopted. Suddenly the direction from central government changed.”
More was to come. In July, the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) announced that for a 12-month period, all applications for development of more than 10 homes in an area with an emerging or adopted neighbourhood plan should be flagged up to the secretary of state. In other words, Pickles would have the opportunity to intervene in any scheme that could damage his flagship policy.
Reviewing the decisions issued by the DCLG since July, it is clear Pickles has used the change to call in developments in a bid to breathe life into neighbourhood planning (see box).
Pickles will now not only find in favour of an adopted plan, but also of a plan that has only just been submitted for examination — and long after an inspector has found in favour of proposed development in the area. And that is whether or not a council has an up-to-date local plan in place or a five-year housing land supply.
“It’s pulling in the opposite direction to the NPPF, which was all about boosting housing supply,” says Gary Halman, managing partner at Manchester-based HOW Planning. “Housebuilders are bringing forward sites that should be allowed and planning inspectors are recommending approval. But because of a political imperative they’re being denied.”
It is, of course, possible to overstate the problem. So far, Pickles has largely sided with neighbourhood plans that have to some degree accepted the growth agenda. And Rowlands for one believes that it would difficult for Pickles to attach similar weight to a plan drawn up with the purpose of preventing rather than guiding development. What’s more, she adds, most plans accept the need for new housing.However, while the politics of the situation are perhaps understandable, with Pickles burnishing his localist credentials ahead of the election, the consequences for housebuilders are deeply troubling.
The NPPF was meant to prevent locally elected representatives playing politics with planning. Now it seems the secretary of state is doing just that. At least, that is, until May’s general election is over, and the Treasury’s growth agenda once again trumps Pickles’ localist instincts.
Not according to plan: key neighbourhood planning decisions
Broughton Astley, Leicestershire
The first indications that communities secretary Eric Pickles was willing to intervene to give greater weight to neighbourhood planning came in May 2014. A proposal for 111 homes in Broughton Astley had been turned down by Harborough District Council, only for the developers to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, which subsequently recommended approval, citing the lack of a five-year housing
However, by the time Pickles came to review the decision, a neighbourhood plan for the community had been formally adopted that conflicted with the developer’s proposals. Pickles ruled the neighbourhood plan carried greater weight than the land deficit and rejected the developer’s application.
Sayers Common, West Sussex
In September last year, Eric Pickles finally put paid to Woodcock Holdings’ plans for 120 homes in Sayers Common, West Sussex. The local planning authority, Mid Sussex District Council, had turned down the proposed development in 2013, after which the developer appealed to the Planning Inspectorate. A public inquiry was held in December 2013 and the inspector subsequently recommended approval, noting the absence of an up-to-date local plan or five-year housing land supply. Pickles, however, overturned the inspector’s decision, placing overriding weight on an emerging neighbourhood plan for the area —
a plan that at the time of the inquiry had not yet been submitted to the local authority for examination.
The Sayers Common decision was repeated in October, when Pickles rejected plans for 350 homes in Devizes, Wiltshire. Again, the local authority, Wiltshire Council — which lacked a five-year housing land supply — had turned down the development, only to have its decision overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. However, Pickles again placed greater weight on an emerging neighbourhood plan for the area and rejected the planned development.
Rolleston on Dove, East Staffordshire
Just last month, Pickles confirmed the pattern when he ruled against a proposal for 100 homes in Rolleston on Dove in Staffordshire. East Staffordshire Borough Council had turned down the plans only to be overruled by the Planning Inspectorate at appeal, with the inspectorate pointing to the absence of a five-year housing land supply. In this case, Pickles again placed greater weight on an emerging neighbourhood plan, despite admitting the proposed development “would not be in direct conflict
with policies in the neighbourhood plan”.