Sidford Business Park: a begged question

If the Sidford Business Park was turned down because of

“the potentially lethal combination of narrow roads and increased heavy goods vehicle usage” …

why was it hurriedly and grubbily added to the Local Plan at the last minute?

“Planners have said NO to Sidford Business Park and turned down the controversial plans over a potentially lethal combination of narrow roads and increased heavy goods vehicle usage.

East Devon District Council planners rejected plans to build industrial, storage and non-residential institutions on agricultural land to the east of Two Bridges Road in Sidford.

They were refused on the grounds of harm to highway safety, relating to increased heavy goods vehicle usage of the area’s narrow roads and the decision was made by officers with the Chairman of Development Management Committee, Cllr Mike Howe, in accordance with the Council’s Constitution. …”

“A land banking scandal is controlling the future of British housing”

“How often have you heard private developers and their allies say they can’t build more homes because planning rules have created a shortage of land?

Kate Andrews of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) summed up this view in The Daily Telegraph, saying: “There is only one way to solve the housing crisis and bring down the extortionate cost of homes: liberalise the planning system and build more houses. A bold but pragmatic policy would be to release greenbelt land – just a small fraction of which would be enough to build the million homes needed to address supply.”

A million more homes? That’s a tantalising prospect. So is there any basis for her argument that the only way to solve this problem is to liberalise (or deregulate) planning?

A little digging into the latest financial reports of the top 10 housebuilders reveals a very different story. Between them, they have a staggering 632,785 building plots on their books, of which more than half have planning permission. At the same time, these 10 companies reported building a total of just 79,704 homes – which means they have, on average, eight-years’ worth of plots in their land banks at the current rate of construction.

Among the top 10, there is a wide variation. At the upper end, Berkeley and Taylor Wimpey are hoarding 15 and 13 years’ worth of land respectively. At the lower end, McCarthy & Stone and Bellway have land banks equivalent to four years’ current output. The difference is mainly in what are known as the ‘strategic’ land banks – reserves that have not yet gained planning permission. All ten have ample land with consent, ranging from three to five years’ worth of output.

The top 10 builders accounted for about half of the 159,510 homes completed by the private sector in 2017.

It is often the case that the stories an industry feeds to the media are at odds with the trading information individual companies give shareholders via regulated stock market announcements. A classic example of this is car insurance where the industry body complained of an “epidemic of fraud” while the major providers told the market that claims volumes were falling.

In the case of housing, the market reports of the top 10 builders are brimming with confidence about future trading. You might expect Bellway, for example, to be feeling the pinch from a supposedly burdensome planning system because of its smaller-than-average land bank. But its trading update in August said that it had detailed planning permission on all its 2019 building plots and had increased land acquisition by 12 per cent to an annual level 30 per cent higher than its output. “The land market remains favourable and continues to provide attractive opportunities,” the company said.

The top 10 builders accounted for about half of the 159,510 homes completed by the private sector in 2017. So, what about the other players? Information is patchy because many are private companies, but random checks on those that are publicly listed suggest that smaller housebuilders also hold enough land to keep them going for years.

And then there are the companies that combine building homes with developing sites to sell on to other builders. The latest trading update from Inland Homes, for example, said that in the first six months of this year it has built 357 units and sold 837 plots to other housebuilders but still has 6,808 in its land bank – nearly six times as many as it built on or sold.

The pattern is clear: across the private housebuilding sector big land banks are the norm. If the top 10 companies – equating to half the market – are hoarding 600,000-plus plots, it is safe to assume that well over a million plots are in the land banks of the sector as a whole. Far from needing greenbelt land, the builders already have enough plots to deliver a step-change.

But will they? The IEA believes ‘markets’ solve economic and social problems, but the last 30 years have shown that is certainly not the case with housebuilding. When Margaret Thatcher slashed funding for council housing in the 1980s, the idea was that the private sector would fill the gap. But it didn’t happen: while the number of homes built by councils slumped from 110,170 in 1978 to 1,740 in 1996, private sector output stayed at much the same level as it was under Labour in the 1970s. With housing association output also virtually unchanged, total housebuilding has halved from more than 300,000 annually under Jim Callaghan to an average of 154,000 since 2010.

This situation suits housebuilders nicely. Constrained supply has helped push up the average price of a new house by 38 per cent since 2010, against an average of 30 per cent for all houses. And booming prices have in turn generated record-breaking profits and dividends. Taylor Wimpey, for example, cleared a £52,947 profit on each of the 6,497 houses it sold (at an average price of £295,000) in the first six months of 2018 and was able to promise shareholders that it would pay out £600m in dividends in 2019, a 20 per cent increase on 2018.

The government has responded to growing anger about land banks by setting up a review under Tory MP Oliver Letwin to “explain” why the “build-out rate” on land with planning permission is so slow. Letwin’s interim report has already admitted that housebuilders complete homes at a pace “designed to protect their profits”. His final report is due in time for the Autumn Budget, but don’t expect anything radical: he has made clear that his recommendations won’t “impair” the housebuilders.

Labour, meanwhile, has published a wide-ranging green paper promising “the biggest council housebuilding programme for over 30 years” delivering more than 100,000 “genuinely affordable” homes annually. To achieve this, Labour would use existing public land, such as sites owned by the NHS and the Ministry of Defence, and set up a Sovereign Land Trust to work with local authorities in England to help them acquire land at lower prices. Taking inspiration from the 1945 Labour government, it would also legislate to create another generation of new towns and garden cities.

Labour’s policy would, in effect, draw a line under the Thatcher era by restoring to the public sector the proactive role it played in providing housing prior to the 1980s. In doing so, it would limit the scope for the big housebuilders to hoover up nearly all the available sites and hoard them in order to drive up prices and profits. As for planning, far from being the cause of the housing crisis, it would be a means of solving it.

Steve Howell is a journalist and author of Game Changer, the story of Labour’s 2017 election campaign.”

Second judicial review as a Development Management Committee defies first one!

Owl says: another “follow the money” situation?

“Folkestone & Hythe District Council faces its second judicial review in a year over a dispute concerning a proposed holiday park.

Local businessman Tim Steer was granted an application for the latest judicial review by Deputy High Court judge John Howell QC.

The case concerns an application to develop a 5.5 hectares site at Little Densole Farm, which is within the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and locally designated as a special landscape area.

Planning and licensing committee members rejected officers’ advice and allowed the application last year, leading to Mr Steer successfully taking the council to judicial review.

When the application came before them again in July councillors again went against the officers’ recommendation and gave planing permission.

Judge Howell: “It is at least arguable that [the committee] failed to give any reasons for rejecting their officer’s appraisal that the development and associated landscaping proposed would not conserve the existing character of this part of the AONB…and that it would introduce alien and incongruous features that would permanently change the existing character of the landscape in that area.”

Mr Steer said: “Not for the first time the council will waste taxpayers’ money defending the blatantly questionable decisions of its planning and licensing committee, a committee which in my view is not fit for purpose and is unable to grasp or follow policy and legislation.

“It might appear to some that this particular committee simply follows its own agenda.”

He said the project would cause “permanent destruction” of the AONB.
Clive Goddard, chair of the planning and licensing committee, said: “Leave has been granted by the court to apply for judicial review in respect of Little Densole Farm. The council has nothing further to add and will be seeking legal advice.”

Folkestone & Hythe was known until last April as Shepway District Council.”

893 gifts or hospitality from developers in 6 years did not influence councillor’s decisions says Monitoring Officer [insert hollow laugh here]

On average accepted gifts or hospitality 3 times a week, every week for 6 years! But he resigned anyway ….. deja vu, deja vu says Owl!

“The Deputy Leader of Westminster Council has resigned following an internal investigation into his conduct.

Deputy Leader Robert Davis announced today he is to resign “with immediate effect” after 36 years of service.

Mr Davis’s resignation comes after he reportedly accepted hospitality or gifts 893 times over six years. These gifts frequently came from property developers who were seeking planning permission, according to the Guardian.

In a statement, Mr Davis said: “I am very proud of my 36 years’ service in local government during which I made a major contribution to the wellbeing of the City and its people.

“Earlier this year there was some press coverage concerning the hospitality I received during the course of my duties. To avoid this becoming an issue in this year’s elections, I agreed to refer myself to the Monitoring Officer, and stand aside as Deputy Leader while an investigation was carried out.”

Mr Davis, who chaired the Conservative borough’s planning committee for 17 years, continued: “My approach to declarations has always been to be honest, open and transparent. I have nothing to hide.

“I registered all my hospitality and it was posted by officers on the Council’s website. I have been making such declarations since 2007 when the requirement was first introduced.

“I also declared any relevant interests at the beginning of every planning committee I chaired during this time. I have acted with the utmost transparency and probity at all times and have only ever taken decisions on the basis of what I thought was best for Westminster.

“An inquiry has been completed by the Council. They have confirmed that none of the declarations I made or hospitality I received influenced decisions I took as a councillor and that nothing I did was unlawful.”

He said his actions “created a perception that was negative to the Council.

“While I dispute this, I wish to draw a line under the matter. It is now time for me to move on to the next stage in my life, and for the next generation of councillors to lead Westminster.”

“Shoebox Britain: how shrinking homes are affecting our health and happiness”

“… Jenny pays £475 a month, excluding bills, for one of the smallest of nine flats carved out of a Victorian terraced house on a busy road. One of them is not more than a glorified shed crammed into the garden. She doesn’t know the floor area, but planning documents show that her room, which includes a double bed, kitchen sink, hob, oven, washing machine and a clothes rail, covers 15 sq metres. The tiny, windowless bathroom adds 3 sq m. Her whole home is barely bigger than the average living room and would fit 14 times on to a tennis court.

“When I come home I feel this sense of doom,” Jenny says. “I can’t have the window open because I’m on a noisy, polluted road, and I can’t have the blinds open because there’s a bus stop right there. I’ve had people weeing on my doorstep, doing crack outside my front door.” There are practical challenges. Jenny eats on her bed, which, like her clothes and everything else she owns, smells of whatever she cooks. Without proper storage, anything out of place can make the flat feel chaotic. The hum of the fridge keeps her awake at night.

“I think that even if someone didn’t suffer from anxiety or depression, living in this flat would affect them mentally,” she says, wondering how she might start to recover in a house like this. “You feel it – oh my God, the air is so … heavy.”

… But standards and ideals can get blurred in a vicious economic cycle. Ministers relax planning rules to enable more building and development. Developers and landlords find profitable loopholes in those changes. Local authorities, desperate for alternatives to their own dwindling housing stock, direct residents to those landlords, fuelling further exploitation at a time when councils also lack resources for planning and building control. Residents, often faced with homelessness, endure the cramped results, until society notices and someone writes another report.

“My concern is that people are becoming inured to something that they shouldn’t have to put up with,” says Julia Park, the head of housing research at architectural firm Levitt Bernstein. She has written a history of space standards and is surprised by how little we consider the effects of domestic confinement. “When you’re living in smaller and smaller flats, you reach a point where it makes sense to take out the walls because one big room feels nicer, but I think that implies a lot of compromise we’re not examining,” she says. “Some of these flats pose threats to physical health, but, in small spaces, it’s going to be mental health that is most affected.”

… Park, who advises local authorities, laments the way sleeping, cooking and washing are increasingly viewed as the only functions of a dwelling in a housing market where a living room is becoming a luxury. She is especially worried about the types of homes that have emerged in the gaps in policy. This summer, she noticed a seven-floor former office block in Croydon, in south London that had been divided into flats. Planning records showed that each of the six upper floors in the building had been converted into 10 studios, including single flats of just 13 sq m.

By current standards, these flats are barely a third of the recommended size. Park was instrumental in drawing up the “nationally described space standard”, a nationwide metric implemented by the government in 2015. It recommends 37 sq m for a one-person, one-bedroom flat; a two-person, one-bedroom flat should be 50 sq m.

Park was surprised that the government had agreed to the recommendations, given its austerity policies. “The compromise was that it is optional,” she adds, estimating that fewer than half of councils have adopted it. Even when they do, it only applies to new buildings or developments that go through the planning system, but not to a range of “permitted developments”. So, for a relatively small investment, the owner of an office building, for example, can convert it into self-contained flats with only “prior notification”.

Ben Clifford led a team that visited more than 500 converted office buildings for a report published last May by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. “We were shocked by how many of these flats were of a very poor quality,” says Clifford, a senior lecturer in spatial planning and government at University College London’s Bartlett school of planning. In one, Clifford called the fire brigade after spotting walls dividing flats made only of plywood. “We spoke to one resident who was in a tiny one-bed flat with two children and no balconies or open space,” he says. “Another woman, in an 80s office building, said it just wasn’t very nice to live in a flat with big tinted windows that don’t open.”

In the so-called “lockdown” model, meanwhile, rogue landlords are converting family homes into tiny studio flats specifically to attract tenants aged 35 or over who, like Jenny, claim the higher housing allowance for a self-contained dwelling. By including a token shared facility, such as a tiny kitchen – or by ignoring rules altogether – these landlords also bypass planning permission by treating such developments as flat-shares (another permitted development). The rental income from six cheaply built studios is multiples of that for a three-bed flat share in the same house – and it is the taxpayer who lines the landlord’s pockets. “It’s basically the warehousing of homelessness,” says Jon Knowles, a computer analyst and campaigner who has recorded hundreds of such developments.

… Few housing campaigners have much hope that conditions might soon improve for the occupants of our shrinking homes. Clifford says there is a minor backlash against abuses of the permitted development rules, and several local authorities are moving against them. “We have to be much tougher on landlords and on standards,” Park says. “There are going to be compromises because we are desperately short of housing, but we cannot give people a free pass.” … “

Ministers must give reasons for calling-in and also for NOT calling-in planning applications

Big change from recent practice and a victory for SAVE.

“Ministers must follow published government policy and give reasons for call-in decisions on planning applications – including in those cases where the decision is not to call in, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

The case of Save Britain’s Heritage, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Ors [2018] EWCA Civ 2137 concerned the Secretary of State’s decision, dated 15 March 2017, not to “call in” certain planning applications dealing with the controversial ‘Paddington Cube’ development.

SAVE argued that the Secretary of State was required in law to give reasons for that decision, and failed to do so. It put the case in two ways:

There was a legitimate expectation that reasons would be provided, based on a promise made in 2001 by the then Attorney General Lord Falconer. Although the Secretary of State accepted that it was the practice for many years to give reasons for not calling in an application (pursuant to s.77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990), the Secretary of State argued that this practice came to an end in 2014 and that SAVE knew or ought to have known about that change. SAVE maintained that, as a matter of principle, a published policy cannot be withdrawn or overturned by an unpublished practice.

The Secretary of State had a general duty at common law to give reasons for any decision under s.77 and/or that there was such a duty on the particular facts of this case. This argument was contrary to a number of first instance decisions and was advanced principally by reference to the decision of the Supreme Court in Dover District Council v CPRE Kent [2017] UKSC 79.

When granting SAVE permission to appeal, Lord Justice Lewison limited that appeal to SAVE’s claim for a declaration “that the SoS was required to give reasons for any decision whether or not to call in applications for planning permission and/or listed building consent for his own determination under s.77”. The planning permission granted by Westminster City Council on 14 August 2017 still stands.

The Court of Appeal ruled in SAVE’s favour. Lord Justice Coulson considered that the particular facts of this case did not require the common law to impose a duty to give reasons when none would otherwise exist.

In relation to the legitimate expectation issue, Mrs Justice Lang had concluded in the High Court that by 2016/2017, there was no longer an established practice that reasons would be given for a decision not to call-in an application. “On the contrary, the established practice was that reasons would not be given.”

Lord Justice Coulson decided that this conclusion was erroneous for three reasons:

The judge’s may appeared to confuse the promise cases with the practice cases. “I accept that, if a legitimate expectation was created as a result of a particular practice then, if that practice was changed, the legitimate expectation might well disappear with it. But that is not this case. This case is based on the unequivocal promise made by the relevant Minister in Parliament which has never been publicly changed.”

It was “a recipe for administrative chaos if a legitimate expectation can be generated by an unequivocal ministerial promise, only for it then to be lost as a result of an unadvertised change of practice.” Even at its highest, the Secretary of State’s case stopped short of the suggestion that the alleged change of practice was advertised as such when it occurred in 2014. Ms Lieven QC [counsel for the minister] properly accepted that it was not a change that could be said to have been ‘published’ at all.”

It was “worth noting how and why the SoS says that this change of practice occurred. It appears that, in the Westminster case, the Minister had given reasons for not calling in the decision which were plainly wrong on their face. As a result of this error, somebody (and it is quite unclear who) within the Department for Communities and Local Government decided that it would be more prudent for reasons not to be given under s.77. In consequence, changes were made to the template letter sent out (to the relevant LPAs, or to the objectors who had requested call in) when a decision was made not to call in an application under s.77. Mr Harwood QC [counsel for SAVE] was therefore right to say that this was not an open or transparent way to withdraw a public ministerial promise made in Parliament.”

The Court of Appeal judge said he was unpersuaded that the alleged change to the template letter was of any real significance.

Lord Justice Coulson continued: “Since a promise had been made to operate a particular procedure then, as a matter of good administration and transparent governance, any change to that policy also had to be announced publicly.

“It is a not a question of fettering the future exercise of discretion, but simply making public the decision that something which had been promised and provided in the past would not be provided in the future. In my view, good administration and transparent government required nothing less. Of course, this did not happen here because no-one in the Department knew that they were changing a promised policy (because they had forgotten about it).”
Lord Justice Coulson added: “I do not accept the proposition that a policy which has been promised can then be withdrawn simply by a change in the template of letters sent privately to individual LPAs and objectors, particularly where, as here, the alleged change is itself very difficult to discern.”

He said: “An unequivocal promise was made, and that unequivocal promise should have been publicly withdrawn when (or if) a conscious decision was taken no longer to give reasons for not calling in applications …. For these reasons, I consider that SAVE’s legitimate expectation case has been made out.”

SAVE said the ruling meant that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government must now follow his own published advice and give reasons for his decisions.

Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said: “This is a fantastic result that opens up the decision making process for highly contested major schemes across the country. It literally changes the landscape of decision making – and is a major victory for openness and transparency.”

Source: Local Government Lawyer