In planning terms, we live in strange times. Government targets (as yet unmet) exist to build more homes and, in particular, more affordable homes, and the imperative for developers is to build these as cheaply as possible. There is also a growing realisation that these need to be built to stricter environmental standards, which makes them more expensive. These two factors – both of which feature prominently as 2019 election pledges – work against each other.
Unfortunately, these twin pressures are being applied when we are effectively between two different planning standards. The current system (which includes, under the so-called Merton Rule, the ability for planning authorities to insist on more stringent standards than provided by national regulations) will be replaced by the Future Homes Standard (which, currently at least, allows only for one national standard). This is out for consultation and is not expected to come into force for some years. Whether any of its provisions will be watered down as a result of lobbying from developers remains to be seen.
The upshot is that while planning authorities, like West Berkshire, can claim to have their hands tied, this is only because they have not taken advantage of the opportunities the Merton Rule provides. Climate emergencies have been declared: but if the council has not acted on Merton they are unable to insist that developers build in excess of the current national standards. This denies them one of the main ways by which they could reduce their areas’ carbon footprint. The grotesque situation therefore exists that, even though it’s widely known what kind of general standards need to be used and even though the opportunity has existed for councils to anticipate these, many have not done so. Homes being planned now will, as a result, risk being out of date and sub-standard before they’re even occupied. The declaration of a climate emergency is thus slightly akin to saying you are going hunting but then realising that you’ve neglected to bring any ammunition.
(It’s worth stressing that, even if a council has not so far taken advantage of Merton, it is not too late to do so. The Future Homes Standard currently provides for no local variation but that may change as the consultation proceeds. Also, to take advantage of this would be to send a very clear signal that the council regards this as being important, so giving extra weight to any lobbying which it should be doing to ensure that the regulations remain robust.)
All of these points can be clearly seen with the long-running Salisbury Road development in Hungerford. (I’m not concerned here with the pros and cons of whether outline planning permission should have been granted for this site in the first place: that has now happened. The question is rather what kind of homes are now going to get built there.)
At a recent (18 November 2019) Planning Committee meeting of the Town Council, Bewley Homes confirmed its intention to do no more than build to the current standards. Its representatives argued that, until standards were agreed and implemented, it wasn’t up to individual developers to make decisions as to what was appropriate. That makes a kind of sense, However, they could meet the issue half way. Better insulation, provision for later cables for panels and car-charging points and the space and ducting for heat pumps could all be built in, even if the kit itself were not fitted. Bewely doesn’t seem to have any intention of going even this far and no one can force them. They are running a business and answerable to their shareholders. No part of their role is to implement government housing policy or to anticipate its future regulations. Their reluctance even to consider adding features which would make the homes more appropriate is, however, disappointing. Bewley has also missed an obvious PR opportunity; though that is hardly my concern.
In the future, such matters will be subject to pressures in addition to those of government housing targets and developers’ balance sheets. What might these be?
One important issue is consumer pressure. The reality is that homes built to the best standards not only have far lower running costs but will also be easier to sell in the future. This does not, however, seem yet to be part of people’s buying decisions. When they do, market forces will start to compel developers to provide more homes to satisfy these demands.
An even more crucial factor is national legislation. In some ways, the Future Homes Standard can’t be introduced soon enough. However, it obviously has to be got right. History provides many examples of standards or legislation that failed because they wasn’t thought through. However, there isn’t a great deal of time. If the FHS is not fully implemented until 2025, as seems possible, between now and then about a million new homes will be built in the UK if 2018-19’s figure of about 212,000 (excluding conversions under permitted development rights) are maintained, and a lot more if the various election promises are adhered to. There is no guarantee that any of these will be built to the standards which, it’s increasingly clear, are now required. If West Berkshire Council is serious about its climate emergency, as I’m sure it is, it will be using all its efforts to convince the government that rigorous standards should be specified (and looking to add tighter standards as provided by the Merton Rule into its local plan).
Hungerford and many other towns and parishes are working on a neighbourhood development plan (NDP) which will help to define the extend and nature of local development over the next two decades. Although this must be consistent with the planning authority’s local plan (which must itself be consistent with national regulations) this is another way by which communities can ensure that their views achieve formal expression. An NDP also has the beneficial side effect of tending to make discussions between planning authorities and parishes less adversarial as many of the important principles will have been agreed in advance. Residents of any area in which an NDP is being worked on (Hungerford and Lambourn are two) are therefore encouraged to to make their contributions to the project as, once adopted, it will become official West Berkshire policy. Any demand for better building standards may therefore be influential.
The global problem of the climate emergency may yet demand even more stringent controls than have so far been anticipated by the Future Homes Standard. If so, it’s to be hoped than the government will be able to act swiftly and decisively. There are many situations where a solution can best be left to market forces but this isn’t one of them.
There’s another aspect. New regulations involve a learning curve for a planning authority’s enforcement officers. Within the next few years, building standards might (and should) have a large number of new and technical aspects. As a result of recent cuts, West Berkshire is already unable to deploy enough officers even for its current enforcement challenges. If it’s going to introduce new, and more technically unfamiliar, regulations, the government needs to allocate more funds to ensure that these are applied properly. As it is the planning authorities like West Berkshire which implement these, it is to them that ring fenced funds must be applied so that enforcement officers can be recruited, trained and retained.
It does not seem that West Berkshire Council has taken advantage of the Merton Rule (see above) to implement more stringent planning conditions, although it could have done so. It is not the only council to have not acted: a survey by the Association of Public Service Excellence in early 2018 revealed that many planning authorities were unaware that the opportunity even existed. Government obfuscation must surely be at least part of the reason. It also does not appear that West Berkshire has any requirement that developments of more than a certain size should have a specified mix of two-, three-, four- and five-bedroom homes (if it does, it hasn’t followed this with Salisbury Road). This would help address the constant tension whereby developers want to build larger dwellings, which are more profitable, whereas the local need is often for smaller ones, for first-time buyers and young families. The requirement that 40% be affordable only partly addresses this. In the Salisbury Road development, there are no two-bedroom homes for private sale at all.
In both these cases, West Berkshire Council (and others) have surely missed a trick. There’s little to be gained by fulminating about any perceived deficiencies of an application at the planning-committee stage. If the application accords with the council’s policy and meets the minimum national standards, the developer need not pay any attention to such criticism.
The Bewley Homes application was called in by the Council, meaning that it was decided by councillors in committee, not by officers. This process can demand conditions or modifications and can delay the project. Developers might therefore accept compromises in order to get started, particularly if there is any chance that the regulations may tighten in the interim. However, if the WAPC were to go too far, Bewley could appeal and probably win. As with so many such matters, the regulations are one thing but the reality is game of high-stakes poker. This particular game has been going on for four years. The players have changed (Bewley has taken over from CALA as developers and the committee membership has changed as a result of the elections) as has the backdrop (no one was talking about a climate emergency in 2016) but the game goes on. The Future Homes Standard (or an application of the Merton Rule) would help give West Berkshire a winning hand but until then the councillors at the planning committees have to play with the cards at their disposal.
Finally, it’s worth stressing Hungerford Town Council’s role in this. Like all parish councils, it is only a consultee in the planning process. It can watch the poker game and offer opinions but it doesn’t get to play its own hand. How much influence a parish council has on any planning issue is entirely a matter of how much it cares. It’s hard to see how Hungerford could have done much more than it has. It’s organised several public meetings, lobbied its district councillors, attended site meetings, liaised with other local bodies such as the AONB and attempted to instigate a judicial review. Above all, it’s gone toe-to-toe with the developers at every crucial point, most recently at the WAPC meeting on 27 November which was attended by both the Chair of the Environment and Planning Committee and the Mayor.
At this meeting, the revised application was passed. The fog of uncertainty caused by the long gestation of the Future Homes Standard will, however, continue to cause similar issues for numerous other planning applications, particularly those in areas where the planning authority has not implemented any improvements under the Merton Rule and thus find itself increasingly distanced from the obvious realities of what is required. One major underlying problem, that of climate change, will not be assisted by such municipal inaction, nor by any delay or watering down of any proposals. The other, the need to ensure that enough homes are built to suit the needs of the population, which hopefully will co-incide with the council’s own ambitions, also requires robust policies. It may be that the solution to both of these can only happen if we wind the clock back 35 years and councils start building homes themselves. Meanwhile, all depends on how much the councils can tough it out with developers. Up and down the country, these poker games go on: but the clock is ticking.
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