GGG open letter to councillors dated 25.4.2014

Dear Cllr Juneja

 

Thank you very much for your lengthy and considered response, which is appreciated.

 

Since our original letter was an open letter to councillors, and you have copied your reply to all councillors and MPs, this reply is also an open letter.

 

GGG has a few remarks:

 

Housing need

 

GGG notes your comment below “We are therefore bound, by the NPPF, to meet in full our objectively assessed housing needs.”  You may wish to reconsider this statement – we believe that it is misleading.

 

Paragraph 14 of the NPPF ( https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/6077/2116950.pdf ) states of course that:

 

At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development…

 

For plan-making this means that:

 

  • local planning authorities should positively seek opportunities to meet the development needs of their area
  • local Plans should meet objectively assessed needs, with sufficient flexibility to adapt to rapid change, unless:

o   any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or

o   specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted.

As clarified by Nick Boles in both his recent letters to Planning Inspectors (both the first included by us and the reply to inspectors included in your email below), misinterpretation of Government policy in the context of the NPPF is to be avoided.  As set out in the NPPF, there is no requirement to meet objectively assessed housing needs in full. And, as Nick Boles made clear in his original letter to the PINS, and did not retract,

 

The special role of Green Belt is also recognised in the framing of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which sets out that authorities should meet objectively assessed needs unless specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy”.

 

In other words, there is no requirement to meet objectively assessed housing needs in full.  

 

Green Belt is a constraint on sustainable development under the NPPF.

 

This has been supported by recent Planning Enquiries, Secretary of State’s decisions, and recent case law.

 

SHLAA (Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment) – brownfield study still required

 

GGG notes that the SHLAA does not consider primarily brownfield sites but considers all developable land in the borough, including greenfield sites. It was not a brownfield site review; this has not been done.

 

The SHLAA was accompanied by the GreenBelt and Countryside Study that looked at the potential for utilising greenbelt and countryside land for development.

 

GGG  appreciates that this was a historic planning requirement but the resulting study is flawed, and has been heavily criticised by councillors, who voted for a reappraisal of the evidence base.   The requirement for a GBCS is no longer in place per guidance to PINs (although this is a recent development).   The resulting report does seem to have been welcomed with disproportionate enthusiasm, and its flaws and errors are still not being corrected. It was clear from the Forum that Pegasus have not been asked to review or revise their work, and the supposed public involvement in the reappraisal of the evidence base, particularly the Green Belt and Countryside Study, has not taken place.

 

This is ironic, especially given that the last election was won on the basis of strong protection for the Green Belt (see the Conservative manifesto which gave the key pledge of “Continue to protect the Green Belt” and which stated “Following the successful defeat of the South East Plan by Guildford Borough Council and Guildford residents, we will continue to fight to preserve the character of our town and villages. To preserve gardens and the Green Belt we will continue to work on finding brownfield sites that can support housing instead. Our main site is around Slyfield”).

 

GGG has proposed an equivalent investigative study of brownfield land, in order to identify prospective plots.  Indeed, this would seem to have been an implied manifesto commitment.  Given that the GBCS involved consultants over several years in order to identify possible greenfield plots, this does not seem unreasonable.

 

Even without such a study, GGG considers that revision of the SHLAA is required.  Brownfield sites can be utilised at varying densities, and planning controls can be used to ensure that densities are set to utilise brownfield sites efficiently. This has not yet been done in Guildford, and there have been a number of planning consents (eg the Aldi site in Burpham) where there was considerable opportunity to use those brownfield sites for high quality, reasonably high density housing in keeping with the locality, which have been used for other purposes. Planning controls could have required underground car parking and flats above the car park, for example, or use of the site exclusively for housing.

 

It is notable within the SHLAA that the proposed densities vary very widely. Some (extremely small) sites are at high densities of the kind that is typical in urban areas. (As has been noted, Notting Hill with its Georgian squares is at 200 dph). There are one or two high density urban sites in the proposals, but these are all small.   Conversely, the largest brownfield sites most suitable for urban development are often at very low densities indeed (Slyfield (25dph), Walnut Tree Close, and Merrow Depot – both 11 dph). This distorts the overall perception of required land.

 

GGG would agree that it is always appropriate to consider the location when considering the density. Urban densities are typically higher; and GGG would support generally lower density in a rural context. However, it does not seem appropriate to reduce densities on very large sites and this has the impact of increasing apparent need for greenfield land.  Underuse of key brownfield sites has a major impact on the requirement for greenfield sites, and this is critical in the planning decision process. It is not acceptable to force development on to greenfield sites because the brownfield sites have not been utilised intelligently.

 

The extraction of data from the SHLAA to inform the Issues and Options consultation chose to exclude a considerable number of brownfield sites that had been identified in the SHLAA, on the basis that these were “reserved” for commercial development.  This is both contrary to the policies of NPPF and more specifically the M3 LEP, and is not advantageous to the borough as a whole.  Arguably it will also imperil the Council’s planned investment strategy which we understand involves substantial investment in commercial property; an “overhang” in this area will reduce the value of the Council’s investments.

 

The SHLAA also identifies a very considerable number of small housing sites which were not included in the Issues and Options consultation at all.  While each site may be small, in aggregate these sites represent a significant area of brownfield land not included in the  Issues and Options consultation. GGG considers that they should therefore be taken into account in the proposals (the SHLAA identifies small urban or settlement sites which may give rise to housing in excess of 450 dwellings at the proposed densities not including any garden development).  These have been excluded from the Issues and Options consultation and this should be corrected.  The fact that such sites will not trigger a new homes bonus because the sites are small does not mean that they do not exist; and they should count towards the available land totals.

 

As previously noted, there is also a requirement to include existing planning permissions as an offset against the actual net housing requirement, and this will have an impact on the requirement for land.

 

The Issues and Options sites should be utilised at reasonable brownfield densities, and the omitted brownfield sites should also be taken into account.  On this basis, even with the highly inflated and (as previously noted) inaccurate SHMA (Strategic Housing Market Assessment) numbers, there is almost no justification for use of green field sites, and as noted by Nick Boles, Green Belt does represent a real planning constraint in terms of restricting development.

 

Brownfield sites and CILs

 

Thank you for the clarification in relation to brownfield sites.  We don’t think that GGG was suggesting that these charges were nil. It is clear from the revised guidance that it is possible to vary these charges as an incentive for brownfield site development.  While we would agree that  it is indeed within the discretion of local councils to set the infrastructure levy, it is not acceptable to set this at a level that will discourage brownfield development, but there is an onus on local government to set the level to optimise and maximise brownfield development, as you helpfully note below: “Particular consideration should also be given to Local Plan policies on planning obligations, design, density and infrastructure investment, as well as in setting the Community Infrastructure Levy, to promote the viability of brownfield sites across the local area.” 

 

GGG concludes that while you can set this levy at your discretion, you are required to do so to promote brownfield development, not restrict it, and there is a obligation to utilise such brownfield land first.

 

Localism

 

While recognising that Localism is difficult to implement in practice, GGG notes that the Parliamentary statement by Nick Boles, covering the new NPPG (National Planning Policy Guidance), stated:  We are also committed to ensuring that countryside and environmental protections continue to be safeguarded, and devolving power down not just to local councils, but also down to neighbourhoods and local residents

 

As a result we would hope that councillors would all recognise their obligation to consult, formally or informally, with groups which represent parishes, neighbourhoods and community associations, such as GGG.

 

Budget initiative

 

The 2014 Budget Red Book includes various measures to support use of brownfield land.  Clause 1.75  states

“The government’s.. Land and Property review has..identified scope to generate £5 billiion of receipts from land and property. A significant amount of this will be brownfield land”

 

There are incentives and reduced planning constraints for conversion of existing commercial units to residential use but not the converse (Clause 1.147 Red Book).   It should also be noted that areas where infrastructure is to be provided for growth (and the areas where growth has been considered desirable in the national interest) are the HS2 corridor, Greater Cambridge and Wales.  Government policy does not seem to consider excessive further growth in the overheated South East to be a desirable planning focus.

 

Discussion

 

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with you or with any other councillors that wish to discuss anything with GGG.

  • Representatives of GGG would be happy to meet you, and as previously indicated would be willing to do so at a time that you propose; please let us know when you suggest
  • GGG believe that it may be appropriate to have a formal meeting discussing the limitations of the SHMA, and as previously noted would welcome a detailed working meeting on this topic with GL Hearn and other representative groups.  GRA have also indicated that they would be willing to participate in such a workshop.
  • As noted formally, GGG considers that the Forum to review the evidence base conducted by the council  was of little use, and suggest public representation in the Scrutiny Committees as was approved by the full Council voting for the amendment in the recent petition debate (for full public involvement in the Scrutiny Committees in the reappraisal of the evidence base).
  • GGG would welcome the opportunity to meet with Allies and Morrison as part of the proposed public discussion of the requirements for their review.  Clearly the review of the town and town centre are fundamental to the Local plan, and it is hard to see how it is possible to prepare a revised draft of the local plan until the town centre review has been completed; and, as for the SHMA, it seems appropriate (arguably a requirement) to consult with local representative groups as part of the setting of the parameters for such analysis
  • GGG would welcome a detailed public consultation on the pro-growth agenda that seems to be underlying much of the Local Plan philosophy.

 

With best regards

 

Guildford Greenbelt Group

 

 

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GGG open letter to councillors dated 4 April 2014

Dear Councillor

I feel I need to write to express my view on some specific advice you were given by the planning department yesterday evening, since I was not permitted to express this view in the council chamber.

St Albans

It was stated yesterday evening that the St Albans (Hunston) decision only relates to a specific planning decision.

This is correct, but its interpretation of the law relates also to local plans. So that you can read the Appeal Court decision in full and form your own view, I am sending this to you again.

See in particular paragraph 6 (my highlighting):

“6. There is no doubt, that in proceeding their local plans, local planning authorities are required to ensure that the “full objectively assessed needs” for housing are to be met, “as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework”. Those policies include the protection of Green Belt land. Indeed, a whole section of the Framework, Section 9, is devoted to that topic, a section which begins by saying “The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts”: Paragraph 79. The Framework seems to envisage some review in detail of Green Belt boundaries through the new Local Plan process, but states that “the general extent of Green Belts across the country is already established.” It seems clear, and is not in dispute in this appeal, that such a Local Plan could properly fall short of meeting the “full objectively assessed needs” for housing in its area because of the conflict which would otherwise arise with policies on the Green Belt or indeed on other designations hostile to development, such as those on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Parks. What is likely to be significant in the preparation of this Local Plan for the district of St Albans is that virtually all the undeveloped land in the district outside the built up areas forms part of the Metropolitan Green Belt.”

Further I would note that paragraphs 27-33 are relevant, especially paragraph 29, which notes that the objectively assessed housing need is what should be considered, but that this should be considered in the context of the geographical area:

“29. But there may be other factors as well. One of those is the planning context in which that shortfall is to be seen. The context may be that the district in question is subject on a considerable scale to policies protecting much or most of the undeveloped land from development except in exceptional or very special circumstances, whether because such land is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Park or Green Belt. If that is the case, then it may be wholly unsurprising that there is not a five year supply of housing land when measured simply against the unvarnished figures of household projections. A decision-maker would then be entitled to conclude, if such were the planning judgment, that some degree of shortfall in housing land supply, as measured simply by household formation rates, was inevitable. That may well affect the weight to be attached to the shortfall.”

As a result I think that the assertion made by Carol Humphrey (Head of Planning Services) that St Albans has no relevance in the context of the Local Plan is not correct. Furthermore I think that recent case law and recent Secretary of State decisions demonstrate that the shortfall in housing supply does not provide a sufficient justification to override the protection of the Green Belt not only in relation to specific planning appeals, but also in relation to any review of boundaries too.

Nick Boles letters

It was stated this evening by Carol Humphrey that the most important letter from Nick Boles was that on 13 March. It was implied that in some way this undermined any advice given in the first letter (which I have sent to you previously, which states “the Framework makes clear that a Green Belt boundary may be altered only in exceptional circumstances” ). You have all been sent all three letters, but I am sending the two letters from Nick Boles to you again. The first letter was clear advice specifically given to planning inspectors. The letter from planning inspectors queried this, and then Nick Boles stated that the advice given was a clarification of existing rulings. You wouldn’t expect a politician to admit to a U-turn in writing, I presume?

Nothing in the second letter undermines the clarification in the first. The first letter states that Green Belt is a policy that indicates development should be restricted. To quote again:

“local authorities should meet objectively assessed needs unless specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy”

As noted in my open letter to you, this is a word for word quotation from paragraph 14 of the NPPF. So Nick Boles is right, it is clarification not change. The second letter from Nick Boles confirms that the NPPG “provides useful clarity on the practical application of policy. It should provide helpful support for Inspectors and should not normally be considered a reason for extending examinations.” I don’t see that this is a withdrawal of the original advice. He is stating that it isn’t the policy but the Inspectors’ interpretation of that policy that has been wrong. The fact that Nick Boles is suggesting that the rules were always as they are now doesn’t mean that his guidance on the current rules should be ignored.

The extremely clear statement about the Green Belt in these letters are that Green Belt is a policy which restricts development – and, as Nick Boles rightly notes, that policy is stated in the NPPF. You should be entitled to rely on this guidance from the Secretary of State, which he put out as an open letter with a view to its influencing local plans and the inspection process.

With kind regards

Susan Parker