Planning matters

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Self- and custom-housebuilding has become more prominent as one of the ways to address the UK’s housing shortage. In particular – and as of the end of October - the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 and the Housing and Planning Act 2016 require local authorities to maintain a register of individuals and groups who want land to self-build homes, and to grant sufficient development permissions in response. But what is a novelty in the UK is commonplace elsewhere. Having spent a term of my undergraduate degree studying spatial planning at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, I have noticed how differently the Dutch look at planning compared to the British. In particular, there is the more positive, liberal and experimental approach to planning that has led the way for places like Almere - a large scale, widely recognised self-build programme on polder land to the north of Amsterdam. Almere is an example of how the UK could improve the affordability and sustainability of homes, as well as opening up the housebuilding market to greater competitiveness. Self-built homes also have the potential to provide bigger, more desirable homes - significant when it has been recognised that the UK is building the smallest new homes in Europe (76m2 on average compared to the Netherlands’ 115m2).In Almere, the approach to self-building is relatively straightforward, with the whole area master planned by the local council and split up into different “I-build” districts (sustainable, terraced, lower-income etc.). Plots are sold at a fixed per sq.m rate and come with an A4 sized “passport” which has a short list of restrictions. The Almere authorities have promoted the land and installed all of the infrastructure required. This element of the approach may not however be suited to the UK, where local authorities do not deliver infrastructure themselves and are unlikely to have the funds to buy large land parcels for self-building (not to say that local authorities could not promote self-build housing on land already in public ownership however). Figure 1: An example of self-building in the developers' zone, Almere Figure 2: Almere Stad Source: Hans Westbeek, 2013 (http://www.mokeham.com/dutchthemag/almere-at-36/) Figure 3: Almere Poort from above Source: Google Maps Almere highlights some benefits worth introducing to the UK housing market. It encourages a more diverse community not just through the built form but through the communities that live there. It also caters for different budgets while still allowing an individual or family to build a house they want to live in. As part of a suite of other policy initiatives, self- and custom-housebuilding could be part of the answer to the UK’s affordability issues.Some of the most obvious drawbacks of Almere include the fact that the zones are likely to resemble construction sites for far longer than would a regular developer’s site. Self-build on a larger scale can also lead to some contrasting designs, where neighbours have had very different ideas for their homes. Figure 4: Almere Haven Source: National Custom and Self Building Association (NaSCBA), 2015 (http://www.nacsba.org.uk/news/2015/03/09/the-netherlands-and-northern-germany/) If the UK government intend to move forward with its self- and custom-housebuilding agenda in a way that will maximise results, Almere could help illustrate the opportunities and pitfalls, in particular as an example adopting a deliberately plan-led approach. This means moving beyond land registers and permissions, and embracing a greater commitment towards the principle of the approach. A strong plan-led approach would allow people to build the houses they want to the specifications they need, creating places which they are proud of and which are more sustainable.Self-building would support the Government’s evolving direction towards increasing the numbers of homes in all tenures and sectors of housebuilding. The Dutch example perhaps shows how a plan-led zoned approach might help take it to the next level.

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Tipping the balance for green energy in the Green Belt
As solar farm developers continue to adjust to life after Government subsidies, there are many positive ingredients to indicate that the sector is here to stay. Investors continue to want to back the delivery of, and see the returns from, ground-mounted solar schemes; the capital costs and performance of the technology continues to improve whilst landowners - particularly of agricultural land - still see solar power generation as a way of achieving diversification in their rural businesses.What is working against the sector however, it seems, is the lack of availability of viable points of connection to the grid that have the capacity to accommodate the electricity generated. In the words of one of NLP’s solar farm clients, viable points of connection are becoming “as rare as hens’ teeth”. Identifying a viable point of connection is one challenge, another is then finding a site nearby that is capable of ‘plugging’ into it, whilst not being too sensitive to hosting such a significant feature as a solar farm in the landscape. This is where the planning challenges begin, particularly where the developer takes the big bold step of entering the Green Belt to explore site availability…The statistics stack against planning permission being granted for large scale ground-mounted solar farm developments in the Green Belt. In our involvement with solar farm proposals on Green Belt land, we often find the focus of local authorities is on why such proposals have been refused elsewhere (for example in Lancashire[1]) rather than looking at the particular circumstances of the proposal in front of them and bearing in mind the reasons why solar farm developments have already been found acceptable on Green Belt sites (such as at Arnold in Gedling[2], Watnall[3] in Broxtowe and at Bletchingdon in Oxfordshire[4]). A Green Belt designation undoubtedly adds a whole set of challenges which need to be addressed as part of the planning process for a prospective solar farm development. To this end, paragraph 91 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) recognises:“When located in the Green Belt, elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise inappropriate development. In such cases developers will need to demonstrate very special circumstances if projects are to proceed.”This policy is to be read alongside the cornerstone paragraph of the NPPF which sets the key principle for determining Green Belt proposals:“When considering any planning application, local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt. ‘Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.” (paragraph 88)Often, when determining whether ‘very special circumstances’ (VSC) exist for ground-mounted solar schemes in the Green Belt, applicants and determining authorities tend to focus on the benefits of the solar scheme, essentially the level of contribution that the scheme will make to renewable energy supply, together  with other benefits that might include ecological enhancements, rural diversification and community contributions. However, focussing too much on the benefits, in weighing up whether VSC exist, can lead to an overly simplistic approach – the larger the MW energy generation, the greater the prospects of there being VSC.What we find, however, is that before looking at the benefits, it is equally (and probably more) important to establish the extent of harm on a site-by-site basis. Green Belt is not uniform and the contribution that one part of the Green Belt makes to the stated five purposes can be quite different to another part. The ability to screen and visually contain one site, in a way that is not possible in another location, is all-important when starting to consider whether the scales can start to be rebalanced away from the default position of the scheme’s inappropriateness because of its impact upon the openness of the Green Belt. Knowing  how much weight there is on the harm side of the scales leads to a better understanding of the ‘weight’ that the counteracting benefits need to have, sufficient enough to tip the scales and create the VSC.Here at NLP, we use a range of tools and services to analyse both the value of Green Belt sites and their vulnerability to “alien intrusions” (in the words of Greg Clark[5]) in the form of ground-mounted solar farms. We build up an evidence-based picture of the relative value of sites within a given search area, so as to assist developers both at site finding stage and in preparing alternative site assessments that national policy now seeks as part of the application determination process.We have seen considerable success in the methodical approaches that we have devised in assessing site suitability and the strength of case for VSC, with one local authority recently considering that NLP’s demonstrated absence of a more suitable site in the search area was, in itself, a contributing factor to there being VSC. Once we know we have a Green Belt site that touches lightly on the harm side of the scales (or certainly lighter than its neighbours) then we have a springboard from which to elevate the scheme, through the promotion of its wide-ranging benefits, into the realms of VSC.In recent months, NLP has successfully applied this approach and secured planning permissions for over 20MW of ground-mounted solar farms on sites in the Nottingham - Derby Green Belt. [1] Appeal refs. APP/P2365/W/15/3011997 (Tawside Farm) and  APP/P2365/W/15/3002667 (Butchers Lane)[2] Application ref. 2015/0862 (land to the north of Lime Lane)[3] Application ref. 15/00525/FUL (land off Long Lane)[4] Appeal ref. APP/C3105/A/13/2207532 (land at Rowles Farm)[5] Appeal ref. APP/H1840/W/15/3136031 (Rectory Farm)  

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