Planning matters

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‘Plansplaining’ – The Language of Public Consultation
In recent years ‘mansplaining’ has become an increasingly common part of the contemporary vocabulary, describing a situation where a man explains something to someone (often a woman) in a condescending or patronising manner, despite the explainee knowing more on the issue than the explainer. To avoid setting myself up for a fall by writing a blog on this issue I am going to focus on a new strain of this phenomenon– ‘plansplaining’. ‘Plansplaining’ is a term I came across through an article on the City Views website about how planners in the USA have a tendency to talk down to local residents when discussing new development proposals, despite the residents knowing their local area better than the planner does. This struck a chord after years of attending public consultation events being told “you don’t know what the traffic/ecology/flooding is like here” and, particularly working in the north east without having a Geordie accent, “you’re not from round here so you don’t understand.” Planners are often guilty of ‘plansplaining’ when discussing development proposals with local communities which can frustrate local residents – with so-called experts telling them that their views on the local area are either incorrect, irrelevant or worst of all ‘not a material planning consideration’. A residents’ concern over the impact of development in the neighbouring field will not be eased by assuring them that the site is ‘green’ in the most recent SHLAA, the land is an emerging allocation in the draft Local Plan and that the Council cannot demonstrate a robust five year housing land supply. The most effective means of avoiding ‘plansplaining’ is through the language used when discussing developments with the public. This needs to tread a fine line to ensure that it is not patronising whilst ensuring that the relevant information gets across. By the time a proposal reaches the public consultation stage it is highly likely that a great deal of thought and technical assessment has been undertaken to inform decisions – this needs to be conveyed to residents in the most effective and easily digestible way possible. Planners and the development industry are often guilty of providing too much information through reams of detailed technical information and text at public events. Our profession has a tendency to talk in acronyms and abbreviations which a non-planner would struggle to decipher – a critical part of effective public consultation is avoiding this industry jargon. Consultation and engagement with local communities plays an ever increasing role in the planning system and the preparation of planning applications, with social media now an accessible tool for the mobilisation of local interest groups. We need to be better at explaining why there is a demand for development in an area despite existing homes being for sale or shops being vacant. There needs to be a clear understanding of the negative impacts the development is likely to have whilst also being able to explain the benefits of the proposals to the local community. It’s important to accept that developments will receive objections – the purpose of public consultation and engagement is not to try and persuade all local residents to support the proposals. The real purpose is to ensure that locals understand the full scope of the development and the scale of benefits which can be delivered through the scheme. A successful public consultation strategy will reduce the number of objections to a development and it will ensure that any remaining objections are based on a full understanding of the proposals rather than assumptions and suppositions.


New Homes Bonus – a missed opportunity?

Dominic Smith 17 Jan 2017
In December, DCLG published the Government’s response to the New Homes Bonus consultation confirming a number of changes to ‘sharpen the incentive’[1]. Key changes include the introduction of a threshold for housing growth below which the New Homes Bonus would not be paid – and a reduction in the scale of payments from 2017/18. These changes are significant as, based on 2016 figures, 26 local authorities as a result would not benefit from any New Homes Bonus payments, as their housing growth was below the 0.4% threshold. Context The New Homes Bonus was introduced by the Coalition Government in 2011 and provides councils with payments equivalent to the Council Tax raised by new dwellings for a six year period. The original purpose of the scheme was to incentivise a net increase in housing delivery nationwide, through rewarding authorities financially, and to compensate them at least to some extent for funding cuts. The Coalition’s ‘Localism Agenda’ ensured that the monies were not ring-fenced and could be spent as each council desired, in consultation with local communities. Since its introduction over £6 billion has been paid to local authorities through the New Homes Bonus. The New Homes Bonus system has however been subject to criticism since its introduction, which one can assume has in part driven the recently-announced reforms to the system. The UK Housing Review Briefing Paper (June 2014) concluded that the scheme had ‘little impact on new housing supply’. It is apparent from public consultations and Planning Committee meetings that the public and elected members often see the New Homes Bonus as irrelevant and at worst, a form of bribery. The mention of the Bonus is regularly greeted with hostility by objectors, trepidation by councillors and is often not properly taken into account through the decision-making process. DCLG research[2] has found that around 60% of planning officers didn’t think that the Bonus had resulted in officers and members being more supportive of housebuilding, with just 10% of the view that the benefits of the Bonus translated to community support for development. Additional concerns over whether the funding for the scheme comes from ‘top-slicing’ local authority budgets have been prevalent, as its introduction coincided with large-scale cuts to Council funding streams. Immediate changes to the New Homes Bonus The key change being introduced in 2017 is the introduction of a national baseline for housing growth of 0.4% – below this baseline the Bonus will not be paid. This is intended to ensure that the Bonus is paid only where substantial additional growth is achieved and that councils are rewarded for this accordingly. The 0.4% baseline is an increase from the 0.25% originally consulted on but is below the 0.7% ‘average’ growth rate in the 10 years before the introduction of New Homes Bonus. To provide some context, between 2011 and 2015 housing stock growth was between 0.54% and 0.73%, with 2015 experiencing the highest growth percentage. This raises the question of whether the baseline is high enough, particularly in the context of the Government’s ‘1 million homes by 2020’ target. The Government has the option however to amend the baseline in future years ‘to reflect significant and unexpected housing growth’, leaving this incentive as a flexible tool capable of being adjusted. In addition to this, from 2017/18, payments will be reduced to match five years of Council Tax receipts, followed by four years from 2018/19. Cumulatively these two measures are likely to result in less money being paid out through New Homes Bonus nationally, which is designed to hit under-delivering authorities the hardest. The Government also acknowledges that these changes will ‘release funding for other Local Government spending priorities such as adult social care’. This doesn’t necessarily represent a cut to council planning budgets, as the New Homes Bonus can be spent as each authority sees fit, however it’s likely to create holes in Council budgets that will need to be addressed. A missed opportunity? Whilst initially considered in last year’s DCLG consultation, the Government will not withhold New Homes Bonus from local authorities without a submitted Local Plan, or from new homes which are only allowed following an appeal. However, both of these areas will be reconsidered from 2018/19, according to the Government Response. The mooted changes which are not being implemented are potentially a missed opportunity, as withholding New Homes Bonus for schemes won on appeal would provide further incentives for officers and members to ensure that their decision-making is robust. Removing New Homes Bonus for authorities behind on their local plan production would have represented a suitable ‘stick’ to speed up the adoption of plans, on which the planning regime – and the National Planning Policy Framework are dependent. Financial incentives linked to positive planning outcomes would also provide local authority planning chiefs a stronger hand in arguing for a larger share of the budget for their departments. The amendments to the Bonus system are a mixed bag – on the one hand the introduction of a baseline promotes rewards for authorities supporting additional housing growth whilst on the other, the shorter payment period reduces the financial incentive the Bonus previously represented. The measures that are not being taken forward could have been very effective in driving better decision-making and swifter local plan adoption. The New Homes Bonus system has clearly not had the desired impact and the changes made do not go far enough to create the effective tool to encourage additional housing growth and to counter funding cuts that the New Homes Bonus could be. [1] DCLG (2016) New Homes Bonus: sharpening the incentive – government response to the consultation [2] DCLG (2014) Evaluation of the New Homes Bonus