Planning matters

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Vacant building credit: Boosting the viability of brownfield sites
It is no secret that the redevelopment of brownfield sites is generally beset with more abnormal costs than a typical greenfield site. This is often a major hurdle that can delay or even stymie the redevelopment of brownfield sites. It is the viability issues that stalls or prevents development, or makes such sites less attractive to the market. This is where Vacant Building Credit [VBC] is relevant and why landowners and prospective developers should think twice before demolishing existing buildings. The recent consultations on the revised National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] and Planning Practice Guidance [PPG] both show a clear drive and emphasis on a ‘brownfield first’ approach to new development. They set out proposed changes to how viability is considered in planning therefore VBC is a particularly topical element of the current PPG. VBC is a national Government, PPG-derived financial incentive for the development of brownfield sites with vacant buildings. VBC does not exist in Wales or Scotland. The credit is used to offset existing floorspace against proposed, so as to reduce/ remove locally-set contributions towards affordable housing that would arise via planning obligations. Of course, the PPG is only guidance and therefore can be applied to local circumstances as a material consideration - or not, by individual councils. VBC has the potential to help prospective developers with issues of viability, depending on a council’s own plan policies and their stance on the guidance. This blog explains what VBC is, when it does and doesn’t apply, and how it may benefit project viability. Background VBC was introduced by a written ministerial statement of 28 November 2014 as an incentive ‘… to tackle the disproportionate burden of developer contributions on small-scale developers, custom and self-builders[1]’. So why are the details of VBC not widely known? It may be because its introduction was challenged in the High Court [2] and the VBC guidance was subsequently – but only temporarily -withdrawn. The Government appealed the decision and it was reinstated in the PPG in May 2016. It is now proposed to be referenced in the new NPPF (currently at draft paragraph 64) which would add to its weight.   VBC policy Policy and guidance on VBC is found in both the original written ministerial statement and the PPG paragraphs on planning obligations [21 to 23]. Paragraph 64 of the draft NPPF includes reference to vacant buildings offsetting affordable housing contributions, although it is not explicitly described as VBC. Local Plan policies relating to VBC are very thin on the ground; one of the few examples is in the Draft London Plan, which includes Policy H9 (Vacant Building Credit).   When VBC applies According to the PPG, VBC is applicable in cases where either a vacant building is brought back into lawful use, or it is demolished and replaced by a new building. In either case, the gross floorspace of the relevant vacant building(s) can be used as a ‘credit’ when the LPA calculates any affordable housing contribution. Vacant floorspace can potentially offset the affordable housing requirements for any given site by a proportion relating to the quantum of existing floorspace compared to that proposed. VBC will not normally apply if the building has been made vacant for the sole purpose of the re-development (and claiming VBC), nor if the building is covered by an extant or recently expired planning permission for the same, or substantially the same development. Policy H9 of the draft London Plan holds the policy position that VBC is ‘in most circumstances’ not appropriate in London and unlikely to bring forward additional development. The draft policy includes criteria where exceptions might arise and VBC could be applied. For a building to be considered vacant, it has to have been vacant for a continuous period of at least five years before an application is submitted. The applicant is also required to provide evidence that the site has been actively marketed for at least two of those five years at realistic prices. In short, the draft London Plan is written to discourage the application of VBC; it is implicit in draft Policy H9 that viability is not seen as a constraint to housing delivery on brownfield sites. In the rest of England, there are - as yet - no other similarly drafted policies.   The maths: How VBC can boost viability of brownfield development The basic calculation can be summarised with the following simple formula: (Existing Floorspace/Proposed Floorspace)*Policy Requirement=Site Affordable Housing Requirement The PPG includes an example at Paragraph: 022 Reference ID: 23b-022-20160519. And here is a worked example here for clarity, based on the following assumptions:         Existing gross floorspace: 15,000 sq. m Policy affordable housing requirement: 30% Proposed development: 352 dwellings with a total floorspace of 30,000 sq. m (representing an average dwelling size of 85 sq. m) The difference between the existing gross floorspace (vacant buildings on site) and the proposed new build floorspace is 10,500 sq. m i.e. the proposed development would result in 10,500 sq. m more of development in this example. On this basis the Affordable Housing Contribution is (15,000/30,000)*30%=15% Rather than a requirement of 106 (30%) affordable units the requirement is halved to 53           From the above calculation it can be deduced that if the floorspace to be demolished is greater than the proposed floorspace, the affordable housing contribution would be zero. There are many other ways in which vacant buildings can affect the planning strategy. Developers and landowners would need to consider the financial burden of rates that have to be paid by keeping a vacant building on-site; the community infrastructure levy ‘in use’ requirement is another consideration. There are also wider benefits of retaining vacant buildings on-site, while the development process is underway. One example is in relation to the consideration of visual impact. The mass or scale of an existing building can be a helpful material consideration in comparison with the proposed development. Existing buildings on-site can also provide an ‘existing’ position in terms of assessing the impact of a proposal’s traffic generation. This can help with making the case for acceptable highways impact of new development. VBC means there can be value in keeping vacant buildings standing, until a planning application for redevelopment has been determined; this element of a site’s wider planning strategy may improve scheme viability, by reducing or removing any requirement for affordable housing. [1] Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) of 28 November 2014[2]  West Berkshire District Council and Reading Borough Council v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2015] EWHC 2222 (Admin)  

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Safely landed? Is the current aerodrome safeguarding process fit for purpose?
Safety is of course fundamental to the aviation industry. Aerodromes, which are hubs for a wide range of aviation activity, must be able to operate within a safe environment. But how well is this requirement to safeguard operations and protect people living and working near aerodromes being applied, when proposals come forward for new development? The civil aviation and planning regimes set out a system to meet this safety objective; it is a complex system that often gives rise to uncertainty as to its application. Under the civil aviation regime, all licenced aerodromes must ensure that the aerodrome and its airspace are safe for use by aircraft. Yet only a select few are officially safeguarded under the planning regime and they benefit from Statutory Direction. But it is unclear how this arbitrary group of officially safeguarded aerodromes has been identified. The remaining licenced aerodromes can only seek voluntary protection and this is at the discretion of the local planning authority. Lichfields has reviewed the local plans of all of the local planning authorities (LPAs) in England with a civil licenced aerodrome to see how well (or indeed if) each aerodrome is appropriately safeguarded. The research has identified a flawed system with evident gaps in policy, meaning not all aerodromes are appropriately protected. How well does the safeguarding Circular work in practice in England? 92 local plans, relating to 82 corresponding aerodromes, have been reviewed. Our research has identified that only 50% of licenced aerodromes are protected in some way under the planning regime, with either an official or voluntary safeguarding status. Of the select few that are officially safeguarded under the planning regime, not all have a safeguarding policy in place within the local plan, despite the requirement to do so. In fact, a worryingly 32% of officially safeguarded aerodromes do not have a safeguarding policy in place. More positively, 13 ‘not officially safeguarded’ aerodromes have secured voluntary safeguarding with their LPAs and have policies in place in their local plans, indicating that these authorities and the aerodromes concerned understand the importance and value of safeguarding. Is the safeguarding Circular being applied to development plans in England? The national safeguarding circulars are outdated and no longer meet their intended use. Since adoption, the policy environment has changed significantly, particularly with the introduction of localism (2011), the National Planning Policy Framework (2012), a new aviation policy framework (2013), an Industrial Strategy (2017), and Brexit. The aviation industry continues to experience growth and play an important part in the UK economy. These factors all give greater weight to the need to protect an aerodrome’s ability to carry out safe and efficient operations. A review and update of national advice and how safeguarding is implemented at a local level is required, with new guidance being issued. Government, with LPA and aerodrome support, could take safeguarding policy further with a review and update to Circulars 1/2003 and 1/2010. Many of the LPAs reviewed are yet to adopt post-NPPF local plans, meaning that the current safeguarding policy – if there is one in the first place - could be more than 10 years’ old and will be likely not to reflect the current position of the aerodrome and its operational status. But these deficiencies create an opportunity for aerodrome operators to seek to incorporate safeguarding policy in reviewed and emerging local plans – it’s important for the industry to act on this now. From our work advising aerodromes, local authorities and developers on schemes at or close to aerodromes, we are familiar with the complexities of the land use planning safeguarding process, and the policies that might be put in place to meet this safety objective – both in terms of how they should be applied and the issues that arise in their application. If you would like to learn more about our research on aerodrome safeguarding please get in touch.

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