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A lack of action in the North-West?

A lack of action in the North-West?

Andy McLaren 29 Nov 2019
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government [MHCLG] recently announced that it would be postponing the results of the 2019 Housing Delivery Test [HDT] until after December's general election. This is due to ‘purdah’ rules, which forbid government departments from making political announcements during an election campaign[1]. As many will now be aware, the HDT forms the basis for assessing whether Councils are delivering the homes they need, by comparing past housing delivery to housing need. A series of graded ‘penalties’ are imposed depending on the extent of any shortfall (Figure 1), with the bar continually raised up to November 2020. Figure 1 Housing Delivery Test Thresholds Source: MHCLG; Lichfields If a Council falls below 95% of their required delivery, they will be expected to produce an Action Plan within 6 months which: Identifies the reasons for under delivery; Explores ways to reduce the risk of further under-delivery; and, Sets out measures the authority intends to take to improve levels of delivery. However, it is unclear what the sanction will be for Councils that fail to comply with this requirement.  The 2018 HDT results were published back in February 2019, and yet a number of authorities in the North West [NW] have yet to produce their required Action Plan. This blog explores this lack of action in more detail and provides analysis of the Action Plans which have been produced in the NW so far. Who has produced an Action Plan? From a NW perspective, the region is generally not performing well against the HDT (Figure 2).  No authority failed the test completely, though 13 of 39 Local Authorities fell below the 85% threshold in 2018, and should therefore produce an Action Plan (as well as apply a 20% buffer to their housing land supply).  Figure 2 Housing Delivery Test 2018: North-West Districts Source: MHCLG / Lichfields Based on analysis conducted by Planning Magazine[2], of the 13 NW Councils requiring intervention, 4 authorities had not produced an Action Plan within 6 months as required by national policy (Warrington, Blackburn, Tameside and Rossendale)[3]. Warrington in particular had not produced an Action Plan despite delivering just 55% of their LHN requirement.   On a national scale, of the 108 authorities required to produce an Action Plan, only 20% had managed to publish one by the August deadline. Considering the emphasis that the Government has placed on the HDT, this is a disappointing statistic, but one which should improve as Councils become more familiar with the process. However, there appears to be no explicit sanction for failing to produce an Action Plan within the 6 month deadline (of the HDT’s publication). The Practice Guidance[4] states that Councils are ‘expected’ to produce Action Plans. It is clear that Action Plans are not viewed as a punishment, but rather as a solution to under-delivery to redress poor performance.  The question is, whether they contain ‘actions’ that will deliver any meaningful increase in housing delivery.  What do they contain? The Practice Guidance[5] sets out a list of actions which Councils ‘could’ consider as part of an Action Plan (Figure 3). Figure 3 Potential Actions Source: Planning Practice Guidance Based on the Planning Magazine[6] analysis, which assessed the content of all published Action Plans across England and Wales, it becomes clear that many authorities have chosen the easier of these options. The majority of the actions do not provide any real bite, with many actions containing soft buzz words such as ‘encourage’, ‘promote’ and ‘consider’.  Analysis of the first group of nine Action Plans published across the NW reveals that actions such as ‘member training’, ‘shifting resources towards planning departments’ and ‘increased engagement with developers’ appear with regularity.  Crucially, there appears to be limited provision for practical improvements to boost supply, such as committing to release safeguarded land or delivering infrastructure or funding to bring forward / unlock stalled sites. There are some good initiatives being put forward, such as policy requirements to build at higher densities and developing small sites, though these have not been consistently proposed across the North West.  The creation of Council-owned development arms provides another potentially helpful initiative, with numerous Councils citing this within their Action Plans.  Though realistically, this could only have a meaningful effect in the longer-term, and is unlikely to be a short-term solution. So far, the requirement to produce an Action Plan appears to be a mechanism simply ‘encouraging’ Councils to boost delivery rather than ensuring meaningful solutions.   Where an Action Plan has yet to be produced, we may begin to see Inspectors using the absence of an Action Plan at appeal as further evidence in the planning balance for or against housing, if Councils are not engaging with the process or demonstrating a commitment to boost housing delivery.  If Councils are unable to demonstrate the implementation of their Action Plan, then this could also weigh in favour of a proposal. Moving Forward In 2020 the HDT thresholds will increase further.  Unless delivery significantly increases we could see a number of Councils across the NW failing the test and triggering the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Based on an initial analysis, there is limited evidence to suggest that Action Plans will provide the boost to delivery required to ensure the presumption in favour is not triggered. This is particularly worrying for Greater Manchester, as well as the Liverpool City Region, both home to a number of significantly underperforming authorities.    A number of the Greater Manchester authorities are constrained by Green Belt, and this has certainly compounded the issue.  The timely adoption of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework [GMSF] is widely seen as the long-term solution to the sub-region’s persistent under-delivery.  Adoption of the GMSF remains a crucial way of unlocking sites and boosting delivery. However, the latest delay rules out a further draft of the GMSF being published before next year’s Mayoral and local elections taking place in May 2020. With a continuing absence of tangible, alternative solutions to addressing the under-delivery of housing, alongside a clear reluctance to release Green Belt, it is likely that related issues such as housing affordability will continue to intensify across the region.  The delivery of robust, practical Action Plans where required can, and should, act as a remedy to help prevent this. However, the lack of bite to the penalties imposed by the HDT, and the absence of any meaningful sanction for either non-conformity or lack of progress delivering the Action Plan, is a clear concern. Conclusions The HDT represents a key monitoring tool for the Government to incentivise local Councils to deliver the homes they need. However, it is clear that the Action Plan process may lack any real teeth, and it is disappointing that across the North West some Councils failed to produce an Action Plan within the deadline. Although we may see some implications for Councils at appeal, there appears to be no formal sanction for non-compliance.  This prompts the question - are Action Plans really providing the level of incentivisation that already underperforming authorities require in the North West? It is clear that the overall Action Plan process needs significantly strengthening, with publication of an Action Plan perhaps becoming a requirement rather than an ‘expectation’, with associated penalties for non-compliance. It may be too soon for this to happen before the next round of (delayed) HDT results, but a process of reinforcement should certainly be considered before the 2020 results are published in November next year. [1] https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1665194/housing-delivery-test-results-shelved-until-general-election[2] https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1663026/read-council-by-council-guide-measures-taken-boost-housing-delivery[3] Warrington and Blackburn had responded to Planning Magazine to state they are in the process of preparing an Action Plan, though Tameside and Rossendale had not responded as of 7th October 2019.[4] Paragraph: 048 Reference ID: 68-048-20190722[5] Paragraph: 051 Reference ID: 68-051-20190722[6] https://offlinehbpl.hbpl.co.uk/NewsAttachments/RLP/CauseCitedTable.pdf  

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The battery storage revolution: planning for a brighter future
A Changing Energy Mix The UK’s energy mix is undergoing a process of rapid change in response to the global ambition to drastically limit global warming this century. The dependence on traditional methods of energy production is decreasing, and renewable energy is growing rapidly as a source of power generation. The capacity of renewable energy overtook fossil fuels in the UK for the first time ever in 2018 (Figure 1).  Figure 1 Renewable Energy Capacity Has Overtaken Fossil Fuels in the UK Source: Guardian Graphic, Imperial College London, Drax (6th November 2018) However, an increasing reliance on intermittent renewables such as wind and solar energy provision can create problems.  As we make the switch to a more intermittent and less flexible low carbon generation mix, there is an emerging need to ensure that energy supply is resilient.  Planning has a vital role to play in facilitating the provision of energy infrastructure in a timely way to ensure a consistency of supply. This blog will explore how the planning system can strengthen its enabling role both at national and local level, with battery storage providing an important emerging technology to support the diversification of the energy market. What we mean with battery storage?  Back-up energy facilities, such as battery storage energy plants, are emerging as potentially crucial elements of the UK’s energy mix, as excess energy can be stored and released during peak demand, or when renewable sources are not generating enough energy to meet demand.   Importantly, battery storage facilities have two key characteristics: They can provide back-up electricity in seconds, as opposed to gas plants which can take more than 40 minutes to supply electricity when called upon. They have an ability to operate with a significantly lower carbon footprint than conventional back-up generation plants (i.e. they do not produce emissions)[1]. Figure 2 battery storage Facility in the UK Source: Edie.net (Edie Newsroom - 15th January 2019) Battery Storage facilities are rapidly gaining market share and acceptance due to advances in their design, improved efficiency and lifespan. It is expected that this growth will continue, with a clear demand emerging in the market (coal energy production is expected to be phased out by 2025[2]). For Battery Storage developments to become mainstream components of the energy mix and maximise their potential, support is needed from the planning system to boost the quantity of these schemes and speed up their delivery. What changes are proposed in National Policy? Large-scale storage projects with a generating capacity of more than 50MW are currently considered under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime, introduced by the Planning Act 2008, with smaller schemes decided by Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). At national level in England, the way energy storage projects are assessed by the planning system has been the focus of a recent Government consultation titled ‘The treatment of electricity storage within the planning system’, which closed on 25th March 2019. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) consultation sought to determine how best it can alter planning regulatory frameworks to support developers and businesses seeking to build energy storage facilities in England. Specifically, the consultation aimed to gather opinions on the following proposals: Retaining the 50MW NSIP capacity threshold that applies to standalone storage projects; and, Amending the Planning Act 2008 to establish a new capacity threshold for composite projects including storage and another form of generation, such that composite projects in England would fall into the NSIP regime where either its capacity, excluding any electricity storage, is more than 50MW or the capacity of any electricity storage is more than 50MW. The government states that findings so far indicate that the 50MW capacity threshold, “does not in itself distort storage developers’ sizing and investment decisions to a significant degree.” However, it has been argued within the development industry that the threshold cap is currently impeding development of standalone Battery Storage schemes, and actively persuading developers to reduce the size of their proposals below 50MW. With the current pace of technological change, and the size of even the smallest schemes increasing, a continuation of this cap is clearly unsustainable. It is also considered that removing this threshold cap could help to considerably improve the time taken to determine these schemes, and in the process significantly reduce associated costs. The amendment to establish a new capacity threshold for composite projects would mean that a generating station would be determined under the local planning regime, where the capacity of both the storage and non-storage elements are less than 50MW individually. This could have positive implications if developers are encouraged to apply for composite schemes as a result, as these co-located projects bring significant benefits to the energy system by maximising the output and operational efficiency of projects. It will be interesting to see the next steps the Government will take following the consultation, which could help shape the immediate future of Battery Storage’s treatment by the planning system. Nevertheless, LPAs need to start considering these matters now in their emerging local plans, as the provision of energy infrastructure and security of supply are vitally important elements for the development sector. Local Plans: unfit for purpose? The main pre-requisite for Battery Storage schemes is a connection to the electricity grid, and the locational requirements of such schemes present a significant constraint for their widespread implementation. This is because a storage facility must either be developed within close proximity to an existing power plant or sub-station with spare capacity, or brought forward alongside renewable energy infrastructure. Currently, local plans provide nowhere near enough support to effectively enable implementation, and are largely ill-equipped to efficiently deal with the requirements of this emerging technology.  LPAs must consider the way their local plans approach Battery Storage development, with particular regard to increasing delivery through the following actions:   Increasing the take-up of standalone schemes. This could potentially be improved through specific policies written into local plans, to provide an incentive to support their implementation; and Promoting the integration of energy infrastructure schemes alongside new housing or employment developments. This could allow storage facilities to be delivered in tandem with renewable energy generation facilities.  Scope certainly remains to improve and maximise the ability of the planning system to help deliver these facilities on a widespread scale.  Though an ability to improve delivery also relies somewhat on LPAs having an up-to-date, ‘modern’ local plan in place, with many LPAs across England yet to adopt innovative policies in this field.  This particular issue is highlighted in Figure 3 below, which illustrates local plan status post- original NPPF (2012).  Just over 55% of LPAs have a post-NPPF 2012 plan in place as of December 2018. Figure 3 Local Plan Status post-NPPF 2012 by LPA as at 31st December 2018 Source: Lichfields analysis Without such innovation emerging from local plans, the delivery of standalone schemes, or integrated energy generation and storage facilities, is unlikely to come forward at the required rate. The local plan process simply cannot keep up with the current pace of technological change, and the UK cannot afford to get left behind in this regard. To fully benefit from local energy storage, LPAs need to quickly consider the role their local plans can play in harnessing the rewards this technology can deliver. Conclusions As we move towards a flexible, de-centralised and de-carbonised energy system, the provision of localised energy infrastructure is vital, particularly through initiatives such as Battery Storage which bring numerous benefits. The ability to provide electricity at short-notice in response to local demand is more important than ever before. The planning system must do all it can to help facilitate a general mainstreaming and the implementation of localised energy infrastructure. Currently, the majority of local plans are silent on these matters which is not helping the diversification of the energy market. A widespread uptake of forward-thinking local plans, which directly support the diversification of the energy market, is essential in delivering the required change to help ‘keep the lights on’. [1] Science for Environment Policy:  Towards the battery of the future (September 2018) [2] Reuters: Britain outlines plans for 2025 coal-power phase out (January 2018)  

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