Planning matters blog | Lichfields

Planning matters

Our award winning blog gives a fresh perspective on the latest trends in planning and development.

Business as (un)usual – how is the planning system holding up?
Like the country as a whole, the planning system finds itself in an unprecedented situation. The position is changing fast, but our live COVID-19 tracker provides us with an initial view on how local planning authorities across England, Wales and Scotland are responding to the crisis: it shows variations in pace of response, but on the whole the picture is positive. This blog provides a summary of what is happening on the ground. Our tracker has a 90% coverage of LPAs, but please note that any figures relate to the percentage of authorities who provided a response to specific questions, and not all answered all questions. Analysis is based on data collected between 16th and 24th. Lichfields has partnered with the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) which will be engaging with Councils on their COVID-19 response, including on updating the position with individual LPAs. Getting started – validating applications Half of authorities say they are able to validate applications on a ‘business as usual’ basis, and a further 41% said they can with limitations and/or delays. Many emphasise that the best way to minimise delays is for applicants to submit is electronically. Only 2% of authorities state they are unable to validate applications altogether, but it is possible that this will change. Overall, this is a positive picture for applicants in almost all areas. Going public – publicity requirements There are a number of ways authorities fulfil their statutory duty to publicise and consult on planning applications – those already operating a primarily electronic-based process mostly report little or no impact on procedures and are operating business as usual. In fact, nearly half– 45% - are again operating on a ‘business as usual’ basis. For those which expect some disruption, it is possible that this will improve over time as Councils get more clarity around the regulations and come up with workable solutions. One common solution – in place in almost one-fifth of Councils (and entirely consistent with the legal requirement) – is to request that applicants/agents put up site notices, which will inevitably help keep the application process ticking along. Decisions, decisions – committees and decision-making With increasing numbers of Councils already using online platforms to stream their committee meetings, undertaking these virtually has become the natural solution for many, including Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter and Liverpool. Other Councils have opted for delegation to officers (or selected/senior officers) with some input from members (so called ‘Delegation +’). In time, it is likely that most other authorities will have moved to ‘virtual’ committees, and we can expect increased certainty on decision-making protocols in the near future from those where firm plans are not yet in place. Key matters to be resolved will be how far Councils accommodate their previous practices for members of the public to speak at committee as well as to view proceedings. Getting personnel – redeployment Our research finds that in most Councils, all or the vast majority of planning staff are remaining in their roles. Over half of Councils have not yet redeployed any planning staff, but in a small number of areas this was under review. One third of Councils have redeployed 25% or less of their planning staff, and others have redeployed some staff on a voluntary and/or part-time basis. Again, this is an overall positive picture for planning teams, as the majority of Councils maintain most if not all of their staff presence. Looking to the future – local plans The effect on plan-making will depend heavily on what – if any – consultations are planned for the near future, and how consultations are currently carried out. Of authorities which do have consultations planned, it is approximately a 50:50 split between those expecting business-as-usual and those expecting delays. For authorities reliant on public (in person) consultations, a move to online consultations will inevitably help minimise delays, but this could carry both practical and political issues. Final thoughts We are now inevitably in a period in which Councils are ironing out new procedures and working arrangements – much as the business community has been doing - but many appear to be operating planning services on a ‘business as usual’ basis. Many already have the technology in place to support home-working, processing applications and decision-making, and these systems need only be extended or implemented to allow continuation of business. The situation is no doubt helped by the fact that most planning departments appear to have retained most, if not all, of their staff. The overall picture is a positive one, which will likely improve in time, helping keep (albeit, at a somewhat slower pace than usual) the planning system moving.


Getting on the ladder – could entry-level exception sites be part of the solution?
When the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published in July 2018, several notable topics dominated much of the discussion: design policies, viability, the housing delivery test, land assembly and the definition of affordable housing in particular. But, buried within the new NPPF was one small change – an addition – which could potentially have a significant impact on the Government’s aim of delivering the right homes in the right places. But it has attracted little attention so far. This small change is the introduction of entry-level exception sites – as the name suggests, exception sites providing housing suitable for first-time buyers or renters. In the draft version of new NPPF, entry-level exception sites were required to comprise a “high proportion” of entry-level homes for discounted sale or affordable rent. In the final version, “high proportion” has gone (now implying that the site must be wholly comprise of entry-level homes), and sites can now provide one or more of any of the types of affordable housing set out in the new NPPF. Sites could therefore provide, for example, 100% discounted market housing, 100% affordable rented housing, or a mix of these and/or other types (such as shared ownership, rent-to-buy or starter homes). They should be on unallocated land adjacent to existing settlements, and are subject to a few other criteria, e.g. not being more than 1ha. in size or exceeding 5% of the size of the existing settlement[1]. It isn’t explicit in the NPPF how ‘entry-level’ exception sites relate to the Green Belt, but the provision of [limited] affordable housing for local community needs (i.e. ‘rural’ exception sites) remains an exception to inappropriate development in the Green Belt, and the new definition of ‘affordable housing’ encompasses affordable homes for purchase. Despite the housing crisis, the great British dream of home ownership remains alive for many young people; 59% of privately renting households expect to buy at some point in the future, but of those who don’t, affordability is by far the main reason[2]. Yet households increasingly find themselves in expensive rented accommodation, spending just over one-third of their income on rent, which is more than any other tenure, and the private rented sector has become the fastest growing in the last decade[3]. Unsurprisingly, many first-time buyers increasingly look to family for help when buying a home. In many areas, particularly the South East, there are significant shortfalls in the income households need in order to move out of the private rented sector and into home ownership. This is likely to be contributing to trends of growth in the private rented sector, given households simply cannot move into home ownership as easily as previous generations. It could also have implications for economic prosperity, given that having affordable housing within reach of employment represents a central facet of any efficiently functioning economy. So, providing affordable homes for purchase on entry-level exception sites (like discounted market housing) in areas where households otherwise could not access market housing could provide a much-needed to home ownership. Figure 1 shows the gap in annual household income needed to rent and to buy by local authority in England. It is these households ‘stuck in the gap’ – i.e. those who can afford to rent in the market but can’t afford to buy – that affordable homes for purchase on entry-level exception sites are most likely to help. Figure 1: Difference between annual household income needed to rent and buy in the market Source: Lichfields based on ONS/VOA In locations where the cost of housing is lower, households that can afford to rent an entry-level, 2-bed home in the market are likely to have enough income to buy entry-level housing (subject to having the necessary deposit, etc.). However, in many parts of the country, the cost of even entry-level housing in the market is so high it is out of reach for many living in the private rented sector. Unless these households can raise a substantial deposit (all the more difficult, given the amount of income spent on rent) and/or raise funds from family, the ability to move into home ownership in these areas is limited. Table 1 shows the top three areas by region with the largest gap in annual household income needed to rent and to buy in the market. As expected, the greatest gaps are in London, but large gaps also exist across the wider South East, particularly in Metropolitan Green Belt areas. Many such areas could benefit from entry-level exception sites providing affordable homes for purchase, particularly where those areas rely on attracting and maintaining a workforce to support a strong economy. Housing affordability issues are not limited to London and the South East however, with parts of the Midlands (particularly in Northamptonshire and Warwickshire) seeing gaps of up to £17,000 between income needed to buy, and rent. In the northern regions, the greatest gaps are found in rural areas, which may wish to attract and retain young people and families so as to maintain services. Table 1: Top 3 LPAs by Region - Gap in annual income needed to buy and rent Source: Lichfields based on ONS/VOA If entry-level exception sites do take-off, they have the potential not only to directly assist those looking to buy their first home, but could help with a wider re-balancing of local housing markets. A move of households from the private rented sector into new affordable homes for purchase could moderate growth in the cost of renting, potentially increasing the supply homes for sale in the market and reducing relative price growth. It’s clear that entry-level exception sites have the potential to provide a discrete but important contribution to achieving the Government’s ambition of planning for the right homes in the right places but the case will not make itself. Lichfields has developed a new framework to help clients and local authorities assess the need and demand for affordable first-time buyer housing and understand what type of housing (e.g. discount market, shared ownership, etc.) could best meet those needs. Our framework can be used to identify opportunities for entry-level exception sites, as well as provide evidence to support applications and appeals. It can also inform local plan policies. If you would like to speak to someone at Lichfields about entry-level exception sites, including site-finding, development appraisal and evidence preparation, please contact Martin Taylor or Bethan Haynes. [1] As set out in paragraph 71(b) of the new NPPF[2] Source: English Housing Survey 2015/16: Future home owners report[3] Source: English Housing Survey 2016/17