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On rocky ground – The ALC system in England and Wales
This blog looks at the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) system in England and Wales, and how the lack of refinement within the classification system causes problems for planners and communities alike. The ALC system was devised and introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) in 1966. It ratified five categories with which land can be graded, with Grade 1 being ‘excellent quality’ and Grade 5 being land of ‘very poor’ quality. Grade 3 constitutes about half of the agricultural land in England and Wales, and it is further divided into two subgrades, designated 3a and 3b. The basis for classifying land is a set of criteria, listed below from most to least important: Climate - climate is regarded as more favourable as temperature increases and with moderate rainfall, exposure and frost risk; Site Limitations – the gradient of the site has a direct impact on the effectiveness of farm machinery. Flood risk also impacts ALC as the risk and frequency of flooding informs crop choices and impacts upon yield; and Soil Quality – there are many variables within the soil that inform the classification. These include texture, structure, depth, chemical identity, moisture and erosion. Grade 1, Grade 2 and Subgrade 3a are considered to be the ‘Best and most versatile agricultural land’ and it is this land that is given a higher status when considering development as NPPF paragraph 170 states[1]; “Planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by […] recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, and the wider benefits from natural capital and ecosystem services – including the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land, and of trees and woodland.” Figure 1: Agricultural Land Classification of England and Wales 1985 (ALC009) Figure 1 was produced by hand in 1975, it is derived from the criteria outlined above and is currently used on DEFRA and Natural England’s Magic Map[2] platform under the ALC dataset. It is the only map which provides ALC for the entire country. More localised revisions were introduced in 1988, showing the difference between 3a and 3b land. Crucially though the 1975 map does not show the subdivision of Grade 3 land, which happened in 1976. So, whilst the difference between Grade 3a and 3b is key for planning purposes, we do not have a national map base that illustrates its distribution, unless it has been surveyed post 1988. If land is designated as Grade 3, which covers half of England and Wales, then a site-specific assessment by a specialist consultant is necessary to determine whether it is 3a or 3b. This represents a key issue in both plan-making and the determination of applications as paragraph 170 of the NPPF protects the ‘Best and Most Versatile Land’ with the footnote going further – “Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, areas of poorer quality land should be preferred to those of a higher quality.” However, there is currently not the information available to determine the areas of poorer quality land due no assessments having been undertaken to assess the subdivisions of Grade 3. There are options to solve this issue. The first of which would be to assess all Grade 3 land, though clearly this would not be practical or viable. Another potential solution would be to remove Subgrade 3a from the ‘Best and most versatile agricultural land’ definition. This would have two benefits: it would provide full clarity for planners regarding which land is protected through NPPF paragraph 170 by use of Figure 1, and it would reduce the land that is considered ‘best’ to around 21%. Grade 3 could then be given is own policy protections, less restrictive than Grade 1 and 2 land, though granted a level of protection that Grades 4 and 5 do not have. This amendment would set clear boundaries for which land constitutes ‘best and most versatile’ and therefore would allow councils to set policies which protect this land. Furthermore, it would allow councils a clearer view when they come to allocate sites and remove uncertainty for developers and communities. This would represent an overwhelming makeover for this policy, one which I am sure would stabilise the ground upon which the policy sits.   [1] MHCLG, National Planning Policy Framework[2] DEFRA, Magic Map  


Logistics & the revised NPPF: Has it gone far enough?
The revised National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] was published on 24 July 2018. The changes to the way that viability is considered and the introduction of the Housing Delivery Test have been hot topics over the past two weeks (and for months before that); but what about the logistics sector? This blog looks at some of the potential implications that the revised NPPF could have on logistics.   Strategic Thinking  The introduction of “employment” and “other commercial development” (paragraph 20) into the list of land uses for which strategic policies should set the pattern, scale, quality and make sufficient provision for, is welcome. This should be seen as a step in the right direction, particularly for employment development and should encourage some joined-up thinking by local planning authorities [LPAs], including for logistics. Paragraph 82 goes on to explain that policies and decisions should recognise and address the specific locational requirements of particular sectors, including “clusters or networks of knowledge and data-driven, creative or high technology industries; and for storage and distribution operations” (highlighting is Lichfields’ own). The specific mention of storage and distribution operations (that incidentally, were not included in the March draft) is long overdue and provides recognition of the recent growth in this sector. Indeed, to be one of only three sectors explicitly mentioned in the ‘Building a strong, competitive economy’ chapter is testament to the role that logistics could play in the future economy. This focus on strategic policies for logistics should encourage policy and decision makers to think more about the location of warehousing space. The location of distribution hubs has historically been led by the quality of the local highway network, and the distance to motorway hubs, rail freight terminals and ports. Whilst these are still key factors, the recent flurry of development of logistics buildings that has arisen because of a seismic shift in the way we shop (i.e. increased internet shopping) has resulted in the saturation of the workforce in some locations. This has caused prospective occupiers to undertake more detailed demographic analysis in areas where they are considering locating, to enable them to try and understand the quality of the existing and future workforce that would be available to them. Furthermore, the way that the last-mile of parcel delivery could evolve over the next few years i.e. through electrically powered e-vans, micro vehicles and e-cargo bikes which can provide a better delivery service to customers (in comparison to light commercial vehicles) could also have an impact on the way that logistics services operate, their scale and where they locate.    These are all factors that will impact on the location of future logistics and distribution hubs and will need to be properly interrogated throughout the development plan process.   But where will they live? The creation of jobs through the growth of businesses is an attractive proposition for many councils. There are examples across the country of LPAs that actively support economic development, particularly in logistics and distribution, where they are promoting hundreds of hectares of employment land through the development plan process. These employment hubs can create hundreds of jobs for local people and can attract job seekers from further afield. However, this workforce needs somewhere to live. Indeed, the revised NPPF recommends that planning policies should support a mix of uses on larger sites, with the aim of minimising the number and lengths of journeys to work (paragraph 104a). However, in some cases, there won’t be enough homes for the expanded workforce to live in, as LPA housing requirements might not align with higher, aspirational employment land targets. The revised NPPF does not help in this regard. Firstly, and as opposed to the standard methodology for the assessment of housing need, the revised NPPF does not include anything similar for the assessment of jobs and employment land. This means that each LPA can use its own methodology to derive a figure. This could be a ‘going for growth’ type of scenario; or a more modest ‘do nothing’ type scenario. Secondly, the standard methodology does not appear to properly consider employment growth. Indeed, the revised NPPF does not include the 2012 NPPF policy that LPAs should ensure that a plan’s housing and employment strategies are integrated (2012 NPPF paragraph 158). Whilst there is nothing stopping plan-makers from increasing their housing need by utilising different methods of assessing need; some LPAs aren’t keen on  increasing their housing numbers on a voluntary basis. And we have not yet seen any examples yet of how inspectors have considered an LPA’s use of a different approach. If LPAs want to aim for higher employment growth, national policy should refer to providing enough housing to sustainably support the number of jobs that developments will create. Employment and housing growth need to align, and that coordination seems to be missing from the latest iteration of the NPPF.   Parking, parking, parking  The revised NPPF includes a requirement for new and expanded distribution centres to make provision for sufficient lorry parking. Whilst this is nothing new in practice, the revised NPPF now expects policies and decisions to take into account any local shortages, to reduce the risk of parking in locations that lack proper facilities or could cause a nuisance. It is somewhat surprising that the NPPF finds space to highlight anti-social behaviour of lorry drivers, but in doing so, it does reflect a common local concern by those promoting new B8 schemes.  Whilst it doesn’t seem reasonable for new proposals to ‘over-provide’ on lorry parking to solve existing parking problems as a matter of course; there may be merit in B8 developers ‘over-providing’ on lorry parking to supplement a policy compliant provision (where schemes allow), as a benefit to the local community or to mitigate against other impacts. So, has it gone far enough? In a nutshell, probably not. Whilst we are moving in the right direction, and the introduction of strategic policies is welcome, the disconnect between the way that housing need is derived (the standard housing methodology) and employment land need is calculated, does not help create sustainable communities. There could be a situation (particularly in the northern regions) where housing numbers are pushed down due to the standard methodology, but the LPA concerned is ‘going for growth’ and planning for hundreds of thousands of square metres of logistics space. Where is the workforce going to live? There has to be a symbiotic relationship between objectively assessed housing and employment need. The government has almost adopted a ‘business as usual’ approach to logistics. Whilst producing a housing-focussed framework, a balanced approach is essential in creating truly sustainable development. Logistics developments play a huge role in our economy, enabling businesses to grow and creating jobs in local communities. The government needs to make sure that employment development is properly planned for and that we allow growth in the logistics sector to create opportunities for generations to come.