Maybe I'm just too suspicious or growing cynical with age but when I was sat at the POSe Development Management and Localism Group on Friday morning I began to see some trouble ahead with the Housing White Paper.
Whilst many of us in the Public Sector have been asking for a solution to our funding crisis for some time, some of us had even campaigned for the flexibility that local fee setting offers, I'm not sure that any of us had considered that the 20% increase in fees may actually only replace another source of funding that we rely on to run our planning services.
It all started with a casual comment from DCLG that developers had questioned the value of pre-application advice. Apparently they were not always convinced that this part of the process added anything to the experience. The representative from PAS was asked whether any work had been undertaken on the value of pre-app and although nothing specific was offered it appeared to me that the majority of the planners gathered felt that pre-app was a valuable part of the planning process and aided both decision making and quality of place.
I wondered throughout this discussion whether the 20% increase in fees was merely a move in a sequence that would eventually see the removal of the ability to charge for pre-app advice.
I made the point that an individual's view on a pre-app service is likely to be more than a little tainted by the final outcome and that if, say PAS for instance, was going to look into this then they should factor in the final decision that the LPA came to.
I went on to say that developers use many different pre-app services across the country and that it would be helpful if they were encouraged to say which ones they were particularly dissatisfied with. In doing so maybe we could avoid our tradition of introducing sweeping changes to deal with isolated issues.
In this same conversation we touched on the cyclical discussion about minimum densities. It is my view that you only need to look at developments in and around market towns up and down the country to see the damage caused by the previous application of minimum densities and maximum parking standards. High densities in a city centre environment work because much of the infrastructure that residents need is readily accessible. This is not the case with urban extensions and all infill sites.
As the conversation moved towards the main issue of our time - 'Why aren't we delivering more housing?' it became apparent that the lack of infrastructure and facilities available to our resident communities is directly affecting their attitude to development for future communities. The impact of previous regimes that have driven up densities and reduced the provision of infrastructure has the effect of delaying further growth. The last thing we need is yet another generation of people who feel that more homes only means higher demand and greater competition on overstretched infrastructure and facilities.
My answer to this would once have been to provide all of the necessary infrastructure ahead of the residents moving in. I think that this still works for roads and drainage but provision of a school, for instance, can cause another problem. If communities do not perceive that they have sufficient capacity within the existing infrastructure, they will use the capacity provided in the new development which in turn creates a rolling deficit.
The current capacity issues that planners encounter relate mainly to access to GP's and schools. These are two separate problems. There is often not enough room to expand existing schools within built up areas and the increase in demand creates a problem with supply. With GP's there is still an issue of increased demand but the problem of supply is usually as a result of funding and resourcing issues rather than availability of land. These issues are not going to be resolved by the development industry alone.
Whilst communities are still concerned about views and effect on house prices these do not outweigh the ability to access core services. The availability of these services, together with the transport considerations are the main topic of discussion at planning committees across the country. In some cases they are the determinate of how sustainable a development really is. The results of previous planning policy and public sector funding cuts could now be the reason why we are no longer delivering enough homes. So what can planners do to change this going forwards?
What is clear is that flexibility is required to allow Councils to plan for their circumstances. What works in a London borough is not necessarily going to work in a rural district. Long term certainty about infrastructure provision is best achieved through longer term spatial planning. This should allow for more land to be allocated to provide all of the ingredients for a great place to live and work. By planning, as we currently do, for housing and employment numbers for a set number of years we are missing the opportunity to plan for great places.
There are plenty of opportunities to make the case for good planning in the response that POS makes to the Housing White Paper. Please make sure that you send your responses through to us so that we can reflect public sector planning across the country: email firstname.lastname@example.org
Anna Rose, President 2016/17