Neighbourhood Plans

John Howell, MP for Henley and author of Open Source Planning (the forerunner of the Localism Bill) pointed out this week that when a locally lead system was first proposed in Open Source it gained many supporters. Thame and Woodcote are two neighbourhoods that are now pioneering the Neighbourhood Plan in Oxfordshire.

Woodcote is yet to really get out of the blocks, but Thame Town Council has already published the report of its first community planning events (open sessions, workshops, online consultation, Facebook etc).

However, the Neighbourhood Plan must generally conform with the housing numbers that are imposed by South Oxfordshire District Council. In other words, this is not quite the bottom up approach that gained so much support in Open Source Planning (see page 8 of Open Source regarding local decision-making).

There has been considerable support and engagement with the Neighbourhood Plan process in Thame, and there are strong efforts being made to seek the views of all residents and business owners. Although the consultants have been at pains to explain that the Neighbourhood Plan cannot allocate housing numbers to Thame many of the responses still relate to the amount of growth that might be appropriate in this market town.

In order for the Neighbourhood Plan to be ‘adopted’ (for use in planning decisions) it currently needs to be supported by 50% of those that vote in a referendum regarding the Plan. This is a high hurdle given that those who turn out to comment on planning applications are represented very heavily by objectors. Many who have engaged in the process already understand that the Plan cannot dictate the overall levels of growth in Thame. Consensus for growth is very difficult to form when the benefits of development are seldom understood or accepted by existing residents, and the objections (increased traffic, burdens on infrastructure etc) are well rehearsed. This makes the pioneering Plans an interesting and exciting prospect.

It remains to be seen, then,  whether at referendum time, the ‘no vote’ turns out in force to reject the Plan; or whether true consensus can be built at a local level. Watch this space.

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Brooklands, Milton Keynes

Brooklands in Milton Keynes is a top development: apart from the award-winning ‘ridge’ (a noise bund from the M1), the scheme has provided a linear park and school before the first 100 dwellings are complete, along with some serious investment in landscape and other infrastructure (including the city street and 50M broadband in the service runs).

The philosophy of Places for People seems to be that investment up front will bring long-term value in the development. It certainly helps in selling the scheme, and the linear park is already well-used.

Brooklands has a ‘city street’ through the heart of the development, which delivers high-speed public transport, linked to the park and ride adjacent to the residential development area.

The city street with the school across the road - a lack of strong fencing (although there are a number of bollards) eans that the space in front of the school is a lot more 'open'.

In order to ensure that the active frontage to the main streets is maximised, parking is relegated to rear parking courts. Often these don’t work well – they are often bleak areas that are shunned in favour of parking on street (or half on-path). In Brooklands, planting in the rear courtyards establishes an improved environment.

NPPF draft: presumption in favour of sustainable development

The draft National Planning Policy Framework contains (amongst many other things) a presumption in favour of sustainable development. The presumption works to ensure that Local Planning Authorities plan for necessary development. It’s a good thing, as this is what Local Authorities should be doing.

The presumption says that if a LPA has failed to plan for development, then development that comes forwards on its own (if sustainable) should be granted. In other words, plan for development, or whatever comes forwards could be granted. Rather than the current political incentive to refuse development on the basis that no-one likes new houses (and all the extra traffic it would create), the incentive is now to plan for appropriate development. This is exactly the problem the Conservatives identified with the Regional Spatial Strategies.

The CPRE, National Trust and associated Daily Mail / Torygraph lobby are getting very exercised on the basis that the presumption would see ‘concreting over our Green belts’ etc. This is scare mongering. But what the presumption does is force lobby groups like CPRE to stop saying “no” to those of us who would like to own our own home, and properly plan for the housing that the country desperately needs.

Only a small part of England has been built on, and there is plenty of room for new homes. In fact, Lord Rooker put it quite succinctly in response to the Torygraph ‘Hands of our Countryside Campaign’:

SIR – A couple of weeks ago, when the Lords was sitting, I was given written parliamentary answers by the minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, saying that the land area in England designated as National Parks is 9 per cent; areas of outstanding natural beauty are 15 per cent; green belt is 13 per cent and urban is 9 per cent. This makes a grand total of 46 per cent.

To solve all the actual and perceived housing and other development issues, the area of land required, estimated from my time as a minister in the same department, is about 1 per cent.

So what is the problem?

Planning Policy Change in England, UK

I thought it might be interesting to keep track of changes in the planning system as they emerge through the new government from 2010, and identify some of their impacts.  I will update this page as new announcements / policy is made …

February 2010
Open Source Planning published, the Conservatives’ Green Paper on Planning.
Promises that planning decision-making will be moved back to local levels, neighbourhoods,

May 2010
The Coalition government is formed. Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for CLG, Conservative)  writes to local authorities (on 27th) to advise that he intends to abolish regional spatial strategies.

The Pickles letter causes general confusion, and results in many councils calling a halt to their Local Plans, which are based on housing figures that have been set through the regional strategies. This view is subsequently supported by David Morris, the Deputy Director in the Planning Directorate of the Department for Communities and Local Government with responsibility for development plans).

June 2010
Ministers debate the revocation of Regional Spatial Strategies, but warn of the uncertainties created. The British Property Federation warn that it is essential that guidance is provided to local authorities so that the country’s economic recovery is not hindered by a planning policy vacuum.

July 2010
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State, revokes regional spatial strategies on 6th July, removing the housing targets imposed by them. Steve Quartermain, chief planning officer provides advice to local authorities.

August 2010
CALA Homes make a legal challenge to the revocation of regional spatial strategies. CALA Homes say that the decision needed primary legislation, and leaves a policy vacuum in its place.

October 2010
The High Court hears the CALA Homes challenge against the revocation of regional spatial strategies.

Research by Tetlow King for the National Housing Federation shows that plans for 85,000 homes have been dropped, likely to rise to 300,000 by October 2011. Huw Morris, Editor of Planning Magazine comments ‘With just 123,000 homes built last year, the folly of abolishing one planning system without putting another in place is obvious … Ministers point to the much-vaunted new homes bonus as the policy that will rescue the country. Yet surely the fact that around 70 councils have halted development plans, slashed housing numbers or postponed local plan inquiries tells another story.’

November 2010
The legal decision on CALA Homes challenge against the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies is upheld. Regional Strategies remain part of the statutory development plan until formally abolished once the Localism Bill comes into force i.e. the previous housing ‘handed down’ from the regions are re-confirmed. Eric Pickles states that ‘this changes very little’. CALA challenge this statement.

At a Commons CLG investigation into the abolition of RSSs Eric Pickles states that the National Housing Federation figures that 182,000 homes have been pulled from the pipeline are based on ‘iffy evidence and very unconvincing’.

Figures released by the CLG predict the growth of 232,000 households per year from 2008 to 2033.

When questioned about the need for strategic planning at a greater than local level, and how this might be carried out following the abolition of the RSS, John Howell (author of Open Source Planning) states that Regional Spatial Strategies will be replaced by the National Planning Policy Framework, similar to the system in the Netherlands.

December 2010
Draft ‘Localism Bill’ published.

February 2011
The High Court rules that the CALA challenge against the November statement of Eric Pickles fails.

CLG Parliament publications / evidence

Grant Shapps promises to retain the committment to zero carbon housing by 2016. He also finalises the New Homes Bonus, stating that commencing in April 2011, the Bonus will match fund the additional council tax potential from increases in effective housing stock, with an additional amount for affordable homes, for the following 6 years.

March 2011
The Chancellor takes control of planning through the budget, announcing that “local communities should have a greater say in planning “, accompanied by Greg Clark’s statement (‘Planning for Growth‘, 23 March) that there will be a presumption in favour of sustainable development: The Government’s clear expectation is that the answer to development should be “yes”, except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles (to be set out in national policy).

In other words, local authorities / neighbourhoods need to plan for development. If they fail to plan, development may be forced on them. This is a major shift in policy, indicating that the treasury priorities for development to lead us out of a recession (together with the pressing planning requirements for new housing) now outweigh the political agenda to put control of development fully back to the local level.

The second report on the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies(‘a planning vacuum’) is published. It identifies a concern at the speed of abolition of the RSSs without any replacement, and a lack of understanding of what the RSSs were for. It identifies a lack of any transitional arrangements between the abolition and planning following the new Localism Bill, and the resulting hiatus in planning. It concludes that there is a ‘lack of clarity in how the new planning system will be co-ordinated and how it will work in practice‘ which needs to rectified quick.

May 2011
The Court of Appeal rules that development plans would be unlawful if they were based on the CLG’s proposal to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies.

June 2011
Greg Clark in a speech to the RTPI states that planning has become too defensive and pessimistic, and needs to be about growth, sustainable development, ecological, social, economic and environmental improvements.

The Government’s response to the CLG Committee Report on the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies is published. Eric Pickles announces that ‘The Government’s top priority in reforming the planning system is to promote sustainable economic growth and jobs. We made clear in the Growth Review that our top priority in introducing the National Planning Policy Framework will be to support long term sustainable growth, through both development plans and decisions on planning applications.

July 2011
Draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is published, with the intention of reducing the current 1000+ pages of National Planning Policy Guidance and Statements to 52 pages to make it more accessible to the public. The draft NPPF: –

  • has a presumption in favour of sustainable development. The default decision to development should be ‘yes’ where Local Plans are silent, or out of date (nearly half English councils have yet to publish a Local Plan, called a Core Strategy).
  •  plan making should be simplified with the intention of delivering development, and any supplementary documents to the Local Plan should meet this objective.
  • the current requirement for councils to identify a supply of 5 year’s housing land will increase by 20% to provide choice and competition in the market.

August 2011
The National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) are in the news headlines over fears over the NPPF causing damage in the countryside of a scale not seen since the 1930s.

September 2011
Pickles and Osborne respond in the Financial Times that ‘planning delays cost the economy £3bn a year. It is twice as expensive to get planning permission in London’s West End as in Paris, and 10 times more than in Brussels‘. How do they know that, someone must have been hard at the research? They add: ‘Through neighbourhood planning, a key new right in the Localism Bill, communities will soon have the chance to say where they want new shops, homes and businesses to go, and what they should look like’. Well, good then?

Forbury Square, Reading

This part of Reading is slightly off the beaten track, ideal for taking a quick break after being in town. Forbury Square is also a great example of modern architecture integrating with historic buildings.


Forbury gardens provides a great setting for the Forbury hotel (on the left), a c1910 building originally the Shire Hall for Berkshire. Forbury Square interacts with both the hotel and the gardens. The modern buildings sit well with the surroundings, with the new brick gable of 1 Forbury Square (on the right) complementing both the modern glass facade and the Forbury hotel opposite.

The materials used in the square are great, with nice detailing of the pedestrian footways.

Oddly, though, this square never seems to get busy. My guess is that this is because the square just is not an ‘active’ environment. Firstly, the large grass beds are raised, making it much more difficult to use the square as one space that actively dissuades skateboarders, or scooters, or rollerbladers from using the area. There are studs all over the edges of the stone slabs edging the raised beds to stop boarders ‘grinding’. Why? What better than to sit having a coffee being able to watch some skaters showing off?

The metal buttons aren’t comfortable when you sit on them, and haven’t stopped the edges of the slab being eroded by skaters anyway.

Unfortunately, one side of the square (the east) also seems to be inactive. Although this is a facade of the hotel without entrances, there is actually a gap in the railings with some steps down to a fantastic boutique restaurant.

There are some benches here, which would be ok to eat your  lunch, but not much to watch going on in the square.

It even seems that the cafe/restaurants are unwilling to spill out into the square too much.

This square had the potential to become an extension to Forbury Gardens. But sadly, there are bollards everywhere, with a carriageway designed for vehicles effectively separating the garden and square.

There’s a real opportunity missed here to create a much better pedestrian environment, get rid of all the bollards, extend the square out over the road, make the priority for pedestrians obvious, and integrate the square with the garden both physically and visually.

Forbury Square is a quality formal square, but missed a number of great opportunities to provide better public realm. As a consequence, the long-term values of the area (financial, social and environmental) are unlikely to reach their full potential. That said, this is great square with some excellent architecture.

Colchester urban village

Colchester urban village is a development of 2,500 homes or so (with employment and open spaces etc) in a slice of land to the south of Colchester town centre, based on the ‘urban village’ principles promoted by Prince Charles and the Urban Villages Forum since the 1990s.

These are some views of the area to the north of the development, just off Butt Road.

The entrance off Butt Road seems to be half-finished. There’s some interesting detail on the gable to the left of the entrance, but the rest lacks any fine articulation.

secondary entrance

This part of the development is pretty much based on Victorian architectural styles, with Poundbury-esque Victorian lamp posts (similar in many ways to the approach adopted in Fairford Leys). I wonder if these couldn’t have been low-level, particularly where there are no vehicles (and they are near to what look like bedroom windows on this photo). It’s a pity the opportunity was not taken to provide a more interesting facade to terminate this vista.

I like the use of the building line, with some dwellings straight off the footpath, others with small front gardens and a little planting, some with raised ground floors. Many Victorian streets have similar profiles, and suffer a similar problem – they were not designed for cars, or with bins and cycle storage. The problem of bin storage and collection is a long-standing one in many neighbourhoods.

At Colchester, cars are dealt with by providing rear courts. This provides the streets themselves with a much better environment, but as shown below, there are already yellow lines on the streets and people parking on the road in front of their houses.

Garland Road. The protruding gable detail at the end of the street terminates this vista. I like the gravel strip defining the edge-of-footpath on the left, incorporating steps up to front doors and gas meter access. Someone ought to design a gas meter cover that actually looks nice.

The use of decent materials, repeated porch and window details with well-proportioned openings creates a strong rhythm and feel of quality.

Part of the energy village. Good proportions, and facade, good use of materials.

Revocation of Regional Plans – revoked

What a farce! The right foolish Pickles revokes Regional Strategies on entering power, without properly considering the effects (a lack of any framework for waste, infrastructure, sustainable development etc, etc…). Yes, the Cons ‘Open Source’ planning paper said they would remove imposed housing targets, but not that they would chuck the whole strategy in the bin.

Now the courts say this was illegal. And Pickles response? ‘this ruling changes very little‘. Yes, it just thankfully reinstates the missing part of the country’s forward planning  strategy. It changes little in relation to the confusion created so far by Pickles.

He now says that the Government’s desire to remove regional strategies is a ‘material consideration’ in planning decisions. But it’s an illegal one! The government’s chief planning officer, Steve Quartermain, assists in confirming the confusion by telling local authorities that the court’s decision means that Regional Strategies remain part of their Development Plan. The English planning system is based on the ‘certainty’ provided by the Development Plan. But then Steve also says that they should have regard to the government’s intention to abolish them (despite the previous attempt being illegal).

I hope the development and construction industry will do as much as it can in accordance with the Regional Strategies whilst it still seems possible. The Regioanl Strategies took years to put in place and were widely debated. They are based on strategic decisions on the best ways to mitigate climate change and limit the negative impacts of the country’s needs (for housing, energy, transportation …). The government seems set to rid us of these strategies without any properly considered replacement. All because they imposed housing in Conservative areas, where residents objected – despite a proper consultation and extensive independent examination.

John Howell, MP for Henley, who represents people with some of the most expensive housing in the country and is author of the Open Source planning paper, advises us that the new National Plan that the Con-Dems propose will ensure that development is directed to the most sustainable areas. John also says that agreeing a National Plan will put us in line with the excellent planning system in the Netherlands. Yes, correct, except of course that the Dutch system also has 12 Provincial Plans – a regional tier of planning that John is very keen to remove!

The construction industry is historically the driving force in our economy, and recovery from recession. The Con-Dems do have some great ideas, and changes to the planning system were needed, but the current confusion is not helping us to economic recovery.