Brighton and the NPPF – why we are being overloaded with tower blocks
More and more massive planning applications are being made in Brighton & Hove which include tower blocks far higher than anything we have seen before. In spite of strong and valid protests from residents on grounds of poor design and harm to the local environment and heritage assets, permission is being given where the applications contain units of housing.
It is increasingly being claimed that the Council has no option, because of the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
The NPPF is having a crucial effect on our city as it is restricting the Council’s ability to make decisions on major planning applications for the following reasons, all of which the Council is unable to control.
• unrealistically high housing targets, for the wrong sort of housing
• lack of land for development and
• lack of control over developers to ensure that projects given planning approval are actually built.
So what is the NPPF?
The National Planning Policy Framework sets out the government’s planning policies for England and how these are to be applied by local authorities. It was first published in 2012, and has been revised, most recently in February 2019. There is strong emphasis on “sustainability” and one of its objectives is to boost the supply of new homes significantly. It states:
“The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development ….. meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
(These last words are from a UN Resolution.)
It goes on to say that it has three overarching objectives which are interdependent – economic, social and environmental. The social objective is,
“to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by ensuring that a sufficient number and range of homes can be provided to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by fostering a well-designed and safe built environment, with accessible services and open spaces that reflect current and future needs and support communities’ health, social and cultural well-being.”
Admirable, and just what we would all like to see. But ….- and it’s a big but….!
The starting point for the local authority in planning matters is its Local Plan. Normally if a planning application is made which conflicts with its provisions the Council has valid grounds to turn it down, although Brighton quite often seems to find ways of conveniently ignoring its own planning policies. However, when the application contains units of housing (and, because of the city’s acute housing shortage, most do), the provisions of the NPPF can – and do – severely restrict the ability of the Council to refuse permission.
Five year housing supply
The NPPF states that councils must assess their housing needs objectively, and must demonstrate that they have a five year supply of deliverable housing sites, plus a “buffer”. If a council can’t do this, its Local Plan is deemed to be “out-of-date” and therefore not applicable, and the national policies set out in the NPPF take precedence. A council must grant permission unless:
either the policies in the NPPF itself give a reason to refuse;
or any adverse impacts of granting permission would “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”, when assessed against the policies in the NPPF taken as a whole. (NPPF paragraph 11 d).
This is being interpreted to mean that if an application can be considered “sustainable development” then planning permission should be granted. Arguments about “significant and demonstrable” harm to matters such as heritage considerations or the views of local residents, quickly become subjective and expensive to argue.
So what is a “five year supply of deliverable housing sites”?
Once its housing need has been assessed, a council must put a plan in place to deliver it. A council can plan to build fewer homes than it needs only if there is strong justification – such as they won’t physically fit in. This is what happened here in Brighton when (prior to the current City Plan), our housing need was objectively assessed to be over 30,000 homes.
Later, a Planning Inspector accepted that this figure was not achievable because of our geographical situation between the Downs and the sea. The figure was reduced to 13,200 – but even this was an increase on the 11,300 homes the Council had originally suggested. These are the homes which must be delivered over the period the current Local Plan will be in force, i.e before 2030.
The annual number to be built to achieve this target is calculated, and the council has to show that there is enough “deliverable” land available to build those houses on. To be considered deliverable, sites for housing have to be available now, offer a suitable location for development now, and be achievable with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the site within five years.
What is a unit of housing?
This is where it all gets silly. A one-bedroom flat counts as one home, and a four-bedroom family house counts – believe it or not – also as one home. No wonder high rise blocks full of small flats get permission, although the Local Plan states that 47% of the demand for housing locally is for family homes of 3 – 4 bedrooms – almost half the total demand for housing in the city.
Student housing counts only to the extent that it frees up housing that can be sold on the open market. The new National Planning Practice Guidance clarifies that local authorities need to account for student housing needs in their local plans and allows them to count student housing toward their housing delivery targets, on the basis that it frees up existing housing elsewhere.
The formula is that 5 new student bedrooms count as one unit for the purpose of calculating the housing numbers. This is part of the reason why there is such a huge and controversial increase in student housing in the city (as well as the fact that it is currently a lucrative investment).
So where might family homes go?
Part of the work done when our draft Local Plan was being revised (and we in the Brighton Society did a great deal of work on the sections that concern us), was to identify sites around the city where this housing could be put – many of them being the so-called urban fringe sites which are now causing local concern as plans are made to develop them. An example of this is the site in Coldean Lane that has recently been given planning permission. See the image below.
The list of sites identified during this process, with the number of housing units each site was considered capable of providing, can be found by searching on line for Brighton & Hove Urban Fringe Assessment, Final Report. This was slightly amended during the consultation period that followed its publication.
On the face of it, these sites could provide enough units. Our view is that the fringe sites could – and should – accommodate a greater number of houses than they have been allocated and that they could accommodate more 3 – 4 bedroom houses – which account for almost 50% of the projected housing needs.
So if more homes could be provided on the fringe sites – homes which were suitable for families – fewer one or two bedroom units would be required in the more central areas of the city in order to meet the housing target – which regrettably fails to take any account of the type of homes that are actually needed to meet the overall demand for housing in the city.
And, following the logic of this argument, there would be less need for the type of high rise developments which threaten to blight the central areas of the city, much of which are within or close to our 34 Conservation Areas and our 3,400 listed buildings.
Failure to meet targets – failure to deliver on permissions granted
Setting a suitable target for the number of new homes to be built is only part of the picture. For homes to be built, they must be granted planning permission too. For a variety of reasons, the number of planning approvals being granted has been less than the number of homes that need to be built on an annual basis.
• A major problem has been that planning approvals granted have not been acted on by the developers, so no housing has in fact been delivered from many applications that the Council has approved. This increases the pressure on the Council, as a failure to deliver involves a penalty – paradoxically a requirement to provide even more housing!
• Developers with planning approval who then do nothing to implement it are helping to ensure that the council fails to meet the housing target set. This then helps to bring into force the requirement to approve set out in NPPF Para 11d.
• Another major problem is that it is open to developers to challenge the Council’s view that it has an adequate five year supply of sites. If they can persuade a planning inspector that the Council cannot guarantee that supply, the developer could win an appeal on that basis.
• And even when developments are given approval and are built, the Council has no control over who actually buys the housing units which come on to the market – so there are many foreign buyers who make little use of their properties and many second home owners from out of town, making a mockery of the intention to solve local housing needs.
Simon Jenkins has summed up the situation in a recent Guardian article (10 Oct 2019) :
“The fashion for high-rise urban living has passed from public housing to towers of luxury flats. These are sold not to families – let alone neighbourhoods – but to transient single people and overseas investors seeking anonymous bolt-holes. Such ugly structures do nothing to house people or promote communities. They are social excrescences.”
The consequence of not having a five year housing land supply is therefore that councils start to lose control over where new homes are built and its own planning policies. If a developer submits an application to build homes on a site that is in a sustainable location, councils may have to approve it even if it isn’t a plan or a site they would have chosen.
If permission is refused, these applications may go to appeal to a Planning Inspector. This has happened at least once in the city, at a site in Ovingdean, where on appeal the developers won having successfully challenged the Council’s ability to meet its five year land supply requirement. The Council can ill afford these appeals.
Challenging an Inspector’s decision in the Courts is difficult and of course expensive. If the Council could provide a really secure five year supply of sites, it would be in a far stronger position – but losing our open spaces to yet more housing developments is not generally popular with local residents, however urgently more housing is needed.
Is there anything to be done?
The situation could be helped by developments being carried out by not-for-profit or other organisations willing to take on small or very small sites that are of no interest to major developers. Every little helps, and can give the Council much needed “windfall” units to add to the five year supply.
We have argued that the Council has seriously underestimated the number of windfall sites in its housing projections. Approvals of windfall sites from previous years indicate that over the City Plan period up to 2030, there could be as many as 2000 more new dwellings than the currently projected figure – a considerable proportion of the 13,200 required.
Think outside the box
Increasing the supply of available land is a tough ask in this area. Every corner of the city was scoured to find sites to be included in the Local Plan. But there are completely different types of site not previously considered which could be developed. There have been suggestions that housing could be built over supermarket car parks, or on redundant golf courses. The plan does not include assessments for such sites as these.
Or the Council could work through the NPPF to find a loophole:
• Is the proposal truly sustainable? Who says it is? Are tower blocks adequately energy efficient?
• Is the scheme in conflict with some other objective set out in the NPPF? Its environmental objective – which is stated to be interdependent and to be “pursued in mutually supportive ways” with the other objectives – is to “contribute to protecting and enhancing our natural built and historic environment”. Do all the recently approved plans pass this test?
• Adverse effects on “designated heritage assets” are a reason for refusal. Such assets include conservation areas and listed buildings, but have not been much help in most of the areas where tall buildings are being allowed by the Council. Here in Brighton perhaps we could make more use of the value of our historic environment as an argument against proposals for another inappropriate tower block.
Standards of design
The government is not in practice concerned with the type of accommodation being proposed, its size or suitability. It just wants numbers. The resulting sub-standard developments are now being questioned and there are increasing demands for higher quality. Long gone are the days of Parker Morris space standards (revoked by the Thatcher government).
We hear that a “model design code” based on recommendations from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission led by Prof Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith will be published by the government in January. Will this have an effect on the current interpretation of the NPPF when it comes to determining whether on balance the “adverse impacts of granting permission significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits when assessed against the policies in the NPPF taken as a whole”?
For developers the NPPF means that, in some locations, it may be possible to secure planning permission for new homes on sites where it has not been possible in the past, or where the council does not think it appropriate. So that is why we are faced with more and more massive tower blocks which might suit the developers, but are not necessarily in the best interests of the city and its heritage, or what the residents of Brighton and Hove would like to see in their neighbourhoods.
Above : Sackville Trading Estate development Hove – is this what you’d like to see in your neighbourhood?
Although the Council were brave enough (for once), to refuse this huge development – many of us think it’s only a matter of time before an appeal against the Council ‘s decision is lodged by the developer.
National Planning Policy Framework (2019 revision)
Brighton & Hove City Plan Part 1 – Inspector’s report
Brighton & Hove City Plan Part 2