Our Planning system is a disaster

Our Planning system is a disaster

In a recent article on this website Richard Bingham wrote about the housing development at 1-3 Goldstone Crescent on the corner with Old Shoreham Road overlooking Hove Park – https://www.brighton-society.org.uk/yes-in-my-backyard/

Two separate planning applications for development of the site were turned down by the Council in the face of considerable local opposition.  So after public exhibitions and feedback from local residents, the Council then drew up and published a Planning Brief which set out the requirements of the planning authority to which any developer would have to respond.

The result of this process, as Richard pointed out, serves as an exemplar for other developments in our over-crowded city.

So why hasn’t this precedent been followed in Brighton-Hove for other large-scale development proposals in recent years, many of which have also attracted considerable opposition from individuals, amenity societies and community groups?

To answer this question we need to take a step back and review the recent history of housing policies which, at both national and local levels, have been a fiasco.

One could argue that the problem really started back in the 1960s when the 1961 Land Compensation Act was passed by the then Conservative government. The legislation gave land-owners and developers the opportunity to make enormous speculative profits from the increase in value of land with planning approval (planning gain).

But the catalyst for today’s problems was a proposal from David Cameron’s government in 2012 to introduce 5-year land supply housing targets with which local authorities were effectively forced to comply. If Councils refused planning approval, that opened the door to developers to lodge an appeal which they would invariably win.

The large development companies took full advantage. They had donated huge sums of money to the Conservatives and from this point on they effectively dictated planning policy to local authorities who were unable to fight back.

The combination of wealthy and powerful developers and weak, understaffed and under-financed planning departments and where the views of a community opposed to the proposed development are completely ignored, are at the root of so many problems caused by poorly conceived and designed developments where the developer’s profit motive over-rules all other considerations.

The local picture

We are seeing the results around us here in Brighton-Hove where tall tower blocks are rearing their ugly heads all over the city.  From Preston Barracks to Edward Street; from Anston House to Circus Street, from Ellen Street in Hove (laughably called Hove Gardens) to Sackville Road, from the Longley development in New England Road to the proposals for the Gasworks site in East Brighton….. the list goes on and on.

In all these developments what is severely lacking is what might be termed ‘good design’.  And that depends on far more than just what it looks like, though that is a vital ingredient of the mix.

Design is a response to a whole range of widely differing factors.  For example:

  • the functional requirements of a building (the brief),
  • the way the design and layout responds to its setting and site;  
  • the budget cost,
  • planning and building and safety regulations;
  • issues such as sustainability and energy performance,
  • its value to society and the community and, in the case of housing,
  • its contribution to the provision of genuinely affordable homes.

And last but not least, the response to its appearance – is the proposed building attractive, well scaled, well detailed, well proportioned and, where it forms part of or a whole grouping of buildings, is it well related to the spaces it encloses and contains, to the external spaces around it? In short, does it contribute to and enhance its setting whether rural or urban?

These are the criteria which local planning authorities (LPAs) should use in determining whether or not to grant planning approval.

But in the majority of recent major develelopments in the city the developer has inevitably got his way – if not for the first planning application, then for a second slightly amended proposal, then if that doesn’t persuade an increasingly fearful planning committee, a successful appeal against refusal would do the trick.  Or sometimes even just the threat of an appeal.

The planning process has to be simplified.  One of the reasons why there is such a housing shortage is because the process is so over-regulated and over-complicated before a planning proposal ever gets near the local community – let alone a planning committee.  This plays into the hands of the big developers like Berkeley because only they have the resources and influence to respond in the amount of detail required.  Smaller developers don’t stand a chance.

Any opposition to new housing development proposals immediately attracts accusations of NIMBYism from the big housing developers and the development lobby.  But most responsible people and community groups are actually in favour of more housing – it’s needed for their children and their grand-children. 

But that housing needs to be the right type of housing – and above all it needs to be affordable. And a variety of housing types is needed – 3 and 4 bedroom homes not just hundreds of small flats for single people and couples, which have far out-numbered the quantity of new family homes built in the city in recent years.

But family homes are not usually what is being offered by the big development companies, whose main priority is to maximise the profits for their shareholders.

The market many big developers are most interested in is the large number of overseas investors who are looking for somewhere to park their cash and/or use as a refuge from the Middle Eastern summer heat for a month or two.   Brighton appears to be a popular attraction for that market.

The market works well for the developers and their property consultants, but it’s disastrous for local people who are consequently squeezed out, both in terms of availability and affordability.

So what needs to be done?

Firstly, at the insistence of the Council, developers must be required to find out from all “stakeholders” (not just shareholder interests), what is really needed and appropriate in housing terms, as measured against an integrated city plan and transport strategy.  It’s called community involvement.

The planning brief method referred to earlier could be a way of doing this.

It makes good sense for any project to start with a Brief – but it has to be a brief which has been agreed by all stakeholders (including those local residents impacted), before embarking on a more detailed design.

With the Gasworks proposals and many other proposals in the city, we have seen little or no evidence of what priorities were taken into account in the design process  – apart from maximising densities, extending building heights and the resultant returns on investment.

Under both past and present planning policies, developers are increasingly confident that they can impose their own priorities and design proposals on our communities and get away with it. No doubt, massive global equity funding plays a part in the ambitions of the big developers, together with the rampant commercialisation of housing – treating housing as a financial asset and not as a home.

The prioritisation of profit isn’t an acceptable way to provide the much-needed housing – particularly the ‘affordable’ housing required by the city and its residents.

Another option.

Another way could be to do what is recognised as industry good practice, which sets out a staged process of progressing a design from an initial agreed brief, through to design concept and on to preliminary design, and finally more detailed designs, with approval “gateways” at each stage recorded to provide an audit trail.

The RIBA Plan of Work sets out a suitable precedent for this process.

A less attractive option might be the ‘outline planning application’ process.  It is an inadequate illustration of the principles discussed above, but in view of those criteria, this option if pursued, would need to have much more emphasis on public involvement during the earlier briefing stages and full consultation and agreement with the community as part of the outline process.

Developers may say that this would take too long, but the history of Brighton Gasworks proves otherwise. 

Here we are, over three and a half years from the initial ”consultation” in July 2020, and Berkeley have just lodged what is effectively their third highly detailed planning application for the Gasworks (see image above), together with a third array of well over a hundred lengthy and highly detailed supporting documents.

The staged process as described above would save time, resources and costs, and reduce the amount of abortive work – for the developer, for the Council and for the local residents – all wasting hours and hours, days and days and weeks and weeks in repeatedly having to re-design and re-draft proposals on the part of the developer, and local communities spend similar amounts of time and effort in responding to the revised proposals.

Under the current system this lengthy process has to happen before the proposals can even reach a planning committee.  And beyond that are the potential additional legal and consultant costs involved in lodging further arguments at an appeal hearing following a refusal.  Costs which the hapless local authority will have to underwrite should the appeal succeed and campaigns the local communities will have to fight – yet again.

Trying to “bulldoze” an unacceptable scheme with excessive documentation through under-resourced LAs, puts an unfair burden on local communities and is bound to result in delays. 

The whole process is biased in favour of the developer, who just keeps plugging away until he gets his proposals through.  It will often – as the Gasworks proposals show – take years to reach a resolution.

Community groups – such as the Gasworks Coalition – opposing large developers, have all had to become experts in planning regulations and processes, due to a massive imbalance in developers’ and communities’ resources. Not to mention inadequately staffed and over-worked local planning authorities.

In the meantime the required housing doesn’t get built, the property values keep on rising as do the costs of the housing itself.  The potential development profits just carry on inexorably going up too, to the sole benefit of the balance sheets of the developer and his investors.

The impoverished residents, even if they are (un)lucky enough to finally purchase a tiny flat to live in, eventually end up having to pay for all this – and the developer’s protected profits – out of their mortgage borrowing.  No wonder affordable housing is an increasingly impossible option.

All these problems afflict other towns and cities besides Brighton & Hove.

Clearly this is a national issue.   Poor Michael Gove seems to be vaguely aware of the problem but appears to have no clear ideas on how to resolve it.  And he’s not likely to be around much longer anyway.

And sadly Labour don’t have any ideas either.  You would have thought they would prioritise supporting local communities and community involvement in planning, but on the contrary, they have been panicked into retreating back to housing targets and seem to be taking the side of the big developers even more strongly than the current Conservative government is.

Which regrettably gives us – the local communities – no choice whatsoever.

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