“The first and overriding objective is to put power in the hands of local people,” Greg Clark, then minister for decentralisation and planning, told the House of Commons in a debate about the new National Planning Policy Framework in2011.
Now communities across the country are suffering from the failure to deliver that promise made by the coalition government. Whatever the ambitions of Clark six years ago they have been thwarted by the massive lobbying by the home building industry to engineer loopholes in the system
In addition to the money spent on consultants by the big companies, is the Home Builders Federation, a lobbying organisation, funded by the industry to the tune of more than £3 in 2016, the latest year for which figures are available.
At the same time austerity has halved the money spent on planning and development by councils as their overall budged have been slashed.
Their smaller planning departments have faced the huge task of preparing new local plans which are challenged at every step of the way by housing development companies and their consultants.
Among the consultancy firms charging large fees to influence planning policy is Boyer with seven office across England and Wales. It is Boyer, working for Taylor Wimpey in support of plans for 640 houses in Debenham, that is lobbying Mid Suffolk Council to change it proposed local plan.
Boyer’s comments on the Local Plan were not only detailed objections but supported by an elaborate supporting colour brochure designed to influence the council.
Last summer Boyer was promoting itself to influence, on the behalf developers, emerging Local Plans for Mid Suffolk and Babergh, Ipswich and Suffolk Coastal councils. It was telling them: “Boyer is particularly well placed to assist in providing a response to these consultations on your behalf. If you wish to get involved please contact us.”
At Forest Heath, where the council’s Local Plan is more advanced, we find Boyer again active, this time on behalf of house builders Persimmon.
They were arguing some land under the control of Persimmon was in the plan with an indicative capacity for 205 homes but was suitable for 300 houses.
This pressure was being applied after Forest Heath had agreed its Local Plan and submitted it approval by the Planning Inspectorate, a central government agency.
After hearing from the council and others including Boyer, the Inspectors have demanded changes in the Forest Heath Local Plan.
In January this year they the council saying:
We regard the proposed distribution of new housing to be unsound. It is neither adequately consistent with national policy nor is it justified – it has not been demonstrated to be the most appropriate strategy when considered against the reasonable alternatives.
…It is apparent that the three Towns [Brandon, Mildenhall and Newmarket] are expected to receive rather less new housing than that apportioned to the two Key Service Centres [Lakenheath and Red Lodge].
The inspectors go into a lot of details including how horses crossing roads in Newmarket affects house building prospects.
Boyer is also active in influencing the third tier of the structure which regulates planning decisions, Neighbourhood Plans. This is what they say on their website about the West Sussex village of Slinfold:
Boyer acting on behalf of Taylor Wimpey have been successful in challenging the emerging Slinfold Neighbourhood Plan.
Taylor Wimpey hold an interest in a site within the Neighbourhood Plan Area part of which was a proposed allocation. The draft Plan sought to severally restrict the level of development achievable on the site however by imposing a maximum housing target and seeking to designate the majority of the site as Local Green Space (akin to a Green Belt designation).
Boyer in our representations challenged the Parish’s housing targets, the suitability of several of their allocated sites and the Local Green Space designation on the site. In their report the Examiner agreed with Boyer and considered that defined housing targets should not be imposed on the site allocations to allow for greater flexibility in terms of housing supply; and also agreed the proposed Local Green Space designation did not meet the relevant NPPF criteria and therefore should be removed.
Should the modifications be adopted and the Plan made, this opens up a future opportunity for a significantly higher level of development on the subject site than that which would have otherwise been possible.
Three tiers of plans
At the top of the pile in the “simplified” planning structure Greg Clark was arguing for in the Commons, sits the National Planning Policy Framework. The framework acts as guidance for local planning authorities and decision-takers, both in drawing up plans and making decisions about planning applications.
The second tier is Local Plans drawn up by councils that are planning authorities. Not only do they have to be guided by the NPPF but have to allocate land for development and show a five year supply of land for housing.
Then there are Neighbourhood Plans prepared, generally, by Parish and town councils. These have to follow Local Plans and also allocate sites for housing development.
Neighbourhood planning gives communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area. They are able to choose where they want new homes, shops and offices to be built, have their say on what those new buildings should look like and what infrastructure should be provided, and grant planning permission for the new buildings they want to see go ahead. Neighbourhood planning provides a powerful set of tools for local people to ensure that they get the right types of development for their community where the ambition of the neighbourhood is aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area.
Note the caveat at the end — “where the ambition of the neighbourhood is aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area.”
District Councils have to vet Neighbourhood Plans before they are submitted to an independent assessor.
The preparation of the plans is a top down process, and the approval rules give the housing industry opportunities to lobby for their own interests.
While that sounds reasonable, the whole process has got bogged down creating loopholes which the big builders are using to drive through schemes to build wherever they want.
Cash-strapped local authorities are struggling to complete their Local Plans which are extremely complex documents. In Mid Suffolk where I live there has been a public consultation on a draft. When those comments have been considered the council will have to agree a revised document which can then be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate.
But that is not the end of the matter, as the case for the Forest Heath plan shows.
For parish and town councils Neighbourhood Plans are a huge challenge. These councils normally do not have much in the way of paid staff so the work is down to volunteers with some input from consultants.
Both Local and Neighbourhood plans are subject to challenges by well-resourced planning consultants financed by the house building industry.
Not only do these challenges influence the final plans but they tend to delay final approval of plans extending the window of opportunity for major developments being pushed through against the wishes of communities. Without Local and Neighbourhood plans fully approved it is much easier to get planning permission.
A fuller version of the quotation from Greg Clark at the start of this article should be examined in the light of what has happened in the past six years:
The first and overriding objective is to put power in the hands of local people. Over the years, we developed arrangements in this country—most recently through the regional strategies—that sought to resolve issues outside what people thought of as their communities. I understand the reasons for that and I do not think that those efforts were ill-intentioned by any means. However, the consequence has been that many people in this country feel that planning is something that is done to them, rather than something that involves them.
He was naturally optimistic in suggesting the power would be in the hands of local people. But most people I speak to now feel even more strongly now than they did then that planning is something that is done to them, rather than something that involves them.
In this piece I have used examples of the lobbying done by the Boyer consultancy simply because I started off examining their part in the Taylor Wimpey plans for Debenham. There are other consultancies doing much the same thing.