‘Entry Level Exception’ Housing Sites: The same issues as Rural Exception Sites and more unintended consequences.

A key proposal, contained with Paragraph 71 of the revised NPPF was published in July 2018 is the introduction of Entry Level Exception Sites. Looks to me like a good idea that could be loaded with some painful unintended consequences.

These are sites that provide entry-level homes suitable for first-time buyers (or equivalent, for those looking to rent). There must be an identified lack of entry-level housing, and development must be:

  • suitable for first-time buyers
  • on land not allocated for housing
  • adjacent to existing settlements and no larger than 1 ha in size or not exceed 5% of the size of the existing settlement
  • in compliance with local design policies and standards
  • made up of entry-level homes that offer one or more types of affordable housing
  • outside National Parks, AONB’s or the Green Belt.
  • Entry Level Exception Sites do not fall within the general definition of affordable housing within the glossary of the NPPF, and have their own definition which allows for individual consideration on appropriate sites.

So what are the significant differences to the usual format of ‘rural exception sites’?

  • The occupation isn’t restricted to current village residents, or those with a local family or employment connection, thus opening sites to a wider market.
  • Planning permission won’t be dependent on their being a specific local need for affordable housing.
  • Paragraph 71 of the NPPF does not require that the land involved must be used for affordable housing ‘in perpetuity’. So theoretically there could be a future change to market housing.
  • Maximum site size is given in the NPPF.

What are the unintended consequences that I’m worrying about?

  • Entry Level Exception sites may be more profitable to develop than the usual form of rural exception sites, and easier for local landowners and developers to fund and bring forward themselves. This could lead to a greater frequency and quantity of ‘exceptions ‘ and a lot more unexpected development on land around our smaller towns, villages and hamlets.
  • Because Entry Level Exception Developments may be more easily done ‘in house’ and not involve a housing association, lack of local design expertise could led to more sub-standard developments (and to a lesser degree, some welcome innovation in design).
  • LPAs and Housing Associations may find that the supply of land for traditional affordable housing exceptions reduces, harming one of their key planning tools for the delivery of affordable housing in rural areas.
  • The specification of maximum site sizes could lead developers to seek permissions that comply closely to the guidance, leading to excessively large estates for some locations, or creating estates with a limited housing mix that is more likely to fail socially.

There are also ways that the Entry Level and Rural Exception sites are identical: for example in being essentially a form of ‘un-planning’ that may never deliver and when it does almost always has the consequence of seriously aggravating local residents, creating vigorous protest and ultimately discrediting of the planning system and profession. (Yes, I don’t like the concept!).

I reckon all this strongly reiterates the need for NDPs to include strong policies to control the exception sites that NPPF and Local Plans encourage and enable. These could for example identify areas where, for well justified reasons, exception sites will not be welcomed, or include locally based criteria about the scale, form, and layout etc, or require adherence to a well researched local design code.

Of course the only real and effective answer is for NDP qualifying bodies to stand up and be brave enough to allocate a few sites to ensure that at least some affordable housing is guaranteed for their local youngsters and others, on sites that the local community have had the opportunity to evaluate, discuss and ultimately agree to through the NDP referendum.

New lower ONS household projections probably won’t change housing targets in Cornwall.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have published new 2016-based Household Projections. They forecast – nationwide – a growth of 165,000 households per annum over the ten year period 2018-28 compared to the previous forecast of 218,000 over the ten years 2018–28.

For Cornwall, the forecast is for 1,924 new households annually compared to the previous forecast of 2,199, a reduction of 275 per annum. When applied to the new ‘standard method’ of estimating housing need included in NPPF 2018, this forecast implies an annual requirement for 2,520 dwellings, compared to the Cornwall Local Plan average of 2,625, suggesting an over provision of 2,100.

So does this mean that the Local Plan ought to be immediately revised to reduce the housing requirements? In short: No.

This is because Local Plan housing targets are viewed as a baseline minimum to be planned for, which can be exceeded if there are sound reasons to do so. For example, to spur on economic growth, fund regeneration, support new infrastructure and generate more affordable homes. All of these apply to Cornwall. Indeed, where the housing ‘affordability ratio’ is 4 or more, Planning Authorities are expected to ‘uplift’ the housing requirement so that the increased supply will reduce the pressure on house prices. In Cornwall the ratio is usually around 9.

There is another reason not to revise the Local Plan, and that is the already signalled central government response to the new household projections. Put simply, the Govt. has decided that there shall be 300,000 new dwellings per year, and that the new ‘standard method’ will be revised to ensure that it shows a need for 300,000 dwellings per year.

New twists in Habitat Regs law to slow down NDP progress?

As a result of a finding by the European Court* it seems that ‘likely significant effects’ (LSE) of NDP proposals on European level designated habitat and wildlife sites, such as SACs and SPAs, cannot now be ‘screened out’ at the HRA Stage 1 by mitigating controls which avoid, compensate for or reduce the harmful effects.

Following the judgement, it is only at HRA stage 2, ‘appropriate assessment’ by the competent authority, that such controls can be accepted, and then only where a ‘full and precise analysis of the measures capable of avoiding or reducing any significant effects on the site concerned’ is carried out.

Previously most NDPs that have proposals, such as housing allocations, that could impact on SACs and SPAs could have screened out the LSE at a stage 1 assessment. That is now not possible and a more costly time-consuming Stage 2 assessment would be required.

Fortunately, if the NDP can be seen to be delivering proposals that have already been covered by the higher Local Plan and its ‘appropriate assessment’ then there should not be an issue. If outside this umbrella then a two stage HRA is necessary. The Locality/MHLG grant scheme for NDPs can provide a technical assistance package to cover HRA in most cases. However additional NDP process time will still be required.

A second ECJ judgement** adds to the complications. The Court found that when the mitigation measures are designed only to compensate for a plan’s negative effects, rather than reducing or avoiding them, approval can only be granted if the competent authority is satisfied that there are “imperative reasons of overriding public interest” for the Plan going ahead. Such a strict test will be tough for Local Plans, and even tougher for NDPs.

*People Over Wind and Sweetman v Coille Teoranta

**Grace and Sweetman v An Bord Pleanala

Huge community effort leads Liskeard NDP to referendum.

Some four and a half years after serious work started on the Liskeard NDP it goes to referendum on the 25th October 2018.

This is the culmination of a huge voluntary effort.

In that time the 14 member steering group met 22 times. The 4 working groups, in which the steering group members were supplemented by 19 volunteers, met 48 times altogether, and there were 2 ‘cross-cutting’ theme sub group meetings. The drafting team, which brought the work together in the written statement of the NDP, met at least 25 times.

In addition many hundreds of hours of individual research and report writing was carried out by team members, plus duty spells at drop in sessions, and community events. Town Council time was dedicated to considering the draft NDP as it emerged, and the team reassembled to appear at the Public Hearing during the Plan’s Independent Assessment.

Consultants were used sparingly to provide training of community volunteers, assist with policy writing, and carry out an expert analysis of the local landscape.

Otherwise the task of preparing the Liskeard NDP relied on the dedication of thousands of hours of effort, completely for free, by volunteers from the Liskeard community, on behalf of the Liskeard community.

Now the time is approaching for the community to show its appreciation by getting out to vote on Liskeard’s own Neighbourhood Development Plan.

Poor engagement and communication can lead to a ‘no’ vote.

A second NDP has been voted down in its referendum. The Plan, for the Thornton Estate in Hull, lost by a mere 78 votes, although due to the small turnout the no vote represented 58% of those who voted. According to Planning Resource magazine residents on the estate may have been against the plan mainly because they found out about it only when ballot papers arrived. It seems that, being unable to make an informed decision, many voters decided it was safer to vote against the Plan.

What are the lessons from this?

1. Just a few votes can make the difference, so it’s unsafe to make assumptions that, having got so far in the process, your NDP is bound to be approved.

2. Due to the timescales involved in creating an NDP people can forget that they were probably involved in some way ‘back along’. Also, new residents may have arrived who know nothing of the Plan. It’s important to keep people informed through ALL stages.

3. Creating a publicity and communications strategy during the setting up stages of an NDP, then working at it consistently, can ensure the community is properly engaged and aware of the content of an NDP.

4. Some groups are hard to engage with and keep informed, but can be very motivated if they perceive that their interests could be threatened: make sure you know who these groups are and that they are fully informed.

5. Don’t forget to allocate resources to carrying out quality publicity and communications – they are eligible for grant aid from Locality.

In October 2016, the Swanwick Neighbourhood Plan in Derbyshire was the first NDP to be rejected in a referendum, but this was after the NDP Steering Group campaigned for a ‘no’ vote following a dispute with the Local Planning Authority.

Well timed and careful engagement and consultation is key to creating truly local Neighbourhood Plans.

In my 40 years Local govt experience one thing I learned and took to heart was that holding assumptions about what a community ‘needed’ was not the best starting point when writing planning policies or embarking on a project. I saw many occasions when a lot of effort was wasted on detailed schemes that were developed by well meaning councillors and professional staff, and only then put out to consultation with the community. Which then tore the schemes to threads.

The answer of course is to front load consultation with lots of engagement activity. Sessions where community members are involved in the actual design of the project can pay huge dividends. Such an approach will tell you things you didn’t know, help to make people aware of the reality of the limits that apply, build relationships with local people, and identify the key stakeholders and opinion formers. It also helps later to avoid accusations of tokenism when you do go out to formal consultation. But best of all, it will most likely result in a positive consultation response and an end product that has street-cred with the local community.

In my experience that means planning policies that are less often disregarded, and less abuse of public realm projects and community buildings. In NDP terms it can also mean that you can develop proper local policies that address real local issues, not just rehashes of national or local plan material.

Trisha Hewitt, former Communications Manager at Cornwall Council, agrees. She says in her blog (trishahewitt.com) that ‘effective consultation and engagement with communities rather than carrying out a cynical box-ticking exercise is vital if organisations want to take their residents or customers with them and avoid opposition’. She advises ‘talking with people at an early stage, and then using their views to shape the final decision. And, where this is not possible, going back to them to explain why’. This approach is vital in developing key local documents such as Neighbourhood Plans.

PS. Trisha’s experience in picking up the pieces from the effects of poor consultation (surely not at Cornwall Council?) means she understands how organisations should consult and engage with their local communities. Trisha can advise on the right way to carry out your NDP engagement activity, rather than just the easiest. You can contact her at: trisha@trishahewitt.com, or 07946 654121.

New NPPF 2018. What difference will it make to Neighbourhood Plans?

Simple answer is ‘not a lot’! At least in the short term. The main immediate impact is that there will be better protection for areas with ‘made’ neighbourhood plans but no up-to-date Local Plan. Para 14 of the new NPPF says that in such areas the adverse impact of allowing housing schemes that conflict with the neighbourhood plan is likely to “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” as long as the NDP was adopted less than two years ago and meet its housing requirement, and the LPA have at least a three-year housing land supply. The LPA’s housing delivery rate, under the new delivery test, must also be at least 45 per cent of the local requirement over the previous three years. This doesn’t impact on Cornwall as its Local Plan is quite recent, but there is quite a lot of Devon that could be helped by this approach.

The most helpful change is that the new NPPF says that LPAs should provide neighbourhood plan groups with a housing requirement figure (Paras 65 and 66). Local Plan strategic policies should “set out a housing requirement for designated neighbourhood areas” and once the strategic policies have been adopted, the figures should not need re-testing at the neighbourhood plan examination, unless there has been a significant change in circumstances that affects the requirement. However, don’t forget that Local Plan figures are a ‘baseline’ and an NDP’s own evidence might justify a bigger allocation. Where it is not possible to provide a requirement figure, the the new NPPF says local authority should provide an “indicative figure” if the neighbourhood planning body requests one.

There is also a useful definition of ‘major development’ as being ‘housing development where 10 or more homes will be provided, or the site has an area of 0.5 hectares or more. For non-residential development it means additional floorspace of 1,000m2 or more, or a site of 1 hectare or more’. The useful advice on Local Green Space is retained, slightly tweaked and given new paragraph numbers.

In the longer term the impact could be greater and perhaps more worrying. Paras 68 and 69 require that 10% of housing should be on sites no larger than 1 hectare, and encourages NDP groups to consider the opportunities for allocating small and medium-sized sites consistent with this suitable for housing in their area. Potentially this could lead to a closer relationship between LPAs and NDP groups as the higher authority seeks to encourage NDPs that help them deliver on this requirement.

Para 28 says that ‘Non-strategic policies should be used by local planning authorities and communities to set out more detailed policies for specific areas, neighbourhoods or types of development’. To be clear, by changing the emphasis from ‘may’ to ‘should’, LPAs are given the go ahead to be more involved in local detail.

Another area of concern is the encouragement in para 71 of ‘entry-level exception sites’, suitable for first time buyers (or those looking to rent their first home), on land not already allocated for housing. This could complicate the already fraught issue of exception sites, adding to community dis-satisfaction with policies which appear to function by encouraging unplanned developments in defiance of Neighbourhood Plan provisions.

Finally, we must await the impact on NDPs of the proposed new process for calculating housing requirements. The NPPF says that strategic policies should be informed by a local housing need assessment, conducted using the new standard method set out in the national planning guidance. The effects are largely unknown as yet, but several professional bodies have expressed concern about the impacts, with the LGA concerted that the system could generate new housing need numbers that are dramatically above the currently planned need in Local Plans and which may seem undeliverable.