Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Remarkable Engagement (L 177)

Summary

1 Remarkable Engagement, the public affairs division of the Remarkable Group Ltd, is a specialist division that works with applicants conducting community consultation and engagement around planning applications.

2 Remarkable Engagement’s clients include national house builders, national supermarket chains, affordable housing providers, airports, and waste management providers. Remarkable Engagement works in local authorities all over the United Kingdom.

3 This response has been written by Remarkable Engagement in its capacity as a consultation specialist. The views contained within it do not necessarily represent the views of its clients.

4 Throughout this document, Remarkable Engagement is referred to as Remarkable.

Part one: Local Government

Chapter four: Predetermination

1 The abolition of the predetermination rules is welcomed.

2 Where a site falls into a ward represented by members of a planning or development control committee, those councillors have often been unwilling to engage with the applicant of an application at a pre-application stage, for fear of prejudicing and losing any future vote they might have on the site.

3 In the long run, this can cause problems, as the application is taken to committee without the views of the ward members, those who directly represent the local community, being made known.

4 This does a disservice both to the applicant and to the community the councillors represent.

5 However, while the abolition of these rules are welcomed, Remarkable considers that the Localism Bill should go further and contain a positive duty to engage in certain circumstances.

6 For localism to fully succeed, ascertaining the views of the locally elected representatives and engaging them at an early stage is imperative. As the Bill currently stands, although the predetermination rules would officially be abolished, there is nothing to prevent a local councillor from refusing to meet with an applicant during pre-application consultation. Only by imposing a positive duty to engage can localism fully succeed.

7 Remarkable has encountered many examples recently of locally elected representatives still refusing to engage. These can be supplied on request.

Part four: Community Empowerment

Chapter one: Local referendums

1. Ministers have, quite rightly, refused to implement a third party right of appeal: if a planning application is submitted and is in accordance with the local and neighbourhood plan – which has been duly voted for in a neighbourhood referendum – then it should be approved.

2. And yet, as the Bill stands, the community has a third party right of appeal in all but name: local, non-binding referendums. So long as a petition is raised, bearing the names of five per cent of those eligible to vote in a given area, then the local authority is obliged to hold a referendum on a local issue, at considerable cost. Such local referendums are non-binding and yet the result must be taken into consideration when decisions are made that affect the issue at stake.

3. It is not hard to imagine a group of objectors to a development getting the requisite number of signatures (in a ward of 6,000 voters, the petition would need just 300 names) and forcing a local referendum on a proposed development locally. Members of a planning committee would then be obliged to take the result of that referendum into account when coming to their decision on an application.

4. Ministers have indicated that they will consider whether referendums are appropriate in the planning sphere; indeed, Greg Clark MP, Minister of State, has commented during Committee stage that 'there is no referendum that impacts on any planning application'. However, Andrew Stunell MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, would not say during Committee stage that as a matter of course, all planning decisions would be exempt from referendums, only that it would be appropriate to consider the matter further.

5. We look forward to clarification on this matter.

Chapter four: Assets of community value

1. Remarkable acknowledges that the details surrounding the proposed Community Right to Buy are the subject of a separate consultation exercise. It is not our intention to comment here on the mechanics of the scheme.

2. However, we believe that there are already signs, at this early stage, that the scheme’s original intent could be diverted: rather than seeking to give communities a fair chance to bid to take over assets important to them, there is the possibility that it could be turned into a vehicle to frustrate legitimate development aspirations by existing owners of sites.

3. Our concern arises from a theoretical situation where an asset is nominated and then listed but does not come up for sale. Instead, the owner submits a planning application – perhaps for change of use, perhaps for demolition or redevelopment; our question would be the extent to which the fact that the asset is ‘listed’ is a consideration in planning terms.

4. This question has been raised during Committee stage by Nick Raynsford MP, who said that there would be ‘vexatious’ applications for listing and suggested that people would try to abuse the provisions in order to stop developments they regarded as undesirable.

5. He said: ‘the presence of a particular area or item on a list will have a blighting effect on any proposals for subsequent use. I am sure that those who are able to get expert legal advice would find all sorts of ways to challenge a use that they do not want of something that has been listed as an asset of community value, and that is the risk’.

6. In a recent debate on Pubs and Planning Policy (Westminster Hall, 16 Feb 2011), Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, commented, in respect of the demolition of pubs: ‘we are prepared to look carefully ... at whether there is some means by which we can, perhaps in the context of the community right to buy, extend planning control to the demolition of community assets’.

7. This suggests that, by virtue of ‘listing’ an asset, a group could wield influence over the planning process: we see this as an inevitable step towards the Community Right to Buy influencing planning control more generally.

Part five: Planning

Chapter one: Plans and strategies

1 It should be noted at the outset that Remarkable is not, and does not consider itself to be, a planning consultancy.

2 However, from a political perspective, Remarkable considers that there is a fundamental dichotomy between the Government’s stated aims and objections of Localism, and the way that backbench MPs and local authorities are approaching it.

3 In December 2010, speaking after the publication of the Localism Bill, Housing Minister Grant Shapps said:

a. "The Bill will end top-down targets – in their place communities with the vision and drive to build more homes will be given the freedom to achieve their ambitions, and this will be backed up with powerful cash incentives for councils that allow new developments in their area."

4 And as recently as February 2011, Bob Neill, the Planning Minister, said:

a. "The coalition Government made a firm pledge to sweep away these controversial strategies [Regional Spatial Strategies] that have proved that top-down targets do not build homes. All they have produced is the lowest peacetime house building rates since 1924 and fuelled resentment in the planning process that has slowed everything down."

5 However, during the Second Reading of the Localism Bill, and in Remarkable’s experience of working with MPs and local authorities all over the country, there is evident a real danger that localism is being interpreted as a way to develop fewer houses, not more.

6 One particular exchange from the Second Reading was illuminating to how the abolition of RSSs was viewed by backbench MPs from the Government benches:

a. Greg Mulholland: I concur with the thoughts of my hon. Friend and Leeds colleague. Does he agree that it is extremely welcome and hugely important for an area such as ours that the regional spatial strategies are being abolished? Does he also agree that it is disgraceful that applicants such as David Wilson Homes are trying to get forthcoming developments such as the one at Adel in through the back door before the new guidance comes in? Does he not agree that the people of Adel should have the power to stop such a development now?

b. Stuart Andrew: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Communities in his constituency and mine have faced these problems time and again.     

c. In Leeds, the previous Government's regional spatial strategy doubled the target for house building from around 2,500 a year to more than 4,500 every year. At that level, we would have created the equivalent of a new parliamentary constituency within a decade, which would have been completely unsustainable.

d. These targets  resulted in not only the brownfield sites in our communities being built on, but a significant threat to the greenfield sites. Time and again, developers came forward with plans for more building. In recent years, permission has been granted for thousands of new homes in Guiseley, but little investment has been made in the infrastructure to cope with so many new residents.       

e. Alec Shelbrooke: Does my hon. Friend agree that the previous Government's push to allow greenfield sites to be used for housing completely undermined the regeneration in cities such as Leeds?       

f. Stuart Andrew: That is an incredibly valid point. I shall say more in a moment about the problems experienced by the city of Leeds.       

g. Toby Perkins: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that fewer houses will be built in his constituency as a result of the abolition of the regional spatial strategies, and, if so, does he think that that is a good thing?       

h. Stuart Andrew: We will have the number of houses that we can cope with (emphasis added). In Leeds, we recognised that certain areas needed more social housing, and the local council increased its target from 25% to 35% of all new houses being social housing. That showed that local people could respond better to local needs, and that is what is important about the Bill.

7 During the first evidence session, the Committee took evidence from the Chief Executive of Shelter Campbell Robb. He stated that one of Shelter’s fears was:

a. "about the lack of consistent methodology for assessing planning need in a locality. This is not about bringing back regional strategies, but we absolutely need to be able to understand the situation… What is not in here is any way for any of us to be able to assess local authority against local authority, and their planning needs. The Bill could benefit from consistent guidance to local authorities about how they assess that local housing need, and how they are going to address that need."

8 David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, also gave evidence. He stressed that "removing regional spatial strategies, without putting anything in their place, was a short-term mistake, because it meant that property planning applications, which were going through the system and may have delivered new homes, were withdrawn."

9 The Committee also took evidence from house builders. Pete Redfern, Chief Executive of Taylor Wimpey, said that there needed to be some sort of "safety net" through the transition period:

a. "a regular test to make sure that the provisions are broadly working, as people adjust. Having a time scale for implementation, to make sure that people are given time to adjust to that process, is critical to ensuring that there is not more damaged caused in the short term than there are gains in the long term."

10 Remarkable considers that the absence of regionally set targets could lead to some areas reducing their housing targets resulting in fewer homes being developed. Given that this is contrary to the Government’s stated aims, Remarkable considers this area that needs further exploration.

       Chapter four: Consultation

1 Remarkable welcomes the statutory footing for public consultation. Many applicants already consider such consultation as best practice and Remarkable believes that requiring all applicants to conduct pre-application consultation is a positive step.

2 However, several aspects are concerning to Remarkable as the Bill currently stands. Given that the majority of the detail is due to be set out in a future Development Order, Remarkable is confident that a few amends could ensure his part of the Bill is as effective as possible.

3 In regards to the threshold that would trigger public consultation, Remarkable is concerned that current Government thinking is far too high (any housing development of 200 units or more, it has been suggested, would trigger a requirement for pre-application consultation). It has been estimated that such a figure would cover just 0.4-0.8% of developments, and is also contrary to many Statements of Community Involvement adopted by local authorities, which tend to classify ‘major development’ (for which pre-application consultation is expected) far lower.

Other

Third Party Right of Appeal

1 Remarkable considers that the omission of the Third Party Right of Appeal, announced prior to the publication of the Localism Bill in 2010, is a positive move.

2 Providing applicants consult thoroughly at the pre-application stage, Remarkable believes there would be limited need for such a right of appeal.

3 Any planning system needs to be sympathetic to the fact that a scheme needs to be viable. Planning and consultation is ultimately an exercise of compromise; an applicant might need to lower the number of homes he is seeking to develop, but the community will need to be realistic when consulted on the appropriate number, because a scheme needs to be commercially viable for the applicant. Remarkable considers that a system of automatic right of appeal would weigh unfairly in favour of the community, and provide an additional hurdle for residents to overcome.

4 The system of Judicial Review is also available should a resident or community wish to challenge any planning permission in the High Court.

Officer’s delegated refusal

1 Remarkable would question the role that a planning officer’s delegated refusal has to play under the new localism agenda.

2 Remarkable considers that there should be a statutory call-in triggered once an application has a set number of representations on file.

3 Whilst this is already the established practice in some local authorities, it is not the case in all of them. Remarkable considers the Localism Bill should set a uniform procedure for when an officer’s delegation can be used, ensuring that local views really do count.

March 2011