Housing and Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Theatres Trust (HPB 146)

I write on behalf of The Theatres Trust regarding the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16 currently being reviewed by the Public Bill Committee.

Our Role: The Theatres Trust is the National Advisory Body for Theatres and was established by The Theatres Trust Act 1976 'to promote the better protection of theatres'. Our 15 trustees are appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The Trust is a statutory consultee in the planning system and local planning authorities in Scotland, England and Wales are required to consult the Trust on planning applications for ‘development involving any land on which there is a theatre’. The Act defines a theatre as ‘any building or part of a building constructed wholly or mainly for the public performance of plays’, and therefore applies to theatres, playhouses, arts centres, ciné-varieties or buildings converted for theatre use, old and new, in other uses or disused.

The Trust contributes to the development of national planning policy, and led the successful campaign to have culture included as a core planning principle in the National Planning Policy Framework. We also engage with local authorities to encourage the inclusion of local policies to support cultural infrastructure and cultural well-being in their Local Plans. We identify Theatre Buildings at Risk and support and empower owners and community groups to purchase, restore and reuse theatre buildings to create opportunities for cultural participation, find sustainable new uses, and to use culture as a catalyst for wider regeneration in their communities.

The Trust is often the only source of expert advice on theatre use, design, conservation, property and planning matters available to theatre operators, local authorities and official bodies. Whilst our main objective is to safeguard and promote theatre use, or the potential for such use, we also seek to provide impartial expert advice to establish the most viable and effective solutions for proposed, existing and former theatre buildings at the earliest possible stages of development.

Our Concerns: The Theatres Trust acknowledges the purpose of the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16 and the aim to increase the supply of new housing to meet demand. However, we are substantially concerned about the adverse effect the measures proposed in this Bill will have on sustainable development, and particularly the impact the Bill will have on the viability of theatres and cultural infrastructure across the country.

As the Committee will be aware, place making is more than just houses. Access to cultural infrastructure such as theatres is essential to the creation of sustainable communities, as they promote cultural well-being, social inclusion, and drive regeneration and investment in town centres. Arts and culture was worth £7.7bn in gross value added to the British economy in 2013 and more than one in twelve UK jobs are in the creative sector and this needs to be supported in all place making.

We are concerned that this Bill appears to conflict with the National Planning Policy Framework’s belief in the importance of having a plan led system, and including the involvement of communities in neighbourhood planning via the Localism Act 2011.

This Bill (and other recent planning initiatives) upholds permitted development rights for office to residential conversions and proposes ‘permission in principle’ for site allocations which bypass the principles of a democratic local and neighbourhood plan-led system.

We feel that this Bill has missed an opportunity to properly review the planning system and move towards a more effective planning system with the resources needed to allow it to make local plans quickly and efficiently and in doing so, facilitating faster and better quality development.

We also consider that this Bill should ensure issues such as culture, environmental capacity, place making, and infrastructure planning are not lost at the expense of short term provision of housing.

Our Recommendations:

If we are to achieve a less complex, balanced and accessible planning system and one which promotes truly sustainable development, housing, economic growth and cultural well-being, then the Housing and Planning Bill must ensure it has a holistic view of the planning system. It needs to ensure the system protects the nation’s valuable cultural infrastructure, and that the next generation of quality housing is integrated with key place making principles. The Trust therefore makes the following recommendations.

1. Seek an independent planning and economic analysis of the planning measures proposed to establish if this Bill will deliver an improvement in the quality of design of house building and sustainable communities that include cultural provision.

If the Housing and Planning Bill had been introduced through a White Paper consultation it would have outlined the justification for the Bill and provided an opportunity to identify practical planning solutions to increase housing supply as part of place making.

We feel that there is a disconnect between the aims of the Bill and the planning measures proposed and that no evidence has been provided to substantiate the measures or indicate what outcomes will be achieved.

In our view the current measures will only serve to add additional layers to the planning process, which will further delay the plan making process, and make the system even more complex, while offering less opportunity to achieve sustainable development.

While the intention is clearly positive, the unintended consequences for communities, heritage, cultural infrastructure and employment land has not been addressed.

The Bill needs to give emphasis to creating good quality places that not only meet housing need, but create communities offering people a decent quality of life and well-being.

2. Await the recommendations of the Planning Minister’s expert panel reviewing the local plan making process before proceeding with this Bill.

Given that the Planning Minister has convened an expert panel to identify and recommend ways to improve the local plan making process we consider that this panel should report before proceeding with the Bill. This is due to report in February 2016. Many of the measures proposed in the Bill affect the plan making process and vice versa, and we would recommend the Bill is delayed until those recommendations can be considered.

3. Adopt ‘Agent of Change’ principle

In order to support sustainable communities, the Trust recommends the adoption of the ‘Agent of Change’ principle as part of the planning system as promoted by the Music Venues Trust and the Mayor of London. This would help new development and cultural facilities co-exist, making sure that changes in adjoining uses do not have an impact on established cultural venues (and other businesses) and that the person or business introducing the new use is responsible for mitigating the impact of any change.

At present, developers have no legal obligation to soundproof new residences, forcing theatres and other performance venues to spend significant resources addressing noise complaints, abatement notices and planning applications.

The’ Agent of Change’ principle means that a proposal for an apartment block, etc. to be built near an established cultural facility, such as a theatre, pub, live music or other performance venue, would be responsible for all additional soundproofing to make the new dwellings liveable and guarantee new residents would not have the right to demand changes to existing uses.

The current laws state that whoever is making a nuisance is always responsible for that nuisance, despite the length of time the original business has been in operation. Community activities and facilities across the UK are under threat because the planning system does not safeguard our valued cultural venues.

In our experience as a statutory consultee across the UK, having residential use in close proximity to a theatre or performance venue inevitably creates serious issues for both the venue and the new residents. Where there are insufficient safeguards in place (mainly via sound insulation), the residential use can jeopardise the venue’s operation.

Disputes can emerge and residents can request a Noise Abatement Notice be issued by the council on the theatre operator restricting its activities and putting it at risk of closure. Developments that will co-locate noise sensitive uses need to be carefully planned to ensure the proposal will not have a negative effect on the viability of the theatre or the living conditions of the residents.

We believe that this Bill will only exacerbate this situation.

There is advice for the safeguarding of culture venues within the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The importance of cultural well-being is included as one of the 12 core planning principles (paragraph 17) with further guidance in paragraph 70 stating that in ‘promoting healthy communities’, planning decisions should ‘plan positively for cultural buildings’ and ‘guard against the loss of cultural facilities and services.’ Paragraph 123 and the Planning Practice Guidance on Noise are also relevant and state that existing ‘businesses should not have unreasonable restrictions put on them because of changes in nearby land uses since they were established’.

Despite this clear guidance, the NPPF is not working effectively due to the bias towards housing. The Trust continually reviews planning applications for residential development next to theatres and other cultural infrastructure that do not comply. The current planning process, with the Trust as statutory consultee, allows the opportunity to seek better design and noise mitigation measures, however, this is not always successful.

The Trust therefore strongly recommends incorporating ‘Agent of Change’ principles into the planning system via this Bill to ensure all new development has a duty to protect the nation’s cultural infrastructure. The principle results in better developments designed to fully recognise the nature of the surrounding development and ensure residential and cultural uses can coexist and develop for the benefit of the local community.

4. Prior approval requirements for Office to Residential Permitted Development Rights be expanded to include noise and vibration assessments

The introduction of temporary permitted development rights for the conversion of offices to residential uses, has had a serious impact on the operation of theatres and live performance venues. Article 4 directions have not been able to provide the protection required as a result of the limitations placed on their application and difficulties implementing them. As noise and sound mitigation is not part of the prior approval system, there is no mechanism to protect theatres and other venues when these conversions take place, nor do these permitted development rights ensure adequate living conditions will be provided in the new residential dwellings.

This undermines the Trust’s statutory role outlined in The Theatres Trust Act, and the principles of the National Planning Policy Framework. Whilst the Trust argues this permitted development right should not be made permanent, it is clear the intention is to do so, thus it is strongly recommended that prior approval requirements for Office to Residential Permitted Development Rights be expanded to include Noise and vibration assessments.

5. Review the benefits of Brownfield Registers and ‘permission in principle’

Cultural infrastructure is often in prominent central locations in town centres and have come under pressure from uses which attract higher land values. Without adequate protection, the community may lose access to these facilities and once these sites are lost to other uses it can be very difficult to provide replacements. Demand for different types of cultural and community facilities will change over time, but it is important that existing and viable facilities, and those former venues that can be brought back into use, are retained to meet the future needs of residents and visitors.

The inclusion of former cultural facilities as brownfield sites with "automatic planning permission" for housing is therefore a concern. It undermines the principles of the National Planning Policy Framework and cultural sites should be exempt from inclusion on Brownfield registers.

Further, the Trust believes a strong local plan is essential for managing sustainable development. From our observation, the objective assessment of housing need, site allocation, and setting five year housing supply targets takes up the largest proportion of time when drafting a LDP. Site allocations also cause the most delays and the need for further consultations and modifications during the examination stage.

A brownfield register adds another layer to the planning process, and as ‘in principle permission’ will be effectively awarded to site allocations listed on the register and in local and neighbourhood plans, this will only serve to further delay the plan making process as local authorities will want to do more investigation into land capacity before committing to these allocations. Apart from the concerns raised above about the importance of place making and safeguarding cultural infrastructure, there is a real question whether there will be any benefit by introducing this process.

6. Clause 109, page 52, line 2
We positively endorse the amendments made to the ‘Establishment of urban development corporations’ ( Amendment made: 184, in clause 109, page 52, line 2) to include the definition of sustainable development which acknowledges the importance of cultural wellbeing.

December 2015

Prepared 14th December 2015