It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the best way to prompt the release of a consultation document, that you are actually interested in reviewing, is to go on holiday. 

Due to some much needed, but rather poorly timed, annual leave, I missed last week's launch of DCLG's latest consultation paper: "Planning for the right homes in the right places".  Having come back to an inbox full of analysis of the Government's proposed standardised approach to objectively assessing housing need in England, and some of the rather bizarre results that come from its application, I was rather surprised at precisely how much a) is in the consultation paper and b) has been eclipsed by the (admittedly important) proposals on objectively assessed housing need.

For everyone else who has caught up on the commentary, but has yet to read the consultation paper itself, below is a brief summary of everything else that is in the paper. From here on in, this post is largely an 'OAN free zone':

1.   Statements of Common Ground

The idea of introducing a 'statement of common ground' between neighbouring local authorities to the local plan-making process first appeared in the Housing White Paper. It is intended to bolster the 'duty to co-operate', which is clearly not working in certain parts of the country. 

The intention behind the policy is to force recalcitrant councils to engage with each other much earlier in the plan making process on strategic cross-boundary issues, by making them all prepare 'statements of common ground' within fixed timetables, which are to be reviewed at various points  in the plan making process (currently suggested review points are during the consultation, publication, submission and adoption of a local plan).

The statements are intended to cover common cross boundary market areas - such as housing market areas (the proposed default position) or shared employment areas (if such an approach can be justified) and key strategic cross boundary issues - such as meeting unmet housing need, transport or infrastructure matters. Each statement should be signed by the local authorities with a key interest in the matters covered by the statement - including county councils where minerals, waste or transport policies are to be addressed.

The policy would be introduced as part of a revised National Planning Policy Framework, which DCLG hope to have in place by Spring 2018. The timetables for agreeing the new statements of common ground after that date are quite tight - particularly given the slow progress in adopting up to date local plans across the UK. It is expected that Councils should have outline statements of common ground prepared within 6 months of the revised NPPF being published and full statements of common ground agreed within 12 months of a revised NPPF being published.

To make sure that local planning authorities engage with the process in a timely manner, DCLG propose amending the tests under which a local plan can be found 'sound' at Inquiry to include requirements that:

  •  Local plans are based on a strategy that has been informed by agreements over the wider area; and
  • Local plans should be based on effective joint working on cross-boundary issues, as evidenced by the statement of common ground.

There is also a suggestion that DCLG may intervene in cases where local authorities fail to engage to ensure that the statements are prepared and kept up to date. 

Whether this will make significantly reduce the number of plans that fail as a result of neighbour disputes is a matter of doubt, but it should at least flag potential problems much earlier.... 

2.  Planning for a Mix of Housing Needs

It appears that whilst DCLG are very much aware of the need to encourage more specific evidence gathering and policy making, at local authority level, to address the variety of needs within the housing market and its increasing diversification; they are not entirely sure how to go about it. 

As such, they are inviting suggestions as to how  local authorities can identify, and gather evidence to support the need for a variety of tenures and specialist housing needs - including housing for the elderly, student accommodation, private rented sector and build to rent developments, family housing, self and custom build development and low cost housing. 

They are also seeking views on whether the current NPPF definition of "older people" remains fit for purpose, given the increasing need to provide more suitable housing for older generations. 

For the record, the current NPPF definition of 'older people' is:

"People over retirement age, including the active, newly-retired through to the very frail elderly, whose housing needs can encompass accessible, adaptable general needs housing for those looking to downsize from family housing and the full range of retirement and specialised housing for those with support or care needs."

I have to say that I am inclined to agree with DCLG that the definition is probably fit for purpose. At the very least, it is extremely comprehensive. That said, I am pretty sure that the issues that local authorities currently have in adopting policies for housing the elderly are not a result of a failure to adequately define who they are.

3. Neighbourhood Planning

The proposals in the consultation paper focus on how best to ensure that Neighbourhood Plans allocate enough housing to meet the needs of the neighbourhood area. 

This is currently an incredibly contentious topic where the view of the government (that Neighbourhood Plans allocate 10% more housing than required) differs markedly from the views of those on the ground (that most Neighbourhood Plans, particularly in the South East, are designed to minimise the number of new housing developments in the area). 

In the Housing White Paper DCLG proposed to square this circle by requiring Councils to provide housing need figures to be used in the preparation of neighbourhood plans. The consultation builds on this proposal and suggests:

  •  amending planning guidance to make it clear that Local Councils can base a neighbourhood housing needs figure on "a reasoned judgement based on the settlement strategy and housing allocations in their plan", provided of course, that the relevant local plan is reasonably up to date; 
  • amending national planning policy to require local plans to include local housing need figures for parishes and neighbourhood plan areas within the relevant district; and
  •  creating a simple formula based methodology for apportioning housing need across neighbourhood plan areas - which is to be linked to the standardised approach to assessing housing need (which is not referred to in this post). 

The cynic in me does not expect these proposals to go down well in areas which already have neighbourhood plans in place. Not least because the first proposal appears designed to minimise the options for bringing judicial review challenges against the imposed housing needs figure, by firmly categorising it as a matter of planning judgement. If they are adopted, and local authorities make full use of them, however, it could do a lot to mitigate some of the problems that Neighbourhood Plans are causing in certain parts of the South East.

4. Proposed approach to Viability Assessments

Of all the proposals in the consultation that are not being widely discussed, these are probably the most crucial. In short, DCLG is proposing policies aimed at reducing the number viability negotiations that happen when planning applications are submitted. These appear to be borne in equal measure out of a desire to speed up the processing of applications, and a general suspicion of the development industry. 

In summary, the proposals are:

  •  to increase the robustness of viability assessments at plan-making stage by requiring councils to set out the types and thresholds for affordable housing contributions required across the district; infrastructure needed to deliver the plan; how these requirements are expected to be funded and the contributions developers will need to make in the Local Plan itself;
  •  improve the robustness of assessments as to the deliverability of these policies at the plan-making stage;
  • improving engagement from housing associations and infrastructure providers in viability assessments to get a clearer idea of likely costs and values from them; and
  •  amending the NPPF to make it clear that policy requirements which have been viability tested at plan-making stage should not usually be subject to a further viability assessment when a planning application has been submitted

The consultation also includes a number of proposals about improving the formatting, accessibility and reporting of data on s.106 agreements and viability assessments, which I won't go into in detail as they are less controversial.

These proposals on viability assessments  completely miss the point and put us in danger of repeating the biggest mistake that the government made when introducing CIL - namely a failure to recognise that:

a)  just because a policy is workable and viable across a general area within the district does not mean that it is viable on all of the individual development sites within it; and 

b) whether a scheme is viable or not at any particular point of time is dependent on a large number of variables; such as build costs, house prices, and the exchange rate. As such it can change extremely quickly.

 Local plans are not designed to cope with such rapid fluctuations in the market and, as a result, the viability assessments carried out whilst a local plan is being prepared are highly likely to be dangerously out of date by the time it is a year or two old, and of historic curiosity only by the end of the life of the local plan.

If there is a single set of proposals which should be the focus of concerted lobbying from the development industry - this section of the paper would be my pick.

5. Planning Fees

The government commits to increasing planning fees in the consultation paper and repeats that a 20% increase should applied to those authorities who are meeting the housing needs of their area.  They are, however, seeking views on:

  •  how to assess who should qualify for the uplift in fees; 
  • whether an increase of more than 20% could be justified in some circumstances; and
  • whether the uplift should be awarded to individual authorities or levied nationally, but only once all local authorities meet the required criteria. 

6. Other bits and bobs

The consultation also seeks views or suggestions on how to improve the level of delivery of new homes in England, beyond those identified in the Housing White Paper, which appears to be a tacit acceptance that the package of measures put forward so far may not result in a fast enough increase in housing numbers to meet the government's own targets. 

It also acknowledges that there are issues with CIL, which it is almost impossible to avoid doing given the outcome of the independent review, but in such a way as to suggest that reform may be a long time coming. Instead, I suspect we will be seeing more tinkering to blunt some of the worst flaws in the existing regime, but not until after the Autumn budget.

Finally, there is a proposal to bolster the guidance on when a planning application can be refused on prematurity grounds - but without having more information on what the proposed changes will actually be, it is hard to assess whether this is likely to have any meaningful impact on the ground.

The consultation remains open until 9 November 2017. As planning is a devolved matter, the policies would only relate to authorities in England.