Planning and “nutrient neutrality”

I have written before about how good it is to work at PAS. Almost by design you are exposed to the most difficult, novel and complex areas of planning policy and implementation. At the moment across the team we are dealing with land supply, town centres, article 4 directions and how to shift towards a more digital planning system. In my opinion, soaring above them all in terms of brain ache is the issue of “nutrient neutrality”.

While nutrient neutrality is on the surface fairly straightforward and has been beautifully explained by Simonicity here and here. What makes it hard to work through is not the concept itself [which I think of as “when you’re in a hole stop digging”] but the number of agencies involved and the very well organised stakeholders who all look at things in their own way. We ran some events recently on this topic and what follows are my reflections on what I learned and have been thinking about since.

  1. We are changing, and change is hard. All organisations that receive the advice from Natural England go into shock. Plan allocations are called into question, housing schemes get stopped in their tracks. I have helped several places with the early stages of “What Now?” following an advice note and have found the Kubler-Ross model of grief is actually quite helpful. People’s initial response is denial – or at least denial that there is anything except a choice between housing and the environment.
  2. We should accept a part in fixing this situation. Quietly, privately, I think many people will agree that planning has been too focused on housing for many years. The thinking has been one-dimensional. A more balanced and holistic view of development is totally within our gift and many planners welcome it. But set against that is a clear and common-sense view that the planning system should not tie itself up in knots while other actors carry on undoing any hard-won improvements every time it rains. Any response has to be collective and proportional. I think you know what I’m getting at.
  3. We must help to invent a new art. It would be easy to play “Wait and See” to learn what the Environment Bill (and habitat regs) do in combination with a new Planning Bill. There is no shortage of new regulation coming our way but I think it is naive to sit back and ask the Government to tell us what to do in precise detail. We can start right now – for example by running a call for sites with a twist. Not just about housing, not even housing + infrastrcture but a “Green Call for Sites”. We probably need new heuristics and better GIS skills but we can extend what we have learned about assessing sites for housing to include assessing sites for ecological improvements too.

As I write this my twitter feed is full of people exasperated with the failure of sewage-based amendments to the Environment Bill. Perhaps naively, I really hope that some of the historical and structural problems that surround how we use, manage and price water get fixed. That stuff all feels slightly beyond my pay grade. For planners, though, I think it means:

  • Think big. Many of the government teams I work with are quite specific. Their job is to “land” a policy area like BNG or NN and they resist what they see as scope creep by broadening out thinking or implementation. However I think we must resist these narrow policy boxes and think as natural systems work – holistically. My advice – think about “bundling and stacking” and the best possible use of sites right from the get-go. This must be where we push LNRS and a broader strategic thinking on the environment.
  • Play to our strengths. Most people in planning forget what a useful bundle of tools it represents. We bring statutory consultation, political consensus, legal agreements, the ability to think long-term and in a coordinated way about land use and infrastructure. Some of it could do with a bit of a brush-up (monitoring & enforcement, I’m looking at you) but what a potential powerhouse it is.
  • Learn by doing. We know housing sites take years, and so will good environmental schemes. Don’t wait for certainty, and don’t worry about changes to (for example) Section 106 agreements undoing your work. The environment is a big wobbly and uncertain place and we will all need to try, learn and iterate what we’re doing to get the best environental bang for our buck.

Yes, nutrient neutrality remains difficult and I can’t yet point at many schemes and places that I think have totally cracked it. But on my optimistic days I think we should be pleased that we are at the beginning of a new and better way of placing development in a natural context. Place-making (at least for me) has always had an urban flavour, but I think the principles of good placemaking might equally apply in natural systems. We just need to get better at it – collectively.

Do you work in a local planning authority? We need your help……please

Peers are such an important part of the work that we do. There is nothing quite like hearing from someone who has been in your position and experienced similar things. There is something quite comforting about knowing that you’re not on your own and that they have been there and come out the other side smiling. A peer visiting your Council can also become a part of your network or become a friend to lean on as you both move through your career.  

This isn’t to say that all Councils are the same, far from it. There are, however, many shared experiences and this provides our network of peers with some unique opportunities to apply their knowledge to.  Peers benefit enormously from the work that they do, and they tell us that they learn a lot from the Councils they work with. They then take this learning back to their Council where their own service improvement work continues. It should go without saying but this also helps peers to develop personally. This applies equally to Councillors and officers in a Council.

Our peers can work on Planning Peer Challenges, where a group of officers and Councillors go into a Council to provide an external perspective on their planning service, or they can work on more discreet areas giving advice on a particular issue or undertaking reviews of the different elements of a planning service such as the planning committee. The work is varied and provides as much benefit to the peer as it does to the host authority. This is the joy of sector led improvement.

Peers should have relevant and comparable experience to the authority they are supporting. Councils look for these qualities when they are choosing which peers to invite in. They should also be able to understand the demography and cultures of the communities that Councils serve. This helps to build and keep trust throughout the work. It is also more likely that the Council can get wider buy-in to the recommendations and any action plan that is created to make the improvements.

We have a great group of peers and whilst we try to use them sparingly, they do have day jobs after all, we find ourselves calling on the same people time and time again. On the upside, this means that we have a very experienced peer pool but, on the downside, it creates a capacity problem and means that we are not creating a diverse pool with opportunities for everyone. This is something that the PAS team wish to address.

We started a conversation with Helen Fadipe, Sara Dilmamode and Gavin Chinniah of the BAME Planning Network. This wasn’t just about our Peer network, but it became clear from our early conversations that this was the place to start. Helen explained to us that BAME planners working in local planning authorities do not have the same access to senior positions and would, under our current criteria, be prevented from being peers. Conversely, being a peer gives you the range of experiences that can help you to get those more senior positions.

We have been working over the summer to change our criteria so that it is more inclusive, basing our requirements around experiences rather than seniority. We hope that by doing this we can encourage a wider range of people to come forward and apply to be a PAS peer. We have also broadened the scope of the experiences that we require, recognising that it’s not only planners that do planning.

As we start to enter a period of change within the planning sector, we are starting to see an increase in the demand for peer challenges, with Councils using the peers to help them respond to changes and challenges. It’s a really interesting time to be a planning peer.

Biodiversity net gain – looking for perfection in an imperfect world?

I thought I’d write a blog to celebrate the 18th anniversary of when I started working in planning for the natural environment with English Nature in Kent. Looking back on my career, I feel we’re in a more positive place than we have ever been in terms of environmental planning, but we are also much more aware of the huge challenges we face – Monday’s IPCC report and its ‘code red for humanity’ bringing these into sharp focus. My feeling is we’ll only deal with these challenges if we take action now and learn as we go, not expecting any solution to be perfect, but taking small steps to move us forward all the time.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been running workshops for local authority officers and Councillors to inform our PAS project helping LPAs get ready for mandatory biodiversity net gain. These have generated a huge amount of useful information and input both for our project, but also to pass on to Defra and Natural England as they develop details of how the scheme will work. 

There is a lot of positivity out there about this new initiative, but also significant concern about how it’s going to work. How can overwhelmed planning departments with no ecological expertise make decisions on whether an application is compliant? How do we avoid developers gaming the system? How do we make sure this actually delivers gains? Won’t biodiversity net gain make schemes unviable?

In the meantime, there have been some articles in the press criticising biodiversity net gain, seeing it as a spreadsheet exercise or numbers game and implying that it will lead to more habitat loss and environmental destruction, plus that it is incompatible with ‘re-wilding’.

At the moment, we don’t have all the details of how mandatory biodiversity net gain will work, as the Environment Bill provisions will be accompanied by secondary legislation and guidance. However, we do know that a number of key safeguards mean it should be a significant improvement on what happens now. An important point is that biodiversity net gain does not replace any of the existing protections for sites, habitats and species in place now, nor does it replace the ‘mitigation hierarchy’ of avoid impacts first, then mitigate them and only compensate as a last resort. We also know that net gain provisions will not apply to certain irreplaceable habitats (as yet to be confirmed, but undoubtedly to include ancient woodland) and that councils will receive ‘new burdens’ funding to implement the new requirements.

Undeniably there are issues with biodiversity net gain and it won’t (and doesn’t yet) work perfectly, but we need to compare it to the currently very imperfect system where the majority of unprotected habitats (outside designated sites, like SSSIs) are lost through development and not replaced in any way, even to achieve no net loss. 

The Biodiversity Metric provides a way of calculating habitat losses and gains to enable us to try and achieve a net gain. Yes, it’s not perfect and it does simplify things, but the new Biodiversity Metric 3.0 is a huge improvement on the previous 2.0 version (despite recent media reports, which almost exclusively related to issues with the old v.2.0). 

We need a system that is workable and given the complexities of nature and ecosystems, that will always have to simplify and cannot possibly take everything into account. Also, the metric is not the be-all-and-end-all, the system around it really matters. We need strategic planning for nature and the right resources and expertise to make good policy and decisions (on biodiversity net gain, but also existing nature-related planning provisions). This Natural England blog and Tony Juniper’s introduction to the metric on YouTube (about 4 mins in) explain this eloquently. 

Thinking back to 2003 when even trying to protect an internationally designated site for nature was a battle, I no longer feel like I’m waving from the sidelines. Biodiversity net gain, along with a number of other tools and initiatives, offer us a huge opportunity to address the crises we face and create better places for people and nature. 

Yes, we need to be aware of the issues with new approaches and try to resolve them, but we also need to start giving this a go and try it out – in the end biodiversity net gain is going to be mandatory in a couple of years’ time and we’ll have no choice but to get on and do it. That way, we’ll also be able to test and improve as we go (as has happened with the metric). 

I don’t think we’ll ever have a perfect solution – nature doesn’t follow rules – but BNG is a lot better than what we have now, where the majority of development leads to outright biodiversity loss, not even no net loss. So that’s what I plan to do with this project – help LPAs get started and give biodiversity net gain a go, sharing existing good practice and showing how it can work and move us another (quite big) step forward.

PAS – an introduction or a timely reminder

It can be tricky to believe that what you do has any effect at all, that your intent to help is well received and that your actions are more than just what everyone has come to expect. We have these types of discussions on a regular basis within the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) team. How do we remain relevant, effective, and valued?


To consider this properly, we need to strip back our purpose . We were set up in 2005 as a means of embedding the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 provisions into local government. We would disseminate information, provide useful advice and work with councils as they went through the change process so that we could learn and share the best practice.


This operating model has changed over the years in that we have been bigger, from 2005 – 2015 we were double the size that we are now with almost 3 x the budget. We have also moved between being a mainly commissioning organisation to a largely in-house model settling at something in the middle for the best part of our 15 years. Our purpose, however, has remained fairly static. We are here to help local government to manage change and to improve planning services.


So, who do we work for? Well in one sense it’s the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) as they fund us to work on the planning system, on the other hand we live in and are employed by the Local Government Association (LGA) so do we work for the Councils within England? I like to think so.


If you ask the team, their passion and drive come from adding value to the local government sector and from helping the many colleagues they have across the country. The joy of our work is found in the faces of the people we work with, you can’t put a price on turning a frown into a smile, watching the weight lift from someone’s shoulders or seeing the penny drop as someone realises that they had the answer from the start. It’s not rocket science but there is something quite magical about it.


This magic comes from the people that we have within the PAS team. Each and every one of the PAS team past and present share a strong sense of what it means to plan in the public interest, of the vital role of local government and of the need to ensure that local government is operating at it’s best. They have often come from a successful career in local government, mainly planning, and are ready to share their learning to help the wider cause. They are intelligent, creative, knowledgeable and love working with Councils.


I often talk about the team providing headspace for Councils. We are privileged in being able to dedicate time to working through some of the challenges that the planning system presents. We test these thoughts with Councils and others and then turn our collective thoughts into useful resources for everyone to use.


We also open doors. We create space for discussions about strategy, home truths and the reality of a Councils position. We are an honest broker, a facilitator, and a mediator who can work with Councillors and officers to build relationships and capacity to progress previously stuck issues. Our best feedback is the e-mail or text saying ‘we’ve just done x which wouldn’t have been possible if PAS hadn’t done Y’.


We don’t do the work for Councils. I have seen, over my years in local government, interesting or difficult work taken away from Council teams. Taking the work away is like a sugar hit, it feels good in the moment, but the benefit is short lived. It also has a longer-term impact on morale, retention and recruitment. PAS work to enable Council teams to handle the work themselves, to build confidence and the capability to take complex issues forward.

We collaborate, network and engage with the wider profession. We understand, only too well, the danger of groupthink if we work exclusively in a local government bubble. We test our thinking with a wide audience and enjoy our conversations with developers, land promoters, barristers, lawyers, community groups and consultants as much as we love partnering up with professional bodies and interest groups. We love to share and see the benefits that it brings to our work.

You’ll see us on webinars, hear us on podcasts and notice our names quoted in industry press but we never lobby. We need to make any planning system work for local government and whilst we may offer opinions and insight from our work we do not seek to influence.

Answering my own question of whether we are relevant, effective, and valued I conclude that we are. Would anyone miss us if we weren’t here? Yes, I truly believe that Councils, MHCLG and the wider profession would. Nobody else does what we do, we have a very special place in the profession.


We are not superheroes, there are no capes or special powers. We have experience and the drive and space to share it.

Tellin’ Stories… plan making in a changing planning system

All councils must have an up-to-date local plan in place by the end of 2023. The government’s ‘carry on planning’ message has been constant and consistent from the first Covid lockdown. Councils were encouraged to be innovative and legislation passed to keep things on track. While this remains the message, then the potential for government intervention remains where plans are not progressing quickly enough. So, what does ‘carrying on planning’ actually look like? What effect is the pandemic having? What about the ongoing reforms to the planning system? Here’s the story…

Tellin’ stories – Planning Advisory Service’s Gateway Review

In testing times, sharing stories helps us feel less alone and can inspire us to keep going. We’ve found that through our Gateway Review work, councils can be collectively encouraged to ‘carry on planning’.

Since January we’ve worked with councils with plans over 5 years old. Many have publicly announced delays to their timetable. Many are planning in some of the most difficult and constrained circumstances. It’s important for us all that planning authorities can tell their stories. Stories that demonstrate positive planning. Stories of what it’s like negotiating a difficult playing field. Stories that demonstrate how you can with the uncertainty in the system, not use it as a reason to delay.

So what does the Gateway Review do?

The ‘Gateway Review’ takes an independent look at the local plan production timetable/local development scheme. It assesses what stage the plan has reached, what’s left to do, the resources available to finish things off and the operational and political risks. In a nutshell :

  • Is the production timetable realistic?
  • What are the major risks to the timetable?
  • How to mitigate the risks?

Old issues, new questions…

We’ve not discovered anything fundamentally new. But we are hearing new and different questions about familiar issues. We’re seeing gaps in national guidance coming into sharper focus. We’re seeing some subtle differences in having a plan examined under the 2019 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). There are also big decisions being made ‘blind’ where information doesn’t exist yet. Some of the effects and impacts of decisions made now won’t be known/felt possibly until examination which has all sorts of risk attached to it.

Duty to Cooperate
This is a requirement for all councils. Many have and still are negotiating it successfully. But it feels as though recently more councils are failing to demonstrate they’ve ‘met’ the duty. We all get that the Duty to Cooperate is not a ‘duty to agree’, but many are unclear about the lengths you are expected to go to. And more are even less clear about what meeting the duty looks and plays out like without an ‘agreement’.

In tightly constrained places, cooperation is not always easy, and politics are often polarised. There is uncertainty about the level of detail required. How do you demonstrate engagement “constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis”? Significant resources can be swallowed up doing this. When resources are stretched, some of this work can fall through the cracks while the planning team’s focus is on crucial technical and other evidence base work.

One of the thorniest issues is how housing needs are to be met across local authority boundaries. It’s particularly problematic where Local Plan production timescales differ across neighbouring local authorities. The standard methodology for calculating housing need and the 35% urban uplift (see below) has added additional numbers to many plans that were already creaking.

The 35% Urban Uplift

Many plans had reached or were reaching agreement on housing numbers and unmet needs. These are now being challenged and those places with good and effective partnerships are coming into their own. Each of the urban uplift cities are expected to accommodate the uplift within the urban area, so there is a process to go through to re-review and re-appraise capacity, sites, allocations, densities, brownfield land etc. This takes time and has a knock-on effect across all plans in some Housing Market Areas. Neighbouring councils do have the choice to carry on as they are, but they may face requests (late in the process) to accommodate the unmet needs of neighbours. This is risky and may lead to challenges to meeting the duty to cooperate.

Plan start dates

It took me a while to understand why this is an issue (and I am not sure I still fully understand). The question is largely about when can a plan period start to account for housing delivery during the plan making period? This affects councils preparing plans under the latest NPPF and the standard method for calculating housing need.

Plan periods traditionally link to the evidence base (need/projections/SHMA etc.). They’d then get examined and adopted with a start date rooted in the past. Often this would mean needing to accommodate an over or under supply at the time of adoption. Some plans currently in examination (under the transitional arrangements of the 2019 NPPF) have start dates in 2011 because the original projections started then.

Now, the standard method links to an annual requirement. So, there is arguably greater flexibility in deciding when the plan period starts. The decision has implications for compiling the evidence base and housing trajectory. There’s also the Housing Delivery Test. In some places it is advantageous to set a date as close to submission as possible. This means any shortfall in housing delivery (since plan preparation commenced) does not need have to be factored into the Local Plan housing trajectory. For others, it may be advantageous to back date their plan period to account for over-supply.

General advice is shaping up as:

  • There is no specific instruction or guidance in legislation, national planning policy or guidance about when local plans should start (this implies some flexibility)
  • The logical approach is to commence the plan period as close to the date of submission as possible.  However, there is nothing to stop an authority from setting the start date earlier.
  • The challenge is to find the ‘sweet spot’ that accounts for delivery and the age of the (entire) evidence base.
  • The start date should be sensible/justifiable and not compromise any of the tests of soundness.

Green Belt

To release Green Belt land for development council’s must prove ‘exceptional circumstances’. They must examine all other reasonable options before releasing Green Belt land. This sequential approach includes considering brownfield land, density options, neighbouring authorities (duty to cooperate). But national policy and guidance does not mention a ‘green belt land review’. So, what to do if the sequential approach still results in unmet need?

Is the expectation that councils should undertake a Green Belt review (where applicable)? How else will they inform discussions with neighbouring authorities on unmet housing needs or fully satisfy the Duty to Cooperate?  

What about a ‘presumption’ that only plans meeting housing needs in full go to examination? What are the implications? Can an authority refuse to consider any Green Belt release/review if local need cannot be met? The ambiguity may suit some places that have pledged to protect Green Belt land. This may delay plan making and result in longer independent examinations. Is there a ‘common sense’ approach? Consider the sequential land options, duty to cooperate, and a Green Belt Review together? You must be careful when advising councils on this.

Covid 19 – Evidence Bases.

The effects of the Pandemic on future working and living requirements etc. will not be understood for some time. The evidence supporting ‘today’s’ development needs will inevitably need revising at some point. Most places agree that evidence gathering should not stop. But there will need to be a pragmatic and practical approach by Inspectors. when plans are examined. Perhaps we’ll see the requirement of an ‘early review’ of an adopted local plan being used as a way of overcoming this potential issue?

That is all well and good for planners. But what about communities? They have genuine questions about the effect of the pandemic. People are experiencing changes to their working patterns and their economic situations. They are more engaged in conversations about future housing and space requirements. It is the council’s role to bring communities with them on new development. It is hard to explain to communities why development is based on current or pre-pandemic evidence. Add to this an explanation of the basis on which housing numbers are calculated and you get a very complicated message.

Other issues

There are other issues. Changes to the Use Class Order. Delayed responses from Statutory Consultees. First Homes etc. I may cover these another time. There’s another perennial question – ‘what does the government actually mean by ‘up to date local plan by 2023’? Is it a plan submitted for examination? An examined and adopted plan? A plan that has been reviewed and not needed updating? That’s one for a future blog (probably by someone else).

PAS Support

These findings have the potential to affect what are already ambitious timetables in many places. Planning authorities will need to keep things under review and make sure that they are putting the necessary resources in place to keep things on track.

PAS is putting together support that will help councils move some of these issues on especially the duty to cooperate, their evidence base work and a thorough shake-down of project plans/programmes.

Keeping on keeping on

The Government’s ambition (requirement) to get plans in place by 2023 is as strong as it’s ever been. One of PAS’s jobs is to play back to Government these ‘global’ issues. We’ll work with central and local government to help councils steer a path to getting plans in place.

For PAS this means delivering support and sharing learning. It means supporting councils to make the tough choices they are facing. For Government, there is a need for some messaging around the ambiguities discussed above. For local planning authorities it is about keeping going. It’s about demonstrating progress and being able to clearly articulate their plan-making journey and the evidence for the choices and decisions they are making.

Contact Martin Hutchings (martin.hutchings@local.gov.uk) for more information about our plan making support work.

Return to Work – Planning Class of 2021

Reflections of Anna Rose and Rachael Ferry-Jones, Planning Advisory Service

In March 2021 we at PAS were privileged to hold the graduation for all those who took part in the Class of 2021 “Return to work – Planning” (RTWP) programme. This was an intense six-week training programme aimed at supporting individuals to return to work in a planning environment within a Council. The programme was designed to build on the success of the “Return to Social Work” programme ran by the Local Government Association (LGA) in partnership with central government and funded by the Government Equalities Office.

The programme was in the making for a few years. The concept was driven from a resourcing crisis in local government at a time when Councils could not find planners to apply for jobs. The answer was to run a return to work programme, similar to the then existing programme for social work. As part of the LGA we were asked to design and deliver the training for this programme. 

Research had told us that the resourcing crisis in Council planning services was more nuanced than there just not being enough planners. Councils needed people with experience. It also wasn’t necessarily the case that planners had left Councils and now wished to return. The bigger issue we found was that planners were leaving the public sector to move to the private sector or changing their career completely. The challenge to make this programme fit the needs of the sector appeared at times extremely difficult.  

The COVID19 pandemic changed everything, for everyone. In planning, there was more jeopardy in the private sector where we saw a pattern of furlough followed by redundancy. This coincided with a renewed interest in planning in the public interest. Over the last 12-18 months we have seen a greater interest in public sector planning.

There has also been a series of changes and proposed changes to the planning system. Council planning teams require knowledge and experience of environment, transport, infrastructure, heritage, design and engagement. We all need to understand the system that we work within but more importantly how these different disciplines need to come together to deliver a shared vision and to create places where people want to live, work and play.  

The learners on the 2021 RTWP programme have an exciting and diverse mix of work experience including town planning overseas, environmental management, strategic infrastructure, architecture and transport. It was our mission to design a training programme that covered all areas of the planning system providing learners with a practical insight in to working in Town Planning in England today and into the future. With the help and thanks to industry experts[i] we delivered a modular based programme and the feedback tells us that we were successful in our mission.

Over the weeks of training the RTWP Class of 2021 were able to understand the interdependencies of our complex planning system. The course helped to illustrate how the seemingly unrelated parts of the planning system rely on the success of the others. Critically, we were able to show that there is room and demand for the experiences of the individuals and help them to understand where their skills might fit into the system.

We had no idea how this programme was going to work when we agreed to provide the training element. We trusted in our knowledge of Councils and how they operate. We designed the programme very much from what we felt we would need to know if we were applying for Local Planning Authority jobs right now. What the programme taught us though was that there are inherent barriers in our recruitment processes that can limit opportunities for people who do not have the direct experience, or the accredited degree. Yet often individuals can have a wealth of experience and transferable skills that would fundamentally complement and enhance any planning team. This programme has certainly put the fire in our bellies to try and help improve the recruitment procedures of Councils.

The RTWP Class of 2021 were exceptional. They were fully engaged in the programme always offering insightful, skilled and collaborative contributions. It was an absolute privilege to work with them. They showed us that getting a wider range of experiences into our planning system would not only make it work better but would help change the way in which it works. 

To the RTWP Class of 2021 thank you. You have impressed us, not just at PAS but all of the trainers too. We wish you all the very best of luck in your new and future roles and we know that you will make a real difference to the areas you plan. And don’t forget to stay in touch!


[i] With special thanks to the Royal Town Planning Institute for working in partnership with us to deliver this programme and to all of our trainers including MHCLG, Natural England, London Borough of Brent, Greater Norwich Partnership, Hertfordshire County Council, West Suffolk Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, Shahilla Barok, Jeanette James, Citiesmode, Land Use Consultants, Raymond Crawford, Civic Voice, Dentons, Gilian Macinnes Associates, Urban Design Learning and Public Practice.  

Predicting HDT 2020 measurement and launching ‘Project land supply’

I hope everyone had a happy #happynationalhousingstatsicticsday on the 25th Nov. I spent it reviewing the net completions data for councils which is essentially the net number of homes built between 1st April 2019 and 31st March 2020. That’s important to know because the figures don’t yet reflect the impact the pandemic is having on the construction industry and housing market; in fact they show that nationally the number of homes built increased by 1% from the previous year. So delivery has improved but for how long? 

Anyway, the reason I was reviewing spreadsheets was to try and use the number of homes built in 2019/20 to predict what everyone’s Housing Delivery Test 2020 result will be. To be clear -Government haven’t yet published the official Housing Delivery Test 2020 measurement or announced when they are expected so I was geeking out on spreadsheets all for my own fun. The Housing Delivery Test (HDT) uses the number of homes built against the housing requirement for the last 3 years; so now I know everyone’s number of homes built for the last 3 years I’ve got half of the equation and should be able to work out their result. Simple yeah, urmm not quite – the other half of the equation is a bit more tricky. Predicting the correct housing requirement figures for the last 3 years is more problematic as it involves a mixture of the transitional arrangements and either the figure from an adopted plan or the standard method calculations! Its maths upon maths! So for predicting the anticipated 2020 results here’s how it goes

Year 1 – Last year of transitional arrangements as set out in the Housing Delivery Test Rule Book which are based on the 2014 household populations projections.

Year 2 – either the figure from an adopted plan which is less than 5yrs old or the standard method figure whichever is the lower 

Year3 – either the figure from an adopted plan which is less than 5yrs old or the standard method figure whichever is the lower

If only it were that simple but there are other factors at play here – for example is an LPA taking unmet need from another area which would increase their figure? is there a stepped housing requirement in their plan? or does their plan turn 5 in 2019/20 and so will be a mixture of adopted figure and standard method based on the number of days in the year the plan remains less than 5yrs old?

Despite this minefield I had a go at working out what everyone’s HDT result might be and the results aren’t pretty. There are potentially over 120 councils who will be facing sanctions from the test this year all of which will need to produce an Action Plan. Over the summer PAS updated their guide on Producing an Effective Action Plan so if you need to produce one I strongly recommend you check it out.

Of the 120 (ish) around 70 will be facing the application of presumption of sustainable development for a 12month period or until the 2021 HDT measurement is published. This is a significant jump from the 9 councils in presumption from the 2019 HDT result and will involve councils over a wide geographical spread. Its also likely to involve some of the ‘good guys’ with both an up-to-date plan and a heathy land supply but due to delivery issues in 2017-2020 will be in presumption territory. This highlights to me the importance of predicting future HDT performance accurately so councils are forewarned of heading towards presumption and this will be something PAS will focus on as part of the HDT 2020 support in the new year. The interplay of having a current plan, whether there’s a pipeline of supply and whether delivery rates are sufficient are the holy trinity of navigating presumption territory. 

The three things all interact with each other as a cycle around falling into presumption and being able to understand and forecast each side is becoming more and more important. I’m going to be developing my thinking on this interaction and how to think about predicting delivery and land supply in the new year, with that in mind PAS are looking for willing guinea pigs, urm I mean councils, who may want to get involved in ‘project land supply’ so if you are interested sign up to our event on the 18th December here.

For those facing presumption as a result of HDT 2020, whenever they get published, PAS will be offering our support and we will announce some events in the new year focusing on how good decision making is key when the presumption is applied and more generally how to deal with the application in both development management and policy terms.

This other thing I’ve been grappling with this week is needs assessments and what role they play in the world of standard methods and proposed binding figures. Now councils no longer have to generate an Objectively Assessed Need via a Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) what is the future of housing needs and assessing the right type of homes needed going to look like. I don’t know – but I’m going to have a stab at it!

I’ve looked at dozens of different SHMA’s and needs assessment which all contain very similar datasets, most of which are readily found via ONS, NOMIS or the Census. Surely there must be a way to use this publicly available data for councils so they can procure an off the shelf analysis giving contextual information about the area, changes in population trends, local job market etc.. 

Wouldn’t it be great if councils could then bung in their own data from things like monitoring records and the housing needs register to then combine it with this standardised data approach to generate a simple and readable needs assessment. All packaged up with data visualisations and infographics – a needs assessment based on reliable data but at 30 pages not 300 that everyone, including the communities whose needs are being assessed could understand. The utopian data dream – I’ll be blogging on this as the project gets up and running.

 

“Planning for the Future” consultation events – What we saw and heard

This post is written in thanks and reflection to all the officers who attended our recent consultation events with the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on the Planning for the Future White Paper.

Getting together in virtual “zoom” to listen, discuss, feedback and debate is fast becoming the new norm. Whilst we most certainly missed seeing you in person, and having multiple chats over lunch, we were mighty impressed with the level of engagement that you brought to these sessions. And for this we would like to say a very big thank you on behalf of both us at PAS and MHCLG.

The sessions were a safe place for you to talk openly about the proposals as individual practitioners, as well as on behalf of your councils. This intelligence and feedback to Government is hugely valuable and your thoughts, ideas, questions and concerns were captured from all the sessions. What we saw and heard will be important considerations for Government as they now reflect on how they will take proposals forward.  

The sessions really benefited from the fact that colleagues from across the country could meet to discuss their different issues. We can often be preconditioned to think that events have maximum benefit when we stick together in regions because experiences and challenges are similar. Whilst this has undeniable benefit, hearing about different challenges and practices from across the country enables us to think differently about what appropriate responses in our own areas might be. Afterall, no 2 councils are alike even if they are next door to one another. It also allows us to think about the proposals more holistically as a national planning system needs to work everywhere.

What was surprising was that even though we were in our virtual room together there was very little mention of the global Coronavirus “C19” pandemic. The current limitations on movement and functioning use of place(s) we all hope will be temporary. But what will the experiences of 2020 mean for how we plan for the future? What evidence will we need? what type of homes will people want? how will we go to work? how we will move around? what infrastructure will communities need? and importantly how we will support economic development? Of course, none of us have the answers right now but we will all need to think about this in Planning for the Future. Planning as a profession will become ever more important in the recovery from the pandemic.

Back to the White Paper, we thought it would be helpful to summarise some of the key messages that you told us during the events. As we said on the day, nothing that we heard is attributable, and who said what will remain confidential. We recognise that many of you have concerns about the transition arrangements into a new system and importantly what the timetable for that transition will be. Many of you told us that until you understand your areas housing requirements it is difficult both practically, and politically, to move forward with your plan making. Some of you see proposals as a radical overhaul of the system, while others consider them to be reflective of much of what you can already do. A favourite of mine was the recognition that there could be a role for new style development or planning briefs – I was brought up on these as a young planner with a fantastic teacher and am a huge advocate of their collaborative approach and most importantly what they can deliver.  

For a more detailed summary of what you told us please do head over to our website  

Losing 5YHLS – Let’s not be too hasty

There’s a lot of noise around 5YHLS at the moment. The Government’s consultation Planning for the Future proposes to remove the need to demonstrate a 5YHLS as well as an alternative option to retain 5YHLS if the calculation of how much land needed to meet development needs was left to local decision.

The requirement to demonstrate a 5YHLS has been long standing, it’s certainly been in place for as long as I’ve been in planning, so its potential loss appears on the face of it to be a pretty radical change. 

The Planning for the Future consultation seeks to retain the presumption sanction, not by virtue of 5YHLS but via the Housing Delivery Test (HDT) measurement result. My view is that  5YHLS has always been a carrot and stick scenario; the carrot is the benefit of showing the plan is being delivered as anticipated and having the ability to defend against unsuitable speculative development and the stick is the loss of control via application of the presumption in favour of sustainable development.  Is the carrot worth it, yes definitely and now the stick moves to the HDT measurement.

There is some legitimate criticism that for HDT there is a time lag in picking up undelivery of housing in an area and isn’t as immediate in its application of the presumption if things are starting to go wrong for a council. Whilst I concede some of that criticism I don’t believe this is outweighed by the benefits of using HDT; it’s based on real world delivery – the actual number of net housing actually built and completed. There is no playing about with the spreadsheet to manipulate the numbers, you can’t find an extra block of flats that’s been built down the back of the sofa. HDT is a truer reflection of how the housing market and development industry is operating in that area; unlike 5YHLS which has become its own industry of number manipulation and the obsession with proving there is or isn’t a magic 5yr number. I should know, as a land supply specialist for many years it has become a micro industry for consultants, barristers and planners like me spending hour upon hour in Local Plan examinations and S78 appeals debating, or flat out arguing, as to the method of calculation, the variables and the nitty gritty of each sites contribution – all with the aim of showing or not whether a number added up to 5. That isn’t what land supply should be about and it is this micro industry with its endless arguing that I believe Planning for the Future is seeking to do away with rather than removing the fundamental basic that planners should think about how and when housing comes forward.

There are plenty of industry commentators out there either ready to mourn 5YHLS loss or jump for joy; but let’s not be too hastey. I don’t believe the proposal to remove the requirement to demonstrate is all that radical – it simply proposes to remove the ‘test’ element rather than the need to think about what is happening with land supply. Planners and councils should be thinking about land supply as part of the day to day function of their planning services and the monitoring feedback loop on whether their plan is actually being delivered. How can you tell if sufficient sites are coming forward to meet the development requirements and HDT measurement if you aren’t working out your supply pipeline? A fundamental principle of plan making is the need of a forward looking land supply to ensure the housing requirements set out in your plan can be met. Whilst in the future it might not be a 5yr period being looked at and instead might be 2yr, 3yr or even 10yr period the principle of ensuring development needs are being met and that infrastructure interlinked with sites is coming forward in tandem. Forecasting of an areas performance against its HDT for future years will become more important as council’s will need to accurately predict if or when the presumption would be applied and this is already seen as a crucial step in the production of a HDT Action Plan. During the last few months of my secondment with the Planning Advisory Service we have produced a guide on how to do an effective HDT Action Plan covering the importance of knowing what the future results could be based on predicted supply or changes to the requirement e.g. by adopting a plan. Have look here Housing Delivery Test – Preparing Effective Action Plans

So is the proposed removal of the need to demonstrate a 5YLS a radical change – no I don’t think so, to my mind it’s keeping the carrot and moving the stick.

Local Plans, White Paper, Transition – which way to jump?

“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”
― Oscar Wilde

I’ve learned during my time at Planning Advisory Service (PAS), that whenever big changes are afoot that it’s best to leave the ‘hot takes’ to the clever bloggers and tweeters, and to sit back, listen, and then reflect. We dance very carefully between helping local planning authorities (LPAs) understand and respond to change and how much (or usually little) civil servants are at liberty to tell us about the factors that will affect their choices. 
 
I’ll leave others to trade blows over the imagined planning system utopia/dystopia, to focus on the very real and practical ‘today’ issue that LPAs are asking us for a steer on – ‘should we carry on with our plan production under the current system?’ – not an unreasonable question when you consider the cost and resources involved in creating a local plan, the many different stages councils are at, and that a complete re-writing of the planning system as we know it is being heralded.

The answer (today) is ‘Yes’…
A qualified, multi-layered ‘yes’. A few versions of ‘yes’. An ‘it’s still only a consultation’ yes. Have I layed that on thick enough? When you consider the potential answers and the potential implications this all becomes truly mesmerising. It feels like folly to even think about these potential answers while what we have is ‘only’ a consultation; nothing is set in stone (yes I know that sounds naive), and with 300 odd LPAs there could be 300 or so different scenarios. To make it easier on myself I have simplified things by making a few assumptions based on what I ‘know’.

Is 2023 still relevant to plan making?
The government was clear from the very start of the Covid-19 lockdown that the 2023 deadline for councils to have an up to date plan remains. There’s nothing in the White Paper and the comments from Ministers about the 2023 deadline – this suggests that this is still a hard deadline that councils are expected to meet. To labour a previous point, we are still operating in the current planning system – nothing has changed. It didn’t change for Covid-19 and there is no mention of it changing for the White Paper.

What do we know?
The White Paper tells us:

  • New local plans are to be produced within 30 months of legislation coming into force, or 42 months if the local plan was adopted in the 3 years prior to legislation coming into force;
  • All LPAs to have ‘new style’ local plans ‘to be in place by the end of ‘the parliament’ (Planning For The Future page 74); assuming they mean this parliament i.e. May 2024.

The current planning system tells us: All LPAs to have up to date (‘current system’) local plans in place by 2023.

What does this mean?
To get a ‘new system’ local plan in place by May 2024, legislation will have to be in force by December 2021 (just go with it – I’m no expert on the Fixed Term Parliament Act). Councils find themselves in one of 5 main scenarios:

 

ScenarioNew style plan required byoptions on what to do?
Current Plan will be more than 3 but less than 5 years old in Dec 2021, no plans to review it.May-24Make a new style plan once the new legislation is in force.
Current Plan will be less than 3 years old in Dec 2021, no plans to review it.May-25Make a new style plan once the new legislation is in force.
Reviewing plan and LDS Adoption date is on or before Dec 2021May-25Finish current plan to meet 2023 deadline, start new plan when legislation is in force.
Reviewing plan and LDS Adoption date is between Dec 2021 and end 2023, current plan over 3 years old in Dec 2021May-24Finish current plan to meet 2023 deadline, start new plan when legislation in force.
Reviewing plan and Adoption date is between Dec 2021 and end 2023, current plan less than 3 years old in Dec 2021May-25Finish current plan, start new plan when legislation in force.
Over-riding scenario: assume Legislation is in force by Dec 2021

This means that some councils could be starting to make their ‘new style’ plan while still finishing their old one. It could also mean that hundreds of councils will be making plans in sync – is the Planning Inspectorate ready for this? Can a new planning system really be delivered in this way and in this timeframe?

Could this all result in a colossal waste of time?
Glass half-full time; let’s talk about opportunities and investment. Whatever happens, councils need up-to-date frameworks for making decisions, and work being undertaken now will all be relevant preparation and monitoring to feed in to the next version of our local plans whatever form they take. If you are early on in the process of plan making/review then it is probably worth considering how your plan proposals might look in the proposed new system. There is nothing to stop you thinking about how your area might look categorised as growth, renewal, protection. Why not start thinking about a more rationalised evidence base? And, one of the things that isn’t going to change is the march of the digital planning system – there are many already advanced projects looking at local plans and back office systems that councils can test and help develop – talk to us at PAS, our friends in MHCLG digital land team or LocalDigital about how you can get involved. 

And remember, we still have 2023 and with that remains the current system of intervention, presumption etc.

A many-layered cake
Setting out the above is in many ways the simple bit. There are lots of nuances and details that define each council’s position. For example, those councils currently early on in the plan preparation stage / approaching Reg 18 consultation were already questioning the relevance of their evidence base due to the effects of the pandemic, and can now see the prospect that the type/weight of evidence they are working on/commissioning may not even be a requirement in the new system.

Then there are those at Reg 19 and beyond who broadly seem to be intending to carry on, but even these councils are being questioned by politicians as to the wisdom of continuing until the potential implications of the White Paper are fully understood.  

If only it was just the White Paper proposals LPAs that were feeding this question.  Layered onto this is the post/ongoing Covid-19 impact on transport/retail/town centres, values and viability, the recent changes to the Use Class Order, the new standard method for calculating housing need, PD changes and we also have the Local Government Devolution White Paper. Shall I also mention the Green Restart / Climate Emergency? 

So, the answer (today) is ‘Yes’ – keep making local plans
Yes, a qualified, multi-layered ‘yes’ to keeping going with your ‘current system’ local plan preparation/review if you are in the middle of it or planning to do so before December 2021. And don’t forget of course that all of the above could (and probably will) be shot to pieces as each day goes by.

Remember – it’s a consultation…
None of the above is true. Pure speculation on my part.  Nothing has changed yet. LOTS to be discussed, ironed out, explained and shaped, and can this all really be ready to go in December next year? For such fundamental proposals to take hold across the system, for local plans to be re-written, for ‘culture change’ to take hold it will be 5 -10 years before any new national system is properly established won’t it?

What can’t be disputed/hasn’t changed is that councils need an up to date framework in place for making planning decisions while we wait to find out what the new system looks like and proper and clear transitional arrangements are in place.  

What is PAS doing?
Massive change is going to happen. Local councils have to respond, and carry on.
We will be supporting the consultation process with a series of events from mid-September, and more generally we are planning to provide support to councils with weighing up their options on ‘which way and how to jump’, and once they are decided, help with some of the practical plan making implications. Which, if I am right about the above, will mean ‘blended’ support around the traditional current system plan making requirements and helping prepare to deliver a ‘new system’ Local Plan.