Monday, 27 October 2014

106 payments and the NPPF.............. the repercussions for East Devon

The shocking article from Oliver Wainwright in this week's Guardian considered how the top-down planning system is creating Dubai-on-Thames, and so destroying London's skylines and communities:
Futures Forum: 106 payments and the NPPF.......... “The definition of ‘sustainable’ has nothing to do with green issues or energy at all......... It means one thing: commercially viable.”

But it goes beyond London - indeed, the issues covered by the piece have profound implications for East Devon.

As one commentator has observed:
The East Devon equivalent of this are sprawling industrial and housing estates with no infrastructure over AONB.

To take specific sections of the Guardian piece:


> If the devil is in the detail, then the detail is Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, a clause which formalised “planning gain”, making it in the local authorities’ interests to allow schemes to balloon beyond all reason, in the hope of creaming off the fat of developers’ profits for the public good.
> In practice, since council budgets have been so viciously slashed, Section 106 has become a primary means of funding essential public services, from social housing to public parks, health centres to highways, schools to play areas. The bigger the scheme, the fatter the bounty, leading to a situation not far from legalised bribery – or extortion, depending on which side of the bargain you are on. 

As suggested, S106 payments could be seen as not much more than 'bribery':
Futures Forum: 'Planning gain' - the replacement for S106 cash from developers - the Community Infrastructure Levy - but is it still 'bribery' by a different name?

The question being, once a 'promise' has been made by the developer, as to whether the payments will in fact be forthcoming:
Futures Forum: Missing out on developers' S106 funds...

For example, there have been questions about the payment of S106 money over housing in Newton Poppleford:
Newton Poppleford: Little Orchard, big problem | East Devon Alliance
and in Feniton:
East Devon District Council responds to Wainhomes | Susie Bond
and in Seaton:
Seaton: EDDC votes to share the profits with Tesco but no affordable housing on the site | Sidmouth Independent News

Meanwhile in Sidmouth, following the demolition following alleged arson of the Fortfield Hotel on the seafront and its replacement with 'zero-carbon' flats
Futures Forum: Fortfield Hotel ... to ... Sanditon apartments
... the Town Council has been hoping for a slice of the funds given to the District Council - although there are no guarantees of any specific amounts:
Futures Forum: "What are your ideas for future projects for Sidmouth?" ..... ..... deadline for suggestions: Monday 30th June

It might be said that a BMX park or play park is great PR for the developers - but as a percentage of profits made on building projects it might also be said that a few £10k is peanuts:
Plans revealed for new £40,000 multi use games area in Exmouth | Exeter Express and Echo
Exmouth Skate and BMX Jam returns this August | Exeter Express and Echo
Sunny smiles all round as Elizabeth Road play park opens - East Devon District Council - News

Developers, meanwhile, are very happy to talk about their 'funding':
Cranbrook | Taylor Wimpey

And so, meanwhile, the 'relationship' between the public and private sectors continues to blossom:
Futures Forum: Happy news coming out of Cranbrook... churnalism and the partnership between developers and politicians...
Futures Forum: "The new build for the western growth area of the district will provide much-needed business and employment for the young families as they set up new homes."


> “Council chief executives will allow schemes to be pumped up as much as they can go before they get political push-back from councillors. And the worst schemes happen when there is no political resistance at all.”

There have been several cases of the District Council's own Scrutiny Cttee seeming to fail in its job of critically examining development projects:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "Merely noting a report has no place on Scrutiny."
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: Councillors "in the dark, as no-one within the EDDC hierarchy was telling them anything."

As noted by the Editor of Pulman's 'View from' publications, there is very little independent scrutiny from Councillors - as opposed to the seemingly overweening position of the Chief Executive:

Does politics work for locals? 
Philip Evans Editor Column 21 October 2014

IN all the years I have been doing this job (too many according to my critics out there), I can’t remember a time when there was so much dissatisfaction with local government. Why is this?

You won’t be surprised, but I have a theory.

When I first started covering rural and borough councils in East Devon and occasionally Devon County Council, 50 years ago, politics had very little to do with it. We were all aware that East Devon was predominantly blue but the focus was very much on serving the electorate.

Councillors got little or no expenses and the officers were not paid such exorbitant salaries. Debates were not dominated by groups of politically affiliated councillors, with members of other political shades marginalised, and there were no grand titles such as “portfolio holders”. Matters were dealt with by committees where all councillors had an influence.

With the exception of town councils, being an elected representative today is as much a career as it is a service for many. I am not denying the amount of hours our councillors at district and county level put in, or questioning their commitment to their communities, but generally they are compensated for their efforts, especially the more capable and ambitious members who climb the political ladder. Some of them receive far in excess of the average weekly wage in this area.

I’m not talking about every councillor. I noticed when Googling councillors expenses, when I started thinking about a theme for this week’s column, that one long serving councillor claimed only £12.50 last year.

Times change and the reorganisation to create the current three-tier system (county, district and parish/town) back in 1974 was deemed necessary. Like it or not, local government is in the politics game and it will always be that way.

This became clear to me last week after I compared the different interpretation being put on the summoning of EDDC chief executive Mark Williams to a Commons Select Committee to answer question on electoral procedures. Having read the Hansard transcript of proceedings, it didn’t seem to me that it was a wholly enjoyable experience for Mr Williams.

One district councillor emailed me to say he was “mildly disappointed” with the view I had taken but then, incredulously, went on to criticise the “tame” spin put out by his own council’s communications team. His words, not mine.

Talk to most people and they have no real interest in local government (it was ever thus) but those who have are pretty disillusioned. Controversy rages in most of the towns in Pulman’s Country at the moment but there is little faith in the ability of our elected representatives to find solutions.

I think there is also a degree of frustration among a number of long serving councillors, with some of them having already decided not to seek re-election when we go to the polls next May. The big question is: will their replacements do any better?

Philip Evans

Pulmans View from Sidmouth - digital edition

On the other hand, the Whip of the main party at the District Council claims there are independent voices:
“Conservative councillors are free to express their own views..”, says East Devon Party Whip | Sidmouth Independent News


> In all cases, how developers prove what they can afford to pay for comes down to the dark art of “viability”. The silver bullet of planning applications, the viability appraisal explains, through impenetrable pages of spreadsheets and fastidious appendixes, exactly how a project stacks up financially.
With calculations often undisclosed for reasons of commercial confidentiality, councils are forced to blindly accept the developers’ figures as the ultimate de facto truth, allowing their own policies to be flagrantly breached.

Ironically, in the case of the District Council's own relocation project, it has chosen to declare the Viability Reports compiled by its consultants as 'commercially confidential' and is asking councillors and public to 'blindly accept' those figures which have been released:

"It is hoped that a summary of the Office Accommodation Viability Report identifying options will be issued under Part A for public consumption. The confidential nature of much of the viability report precludes it from being made publicly available. We hope that Cabinet will be able to consider the Viability Report at its meeting in July [2013] 
"The term "viability" used for this report relates to a financial viability including "best value" for the Council and, therefore, the Council Tax Payer. The parameters for this report were set by Members of the Relocation Working Party on 19 October 2011 and subsequently ratified by Cabinet on 30 November 2011.

Relocation Manager - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

The case is currently being decided by the Information Tribunal:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: latest news on the FOI tribunal


> A relatively new field, viability has been given increasing weight by the government’s National Planning Policy Framework, introduced in 2012, which slashed 1,300 pages of policy down to 65, as part of the coalition’s triumphant bonfire of red tape. The NPPF introduced a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, which sounds innocuous enough – but as Rees points out, “the definition of ‘sustainable’ has nothing to do with green issues or energy at all. It means one thing: commercially viable.”

The whole notion of 'sustainable development' has been hopelessly and willfully lost in translation:
Futures Forum: Sustainable Development: it's a controversial topic...
Futures Forum: The semantics of sustainability: 'sustainable development'... or 'sustainable growth' ... or 'sustained economic growth'... or 'development for sustainability'...

Local authorities refer to 'sustainable development' with great frequency in documentation - but it is very unclear as to what it actually means on the ground:
Futures Forum: Sustainable Development: and East Devon
Futures Forum: District Council signs up to Sustainable Communities Act

And meanwhile, the National Planning Policy Framework seems to be leaning heavily towards one interpretation:
Futures Forum: Sustainable Development: and the NPPF
Futures Forum: Sustainable development and the NPPF: "In trying to solve housing supply issues, economic factors are out-weighing all other considerations and there is little thought or value given to preservation and conservation for the future."

The politics of defining 'sustainable growth' have become very heated on the international stage:
Futures Forum: "Sustainable Growth"... and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

A local example would be what's been happening in Feniton this last year:

Futures Forum: Sustainability, Sustainability, Sustainability
Futures Forum: Feniton, development and scaremongering
Futures Forum: “The village of Feniton has been targeted by speculators seeking housing developments” - but the Inspector has now rejected most of these...

And another example of the primacy of 'viability' when it comes to planning decisions would be the District Council's attitude to the Drill Hall and Port Royal on Sidmouth's seafront:

CAMPAIGNERS fighting to save an historic Sidmouth venue look set to be given until at least next summer to come up with a ‘viable’ proposal.
“The opportunity for that business plan to be produced is ongoing. While this may take the outcome beyond May 2015, the only reason is to give the community group the time they need to make their proposals viable.”

Council marks time on old Drill Hall blueprint - News - Sidmouth Herald
Futures Forum: Plans for Port Royal: "the aspiration for first phase development of Sidmouth Drill Hall"
Futures Forum: Plans for Port Royal: "Basic renovation of the Drill Hall could pave the way for the redevelopment of the whole of Port Royal" ... but "Councils do not consider it worthwhile for anyone to invest in the building."


> “The boroughs might be proud that they’re not here at the public’s expense,” says housing campaigner Jake Freeland, who held a protest in Cannes this year. “But that’s precisely the problem. They’re in the pockets of the investors, and they’ve come here to sell off our city.”
“There’s nothing wrong with planning performance agreements,” says one planning officer. “It’s just like allowing people to travel club class. You pay for a better service.” Quite whether club-class planning should be offered by a statutory pubic service is questionable, but developers have few qualms about throwing money at an authority, spitting out as many applications and fees as are necessary to see a project through. “We pay vast sums of money to have things determined quickly,” says the director of one major development company. “We pay the planner’s salary, cover their lawyers’ fees and everything, but we wouldn’t expect preferential treatment. It’s not a bribe.”

The East Devon Business Forum was set up several years ago with representation from the District's more powerful developers. 

Interestingly, the agenda at one meeting included the extraordinary item 'Environment, climate change and transition towns' - but absolutely nothing came of this. Rather, the concerns of the EDBF were clearly elsewhere:

Forum looking to the future

By This is Exeter | Posted: May 01, 2009

THE East Devon Business Forum has set up six working groups to focus on boosting the district's prosperity.

The forum decided to set up the groups at its April meeting to further its objectives of encouraging the economy, prosperity and well-being of East Devon.

They will focus on the following areas:

Availability of employment land;
Training and skills;
Housing, including affordable housing and housing land availability;
Environment, climate change and transition towns;
Stimulating business growth.

At the meeting in Honiton, members also learned about the success of the business support provided under the Rural Enterprise Development Project, supported by East Devon District Council.

More than 560 local employers and employees attended a total of 83 workshops over the past two years, with 94 per cent recommending the service.

Forum chairman Councillor Graham Brown invited all interested employers in East Devon to be represented at its next meeting, which takes place on Thursday, June 11, at 6pm at the East Devon Business Centre in Honiton.

Anyone interested in contributing to the groups is asked to contact Councillor Brown or the Honorary Secretary, Nigel Harrison, on 01404 41719 or by emailing NBHarrison@eastdevon.gov.uk 

East Devon Business Forum, Graham Brown | This Is Exeter | Exeter Express and Echo

However, the EDBF broke up with the resignation of its disgraced chair, Cllr Graham Brown:
Re-branded East Devon business forum disbands after councillor row | Exeter Express and Echo

The East Devon Alliance has been campaigning for two years for greater transparency into alleged privileged access for the EDBF:
Futures Forum: Identifying housing 'need' in East Devon: "Floodgates are open for developers"
Futures Forum: The East Devon Business Forum, housing numbers and greenfield sites
Futures Forum: Housing in East Devon: "I don’t see it as the floodgates opening, but I do see a stampede coming.”
Futures Forum: Crony capitalism and lemon socialism in East Devon........ The costs of "substantial growth and expanding business"

Questions remain as to the extent of the influence of the EDBF over strategic planning:
East Devon Business Forum input airbrushed from supplementary Employment Land paper for Local Plan inspector | Sidmouth Independent News

However, the Task Force committee set up to consider the activities of the East Devon Business Forum has been postponed indefinitely:
TAFF Committee on East Devon Business Forum correctly gagged? | Sidmouth Independent News
EDDC East Devon Business Forum Task and Finish group – even greater need for it to reconvene: | East Devon Alliance
Lead Officer of stalled Business TAFF to quietly disappear | East Devon Alliance


> Under the coalition’s localism agenda, the wheels for private-sector encroachment into public planning have been further oiled, with the introduction of neighbourhood plans. Presented as a means of empowering communities, they have in fact left the door wide open for canny developers to move in, host a few community coffee mornings with felt-tips and post-it notes, and engineer a plan to their own advantage. There is no requirement for those who draw up the plan to even reside in the neighbourhood and, although they need a 50% “yes” vote at referendum, there is no requisite minimum turnout.

The engine of Neighbourhood Planning is picking up in East Devon:
Futures Forum: Neighbourhood Plans for towns in East Devon: Axminster and Ottery St Mary

The latest is happening in Feniton:

The question remains as to how powerful such a Plan would be for local people to shape their community:

The Parish Council sees the writing of the plan, which has to be approved by a Planning Inspector, as the only way to prevent the crushing pressure of inappropriate development endured by the village over the last few years and culminating in the ‘Super Inquiry’ in January this year.

Many witnessed at first hand the unedifying sight of three developers squabbling over the spoils in the village before Planning Inspector, Jessica Graham.

Feniton’s Neighbourhood Plan kicks off | Susie Bond

However, it has been made clear that any Neighbourhood Plan cannot take precedence over the Local Plan - which still has to see the light of day in East Devon:

What a Neighbourhood Plan can and cannot do

A Neighbourhood Plan can...
Decide where and what type of development should happen in the neighbourhood
Promote more development than is set out in the Local Plan
Include policies, for example regarding design standards, that take precedence over existing policies in the Local Plan for the neighbourhood - provided the Neighbourhood Plan policies do not conflict with the strategic policies in the Local Plan.

A Neighbourhood Plan cannot...
Conflict with the strategic policies in the Local Plan prepared by the local planning authority
Be used to prevent development that is included in the Local Plan
Be prepared by a body other than a parish or town council or a neighbourhood forum.

Some general principles for Neighbourhood Plans

And yet the process is supposed to represent central government's 'Localism' agenda of bottom-up planning:
Futures Forum: Central government, nudging the housing market and greenfield sites
Futures Forum: W(h)ither "localism"?

But there have been questions about the Neighbourhood Planning process from the beginning:
Neighbourhood plans – democracy in action or just a sham? | Local Leaders Network | Guardian Professional


> Many of the worst offenders are the result of our slippery two-stage planning system, in which general outline permission can be given, while further details are postponed to a later “reserved matters” application. In a system based entirely on negotiation, it is a fair way of allowing developers to test the water and see what they can get away with, before spending money on detailed work. Yet it also allows crucial elements, like ground-floor uses, the location of entrances, the nature of materials and even massing and bulk, to slip through the net, allowing designs to be watered down to pale imitations of what had been agreed. And the hands of the local authority are hopelessly tied.

Generally speaking, then, a glossy promise of something can be promoted without too much awkward detail - as in much of the PR over the Skypark site:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: and the Skypark fly-through: "Many a contentious proposal has shimmied through the planning process (and on to the sales office) on the back of a series of CGIs, gleaming evocations that are liable to be slight on detail and heavy on seductive gleam."

Of course, the Outline Planning Application which the District Council itself put forward in March 2013 could be said to have 'tested the waters':
East Devon District Council - Moving and Improving News
EDDC Planning Officers approve EDDC Outline Plans for Knowle | Save Our Sidmouth
Sid Vale Association - SVA Objections to proposed Knowle redevelopment
Futures Forum: Knowle: Victorian hotel and grounds ... application to English Heritage for national listing

Even though it was turned down by the planning committee, the parameters set would be useful for any 'serious developers':
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: latest news on ...... FOI request goes to tribunal ... and ... Knowle on the market

See also:
Futures Forum: The pressures to build on green fields: 'intention to build'... is not the same as 'applying for outline planning permission' ... is not the same as 'applying for full planning permission'


> It comes down, he thinks, to the fact the UK planning system is overly reliant on individual negotiation between private developer and public servant, which is usually far from a level playing field. “It makes a very opaque and confusing system that relies on having people that are very sophisticated at brokering deals,” Brearley adds. “And those people will generally settle in places where they’ll earn more money. The people negotiating on behalf of the public are simply not sophisticated enough.”
> And it is a war in which the side representing the public interest has been systematically drained of expertise. The number of architects employed in the public sector has fallen from over 60% to less than 10% over the last 30 years, while planners have been relegated to third- and fourth-tier officers, with some boroughs contracting the service out altogether.

One only need think of how the sitcom 'Yes Minister' actually denigrated the status and respect accorded to the public servant - as explored in the documentary maker Adam Curtis' film 'The Trap':

The real knife in the heart for me came when Curtis interviewed Sir Anthony Jay who helped created 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister'. He was also an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and delighted in telling Curtis that the series was intended to undermine confidence in the public service, since public servants could not be trusted to act in any way differently to the rest of us, which is to say purely as self-interested individuals

'The Trap': how freedom took over the world. - Free Online Library
Liberal Polemic: The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of freedom? (part 1)

As for the situation today in East Devon, it is ironic that the denigrated civil servants at the District Council have themselves hired consultants to produce trusted professional work:

We are dealing here, in fact, with a government, and a Labour Party, that shares the Yes Minister view of the world to such an extent that it hires special advisers at exceptional pay rates from the private sector because it cannot trust the conniving bureaucrats of the public sector.

Freedom of Information – Nothing left to lose? | Cunning Hired Knaves


>Bullied and undermined, planning authorities have been left castrated and toothless, stripped of the skills and power they need to regulate, and sapped of the spatial imagination to actually plan places. As one house-builder puts it simply, “The system is ripe for sharp developers to drive a bulldozer right through.” 
>And they will continue to do so with supercharged glee, squeezing the life out of our cities and reaping rewards from the ruins, until there is something in the way to stop them.

And perhaps there will be change of sorts at next year's triple elections in May:
Futures Forum: Housing in East Devon: "the delay (and the developer free-for-all) could influence how residents vote in the next local elections in May 2015."

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