Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Making profits from changing land use: "Profits that under a fairer system should revert to the community whose needs and activities serve to create the land’s value."

The changing status of land value is highly political.

Perhaps a few questions would illuminate:

How should any increase in the value of land be treated?
Futures Forum: Economics @ Transition Exeter: A land value tax
Futures Forum: Why is housing so expensive? ... and what could Land Value Taxation contribute? Meeting in Exeter: Wednesday 25th February

How arbitrary are politically-decided changes in value?
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: expropriation & eminent domain >>> "The principle that there is a public realm of common citizenship and essential public goods and space which ought not to be appropriated for private benefit."

How is the status of land determined - and to whose advantage?
Futures Forum: What motivates nimbyism? Who benefits from land-use classification?

How far does the public benefit from any change in status?
Futures Forum: "The planning system is badly broken and communities are being left to pick up the mess."

To what extent are the public offered sweeteners - otherwise known as S106 money?
Futures Forum: 'Planning gain' - the replacement for S106 cash from developers - the Community Infrastructure Levy - but is it still 'bribery' by a different name?

This letter in the WMN was spotted by the East Devon Watch blog:

Lobbying is still a dark art

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 18, 2015

Your leading article on November 13 concerned the Countryside Land and Business Association and its new president Ross Murray, and it makes the outrageous claim that “in politics today lobbying ministers has gone from a dark art to a legitimate and indeed vital part of our democratic process.”

Surely the opposite is the case, lobbying ministers is still a dark art which is anti-democratic and potentially corrupting. It occurs behind closed doors so how can anyone assess its legitimacy?

It is hard to see how democratic principles apply to landowning in England and Wales where 33,000 CLA members own half the land. At a local level landowners have far more power than any elected representative, and their power is without any democratic accountability.

It is good to know that Mr Murray is concerned about the need for affordable rural homes (also WMN Nov 13). A major factor in the high cost of houses is the high cost of the land due to speculation and the way in which land value shoots up as soon as its use changes, through the planning system, from agricultural to residential, enabling landowners to gain hefty unearned profits. Profits that under a fairer system should revert to the community whose needs and activities serve to create the land’s value.

If Mr Murray could persuade his members to this view he would help solve the rural housing crisis. If not then Winston Churchill’s view will remain as true today as when he stated it over a century ago:

“Land monopoly is not the only monopoly but it is by far the greatest of the monopolies – it is a perpetual monopoly and it is the mother of all other forms of monopoly.”

WMN Letters: Lobbying is still a dark art | Western Morning News
Lobbying: dark art or vital part of democratic process? | East Devon Watch

It is clear that members of the East Devon Business Forum benefitted from a change in land-use:
'If I turn a green field into an estate then I’m not doing it for peanuts' - Telegraph 

Investigative journalist Anna Minton produced this report in 2013:

III. ‘The local mafia’ 
Conflicts of interest in East Devon

“The further out of London you get, the more like the Wild West it is. If you do rock the boat, the clique make your life a bloody misery.” So says Charlie Hopkins, a solicitor acting for objectors to a development in East Devon. 

East Devon District Council has been the subject of on-going controversy over contentious planning decisions and allegations of conflicts of interest which date back more than 20 years. 

The current controversy centres around a group called the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF), which is perceived to have significant influence over how much land is developed in the area. xlvii The members of the Forum are largely landowner/developers in the district who are actively pursuing major development, either to their industrial estates or applications for large-scale housing schemes. 

The Forum is chaired by Graham Brown, who runs his own planning consultancy, Grey Green Planning Ltd, and a building company, Brown’s Builders. Brown was a local councillor until he was suspended by the Conservative Party following a recent undercover investigation by the Daily Telegraph during which he boasted: “If I can’t get planning nobody will.” xlviii Brown also held other positions with influence over planning matters as chair of East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) Local Development Framework, which is the development plan for the borough. The Forum’s Vice Chair is Roy Stuart, who is a local landowner.

Stuart and Brown have a history. In 1990 Stuart, then Conservative Vice Chairman of the Council’s planning committee, was forced to resign as a councillor after planning permission was given for development on his own land. Fellow councillor Brown resigned in sympathy, forcing a by-election. Both stood again as Conservative candidates, but only Brown was re-elected, narrowly. xlix 

Such is the anger of residents and independent councillors at EDBF l and the influence it has had on development in East Devon, that in November 2012 a protest march at Sidmouth, on the Local Plan’s development proposals, drew over 4,000 people. Many people there were carrying placards with slogans relating to EDBF.

One of these contentious planning applications centres on proposals to build 450 homes and a retail centre on a site owned by Roy Stuart at West Clyst, Pinhoe, east of Exeter. The site is Grade 1 agricultural land which, according to council policy, should be protected from development. But despite this and despite the huge number of objections the Conservative-led council approved the application to build on it. li 

Objector Paul Newman said local residents felt it was a pre-judged decision. “East Devon District Council claimed they wanted to protect Grade 1 agricultural land, but this development was approved ahead of the Local Development Framework [borough plan]. We thought it was a pre-judged decision because they asked for the application to be brought forward.” Local residents allege that secret (minuted) discussions with developers where heard while the plan was being drawn up, with at least two developers encouraged to bring forward early major planning applications on sites. This raised concerns over whether the planning decisions were effectively ‘prejudged’, and raised questions over whether there were conflicts of interest present. lii 

Newman also echoed Nina Edge’s observation that consultations by the council were often timetabled for the holiday period in order to purposely undermine residents’ objections. “Major consultations are always started over the holiday period. You don’t get long enough to construct a reasoned response – it’s a matter of days. It’s standard practice to release any consultation over Christmas or in August,” he said. 

A planning row at Axminster, also in East Devon, has followed a similar trajectory with barrister Charlie Hopkins alleging that land has been allocated for housing contrary to East Devon’s own planning policies.  

“When the Local Development Framework was in its very early stages, the panel was effectively inviting developers to present proposals to them way ahead of allocations for the site. That was the case with Axminster. Local Development Framework meetings at that time were held behind closed doors and did not release any minutes, but it emerged later from the minutes (which were initially withheld under the FOI Act, but eventually obtained under the Environmental Regulations Act), that East Devon was encouraging the application. Even though the site was contrary to development plan the council recommended approval,” 

Hopkins explained, liii echoing the experience in West Clyst. Hopkins is the solicitor acting for the Axminster objectors who have decided to take the decision to the Court of Appeal. But he says that even if the decision is quashed, East Devon will be able to contest it. “Now it is in the new local plan. East Devon decided post facto to allocate land for housing. They have effectively undermined their own policies,” he said.  

Hopkins, like Adrian Glasspool at the Heygate, believes decisions like this are driven by the enormous land values for sites with planning permission, explaining that agricultural land is worth between £5-6,000 per acre but, with planning permission, its value rockets to half a million pounds per acre. “Local planning authorities encourage pre-planning application conversations with developers. The further out of London you get the more like the Wild West it is. It’s groups of local landowners, local gentry and local farmers. If they’re not local politicians their sons are. It’s not unique – it’s how it works at the local level. In urban, metropolitan areas there are a different set of actors at play. In rural areas it’s very much to do with ties to the land and connections with local politicians,” he said. 

The struggles at Axminster and West Clyst are just two of the development battles that communities claim reflect real failures in local democracy in East Devon. In another case, which was reported to the Local Government Ombudsman, Liberal Democrat councillor Geoff Chamberlain, with colleagues, Derek Button and Steve Wragg, resigned in protest at what was perceived to be underhand pressure on councillors to influence decisions. A planning application was refused after it was felt that a councillor had a vested interest and was trying to influence the decision. The application was put in again, and at that meeting another councillor was overheard saying: “I wish to god I was an independent because I wouldn’t be told how to vote.” liv Summarising his views on the council’s democratic processes, a councillor who did not want to be named said: “We have a cabal. Half a dozen names come to mind. They work together on these things. I regard them as the local mafia.” lv

Scaring the Living Daylights out of people - Anna Minton

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