The Subplot | Nutrients and New Towns
Welcome to The Subplot, your regular slice of commentary on the business and property market from across the North of England and North Wales.
- SPECIAL REPORT: New Towns and nutrient neutrality. Labour and Conservatives float planning reforms. Are they worth your time?
FLUSHING OUT PLANNING REFORM
New Towns and nutrient neutrality
Both the Conservative government and Labour opposition are floating potential ways to mend what pretty much everyone agrees is a broken planning system.
You can tell a general election is coming: this week Labour was trailing a return of New Towns, the Conservatives took a swing at restrictive nutrient neutrality rules, and both were mulling the merits (or otherwise) of a switch towards a zoning/permitted development rights planning system. Let’s start with the controversial stuff.
New Towns encore
A call for more New Towns has a nice, decisive ring to it, recalling the era of post-war growth and optimism. Plus most people know what a New Town is – hiya Warrington, Skelmersdale, and Peterlee. Better still, since many will assume it means all the housing they don’t want on their own doorstep will go somewhere else miles away, it allows politicians and the public to be pro-housing without committing themselves to anything they might not like – so it’s brilliant politics.
But is it a good idea? Kevin Logan’s team at Maccreanor Lavington is advising on Birkenhead’s rethink and the masterplan for Manchester’s Red Bank. He thinks intensification is a better idea. “My view is, we need to be actively building back into our towns and cities, utilising intensification and compact urban growth approaches. We need to prioritise existing communities, augmenting them with considered growth, which would bring vitality, social, and economic opportunities, and deliver the resources that are needed,” he says. “We need to stop now building on greenfield or the countryside – this space is crucially required for the growth of ecology, biodiversity and resilience. We need to wild the hell out of the countryside, and grow communities and their ecologies within their existing urbanity.”
Or try this. “New Towns rarely work – they can too easily become large soulless areas of residential development. We would be better directing policy and funds towards intervention in existing towns and cities,” says Kate Pix, regeneration director at Kajima Europe, currently at work in Rochdale and Knowsley.
Hugely expensive, very complicated to deliver, requiring masses of political commitment over several parliaments, diverting money and attention from existing run-down towns, and maybe not universally successful first time ’round – Subplot didn’t find anyone in the Northern planning or property world who thought the New Town idea had legs. Feel free to add your comments below the line.
However, what people did like was Labour apparently thinking hard about the planning system. “At least it shows a direction of travel from a potential new government that planning is a serious matter to be grappled with,” says Colliers head of planning Anthony Aitken. He adds that you could achieve much the same with urban extensions to existing towns, a proper five-year housing target, a review of Green Belt, and a rule requiring councils to keep their local strategic plans up to date. All of that is said to be in Labour’s mind too.
And the Conservatives?
Relaxing nutrient neutrality rules is regarded as an easy win. Developers say the rules have held up plans for 92 houses in a single scheme in Carlisle, and the government reckons in total up to 100,000 houses could have been stalled or stopped. To recap: EU rules dating from 1992 required planners to think about the impact of nitrates and phosphates created by new development (meaning fertilisers on land, and effluent from your toilets). Everything was fine until 2018 when the European Court re-interpreted this to mean if there was any risk of a bad outcome, you couldn’t do it. Soon afterwards Natural England issued guidance that amounted to a moratorium on new building, and here we are today. Labour doesn’t seem to object.
Removing the gold plate
Ministers have tabled amendments to the Levelling Up Bill to take us back to where we were before the gold-plating began. “Nobody is saying nutrient issues aren’t important, but no one concern can stand above everything else. There has to be some clever thinking here,” says Harry Bolton, senior director and planning lead at CBRE Manchester. According to Colliers’ Aitken the real issue here is not property or planning, but the investment strategy and funding model of the water companies. Developers are caught in the crossfire with environmentalists.
Maybe a much bigger planning reset is required? Centre for Cities is among those promoting the idea of a zoning system, as used in much of the rest of the world. There is serious interest from politicians, particularly Northern Labour ones such as Stretford and Urmston MP (and former Trafford Council Leader) Andrew Western.
PDR with knobs on
It works like permitted development rights: each zone allows you automatic permission if you tick all the right boxes. The government writes the rules for what a zone allows, and councils prepare a map of which zones go where. After that, planning is simply about fitting the right building into the right zone. Simple, predictable, uncontroversial – at least, that’s the idea.
The big win is that you have genuine spatial planning, which means housing and jobs can be fitted into transport infrastructure, health, the lot. Anthony Breach, senior analyst at Centre for Cities, laughs genially at the idea that this is a return to 1960s central economic planning, but doesn’t exactly say it isn’t.
“Local plans today… don’t really think about the relationship of development with infrastructure and transport. But you could merge zoning in with local transport plans,” he says. “Zoning is more like how the rest of the world does planning…planning [in England] is a huge barrier to deliver whatever politicians want to do – from NHS reform, to carbon emissions, to disparities in income… and there’s now greater intellectual grasp of the need for reform.”
Not so keen
Politicians and policy wonks may like this idea, but the property business not so much. CBRE’s Bolton says the idea is “treating the symptom, not the cause, which is that planning has been chronically underfunded and just waving a wand or simplifying won’t help.” He also suspects zoning is solving a problem that doesn’t exist: compliant schemes being stopped. “A beige scheme, which is absolutely compliant with the rules, is going to be fine under zoning– but they tend to sail through the planning system as it is at the moment anyway.”
Suppose you want to build a storey higher than the zone allows, or go a few hundred yards outside a zone boundary, how does a zoning system cope with that? “Developers will always test the feasibility of what’s on offer, and it’s right that they should,” Bolton says. He suggests you could deal with this by having tightly written rules, with few exceptions, but thinks that won’t erase the tension. According to Breach if developers push the envelope in a zoning system then the local council would likely have discretion, as they do today – so we’re back to square one.
Never stop fighting
And then there’s the courts. If angry residents can’t win their case in front of the local planning committee, they won’t just roll over. They will fight it in the courts, a tendency that has increased as the English planning system has become more systematic and rules-based. “It’s a fact we’ve seen a huge amount more litigation over the last few decades,” says Bolton. Once again, we’re back to the uncertainty and time-consuming processes of today’s system.
All hail the new document
The most significant imminent change may have gone unnoticed, and is in the Levelling Up Bill already: newly minted National Development Management Policies will be important. These will be practical what-to-do versions of the high ideas found in the National Planning Policy Framework, and in effect instructions to local councils about exactly what gets built. NDMPs are to be read alongside (and count ahead of) local plans. The idea represents a potentially massive centralisation of planning policy, not entirely unlike zoning. “NDMPs will simplify planning considerably, they could be quite beneficial and unlock development effectively,” Breach says.
Get your act together
But what everyone wants is for the politicians to sort themselves out on planning. A cross-party consensus would be nice. Says Kajima’s Pix: “You can’t ask politicians to take the politics out of development, but we do need longer-term approaches that consider legacy as well as instant electoral returns. Development cycles and political cycles do not run concurrently and therefore on long-term projects, just when some momentum is being achieved a change in personnel or policy can immediately scupper this, which can add years onto when communities can expect to receive the desired benefits.”