The government’s brownfield policy is under siege. Last week, Lord Rogers launched an attack on its lack of progress; this week, parliament said he was right. Meanwhile, housebuilders struggle with the torpid planning system to deliver urban dwellings.
In a genteel corner of greater London, a 10-year conflict has been quietly raging. Here, as with similar stand-offs around the country, the battle is being fought between a housebuilder and a planning authority. In this example, one of Britain’s most pioneering and successful housebuilders is hoping that its application for 200 new homes on a brownfield site that it bought more than a decade ago will be given the green light. It has been turned down on appeal four times already.

  Over the years that the scheme has been paraded before planning officers and council officials, it has been honed, reduced in height, thinned out and cascaded down to the river – and every time it has been tossed out by a different set of officials because something did not meet their approval.

The first time it was the massing. Then they thought it was too close to the trees. Then they thought the blocks were too close to the river. By the fourth appeal, its design was deemed to be incompatible with the planning guidance that came out in March 2000. Each bout in the ring has cost Berkeley Group £70 000-80 000.

Housebuilders’ growing frustration with the planning system has prompted them to warn the government that, rather than getting 60% of new homes built on brownfield land, the urban revival will grind to a halt. At the results meeting last week, Berkeley Group chairman Tony Pidgley voiced the concern of many: “The most dangerous thing I can see on the horizon at the moment is that local authorities may stifle development.” Ask any housebuilder about building on brownfield and what follows is a battery of complaints – not so much about government policy, but the inadequacies of the machinery that is supposed to implement it.

Government under pressure

It is not only developers that are unhappy. The government is itself under siege. Last week, Lord Richard Rogers of Riverside, chairman of the urban taskforce, vented his exasperation with Tony Blair for failing to act on the recommendations put forward in his taskforce’s report a year ago.

He has called on the prime minister to take the idea of an urban renaissance to the heart of government – and stand up to chancellor Gordon Brown, whom Lord Rogers believes is blocking his proposals by refusing to introduce tax measures that promote brownfield over green. His views are expected to receive powerful backing today when the DETR parliamentary select committee publishes its inquiry into the urban renaissance. Andrew Bennett, chairman of the committee, says: “The government has moved very slowly; it needs a bold and imaginative programme and sufficient money in the spending round to kick-start the urban revival.”

The planning system is on the edge of a major change. Everything is happening at once

Professor Stephen Crow

Taskforce members and MPs alike believe that the government’s urban policy will fail if no fiscal measures are taken to support it, such as harmonising VAT between refurbishment and new build, providing more subsidies for cleaning contaminated land and reducing stamp duty for brownfield development. This last is the only fiscal measure expected to be reviewed in the chancellor’s autumn pre-budget announcement.

Lord Rogers’ other point is that fiscal measures alone are not enough. Regeneration requires co-ordinated action across Whitehall. Brownfield is plentiful in exactly those deprived areas where it is least likely to be developed, and even if greater subsidies were made available to pay for cleaning them up, people would not want to move to the finished product if it did not have good schools and low crime. This is what the urban renaissance is supposed to deliver.

Members of the taskforce are pinning their hopes for this co-ordinated policy-making on the government’s long-awaited response to their report. This will take the form of the urban white paper, to be published in the autumn. As one remarked: “We’ve not had a blow-by-blow account of what’s been accepted. But there is still a lot to play for. We’ve not given up hope.”

Fiscal and political will may be conspicuously absent from the central political arena, but the DETR has certainly been doing its bit to steer planning policy in Lord Rogers’ direction.

The view from the DETR

Construction and planning minister Nick Raynsford counters his criticisms of government torpor with claims that 17 of the taskforce’s recommendations have been tackled through changes to the planning system.

The government is trying to change the rules, but it has the whole of local government to change, too

Brian Salmon, Berkeley Homes

Among the slew of policy initiatives coming out of Eland House are proposals to speed up the appeals process (released last week) new guidance on transport (expected any day now, in the form of a revised PPG13), and a shake-up in compulsory purchase orders to enable sites to be more readily put together.

By far the biggest change, however, has already been introduced. This was the appearance of a revised PPG3 in March. It says that councils must release land for development in a sequential way, so that greenfield land cannot be released until it is established that brownfield land could not be used. It also stipulates higher housing densities, fewer car parking places and better design. This latest requirement was reiterated a few weeks after the revision to PPG3 in the accompanying design guidance. At the launch, Raynsford called for an end to “tawdry little boxes”.

Former chief planning inspector Professor Stephen Crow says PPG3 “marks a turning point in development policy. “The planning system is on the edge of a major change,” he says. “Everything is happening at once … and there aren’t any ready-made answers; we have to be prepared to experiment and learn as we go along.”

Housebuilders are only too aware of the trend of policy changes: some have been steering business away from greenfield for some time. However, they are worried that local government will fail to implement the new rules coming out of Whitehall.

Brian Salmon, group planning executive for Berkeley, says: “The government is trying to go in the right direction, but the machinery is not in place. Some procedures, such as the processing of applications, are just too slow, and are made even slower by the imposition of new policies. We are in for a difficult period. The government is trying to change the rules, but it has the whole of local government to change, too”.

  He cites the appointment of the London mayor, who takes office this week, as another unknown in the system, and yet another administrative layer to be negotiated. Ken Livingstone has yet to draw up his strategic guidance, but with the appointment of Lord Rogers as “architect for London”, he has given a strong signal that it will follow the guiding star of the taskforce.

The idea that an application is processed in eight weeks is rubbish

David Bryant, Regional Chairman, Persimmon Homes

Another important drag on planning will be the human rights legislation that will come into force in October. Housebuilders say this could have a dramatic impact on the planning appeals procedure because it will give objectors the right to make their case to an independent judge.

What’s wrong with councils

In principle, housebuilders seem convinced that the target of building 60% of new homes on brownfield can be met, but it requires different solutions depending on which part of the country you are in. In the north, land is plentiful but property prices are often too low to cover the high cost of soil remediation. In the south of England, the difficulty is getting land to market in the first place, as councils tussle with themselves over whether to keep it available for employment or release it for housing.

This is one area where housebuilders want to see local authorities ditch outdated notions about land use. As one housebuilder points out, councils ring-fence land for employment even though the jobs in question are increasingly office-based and require far less land than manufacturing did.

  However, it is not so much the policies of councils that housebuilders complain about, but rather their attitude to developers’ proposals and their simple ability to do their jobs. Keith Hadrell, managing director of Bellway Homes’ Essex division, says: “Often, local authorities are understaffed. In some inner-city boroughs, turnover is horrendous. You put in an application and it gets handed from one person to another.”

David Bryant, regional chairman of Persimmon Homes, concurs. “The idea that a planning application is processed in eight weeks is rubbish. You’re lucky if it’s been registered by then.” He also complains about planners’ adversarial approach. He says: “We get the impression that planning officers don’t look at helping you get through an application, they are looking at how they can refuse it. They can be frustrating, unprofessional and uncommercial. They don’t seem to live in the real world. We have to buy land and sell houses; planning officers are just not interested in what that costs.”

A lot of design and economic skills have been eroded; we’ve got to get them back

Kevin Murray, RTPI President

Bryant would also like to see the system changed so that, once planning officers do recommend a scheme, lay councillors could ask for clarification or deferment but not flatly turn it down.

The pay-off

However exasperated housebuilders feel about the way councils process their applications, a still bigger nightmare is obtaining their Section 106 agreement. Also known as “planning gain”, this is the requirement that they pay for elements of social infrastructure such as schools, libraries, roads and park-and-ride schemes, as well as including social housing in their developments.

It is not unheard of for areas such as Cambridge to demand £4000 a plot towards education, says one housebuilder; another tells of a requirement that three-quarters of its scheme be social housing. Housebuilders say that as councils’ shopping lists grow ever longer, so does the risk of not going ahead. As St George’s managing director, Tony Carey, puts it: “I think local authorities should be more realistic in their aspirations for planning gain.”

As onerous as these aspirations are, they are matched by the length of time it takes to draw up Section 106 agreements. After getting planning consent, all developments have to be issued with agreements before work can start, and even if the agreement is straightforward, housebuilders complain that it can take more than a year to sign the paperwork.

Clive Wilding, managing director of Gleeson Homes, says too much time is wasted at the outset. “For development on recycled land to succeed, we need a lot of co-operation between the parties. Councils ought to do their homework and consult with environmental agencies before land is released.”

Whether the target is achievable depends on how good you are as a local authority

Chris Swanwick, High Wycombe District Council

And the planners?

Planners themselves agree that the system needs an overhaul: Kevin Murray, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, says: “Brownfield does bring challenges for the planning authorities. Over the years, a lot of design and economic skills have been eroded; we’ve got to get them back.”

“The government is driving changes through the system,” says Chris Swanwick, director of planning at High Wycombe District Council. “But generally, we will need a higher calibre of planners to deliver. We plan to build 90% of new homes on brownfield land in High Wycombe in the next five years. That needs innovative thinking in the release and assembly of land. Whether the target is achievable depends on how good you are as a local authority.”

Swanwick says it is an amazing time for planners. But just as planner must raise their game, so too must housebuilders, whom he says often submit mediocre designs. Swanwick hopes that new planning guidance will give the appeal system more power to root out the type of schemes that often get the green light.

Says Swanwick: "We want urban renaissance not urban cramming; new housing should be adding to the quality of the neighbourhood, not detracting from it.” Another planner points out: “Housebuilders ought to be more like car manufacturers – creating a brand image that people identify with, even if they are not buying a new home. All they are concerned about is: will this house sell?”

Of course, whatever the changes to the planning process, unless crime, education and transport are tackled (without relying totally on planning gain), the brownfield target cannot be delivered. On an even higher level, there is the question of whether the government should be tackling the use of land at the national level, and finding incentives for companies to move into areas of higher deprivation and lower land costs.

Common gripes about planning – and what, if anything, is being done

Developing on brownfield land is more difficult than greenfield at every stage of the process. It is much more likely, for example, that a crucial bit of land will be in the hands of an absentee landlord. And because land is often contaminated, everybody from the Highways Agency to the Environmental Protection Agency has to have their say. In fact, the whole process is riddled with delays … Land assembly Absence of local plans: The council fails to draw up local plans, creating uncertainty for housebuilders. But it is not easy for councils to stay up to date – local plans have to comply with objectives set nationally, regionally and at county level. Compulsory purchase orders: Pulling together bits of land to create a viable development can be impossible. Housebuilders complain that councils have virtually stopped using CPOs. New rules are to be released by the DETR, as called for by Lord Rogers, to look at the process of issuing them. Planning applications Bureaucracy and lack of co-operation: When planning applications are submitted, planning officers have to send them to other agencies such as the Highways Agency and Environmental Protection Agency for consultation. Housebuilders say councils could do some of the groundwork – and make CPOs – before they release land. Councils complain that housebuilders are too used to doing things themselves and are not good at partnering. Housebuilders say getting a planning application processed in eight weeks is a joke – six months is more likely. Contaminated land Housebuilders would like to see one agency responsible for licensing the plan for cleaning contaminated land. At the moment, several have to be consulted, and ultimately councils vote for approval. Housebuilders say councillors often turn down the clean-up plans because they do not understand or trust the technology. Planning appeal If applications get turned down by the council, housebuilders can go to the planning inspectorate for appeal. The process can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. New rules were released this week to speed up planning decisions, which include measures for tighter timetabling. The rules are seen as tweaks rather than a radical review. The government has recently sponsored a survey looking at mediation in the planning process. It concludes that the use of mediation on a voluntary basis should be encouraged, but its role will remain limited. The government has also carried out studies into environmental courts, as used in New South Wales, Australia. Instead of the planning inspectorate, planning appeals are considered by a panel that reports to the judiciary rather than to the secretary of state. Lord Rogers called for a fast-track planning system for brownfield – again, it is unknown whether this will be in the white paper. Planning gain Not everyone gets hot under the collar about planning gain, but a good many do. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that seems to be spiralling out of control. Planners feel the need to squeeze as much as they can out of developers because of shortfalls in Treasury funding. Planning experts and their professional body want to see the introduction of impact fees – a set contribution developers could make per dwelling towards local infrastructure. The argument is that it should make the process more transparent. Lord Rogers called for impact fees to be introduced. The DETR has certainly been looking at it, but whether it gets taken up remains to be seen. Call in Without any warning, the secretary of state can call in planning applications to give his or her own seal of approval. It is still rare – but housebuilders complain because it can be done without any explanation and can add a year to the process. One recent example is the £135m Persimmon Homes site in Wandsworth, south London, which was called in in April. Design and car parking PPG3, followed by new design guidelines, give planning officers more clout to demand better design. Even William Hague waded in, claiming he would declare war on identikit homes. As housing densities increase from fewer than 20 dwellings per hectare to 30 or more, design is certainly more of a housebuilder’s challenge. Exactly what demands will be made on parking is an area for concern. Housebuilders are worried that in small towns PPG3 restrictions on 1.5 car parking spaces a dwelling will make them unsaleable.