Examination of Witnesses

Neighbourhood Planning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:31 pm ar 18 Hydref 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Colin Cottage, Richard Asher, Tim Smith and Richard Blyth gave evidence.

Welcome, witnesses. Will you introduce yourselves?

Richard Blyth:

My name is Richard Blyth. I am head of policy for the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Richard Asher:

My name is Richard Asher. I am a chartered surveyor and a member of the RICS governing council.

Colin Cottage:

I am Colin Cottage. I am also a chartered surveyor, and I am chairman of the Compulsory Purchase Association.

Tim Smith:

Good afternoon. My name is Tim Smith. I am a solicitor and member of the Law Society planning and environmental law committee.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Q I will start with the planning conditions element but perhaps, with the Chair’s permission, return to the compulsory purchase powers element later. On the planning conditions, what evidence is there to suggest that pre-commencement conditions are overused? Is there evidence that they are unnecessary?

Tim Smith:

The Law Society represents those in private practice and in local government, so we get both sides of the story, as it were. The complaint is more from those who benefit from planning permission and have to implement the conditions. Certainly there is complaint there that the weight of pre-commencement conditions can be onerous for those wanting to start on site.

It is probably helpful to categorise the problem by breaking it down into two separate areas—first, pre-commencement conditions that are relevant but need not be discharged before commencement. One can conceive of conditions that perhaps affect the operation of development, which would certainly have to be complied with before occupation, but not necessarily by commencement, yet often by default the imposition is that they must be discharged before commencement of development.

Secondly, on a more granular level still, “by commencement of development” means, in essence, before any development at all is carried out—development as defined in the legislation. There are some examples, we feel, where certain early works, such as demolition and site clearance, could take place before the conditions fall to be discharged, which would help with the timely implementation of development, but still ensure that the details that need to be discharged are done by the time that they need to be. I have seen one commentator express the view, for example, “Do you really need to approve the details of your roof tiles before you start to demolish and clear the site?” The answer is probably not. However, if there were a way to ensure that the conditions were discharged when they had to be discharged, some development could be got under way quicker than it is at the moment.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Q In order to allow flexibility—so you would not argue for a blanket rule to allow demolition in all cases, because there might be an argument to say that what is there now could be better than the alternative, depending on the final scheme presented.

Tim Smith:

Yes. It is the kind of thing that is susceptible to regulations and policy far better than it is to primary legislation, but that would be an example of where some welcome flexibility could be brought.

Richard Blyth:

I think there is an issue around whether the condition needs to be pre-commencement or not—around leverage, I suppose. If construction is under way, there is less incentive for the developer to come forward and submit the relevant scheme because they are already getting on with it, whereas saying, “You must do all this before you start,” gives a very powerful incentive for the party to come to the table. That may be why local authorities have tended to do that. They are afraid that, if they try to implement and enforce a condition after the starting gun, they might find that that was very difficult to do in terms of ultimately getting the court to agree. There are lawyers here who would probably better interpret that than me, but that may be why this has arisen.

Under the Infrastructure Act 2015, if a condition is not discharged by a certain time, it will be discharged in a deemed fashion, so the issue of having to discharge them is not necessarily requiring further legislation—we have just had some legislation on that. The other question is that, if a condition is not really serving a useful planning purpose, welcome other aspects of the Bill would say that it should not actually be possible to impose it in any case.

I am just a little concerned that requiring every good developer and every good planning authority to go through a written sign-off procedure for the sake of the minority, perhaps, of planning authorities and developers who may be pursuing less good practice is kind of asking everyone to take on an extra burden for the benefit of some bad eggs. Maybe there is another way of dealing with the problem of poor practice than requiring everyone else to have to go through the process of signing off conditions and, ultimately, the risk of applications being refused as the only way of resolving the dispute.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Ceidwadwyr, Croydon South

Q The draft legislation provides that the Secretary of State by regulations can prohibit the use of certain planning conditions entirely, should the Secretary of State see fit. First, do you think that is a reasonable provision? Secondly, assuming you do—or if you do—are there any particular kinds of planning condition that you, if you were advising the Secretary of State, would advise him or her to prohibit?

Tim Smith:

We have some visibility about how this might play out, because the consultation has been issued for views on what sort of conditions might be prevented. What we have in those proposals are things that, as a matter of policy, ought not to be applied anyway. I recognise that putting them on a statutory footing places a different emphasis on them. It is not just a question of whether policy should be interpreted so as to prevent them. The starting point will be that they should not be applied.

Having seen the list of conditions that are proposed, I would have a concern that some of them are not capable of being drafted in a sufficiently precise way. One proposal, for example, is that conditions should not be imposed that place a disproportionate financial burden on developers. That is easy to state and easy to understand as a concept—

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Ceidwadwyr, Croydon South

Q So you think that is inappropriately broad.

Tim Smith:

I think that, as the proposal stands, that would present difficulties both for developers and local authorities in deciding whether or not it were a permissible condition, and it is not the kind of thing that I can see is easily capable of being further defined so as to provide that certainty.

There are other things that I think are appropriate. One of the examples is—

Order. Sorry to interrupt. The hon. Member is taking a sip from that cup. It looks remarkably like tea. I am sure that it has cooled down to a temperature that is no longer regarded as hot. In other words, we cannot have hot drinks in here, bizarrely. I am afraid that is one of the rules. I am sorry—do continue.

Tim Smith:

I think that the proposals we have before us in the consultation are on the species of condition that it would be apt to prevent. I do not know whether this is an appropriate answer to this question, but I should perhaps flag that there is one type of condition that should be expressly permitted that currently is not. It would be a missed opportunity if the Bill did not allow for it. It is something that the Law Society has expressed a view on before. I am happy to elaborate on that now or, if you would prefer, I can come back to it.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Ceidwadwyr, Croydon South

Q No, elaborate now, please.

Tim Smith:

At the moment, one cannot use a condition for the payment of a financial contribution. In some cases of minor development, the planning obligations sought from a developer upon the granting of planning permission are those that would be minor financial contributions. As things stand, the developer and the local planning authority are forced to use the vehicle of a planning obligation under section 106, which is the negotiation of an agreement, and that takes time and incurs additional cost for both sides. The cost, however, will be borne by the developer in defraying the cost to the local authority in putting that agreement in place.

One of the things that the Law Society has recommended in response to previous consultations is that, so long as it be agreed between local authority and applicant—a proposal that forms part of the Bill, albeit for different reasons—it would speed up the system to prevent the developer from having to enter into a section 106 agreement because they will have consented to a condition requiring the payment of a financial contribution. That is the very reverse of what is being proposed at the moment. These are conditions that must not be opposed. We are saying, and we have recommended this previously in consultations, that it would add utility to the system to allow conditions that are expressly approved by the developer to require the payment of financial contributions.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Ceidwadwyr, Croydon South

Q So are you in effect suggesting that what we currently refer to as a section 106 agreement should be integrated into the main planning consent to avoid having to then have a lengthy and uncertain subsequent negotiation?

Tim Smith:

It will not be appropriate for all cases. This relates to a safeguard that would apply for the benefit of the developer. The concern had always been that, if you allowed conditions to be imposed about the payment of financial contributions, it could be done unilaterally by the planning authority, leaving the developer having either to appeal the permission or to submit another application to get rid of that condition.

A sufficient safeguard would be if the developer said, “I’m fine with the process here. I’m fine with the principle of paying this contribution, so let’s put it into a condition so that I do not then have to negotiate the planning obligation.” In a sense, you might be surprised that I am sitting here as a lawyer saying that there are some things that lawyers get involved in that are perhaps not necessary, but the view expressed fairly broadly in the committee is that it would be sensible to include the idea in a piece of legislation.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Ceidwadwyr, Croydon South

Could I invite other witnesses to comment on that?

Richard Blyth:

On the issue of whether it is necessary, the proposals to elevate a list of satisfactory kinds of conditions into law from policy have been around under successive Governments for a very long time, and the principle is well understood. It seems sensible to elevate that list into the status of law. I am not clear, however, on why the Government need to go further and empower the Secretary of State to add a whole series of secondary legislation to the list of what constitutes a reasonable condition. I do not see why that is necessary; we have not had that before. I would have thought that policy and guidance would be quite able to elaborate, if the Bill becomes law, on a satisfactory basis in principle for defining a reasonable condition.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp Ceidwadwyr, Croydon South

Are there any additional comments? Thank you.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

Q Can I move on to look at some of the compulsory purchase order provisions in the Bill? To what extent do you think the proposals in the Bill will free up more land for development and lead to the delivery of more homes in a speedier and more streamlined way?

Richard Asher:

I think that any improvements to the compulsory purchase process are to be welcomed. The provisions in the Bill for resolving the long-standing issues about temporary possession are very important. It has long been an area of great difficulty for practitioners to try to interpret how temporary possession should be dealt with. That is a key advantage of the Bill. Some of the detail needs further work, as the wording could lead to further legal disputes or litigation. However, the principle of providing for temporary possession on broadly the same terms as permanent acquisition is very important.

There is one area of difficulty: the danger that authorities may use powers to acquire land compulsorily when it is only required on a temporary basis. That interferes with long-term prospects for development by landowners, whose development plans are quite often disrupted by compulsory purchase on a temporary basis. That needs to be considered to ensure that authorities only acquire land on a temporary basis when it is required temporarily.

Colin Cottage:

I agree with that, and the Compulsory Purchase Association welcomes a more codified approach to temporary acquisition. At the moment, the large number of compulsory purchase orders do not allow for temporary possession at all. Where there is potential to introduce it through development consent orders, Transport and Works Act orders and so on, each of those particular instruments is drawn separately, so a codified approach is to be welcomed.

As Richard said, there are practical issues with temporary possession that need to be dealt with, including the interrelationships between different tenures in land, how to deal with an occupier of land when that land is taken temporarily, and what to do if buildings have to be demolished and so on. Those issues can be overcome, but they need to be looked at carefully if the Bill is to come into law and to not cause, rather than solve, problems.

Another issue that we are quite conscious of is the ability to take both temporary and permanent possession. We are of the view that a decision should be taken at the outset as to whether possession will be temporary or permanent. When a business or individual homeowner is faced with compulsory acquisition, and possession is initially taken temporarily but may ultimately become permanent, huge amounts of uncertainty are created. The person or business does not know how long the land will be taken for, and whether it will be for a temporary period or whether it will be permanent, and that makes planning difficult.

When temporary possession is taken initially, compensation is paid on the temporary basis. At the moment, because the system is not codified, there is no strict ruling about when compensation is paid, so the introduction in the Bill of advanced payments should be encouraged. But, of course, even if compensation is paid, it is on a temporary basis. If permanent possession is then taken, it may cause a problem for relocation or for funding a business move.

Richard Blyth:

The concern for us, as we set out in our briefing, is that we do not think it is reasonable for the owners of private land to benefit from public investment in infrastructure. I am not a lawyer so I cannot tell whether that is in the provisions of the Bill but, from a lay point of view, that is an important point.

I was in another building in the Palace of Westminster yesterday talking about the issue of land hoarding before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. The Royal Town Planning Institute is not really of the view that developers are necessarily guilty of as much land hoarding as is the case. There is a difficulty in situations where the most sustainable choice for the expansion of a town requires the conversion of greenfield land into housing land. That puts the owner of that land in an extremely powerful position. It would be regrettable in that situation if those owners were, as it were, to hold the city to ransom—to require very high prices for the sale of land for conversion to residential use—not only because of ideological concern but because finding money for schools, health centres, roads and other infrastructure is increasingly difficult.

What is vested in the increase in land value coming from the grant of planning permission is an extremely important possible source for trying to deal with the difficulties of the lack of infrastructure provision in relation to housing. It may assist with what Dr Blackman-Woods started with—the understandable resistance to large-scale housing development that communities feel when they find it means there is a longer queue for the doctor, it is harder to get a primary school place and there is more congestion on the roads and railways. In answer to that question, lower land prices would be useful. I would not advocate CPOs as a way of enforcing that, but they are a useful thing to have deep in the background.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

Q Those were very interesting responses, but they did not actually address my question, which was, are the provisions in the Bill likely to bring more land forward for development and speed up the delivery of more homes, or are they too much at the margins to make any real difference? In which case, should we have a much bigger review of CPO to see whether we can get a better system?

Richard Asher:

I believe, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has always believed, that codification of the whole of the CPO rules, which go back to 1845 and are highly complex, would be a sensible way forward. I think the simplification of the rules for CPO would be a major step forward.

A CPO, at the end of the day, is a draconian measure. It is taking people’s land without their consent in the public interest. That means there has to be a balanced approach. I think the complexity often deters people—particularly local authorities, in my experience—from using CPO powers. It also results in a number of CPOs being refused or rejected by the courts because of the complexity of the rules that surround them. There were two Law Commission reports in the early 2000s that went some way to making recommendations that, had they been implemented, would have speeded up the process.

There are also too many routes and different procedures. One of the most recent—the development consent order—is in its infancy, but it seems to be a way of delivering compulsory purchase quickly. That is to be commended. I think there should be a rationalisation of the process.

Richard Blyth:

I think it is a very difficult balancing act. I commend the fact that the Government have taken on CPO as an issue to include in the Bill and the previous Act earlier this year. It is a tricky job and a long journey. One of the difficulties with this area is that if you were to propose some kind of utopian world, it might be that the perfect is the enemy of making improvements. We support the fact that the Government have made steps on a journey. Although it may not be completed now, they are very commendable steps for the time being.

Colin Cottage:

My short answer to your question is no, possibly they will not. There are more underlying problems with the system. It is lengthy. It is uncertain for all parties—both for acquiring authorities and for the people affected by it. Acquiring authorities do not know how much it is going to cost them, because the process is uncertain in that regard, and people affected by compulsory acquisition do not know how much compensation they are going to get. That then causes conflict, and it does so from the outset.

The existing system is not helpful for reaching quick solutions. In fact, in many ways it encourages people to be fighting with each other from the outset. Ultimately, that increases the uncertainty, conflict and cost. That is really the issue that we have to look to address in order to give ourselves a more streamlined system. We need to try to bring dispute resolution to the forefront of the process, rather than it being very much at the back end, where it current is.

Once conflict has set in and disputes have got hard-grounded, there is the possibility of resolution through the tribunal. In itself that is an immensely costly process. Even a relatively cheap case will set a claimant client, who may be just a private individual, back a couple of hundred thousand pounds. There is an access-to-justice problem that needs to be overcome. Those costs are also a risk for acquiring authorities as they go through the process. Those are the kind of things we need to deal with to make the process more user friendly, both for acquiring authorities that are trying to bring forward housing development and for those whose land is acquired.

Tim Smith:

The provisions are sensible so far as they go, but none of them tackle any single major obstacle to the delivery of land, so there is not going to be in the Bill a silver bullet for compulsory purchase to allow housing development to come forward. There is nothing in there that is hugely significant. What is on its face the most significant proposal—the statutory enactment of the no-scheme rule—is effectively what happens anyway. That is the position that has been established by case law. It is fine so far as it goes, but it does not go very far.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Llafur, Bassetlaw

Q Should there be additional powers to encourage house building that allow planning authorities to more easily compulsorily purchase land from within the public sector?

Richard Asher:

I do not think more powers are required; we need a more streamlined process that allows the authorities to have more certainty. As Colin was saying, it is the uncertainty that is preventing a lot of authorities from using compulsory powers where they might otherwise decide to use them.

There have recently been several high-profile cases in which compulsory purchase orders have been rejected by either the Secretary of State or the courts. That is because there is not the clarity about the process that there needs to be. As Colin said, the uncertainty applies to the property owners as well. The longer the process goes on—CPO is a very lengthy process—the more uncertainty it creates for the landowners as well.

There is no silver bullet, but if we had a more streamlined system with clear milestones, that would go some way to encouraging local authorities in particular, because it is quite often local authorities that do not have the experience or capacity to deal with compulsory purchase orders. For large-scale projects such as High Speed 2, there is clearly the ability and understanding to deliver that. For smaller-scale housing projects for local authorities, there is still a fear of using compulsory purchase powers.

Richard Blyth:

I commend Birmingham City Council, which has developed high-level expertise in this area and puts it to good use, and it is available to other authorities to use. The contracting out and sharing of excellence across the local authority sector makes sense, rather than a very small authority having to build up its own expertise on a specific matter, which it may not use very often.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Housing)

Q That is interesting in terms of good practice. Are there any other countries that do CPO better than we do and that we could look at?

Colin Cottage:

The American system has some merits. At the CPA, we are looking at that at the moment. It is not perfect in all regards—no system is—but in the States, for example, projects are funded up front in a way that they are not in this country. That means that there are no public inquiries; the scheme just goes ahead, so people know they will be affected by it. Then there is an independent assessment of value in advance. Value is independently assessed, and that then forms the basis of an offer to the landowner. The landowner can challenge that, but there are cost implications if they do.

We had a chap by the name of Douglas Hummel, who came over from the International Right of Way Association, the American body that oversees compulsory purchase best practice. The results there are that in the order of 81% of land value compensation assessments are agreed immediately, and another 4% settle after a short period of time. Only the remaining 15% are then contested for any lengthy period of time. That is a much higher strike rate than we have in this country.

I am not necessarily saying that the American system is exactly the way to go, but there are examples of early dispute resolution. That is what it is in form: an independent valuation. In the UK system, the claimant puts forward his claim, and that is then contested by an acquiring authority, and you have a creation of conflict. An independent third-party valuation up front should really be considered quite carefully, and could lead to a reduction in conflict.

Richard Blyth:

We are not necessarily going to look for places that do CPO better, because I think everyone would agree that it is better never to have any, but Germany has a land reorganisation system, where all the private landowners party to an urban extension of a town are put into a readjustment system, and the local authority then provides the infrastructure out of the increase in land value. It is then reapportioned.

That is quite useful. From my experience when I was in practice, it is very difficult if you are the landowner who gets the bit of land that will be the public open space, or the balancing pond or something, in a wider scheme. It can seem very unfair, but this kind of approach not only makes sure that all the infrastructure gets put in, it evens out the benefits across a clutch of landowners more fairly, so the first one does not get all the benefit. That is certainly impressive, in terms of how to ensure that infrastructure is provided in advance, so house builders can just get on and build the houses within the plots that are then made available, and are often of very different sizes.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

Q I want to probe a little bit more on the issue of temporary possession. You expressed a concern in relation to uncertainty about the length of time that temporary possession might last. In the Bill as drafted, acquiring authorities will have to specify the total period of time for which they are taking temporary possession, and owners—freeholders and leaseholders—can serve a countering notice placing limits on that. How are you suggesting the Bill needs to be developed further to give even greater certainty? We have tried to address that in the drafting.

Colin Cottage:

There are two issues. The first is on our reading of the Bill. There is still the possibility of taking both temporary and permanent possession, and that will create uncertainty for people affected by it, because, even if there is a period of temporary possession, it may be converted at a future date to permanent possession and they will have no control over that.

Secondly, we feel that, for freehold owners, six years is too long. Three years as a maximum is better. Notwithstanding that, the ability to serve counter-notices is correct and encouraging to development. Six years is quite a long period. If a business is dispossessed of its property for six years, that is effectively almost as good as a permanent dispossession because if you are away from your premises for six years, you will have restarted and be trading somewhere else. With that restriction, we encourage and welcome the proposal on the table.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Housing, Planning and London)

Q Can I just clarify one further point? The concern about both temporary and permanent CPOs is that one might be used and then another, which could create uncertainty over time. You might have a site where an authority needed permanent possession of part of it because it wanted to put, say, a goods yard on the second section and wanted part-temporary and part-permanent. Is your point about starting with one and then converting to the other?

Colin Cottage:

That is correct.

On the other point of clarification, we do not have an issue when there is temporary possession of land, but a permanent acquisition of rights. That can work perfectly well also, so it is not an issue. The point is just when the same piece of land may be subject to temporary and then permanent. We think it should be one or the other.

The point of the evidence sessions today is to inform Members better for when they go through the Bill clause by clause. Now is your opportunity to leave the Committee with one thought, which Members may like to deliberate on as they progress through the Bill.

Richard Blyth:

On the issue of resources for local planning authorities, the Bill has provisions relating to the support of neighbourhood planning by local planning authorities. We have completed a survey of local planning authorities in north-west England that shows that between 2010 and 2015 there was a fall of 37% in planning policy staff. These are the staff who tend to get asked not only to provide the support for neighbourhood plans, but are under a deadline of completing a local plan by the end of March 2017.

I am a bit concerned that legislation is being used in a way that may not be possible to support in terms of the resources available to local planning authorities. Plan making is not supported by any fee income whatever. Planning applications have a certain element of cost recovery, but plan making is entirely a charge on the central resources of the local authorities, which—particularly unitary authorities—are hugely stretched by requirements relating to education and social care. That is what I would like the Committee to bear in mind when considering neighbourhood plan resourcing.

Richard Asher:

Clause 23 proposes to repeal part 4 of the Land Compensation Act 1961. We would oppose that repeal. Part 4 allows a claimant to make a further application up to 10 years after the land acquisition when the use of that land has changed and there has been alternative planning permission or use that was not contemplated when the land was acquired. The circumstances in which that occurs are usually when an acquiring authority has not used the land for the purpose for which it was compulsorily purchased and often there has been a change in planning policy that has allowed consent for alternative uses of the site. In those very specific circumstances, it seems appropriate for a claimant to make an application.

I think this has been brought forward because it has been used very rarely. I am not a lawyer, but the advice I have had from lawyers is that the way part 4 is worded makes it difficult for claimants to make a claim. My appeal would be for that not to be repealed but to be rewritten.

Colin Cottage:

I am going to choose as my part of the Bill clause 22 and in particular proposed new section 6D(2) to (4). The concept of simplifying what is understood to be the scheme is absolutely the correct one. In a certain way, it has happened through the courts over recent years and what needs to be guarded against is complicating instead of simplifying the principle.

It is the CPA’s view that proposed new section 6D(2) to (4) is not necessary at all. The reason for that is that everything within those sections could be achieved under proposed new section 6E, where an acquiring authority can advance evidence as to the nature of a larger scheme. All that 6D(2) to (4) does is make specific reference to exactly the kind of arguments that could be put forward in 6E. When you start looking at some of the wording—for example, 6C, about relevant transport projects—rather than simplifying, it all looks horribly complicated and possibly capable of misinterpretation. That could lead to unfairness and certainly could lead to conflict in the courts, so the thing I would like Members to go away with and think about is, is 6D(2) to (4) absolutely necessary? We do not think it is.

Tim Smith:

May I offer the Committee a second vote in favour of more resources for local planning authorities, but perhaps with a slightly different point of emphasis that comes from the Bill itself? The advantage of that is that it is very much in accord with the interests of both the public and private sector lawyers that the Law Society represents.

Successive proposals to change legislation have all brought about additional burdens on local planning authorities without a consequent increase in the resourcing available to them. To draw that point to one of the proposals in the Bill that is about conditions, the assumption that underlies the legislative provisions, as explained by the consultation issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, is that there is an ongoing dialogue between applicant and planning officer about the planning application, including the suite of conditions that will accompany it if the proposal is deemed to be capable of being improved. Very often, that is not the case.

The sheer burden on planning authorities and planning officers to discharge the number of applications they have to deal with means that very little dialogue goes on between applicant and planning authority. I hope it comes across that I say that not critically of planning officers. They have an awful lot to discharge, and to expect that the solution to this problem will be a discussion between applicant and planning officer to approve pre-commencement conditions before they are imposed is to assume that there is plenty of time available to planning officers to engage in that discussion. We simply do not believe that that is the case. I give a second vote in support of what Mr Blyth said, but maybe for a slightly different reason.

Thank you very much indeed for your time and for being excellent witnesses. We will now move on to the next panel.