Completion Notices: More Pointy, Still Pointless?

Completion notices have always been a blunt tool, little used by local planning authorities. The Housing White Paper proposes sharpening them, but to what end?
If we blow the dust off a bit we can remind ourselves that the current completion notice procedure in sections 94 and 95 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is as follows:
– Development must have been begun within the time limit on the planning permission and that time limit must have now expired. 

– If the LPA considers that the development “will not be completed within a reasonable period” they can serve a completion notice stating that the planning permission will cease to have effect after a period specified in the notice which must be at least 12 months. 

– Any notice is only effective if confirmed by the Secretary of State, who may extend the 12 months’ period. Any person served with a completion notice who objects within a time limit set out on the notice (must be at least 28 days) has a right to a hearing before the Secretary of State before he reaches his decision.

– If the notice takes effect, the planning permission becomes invalid at the end of the specified period, but this does not affect any development carried out under the permission before the end of the period. 

The procedure is very seldom used, for various reasons:
– It doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It does not secure completion of the development. If development has stalled, the developer is already having pretty fundamental problems. The threat of a completion notice is not going to lead to a developer finding significant amount of money to overcome those problems – indeed it could jeopardise a solution being found if funders are spooked.  

– Instead, use of the procedure is likely to lead to an uncompleted development – it should perhaps be called an uncompletion notice. Furthermore, the courts have resisted to date any notion that if, by the end of the specified completion deadline, only part of a building has been built, the part built is in any way no longer unauthorised (Cardiff County Council v National Assembly for Wales, Davis J, 22 June 2006 – in that case, an unsightly part-built garage, which the Council sought unsuccessfully to enforce against after the deadline in the completion notice). 

– The test as to whether the development “will be completed within a reasonable period” is too vague, particularly in relation to major projects. What is it to be judged against?

– The need for approval by the Secretary of State adds to the potential for delay and uncertainty. 

So what is the Government now proposing? As part of its collection of “Holding Developers And Local Authorities To Account” measures, the white paper contains the following:
“2.42 We want to ensure local planning authorities have more effective tools to deal with circumstances where planning permission has been granted but no substantive progress has been made. We propose to simplify and speed up the completion notice process, whereby if development on a site has stopped and there is no prospect of completion, the local authorities can withdraw planning permission for the remainder of the site. This would make it easier for local authorities to serve a completion notice, helping to stimulate building or clear unused permissions from their planned supply of land. “

Views are sought by 2 May on two proposals:

“A.107 The Government proposes to amend legislation to remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to confirm a completion notice before it can take effect. Local authorities know their circumstances best, and removing central government involvement will help shorten the process, and give authorities greater control and certainty. The opportunity for a hearing will be retained where there are objections. 

A.108 We also intend to amend legislation, subject to consultation, to allow a local authority to serve a completion notice on a site before the commencement deadline has elapsed, but only where works have begun. This change could dissuade developers from making a token start on site purely to keep the permission alive. However, it is important that this would not impact on the willingness of lenders to invest.”

These proposals are hardly radical. The Government published a report on completion notices back in July 2001, that it had commissioned from Cardiff University and Buchanan Partnership, no longer on the web as far as I know, which back then made these recommendations (to which it appears the Government never responded):
* Greater thought should be given to tailoring the time period in the standard condition relating to the commencement of development to fit the situation. In particular, the period could be reduced to two years for minor development.
* The Government’s advice, then in Circular 11/95, against including a condition requiring that the whole of an approved development be completed should be reviewed.

* No justification for referral to the Secretary of State, and this should be replaced by a right of appeal.

* Better publicity for the system could lead to its greater use.

The first recommendation in the white paper echoes the 2001 report and is hardly controversial. There should be no reason to require confirmation by the Secretary of State if objections to the notice haven’t been received. 
The second recommendation is more worrying, when looked at in conjunction with the separate proposals in the white paper, that:
– the applicant should “provide information about their estimated ‘start date’ (month/year when a substantive start would take place) and ‘build out rate’ (the number of homes built per financial year) for all proposals for or including housing development
– developers should “provide local authorities with basic information (in terms of actual and projected build out) on progress in delivering the permitted number of homes, after planning permission has been granted”

– large housebuilders should be required to publish “aggregate information on build out rates”

Owners and developers are normally vigilant to keep planning permissions alive by carrying out a material operation prior to the implementation deadline on the permission, reflecting the frequent reality that detailed architectural and engineering work post-permission, as well as the funding structure to underpin a development, often including necessary pre-lets in the case of commercial floorspace, take longer than the deadline for implementation (in relation to which the default period is now proposed to be reduced to two years). Missing the deadline means going down a very long snake to submit a fresh application for planning permission. 
The white paper proposal envisages that an LPA could serve a completion notice at any time after the developer has carried out a material operation, even before the implementation deadline has expired. What would there be to prevent an LPA serving completion notices as a matter of routine where development appears to be slower than was previously indicated, or than housebuilder averages? The white paper itself questions whether this would “impact on the willingness of lenders to invest”. The answer is that it surely would as there would be no certainty for a lender that if the borrower developer defaults on its loan the lender will have time to step in and secure the completion of the development under the same permission – or work through another solution with the borrower. The underpinning certainty of the permission is lost. Two years to implement a permission is no period at all and if relatively minor works within that period may not suffice to keep the permission alive, banks will undoubtedly want to consider the risk profile vis a vis particular authorities very carefully. 
Why not look at more constructive opportunities with the information to be provided about actual or projected build out rates? For example:
– Remember the section 106BC procedure? Revised section 106 arrangements alleviating affordable housing requirements ceased to apply to those parts of the development that had not been completed within three years. That sort of structure could be considered by LPAs in section 106 agreements where justified.

– Any viability review mechanism could be expressed as only operable if specified amounts of development had not been achieved by defined milestones.

– Encourage LPAs to tie any funding they control, eg use of CIL monies for the benefit of the scheme, to timely build out progress.

So much can be achieved by planning obligations and conditions, instead of spending time working out how to hack at the problem with what is hardly the sharpest tool in the box.


Simon Ricketts 25.2.17

Personal views, et cetera

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Five Problems With Neighbourhood Plans

The real effects of neighbourhood plan making on housing delivery and on the efficient, democratic operation of the planning system are hard to pin down and yet the Government continues to champion its role. Are we really heading in the right direction? After all, despite the positivity of government sponsored initiatives such as mycommunity.org.uk  it isn’t all sweetness and light. Here is my personal worry list:
1. Neighbourhood Plans are usurping the role of local plans, whilst being subject to a lighter-touch examination process
The Court of Appeal, in R (DLA Delivery Ltd) v Lewes District Council  (10 February 2017), has now confirmed that a neighbourhood plan may be made without there being an up to date local plan. Until such time as the local plan comes forward, as the only up to date development plan, the neighbourhood plan’s policies will benefit from the statutory presumption in section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and from paragraph 198 of the NPPF: “[where] a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted”.
This gives neighbourhood plans a role which was surely not foreseen by Parliament. Neighbourhood plans are intended to be in general conformity with the local plan’s strategic policies. But instead any policy vacuum can be filled by the neighbourhood plan’s own strategic policies. Whilst the Planning Practice Guidance urges collaborative working between neighbourhoods and local planning authorities, this does not prevent problems from arising which are exacerbated by two further factors:
–  in order to survive the ‘relatively limited‘ (Court of Appeal in DLA Delivery, para 5) examination process, neighbourhood plans only have to satisfy the ‘basic conditions’ set out in the paragraph 8(2) of Schedule 4B to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 as applied to neighbourhood plans by section 38A of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, rather than the wider and more rigorous soundness test applicable to local plans. 
–  the Neighbourhood Planning Bill proposes to accelerate the process, by deeming post-examination pre-referendum neighbourhood plans to be a material consideration in the determination of planning applications (clause 1) and by deeming post-referendum neighbourhood plans to be treated as part of the statutory development plan ahead of formally being made by the district or borough council (clause 2). It will be easier for the Secretary of State to dismiss appeals on the basis of inconsistency with emerging neighbourhood plans (a sensitive subject for DCLG given for example Holgate J’s quashing in Woodcock Holdings Limited v Secretary of State, 1 May 2015 and a series of examples of the Secretary of State having consented to judgment in similar circumstances). 
2. The Neighbourhood Plan process is “complex and burdensome”
Not my words but a description given by participants, according to recent research by the University of Reading: Neighbourhood Planning Users Research Revisited.  
Any community embarking on a neighbourhood plan has to be ready for the long haul. Because policies within the plan can have real consequences for communities and developers alike, it is no surprise that the process can be litigious. 
R (Crownhall Estates Limited) v Chichester District Council  (Holgate J, 21 January 2016) was the third (third!) judicial review in relation to the Loxwood Neighbourhood Plan, with the claimant developer seeking unsuccessfully to challenge the plan’s provision for only 60 homes against a background of a failure of the district council to meet its obejectively assessed housing needs. 

I do not believe that there is a transcript of Dove J’s rejection in Swan Quay LLP v Swale Borough Council on 31 January 2017 of a challenge to the Faversham Creek Neighbourhood Plan which contained a policy preventing redevelopment of the claimant’s property on the basis that it would lead to ‘gentrification’. The ruling is summarised by the Faversham Creek Trust in a press release.  
Challenges commonly focus on whether there has been compliance with the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, another unsuccessful ground of challenge in DLA Delivery. R (Stonegate Homes Limited) v Horsham District Council (the late, missed, Patterson J, 13 October 2016) was an example of a successful challenge on this basis. The Haddenham Neighbourhood Plan is another, where Aylesbury Vale District Council consented to judgment.
3. Neighbourhood Plans dissipate the local planning authority’s resources

Parish councils such as Haddenham are unlikely to have the resources to resist a legal challenge, leaving the responsibility to the local planning authority which, under the legislation, formally “makes” the plan. How much say will they have over the way in which the defence case is brought and, as importantly, why should the local planning authority’s resources be stretched in this way?

We also have of course dissipation of CIL proceeds, with 15% of CIL proceeds available to be spent by parish councils, increased to 25% where a neighbourhood plan is in place – proceeds that would otherwise have applied towards infrastructure projects required to deliver development. 
4. Neighbourhood Plans are unnecessary and marginalise the role of the local planning authority

District and borough councils are designed to operate down to ward level. We elect ward councillors to represent our local interests – that is to say, the things we care about in relation to our home environment, our neighbourhood. Local plans can and do include policies at neighbourhood level. Additionally, there is scope for area action plans to provide more detailed site-specific policies where justified. 

We should all engage more with local plan making. Does the distraction of neighbourhood planning fuel the inaccurate sense that what happens at district or borough level is remote and not to do with us? What if the energy that one sometimes sees expended on neighbourhood planning were to be properly harnessed at local planning authority level, with proper access to officers and with consistency of plan making over a strategically sensible area?
5. Neighbourhood Plans are not fit for the further roles that Government continues to give them
Neighbourhood planning is of course voluntary. It is more prevalent in affluent areas and its heartland is in the south east (Turley research, 2014). In unparished areas it is the preserve of unelected groups. And yet the Government intends it to play a grown up role alongside local plans. Indeed, given that they have statutory force, unlike the NPPF, have neighbourhood plans in fact become more important than the Government’s own planning policies?
Gavin Barwell’s 12 December 2016 written ministerial statement (see my blog post That Ministerial Statement) set out that relevant policies for the supply of housing in a neighbourhood plan that is part of the development plan should not be deemed to be ‘out-of-date’ under paragraph 49 of the National Planning Policy Framework where the following circumstances arise at the time a planning decision is made: 
* the written ministerial statement making the policy change on 12 December 2016 is less than 2 years old, or the neighbourhood plan has been part of the development plan for 2 years or less;

* the neighbourhood plan allocates sites for housing; and

* the local planning authority can demonstrate a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites. 

The statement is of course the subject of a judicial review. In the meantime, the Government’s Housing White Paper has added the further qualification that neighbourhoods should be able to demonstrate that their site allocations and housing supply policies will meet their share of local housing need and that the local planning authority should be able to demonstrate through the White Paper’s housing delivery test that, from 2020, delivery has been over 65% (25% in 2018; 45% in 2019) for the wider authority area (to ensure that delivery rates across the area as a whole are at a satisfactory level). 
 The White Paper also proposes changes to the NPPF to “highlight the opportunities that neighbourhood plans present for identifying and allocating small sites that are suitable for housing, drawing on the knowledge of local communities”.

Finally, local planning authorities will now be “expected to provide neighbourhood planning groups with a housing requirement figure, where this is needed to allow progress with neighbourhood planning. As part of the consultation on a new standard methodology for assessing housing requirements, we will seek views on whether a standard methodology could be developed for calculating housing need in a neighbourhood plan area“.
Let us remember that these are voluntary plans, prepared by parish councils and community groups. Are we not seeing, yet again, a relentless move towards process and complexity, in an effort to make running repairs to a mechanism that was not designed for this function? 
Simon Ricketts 19.2.17
Personal views, et cetera

From The White Paper Mountain, What Do We See?

After so long we have reached the top of the mountain: the white paper and accompanying documents have all been published today, 7 February 2017. However, now we see a series of further peaks on the horizon. 
A good way into the white paper itself, Fixing Our Broken Housing Market, is to start at the back end. From page 72 you have the detailed proposals listed, including a series of proposed changes to the NPPF and other policies which are now the subject of a consultation process from today until 2 May 2017. The consultation focuses on a series of 38 questions but some of the questions are potentially very wide-ranging. Further consultation is proposed on various matters, including 
– housing requirements of older people and the disabled

– Increasing local authorities’ flexibility to dispose of land at less than best consideration and related powers

– Potentially increasing fees for planning appeals (up to a maximum of £2,000 for the largest schemes, recoverable if the appeal is allowed)

– Changes to section 106 processes (with further consideration being given to dispute resolution “in the context of longer term reform”)

– Requiring housebuilders to provide aggregate information on build-out rates and, for large-scale sites, as to the relevance of the applicant’s track record of delivering similar schemes

– Encouragement of use of CPO powers to support the build out of stalled sites. 

There is a supplementary consultation paper on planning and affordable housing for build to rent  containing a further 26 questions, with a consultation deadline of 1 May 2017.
There are responses to previous consultation papers and reports:
– Summary of responses to the technical consultation on implementation of planning changes, consultation on upward extensions and Rural Planning Review Call for Evidence  (including a u-turn on the previous idea of an upwards extensions permitted development right in London, now to be addressed by policy). 
– Government response to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into the report of the Local Plans Expert Group 
There is plenty to get to grips with, for example:
– the housing delivery test and new methodology for assessing objectively assessed need

– an understandable focus on whether the applicant will proceed to build out any permission and at what rate, although with a worrying reduction of the default time limit for permissions from three to two years

– Homes and Communities Agency to become “Homes England”. 

It is also reassuring to see the Government applying real focus to build to rent, reducing its emphasis on starter homes – and also reducing its reliance on permitted development rights. 

However, it is surprising how much still remains unresolved. We will apparently have a revised NPPF “later this year” but for much else the start date looks to be April 2018, for example a widened affordable housing definition including watered-down starter homes proposals (no longer a statutory requirement and with reference to a policy target of a minimum of 10% “affordable housing ownership units” rather than the requirement of 20% starter homes previously proposed) and a new methodology for assessing five year housing land supply. 

Liz Peace’s CIL review team’s review of CIL: “A new approach to developer contributions”  (October 2016 but only now published) remains untackled. The Government’s response will be announced at the time of the Autumn Budget 2017. 

Decision-makers will need to grapple very quickly with the question as to the weight they should give to the white paper as a material consideration, given the Government’s clear policy direction now on a range of issues. 


Simon Ricketts, 7.2.17
Personal views, et cetera

Hillingdon JR: Lucky Strike Out?

In R (London Borough of Hillingdon & others) v Secretary of State  (Cranston J, 30 January 2017) the Government achieved an impressive strike out of the first challenge to the proposed third runway at Heathrow, following the Government’s 25 October 2016 announcements. My 15 October 2016 blog post Airports & Courts wins no prizes for predicting a series of such challenges.  
Following the strike out, the draft Airports NPS  was promptly published on 2 February for a 16 weeks’ consultation period. 
However, was this somewhat of a lucky win? The Government’s position, accepted by Cranston J, was that the effect of section 13(1) of the Planning Act 2008 was that there can be no legal challenge of a Government announcement of a decision to publish a draft NPS, but that any challenge instead has to be made within a six week window following final designation of the NPS.
Section 13(1) provides as follows: 
“A court may entertain proceedings for questioning a national policy statement or anything done, or omitted to be done, by the Secretary of State in the course of preparing such a statement only if –



(a) the proceedings are brought by a claim for judicial review, and

(b) the claim form is filed [before the end of] the period of 6 weeks beginning with [the day after] —

 
(i) the day on which the statement is designated as a national policy statement for the purposes of this Act, or



(ii) (if later) the day on which the statement is published.”

So was the 25 October 2016 announcement something done “in the course of preparing” an NPS? Hmm.
Was the operation of section 13(1) intended to be so different from sections 23 and 25 of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981, which provide for a six week deadline for challenging a compulsory purchase order from publication of notice of its confirmation and the exclusion that a CPO otherwise “shall not, either before or after it has been confirmed, made or given, be questioned in any legal proceedings whatsoever“? So, according to the 1981 Act, no challenges before the CPO has been made but the Supreme Court in R (Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Limited) v Wolverhampton City Council  (12 May 2010) has entertained a judicial review of a council’s resolution to make a compulsory purchase order. Is the drafting within the 2008 Act distinguishable from the 1981 Act? Even if it is, where is the logic? With CPOs the widely understood risk of JR of the resolution to make a CPO, before section 25 cuts in to prevent further challenges until the order has been finally confirmed or rejected, is the reason why acquiring authorities commonly seek to leave as little time as possible between that final resolution and making the order. There is no reference in Cranston J’s judgment to this (surely) analogous process

.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, the decision to go for a strike out – always high stakes, given the risk of adding to the time needed to dispose finally of the challenge or at least the risk of egg on face – has so far proved to be the right one, although I do not know whether the claimant local authorities plan to appeal. Even if cleared for take off, the proceedings would in any event face a bumpy ride give that judicial review is a remedy of last resort and it could be said that the claimant authorities should first be making representations to the draft NPS before resorting to litigation?
It was a good week all round for Heathrow. By a decision letter dated 2 February 2017  the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and Transport allowed an appeal by the airport, permitting enabling works to allow it to implement “full runway alternation during easterly operations” (ie, basically, regular easterly departures from the northern runway), after a June 2015 (yes 2015) inquiry and initial refusal by Hillingdon Council in March 2014 (yes 2014) of the airport’s planning application.  
Finally, a post script on challenges to CPO decisions, and to my 22 September 2016 blog post Regeneration X: Failed CPOs. Local Government Lawyer reports that after an oral hearing Collins J has granted Southwark Council permission to challenge the Secretary of State’s decision not to confirm the Aylesbury Estate CPO, Dove J having previously refused permission on the papers. Collins J apparently also “proposed that a meeting should be held between the two parties before any litigation began, considered that it would be unlawful for Southwark to offer more than was allowed under the Compensation Code, and recognised that the decision had significant knock-on effects for other schemes“. It would be no surprise at all to me if the decision is eventually overturned. 
You may now unfasten your seat belts.

Simon Ricketts 4.2.17

Personal views, et cetera