Losing the planning plot

Mike Malina, planning
The price of letting standards slip — Mike Malina.

Developers are riding roughshod over best practice using the tacit support of the Chancellor as their justification — and our dysfunctional planning system is making it easy for them, says Mike Malina.

Future generations of building owners and users are being condemned to ‘years of misery’, according to the parliamentary committee that oversees National Policy for the Built Environment (NPBE).

This influential group has also accused developers of playing ‘fast and loose’ with building quality — and none of us has to look far to see evidence of the new gung-ho attitude that is threatening to blight our local communities.

There seems to be an assumption among developers that the ‘light touch’ approach of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to housing development amounts to tacit approval of a ‘build ‘em high, build ‘em cheap’ strategy.

However, the last time I looked, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) had not been abolished, so planning officers don’t have to roll over and have their tummies tickled. They can still stand up for better practice and work with building-engineering specialists to achieve them.

In its latest report, the committee chaired by Baroness O'Cathain, condemns the practice of using ‘financial viability’ — the mantra of David Cameron’s administration — as an excuse to ignore sustainability issues entirely.

She said, ‘It is increasingly clear that we need to build more houses in England, and we wholeheartedly support that objective.

‘However, if we build those houses in the wrong place, to a poor standard, without the consent of local communities, we are only storing up future misery for the people in those houses and others nearby.’

The committee recommends that local authorities are given back the power to build new homes of their own and to ensure all developments are ‘of a suitably high quality’.

‘Spending a little bit extra on good-quality design at the outset can avert massive costs to people, society and Government in the long-run,’ said Baroness O’Cathain, who urged the Government to review the National Planning Policy Framework. ‘If developers submit substandard plans, local authorities should be able to ask them to think again without builders falling back on questionable viability assessments to get their way.’

However, this also requires the planning process to be fit for purpose. In many parts of the country, it is shockingly under-resourced and poorly focused. Many local-authority planning officials don’t even communicate with the building-control officers with whom they share an office. It is not uncommon for a BCO to sign off on a development that doesn’t even have complete planning approval.

The committee also recommends a revision of the Planning Framework and a return of zero-carbon building targets because the ‘wriggle’ wording is undermining quality — not just sustainability.

Section 95 of the framework states, ‘To support the move to a low-carbon future, local planning authorities should: plan for new development in locations and ways which reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and actively support energy-efficiency improvements to existing buildings. It also states that ‘when setting any local requirement for a building’s sustainability [they should] do so in a way consistent with the Government’s zero-carbon buildings policy and adopt nationally described standards’

Sadly, the Government has scrapped zero-carbon building targets.

This plays into the hands of developers interested in a race to the bottom backed up by their own definition of ‘sustainability’ as covering financial viability and provision of low-cost housing to meet local shortages — rather than anything related to the environment, carbon emissions and energy saving.

Again, while Section 96 of the NPPF calls for applications to ‘comply with adopted local plan policies on local requirements for decentralised energy supply’ and energy-efficiency design, it adds the caveat ‘unless it can be demonstrated by the applicant … that this is not feasible or viable’.

Mike Malina, planning
iStock.com/Karl Dolenc

The Government’s current position — voiced by Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change Amber Rudd — is that its priority is to reduce carbon emissions ‘in the most cost-effective way possible’. However, by focusing on the cost element, it is losing sight of the emissions. It is cutting costs, but not cutting emissions and is reducing investment in low-carbon, renewable technologies and other initiatives that can deliver better-quality buildings.

Applying an ‘energy hierarchy’ includes the following wherever possible.

• High-quality building fabric.

• Optimised building orientation along with passive design.

• Appropriate natural ventilation.

• Natural daylighting.

• Integrated building energy management and control systems This doesn’t just deliver buildings that have minimal environmental impact, but also buildings of a generally higher quality that are, therefore, more likely to survive the test of time and provide a better experience for the people who occupy them.

The sector’s 10-80-10 equation reflects the fact that 80% of a building’s value is realised during its operational life. Just 10% is accounted for during construction and a further 10% in demolition. Much of the work of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) is focused on the long-term sustainability of a building — the 80%, but getting that right depends on the fundamentals being in place from the very outset — i.e. from the concept stage through to planning and onwards.

Unfortunately, the Government’s abdication of responsibility in this area means developers are trumping everything with the single criterion of financial viability. As a result, they are building on flood plains and agricultural land instead of the thousands of acres of brownfield sites that could be reclaimed and redeveloped. They are also blighting towns and rural villages without appropriate infrastructure, as well as ramping back on the higher standards developed over the past two decades.

Developers are compromising the 80% in order to make the initial 10% more profitable — a completely topsy-turvy approach, which is what happens if your strategy becomes a hostage to political fortune. Politicians only think in 5-year election cycles, and Chancellor George Osborne is fixed on reducing the budget deficit and throwing up housing to meet short-term targets.

You could justify his approach by arguing that he doesn’t know any better, but planning officers should know better and they still have the tools to do better. There is a lot at stake here and we can’t afford to let standards slip now because future generations will be paying the price for decades to come.

Mike Malina is eastern counties and East Midlands regional manager for the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) 

His book ‘Delivering sustainable buildings’ has been published by Wiley Blackwell; more information at the second link below.

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