Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)
MR STUART MILLIGAN AND MR ANDREW WHITAKER
WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL 2002
340. In somewhere like Bootle, you can see family homes which, if they were in a London suburb, would be going for probably £2 million, and yet in Bootle they are virtually unsaleable. Surely we should be looking at getting those homes back into use before we complain about the planning system and the supply of land for building?
(Mr Whitaker) We must look at both. I do not think you can say to people, "Your choice is to go and live in Bootle or nowhere". Yes, the problem you identify is very important and we should be coming up with solutions to that, but, coupled with that, we need to provide houses where people need or want to be. That is associated with economic development and urban regeneration in a number of areas, including London and the south-east.
341. I would like to ask you about the use of brownfield sites. Before I do, can I ask you a question about the statistics you are using? You have just told us that the number of new dwellings is in fact not keeping up with the number of new households being created. Are you counting in your statistics conversions of existing buildings or are you simply using statistics which refer to complete new build?
(Mr Whitaker) It is always very difficult to get the right figures for any statistics. We always use the government's own statistics because we believe that those are clearly the most accurate, and certainly the most consistent. They are net figures and therefore they do include conversions.
342. Can I ask you about the use of brownfield sites? Do you feel that the problem at the moment is that the planning system is limiting the supply of sites - and perhaps I can address this to Mr Milligan from Redrow - or is it that house builders are reluctant to use the more complicated, previously used sites?
(Mr Milligan) If we, as a company, are taken as representative of the industry, and I believe that we are if we are talking about house builders, I can tell you that our brownfield land bank has risen from 27 per cent in 1997 to 68 per cent currently. That indicates that the volume of house builders who deliver most of their new housing in this country have responded to planning policy. There are still problems and there is probably a very good example in your constituency which I can quote. I can give two examples. One example is of a site that went through the planning application process in Chester: a brownfield site, in an allocated area, in a local plan, in a city with a tight green belt, which is positive encouragement, and in line with government guidance for brownfield development. It took almost 14 months to get approval for a redevelopment of a scheme alongside the canal corridor in Chester, and we received the approval 24 hours before the appeal was due to be held the following day. That indicates the slowness of the process. From a house building point of view, we do not have a problem about building on brownfield land. What we want is the land supply, whether it is brown or green, delivered through the planning system, through the development plan system and then handled efficiently through the a planning application development control process to deliver that.
343. It might be helpful, using that example, to explain to the Committee what caused that 14-month delay. Was it just incompetence on the part of the local planning officers; was it the desire of the local communities to be deeply involved in the process of the application? What, in your view, was the source of the difficulty there?
(Mr Milligan) That is a really good example because it illustrated everything that is a problem with this system at the moment. We are redeveloping a brownfield site and relocating a current employer - it is a garage - elsewhere in Chester, so that there is no loss of employment. In fact, there should be a positive encouragement by the City Council to help that relocation, and then make a development in line with what the planning authority wants. The problems is on the details of the discussion. I do not believe that the planning officers technically have design and viability understanding. When we came to negotiations on what they wanted, which was a mixed use development with some retail use in part of it, basically that was non-viable. They do not understand that. The planning authority's officers - and I am not blaming them - do not have the technical expertise to understand that. When we came to negotiating on the affordable housing element, again they did not have the technical understanding of the viability issues of running a process where we have to provide a certain amount of funding to be able to relocate a business elsewhere to make the economics work; i.e. get a land value out of it. We eventually arrived at a negotiated consent only because we have the current system of twin-track applications. This is another thing in the Green Paper which it is proposed to remove. It is about a very valuable resource to the development industry and I believe that is a way of actually short-cutting the system, despite that timetable. It was only as a result of that second application that was lying there waiting to be determined by an inspector holding an inquiry the following day that we actually received that consent when we did.
344. Can I be clear: are you saying that the new proposals would make the situation in Chester easier to deal with or harder to deal with?
(Mr Milligan) I do not believe that there is anything wrong with the existing process. It is about the implementation and the enforceability of the existing process. I do not believe that the new planning Green Paper will change that. If the culture is not there in the local authority planning officers to enforce it and there are not sanctions to impose it when it fails, then it is not going to deliver. This system does not bring in either.
Sir Paul Beresford
345. In your opening statement you were heavily on to the local authorities What role do you think government has? Can government influence thisand I would say looking at the portfolio presented by you there is an indication that governments have actually had an influenceand why have you not mentioned that in some of these solutions?
(Mr Milligan) Certainly on brownfield sites, I think at a national level there could be a presumption in favour of the development on brownfield land. If this government is serious about pushing development, whether for house building or other development, on to brownfield land, then we should have a positive policy statement to that effect.
346. Mr Milligan, forgive me, I am not quite clear. Are you saying that the negotiation took this length of time because you wanted one thing and the local authority wanted something else and you interpret that as being ignorance, whereas some of us might interpret it as looking after the interests of their population?
(Mr Milligan) I think the local authority did not know how to actually handle it. Eventually they had to go outside and bring in consultants because they did not understand the viability issue. I think a lot of the planning obligations the government have put out are going to increase that with the tariff that is being proposed. Local government planing officers technically do not have that valuation expertise to be able to understand the implications of what they are asking for through a tariff system or through negotiation for affordable housing. It is a complex system.
347. You were not good at convincing them because it took 14 months.
(Mr Milligan) I think we were good at convincing them but we were only good at convincing them because we had the ultimate threat of going to appeal the next day.
348. So what would you put in the new planing legislation to overcome all the difficulties which your company experiences? What is the solution?
(Mr Milligan) At a national policy level, we would ask for a presumption in favour of brownfield development.
349. Surely the problem that you are describing is not that there was a presumption against building on the brownfield site; it is what you wanted to put on compared to what the council wanted? That was the difficulty.
(Mr Milligan) That is one example. First of all, there should be a presumption in favour. In effect, that sends a clear message.
350. But there is already and that is why the government keeps banging on about it because people are not listening. "Brown field sides", they say.
(Mr Milligan) I can quote you another example in Harrogate on an MOD site, a government agency-owned site which we contracted on in 1997. It took us five years to get planning in an area surrounded, and I mean surrounded, on four sides by residential development. Previously part of that site had been released I think in the Eighties and had been developed for housing, yet we spent five years trying to go through the planning system through the development plan system, and then a planning application process to get a housing development on that site.
351. Do you support PPG3 then?
(Mr Milligan) Very much so, yes. I have no problems with PPG3.
352. One of the other issues that you raise in your submission is that there needs to be a cultural change in planning departments within local authorities. What exactly do you mean by that?
(Mr Whitaker) I think that that is precisely what we have been talking here. It is not necessarily the process which is at fault; it is to do with the culture in local authorities of being anti or pro development, or a culture of saying, "Yes, we want to see change. How can we make that change the best possible change", whereas at the moment we believe we have a culture that is: "No, we need to stop development because all development is bad. If you must have it, how can we talk to you to make sure that it has the least possible impact?" I think that is the point that we make about a change in culture.
353. That seems to me an incredible stereotyping of planning officers throughout the country. It is not my experience of them. They may be anti some development for good reasons because it might not be suitable development, and we could have disagreements about that in each case. Is that really a generalisation you want to confirm, that planners are anti development?
(Mr Whitaker) I take your point and there are some local authorities which are very willing to embrace change and indeed are trying to encourage change, and clearly we give them a lot of support. There are other areas where that situation is reversed but we still have everywhere the culture of not wanting development to go ahead and starting out with that. Even where you are looking for change, you are trying to guide and limit that change within your own pre-set boundaries as an authority.
354. Every single local authority does not want development to go ahead?
(Mr Whitaker) Not every single local authority.
(Mr Milligan) I think part of the problem is that there is also a resource issue. There need to be more resources in local planning departments to deal with planning applications. Applications now are more technically complex.
Sir Paul Beresford
355. Who pays?
(Mr Milligan) There are proposals to raise planning application fees. I do not think as an industry we have an overall problem with that, as long as it is linked to performance, but in the past any increase has never been linked to performance improvements.
356. You tend to concentrate on the ones where you run into difficulties. Can you confirm that there is a very substantial number of applications which do go through without major problems?
(Mr Whitaker) In terms of speed and efficiency, unfortunately there are very few that go through within the government's target of eight weeks. If we are talking about development of over ten houses, I can supply with you those figures, which we have recently been collating. Even if you look at the new targets for 13 weeks, there is still a very low proportion, and certainly nowhere near the new targets that the government has set that 60 per cent of applications of those types should go through in 13 weeks. The figures are nowhere near that 60 per cent.
Sir Paul Beresford
357. And that is never the fault of the applicant?
(Mr Whitaker) I am sure that it is sometimes the fault of the applicant inasmuch as they may be slow at providing additional information that is asked for and they may be slow at providing detail.
358. If I was cynical and I looked at some of the ones in the south-east, we get a small site and the developers come in with an opening application which sticks far too many little boxes on there. The local authority points out that they are most unlikely to agree. There are negotiations and arguments. It is either turned down or they come back with a lesser one and a lesser one and it is a whittling down procedure. The fault lies, I believe, with the applicants, quite obviously. Do you agree with that?
(Mr Whitaker) I think that there is a large number of applicants. One of the things that the Green Paper suggests, and something that we would support, is more pre-application consultation. We are a little bit worried about paying for that because if the whole point is to speed the system up in the way that you have suggested, we will make sure that the application is right when it is submitted, and then clearly there is a benefit to everybody to encourage pre-application consultation.
359. Do you think that the regional spatial strategies will be an improvement on the position we have now?
(Mr Whitaker) I think that the regional spatial strategy bears a lot of resemblance to existing regional planning guidance and is a much wider spatial policy, which we would welcome. We believe that there are a lot of regional differences and a "one size fits all" policy is not going to work. That is important when you are considering process. You have to have a planning process that can cope with the disparity of the region, such as a planning process which works for London, just as much as you have a planning process that works for rural areas of the country, and other inner city areas. We do not want a planning process that is solely focussed on the problems of London and the south-east, the area of greatest development pressure, when there are other regions that still require development and investment but perhaps have this more positive attitude towards change.