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How does planning perpetuate generational inequality?

In part one of this three part blog contribution we hear from inside the tent to what extent our planning system is truly representative and democratic. Or whether hyper-local Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) opposition perpetuates the generational inequality we should all oppose.

It was early in the evening when I realised things were not going as I had planned. You could cut the tension with a knife. I started to tot-up how I thought the votes would go; for, for, against, against, don’t know, I…don’t know. 

I swivel my chair to turn away from the public gallery. There’s nothing worse than catching the eye of someone giving you the stare. ‘These people must hate me’, I think to myself, ‘they must think we are faceless droids, nodding through applications without a care in the world’. 

But tonight we’re not nodding through an application, we’re on the verge of blocking 63 new homes. 

I am sitting in Lewisham Council’s planning committee. On a usual night, I would sit in faint bemusement as colleagues act out a charade — we ask for clarification, we look again at that the cross-sections, we offer apologetic looks to objectors and we firmly ask our officers to make sure all planning conditions are enforced. It is a charade because we know the application is policy compliant before the night begins. The material grounds for refusal may be as flimsy as renters’ rights, but “we’re gathered here tonight” because 5 or more people have complained about an application’s impact on their backyard. After the usual impassioned rant on immaterial considerations or a pained lament to our hands being tied, councillor’s will grant planning permission.

But tonight, is different. This application has not only generated considerable opposition, but the application itself has (potentially) solid grounds for refusal. I can see my colleagues getting tetchy. Objectors have been and gone, and as usual, a scatter-gun approach has been utilised. Locked and loaded, we’ve been pummelled with round after round of complaints: this area can’t take any more homes (it can), this will increase parking pressure (most occupants won’t own a car), this site can’t accommodate this many homes (it can). However, two complaints gain traction. 

The development would replace an underutilized plot of land — specifically, a scruffy-looking light industrial estate, and replace it with 63 good quality homes, 20 of which are affordable (14 social, 4 shared-ownership) and a much-needed increase in new business space (an 110% uplift). While it was argued that the application would improve biodiversity across the site, the redevelopment would mean the felling of 38 trees. Moreover, some nearby social housing blocks would experience overlooking from the new flats. At the closest pinch point, the buildings would be 3.8m away from each other, rising to 7.2m away at its furthest. It was acknowledged that for a small number of neighbours, they would no longer be looking out onto trees but at a ‘green wall’ on the side of new flats. 

To me, the choice was clear about the actions we needed to take for the greater good. Over the next 20 years, London will need to build a million new homes. It is a steep task, and that will only be made possible if politicians are brave enough to be straight with the public about our need to densify and be able to communicate the trade-offs we all need to make. 

It is hard to express in words the pain our housing crisis causes, walk down any street in London and you’ll be surrounded by lives touched by it. Most councillors have seen the worst cases, the homeless families trapped for years in bedsit ‘temporary accommodation’, or the damp-infested, unlicensed HMOs we occasionally investigate. But our housing crisis touches even those who are from the outside, ‘comfortable’ — families with steady employment who know that they’re one Discretionary Housing Payment delay away from losing their home; the key workers who can no longer afford to live near their place of work, and the young professionals locked out of homeownership for life — all are transient, cycling through extortionate and insecure properties, priced out of neighbourhoods they briefly called home, simply existing, in a private rented sector not fit for purpose. 

The site of this application was an urban setting, and if London is to densify as needed, we will need to accept properties overlooking each other. While a few flats would have their amenity impacted, were we really going to act for the few and not the many? If we were to block this, how long would site stay underutilised, undeveloped and unviable? Years at least. 

And while we heard from the developer who told us about the quality of the design, the urban greening and green wall. And while officers mentioned our housing targets as they authoritatively flicked through their slides. We never heard from those for whom those targets aren’t just numbers, but chance in life, a future. We never do.

I’ve never once had a homeless family attend a planning committee. I sometimes wonder whether any private renter has ever spoken against an application at one of my committees? It takes time to get involved in the planning system, read papers, submit responses and attend the committee. It means we hear from the time-rich. 

Our case-by-case discretionary planning system encourages people to get involved in the planning process only when a case directly affects them. The system encourages decisions to be based on a hyper-localised impact assessment, based on feedback from a relatively small number of people whose amenity will be negatively impacted. The system allows councillors to be swayed by localised concerns in the febrile heat of a civic hall. In essence, the system offers the ideal conditions for Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) voices to be successful. 

For, for, against, against, for..I think.. oh no, they’re going to vote against! 

Several councillors are pushing hard on the loss of trees and objectors saw their opportunity. They brought up our climate emergency declaration and opined that these majestic trees — not accessible and at the back of an industrial estate, were essential oxygen masks for the area. The fact that old light industrial units were being replaced by energy-efficient new homes and business space was overlooked. More importantly, the fact that densification near transport hubs (like this site) is an important mechanic in encouraging a model shift to more sustainable transport methods, thus improving air quality and lowering carbon emissions long-term, was overlooked. 

Again, the bigger picture was being missed and this isn’t a failure of individual councillors, but something embedded into the design of our planning system. 

Another colleague rose up and said he’d vote against. Gulp, that’s another. For, for, against, against, against. He couldn’t let these homes be built due to its impact on the nearby social housing tenants. He’d listened to the homeowners who said they were not speaking for themselves, but on behalf of others, those less fortunate than themselves and who were hit hardest by this development. 

16 new social homes were not going to be built because a few existing social tenants would now look at a wall of a block, rather than some trees. Again, this is a product of a system that gives councillors selective feedback. We only hear from those set to lose from any given scheme and never those set to gain. 

In the end, I moved to support the officer’s recommendation for approval and the application was granted planning permission via a deciding vote by the Chair. But I was left reeling from what I saw, and my anger would only grow as I read about far larger policy-compliant schemes, being blocked by councillors across London

In writing this piece, I hope to show how and why applications that comply with a local plan can be rejected by your local councillors. I hope to give people an insight into how our planning system’s much-vaunted democracy, tilts the system unfairly towards the well-to-do and perpetuates generational inequality. Despite facing huge housing pressure, we face a system that provides fertile ground for hyper-local opposition to block developments. 

When drafting our local plan, comments from my colleagues often take a broader view, looking at the needs of our borough as a whole. The need for economic growth, densification and regeneration, and the need to tackle housing need and combat gentrification by building more is accepted. These things are then balanced and traded off against ensuring good design, protecting unique heritage, and ensuring manageable density for the area’s infrastructure.

Moving away from our ‘one-shot’ approach to planning engagement is good for democracy. By ‘front-loading’ or ‘up-streaming’ planning consultations, we can help achieve a more representative and democratic planning process. Less time-rich demographics can provide feedback at a single point when it is necessary. All in all, it will mean that planners and politicians will get a more holistic view when drafting their local plans, in an environment that offers them the space to see the bigger picture.

Moreover, the proposed move to a rules-based planning system and away from a discretion-based system is positive. It will mean evenings like I’ve described above, will become a thing of the past. 

Defenders of the status quo remind us that almost 9 in 10 residential planning applications are granted permission at committee-stage. However, this is a form of survivorship bias, ignoring the countless applications for new homes that were never submitted because the risks of being rejected by planning officer or councillors are too great. The issues in our symptom run far deeper than those outlined here. In fact, councillors directly blocking new homes is only the tip of the iceberg.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Leo Gibbons-Plowright</span></strong>
Leo Gibbons-Plowright

Leo is a Labour and Co-Op Party Councillor for Forest Hill in Lewisham.

7 replies on “How does planning perpetuate generational inequality?”

I would argue that I was privileged to have an even better overview of that decision-making process (than the vice-chair of that Planning Committee); and that I felt less anguish than Leo about reaching that decision. I was sorry that others on the Committee made it necessary for me to vote twice. But glad that Leo managed to see the same clear balance that I did.
I have a great deal more faith, than he does, that locally elected representatives should play a significant role in regulating development and our environment. But I also think it’s important that they are good at it.

I would not argue with Leo Gibbons-Plowright that the housing situation in London is dire for many households, but the connection between their predicament and an application for 63 new dwellings is a tortuous one. The figures are ten years old, but the in Inner London there were about 2.4million spare bedrooms and about 2.4thousand household short of one or two bedrooms. The Climate and Ecological Emergency is relevant (ie a material consideration) to all applications for new building, however efficient in operation, due to the levels of carbon emitted in constructing the houses and associated services. I believe that most social tenants are prepared to pay the ‘bedroom tax’ rather than downsize and there is no equivalent for owner occupiers. Those in and out of Government should be putting their minds to how we can make more of the existing housing so that the space and fabric being heated and insulated is meeting genuine housing needs.

Been in the same chair, but in another very different unitary authority in the North East. Things are qualititatively different compared to London, but the arguments are the same. A tactic I used now and again, was to suggest to the committee that – “well there are big issues of concern about X and Y, but at the same time, whilst a departure from the local plan, this in only around A and B and, I feel may be acceptable to the Inspectors if we formally object and the applicants go to appeal” (Which they, of ourse, will). I continued; “given the salience of only two issues of substance, which may be overcome, could I suggest a deferral of consideration to allow for more discussions between the applicant and our DC officers ?”

Of course, this throws the matter back into the lap of the applcant and their architects, but on a few occasions, this worked and either a fresh application was agreed, or a set of really tougher conditions imposed – and the developers went for the bird in the hand rather than wait to see if the Inspectorate would flush something out of a bush. Of course other appealed straightaway, and usually won given national framework focus- but not always . Another tool that helped, although there was some officer resistance, was the use of interactive VR as a tool which enabled (I felt better) discussion, although this sometimes veered into members proposing effectively a new application miles away from what was on the table.

It seems a shame that years of poor management and misguided policy by all parties leading to the present housing crisis should be taken blindly as the reason to reduce the council’s own standards, contradict climate policy and promote unaffordable rents. If a committee vote is tied there should be further investigation as to why, and means sort to resolve it. That would be democratic, unlike the chair’s second vote !

It is laudable that Councillor Gibbons-Plowright feels so passionately about the homeless problem in Lewisham. He articulately describes the real people suffering from this shameful situation as an invisible constituency. It needs public representatives like Councillor Gibbons-Plowright make them visible and to stand up for them. All the more regrettable therefore that I should admit to having been one of the people objecting to the planning proposal which he uses to illustrate his blog and his argument for less public oversight of planning applications.

While agreeing with Councillor Gibbons-Plowright that many objections to planning applications could be characterised with the soubriquet NIMBY I feel that this unfortunate fact should not be used as part of an argument for abolishing the already weak powers that objectors to planning applications currently possess.

On this issue I fear that I am on the other side of the argument to Councillor Gibbons-Plowright. The systematic reduction (under governments of both hues I should add) of the Central Government Grant over the past few decades has stripped the resources of local councils to the point where they struggle to maintain essential services. I have no doubt that the main reason for this has been to compel local councils to fall back on the private sector – something that has, in the form of outsourcing, accelerated in the interim. In the area of housing, where previously councils had the resources to directly build homes for those in need, they now find themselves reliant on profit-driven property speculators. This in itself is an unhealthy situation for councils to find themselves in but it has another ingredient which makes the relationship even more dangerous. Not only are these property speculators seen as the main source for supplying social housing but they are also being seen as the agency by which a major source of income for councils – the community charge – can be expanded and increased.

In such circumstances, I would argue, local oversight of planning applications is all the more critical and in fact should be increased rather than diminished.

In order to illustrate my point I too will refer to the planning application which Councillor Gibbons-Plowright himself used – the proposed development of the Blackheath Business Estate on Blackheath Hill. There are a lot of reasons why this particular development should have raised red flags with the council and rather than go into them in the short space available to me, the substantial arguments can be accessed here [ https://853.london/2020/12/17/one-of-the-worst-applications-ive-seen-63-flats-approved-for-blackheath-hill-by-lewisham-council/ ].

While this development is not exactly in my back yard it is located across the A2 from my back window. I personally became interested out of concern for the polluting impact of the increased traffic it would generate as I was already suffering respiratory issues from the existing level of traffic on Blackheath Hill which at this point narrows to a single lane. I was subsequently (in September last) diagnosed with late-onset Asthma – a condition that my consultant says was likely to be related to the traffic levels less than 5 metres from my back bedroom window.

In all likelihood I would have let the issue rest after registering my objection – after all I am well over 70 years old so I would not have felt justified in continuing my objection to the potential 69 new homes for young people that the development promised. It was only after visiting the site that I became aware of the far more severe implications it had for those social housing tenants who already resided on the border with the development.

It was as a result of that visit that it became obvious to me that the impact of the development on my condition was minor when compared to the problem it would create for the social housing tenants in Chalkhill House and Cardinal House (known as Block D or the Parkside estate). My feelings of concern only increased the deeper I went into the issues involved.

The apartments in Block D most severely impacted by this development are those designated by the landlord, Peabody, for tenants with medical issues. As is usual with these developments the social housing parts are located in what is considered the less valuable parts of the constructed site. In the case of Block D it required the excavation of part of the hill that abutted the car part of the existing Blackheath Business Estate. This meant that those tenants on the ground floor – the floor which houses the most vulnerable people requiring wheel-chair access – only had a very narrow corridor of, in some cases, less than 4 metres wide, that separated them from the steep embankment that rose 4-5 metres above them to the business estate car park. This left them in semi-darkness but with some access to light. This limited access to light was compensated for by the corridor of 36 mature trees which provided not only visual relief but acted as an asset to their well-being in terms of bird song and the filtering of the pollution that was constantly pumped out by the stream of almost stationary cars less than 15 metres away on the A2. Not only did the proposed development mean the destruction of these trees but it also involved the construction of a four-storey business premises atop the 4-5 metre steep embankment. Together with the embankment and the four-storey business premises the obstruction of their daylight would now rise to a total of 18 metres from the ground floor apartments. Additionally, this obstruction would in places, be less than 4 metres away from the existing social housing apartments allocated to those with medical issues.

On realising the extent of the problems this posed for the social housing tenants in Block D, my neighbours and I made a point of getting to know the actual individuals involved.

We then discovered that many of the tenants were recent arrivals in this country and, although horrified at the proposed building so close to their homes, were reluctant to do anything that might cause them to be victimised by the authorities.

At this point I should add that the opposite boundary of the development site almost echoes the problems it poses for the social housing tenants of Block D. There the issue is with the small residential hospital which specialises in the treatment of brain-trauma patients. Although this hospital, unlike the Block D, is not located down-hill of the four-storey business premises and therefore not likely to be impacted to the same degree in terms of light deprivation it will nonetheless be overlooked by it, in addition to being overlooked by the proposed 9-storey and 7-storey residential block that is part of the development.

But to get back to the social housing tenants of Block D. One of the families we met has a child with complex medical conditions including respiratory problems. Another family includes a young man confined to a wheelchair and with severe neurological conditions. it was a tragic irony that the planning committee councillors who voted for this development did so on the same day that the inquest into another Lewisham resident (nine-year old Ella Kissi-Debrah) found that she had died as a direct result of the pollution in the borough.

As I said, it was only after my visit to the site and seeing how people would be directly impacted by the proposed development that I realised just how bad the proposal actually was. Therefore, it remains an abiding regret for me that the Chairman of the Planning Committee at the meeting of 16 December ignored the pleas of his predecessor, Councillor Amanda De Ryk, for the committee to make a site visit before making their decision. If ever there was a case where such a visit was warranted it was this one and I am left wondering what does actually warrant a site visit if this one was not deemed worthy of one.

I can understand, under the terms that local councils now have to operate, why those who voted for this proposal did what they did. They were, I’m sure, motivated by the potential of the additional 14 affordable rent units and 6 shared ownership units that it offered. But, sometimes our zeal in trying to do good blinds us to the price that others will pay in circumstances where a development like this one has not been subject to sufficient oversight. Unfortunately, in this case that price comes not only in the form of a significant reduction in the quality of life of existing social housing tenants but in the way it represents a failure in the duty of care to these people on the part of the Council.

It is for these reasons I believe that it is crucial that the input of local people who, after all, are attuned to the nuances of local life, not only continue to have a role to play in planning decisions but that the law should be changed to provide them with at least a level playing field when it comes to the uneven resources and influence that commercial property developers currently possess in the planning process.

Eamon Dyas
9 Feb. 2021

There are clearly different ways of looking at the planning conundrum. It is not black and white and it does not help to make it simplistic or demonise objectors for their motives or their resources of time, money or other privilege.
There is a mismatch between supply and demand for homes, whether in terms of location, size, tenure, affordability, quality, accessibility, efficiency. Too little is known about long-term trends (especially given covid) and about who eventually occupies and owns new properties and on what terms. Are they genuinely helping the disadvantaged? Is it in the right place?
Local factors do matter. Local residents and ward councillors do have an insight into how a development might impact the character of their local area and its services, which might elude planners in their offices or councillors who do not know a site and its immediate area.
Objectors object for a wide variety of reasons and not to every application in their area. Some hope to stop a development completely but many just want it to be less dense, less tall, better designed, more affordable, greener, better serviced by transport and other infrastructure. They can imagine a developments in a 24/7 local context, have an instinct for what neighbours or future residents might think and how it would change a neighbourhood.
Most would agree that earlier and democratic consultation would help make more applications beneficial and proportionate, not insensitive or greedy. Then, good training would help councillors evaluate issues more confidently and effectively, recognising genuinely borderline cases and making the right call – including postponing decisions for more investigation or negotiation. Finally, councillors must take their democratic engagement and environmental policies seriously. Concerns about a few trees, poor light, little public space or poor air quality should not be downplayed.
Most important is to engage and involve more local stakeholders at an early stage, so that applications are knowingly accepted by communities and do not become closed negotiations between planning professionals and development professionals, with local councillors rubber-stamping recommendations because they have housing or time targets to meet or are afraid of the costs of an appeal and want to shelter behind cautious legal advice rather than listen to vocal locals.

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