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Compromise and Council Houses

In part two of this three part blog contribution we continue to hear from inside the tent to what extent our planning system is truly representative and democratic. Do cries of ‘social cleansing’ hold any veracity, or does left-wing NIMBYism refusal to accept trade-offs manifest itself to the same effect?

Once upon a time, I would’ve stood on Reginald Street in Deptford in searing anger. Even with the land cleared and the hoardings up, I would still be bitter about what my colleagues had been put through. But today I’ve found myself mellowed. As I watch the diggers at work, laying the foundation for 117 new social homes, I wryly smile to myself. Today, the fight for these homes seems so easy, so tiny, so inconsequential. 

The old Tidemill school site on Reginald Road had long been earmarked for the development of new homes. Instead of allowing the vacated site to fester, Lewisham Council agreed to a ‘meanwhile use’ leased and the area was handed over to a volunteer community group to operate. With the land, they created a ‘community garden’. 

A ‘community garden’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it conjures up the image of an area open and shared by all in the neighbourhood. In reality, due to a lack of volunteers, by the time of its closure, the garden was overgrown, locked up, and open for a few hours each Saturday. Insiders say that a small clique living on well-heeled streets over in Brockley, operated the site as their own semi-private enclave. No big deal, we felt, because at least the land was semi-utilised.

The trouble only started when the council request the stewardship of the land to be returned so that our long-awaited housing development could get underway. Reneging on their promise to hand back the land when the ‘meanwhile use’ was up, the community group refused to hand over the keys. And thus, the ‘Save Tidemill Garden’ campaign arrived. 

It quickly snowballed. 

Opposite the development site, sits the Birdnest pub in Deptford. I like the boozer, but if I say it wears its counter-cultural chic a little too earnestly on its sleeve, you might get what I mean. It’s filled with students, old rockers and geezers, and was a perfect local meeting point for the Save Tidemill campaign.

Close your eyes and picture a row of wooden tables, on each one, sits a different segment of the Save Tidemill campaign’s coalition. 

  • Table 1: The founders of the garden, mostly your classic NIMBYs, primarily asset-rich and comfortable. They’ll miss their garden when it’s gone and they don’t want pesky social housing spoiling their Saturday afternoon sun-spot.
  • Table 2: Assorted Left-wing groups. Nearly all older NIMBYs as well, these lot are driven primarily by political opportunism and they want to find a wedge issue to campaign against the local Labour council (internally in the Labour Party, or externally). For this group, they’ll reject any council-led development programme from the pin-head of ideological grounds. Any development that is not 100% council ‘target rent’ is rejected, even if the private sale properties on-site are necessary to fund the building of the social homes. It means that in reality, they reject any new large-scale affordable house building.
  • Table 3: Eco-Nimbys, probably Green Party members, you know the ones — the type of people who weep over fallen trees on the HS2 path, despite HS2 being a piece of crucial infrastructure to increase our rail and freight capacity and reduce our over-reliance on private cars and lorries which has a huge knock-on effect on our nation’s carbon emissions and the death of more of your bloody trees.
  • Table 4: Anarcho-crusties / Green-Black Groups. A bit like the Eco-Nimbys but they are more inclined towards violence towards the man. 

The Save Tidemill campaign only got as noisy as it did because Tables 1 & 2 framed the building of this new social housing as corporate ‘ecocide’ and therefore managed to connect with Tables 3 & 4. The campaign itself was risible. Misinformation was spread in the neighbourhood and councillors who spoke up for the scheme were relentlessly attacked. Eventually, the rhetoric spilt over into direct action.

Cllr Joe Dromey, one of the few who were brave enough to face the misinformation head-on, would eventually be attacked on the street by masked protestors. Cllr Paul Bell, who led the scheme, would take his address off the Lewisham Council website out of fear of reprisals. He had been accosted in the street as well, while leaving a council meeting. 

But as nasty as the campaign got, I never felt like our plans were in jeopardy. Here were 117 new social homes, as well as 41 for shared ownership and 51 for private sale, replacing a ‘meanwhile use’ garden and an old and dilapidated block at 2–30a Reginald Road. The new green space on the development would be accessible to all unlike the Tidemill Garden, and the tenants of 2–30a Reginald Road would be provided brand new high-quality homes on lifetime tenancies. Those in housing need would be given what they deserved. The case was a no-brainer. 

Lewisham Council has a Residents’ Charter that guarantees all residents impacted by a regeneration scheme are given the right to remain on their estate and guarantees an increase in genuinely affordable housing. To me, these guarantees are not only morally right, but they also make political-strategic sense. 

Left-wing groups and other opportunist political opponents have desperately and repeatedly tried to leap into our estate regeneration proposals for political gain. And while they may have recruited a few new paper-sellers in the process of campaigning, they have failed to stop any major schemes.

Take the regeneration of Achilles Street, New Cross. Despite a campaign by left-wing NIMBYs spreading fearmongering and disinformation among tenants and leaseholders, an estate ballot returned 73% in favour of the regeneration. The likely outcome of this renewal will be 450 homes on site, with a minimum of 50% of the total homes built being affordable, and a minimum of 35% of the total homes built will be Council-owned homes for social rents.

Similarly, even Lewisham Council’s joint-venture with Grainger to build 324 new homes for rent off Besson Street in New Cross slid fairly comfortably through planning, with the ward’s left-wing councillors speaking in favour of the proposals. On the Besson Street scheme, 65% will be leased at market rent to fund the 114 homes which will be lease at London Living Rent. The scheme also delivered an array of other amenities for the area including a new GP surgery and community space for the New Cross Gate Trust. 

The left-wing NIMBY groups rejected Besson Street because London Living Rent is not social housing. Instead, these are genuinely affordable rents set by the average incomes in the Telegraph Hill ward. Each household will sign a secure 5-year tenancy that is automatically rolled-over if they want to remain. In Lewisham, we need to build all sorts of tenures, not just social housing, and these homes are designed and will cater to our key workers who will never be eligible for social housing. 

On the hoardings that line Besson Street today, someone has scrawled ‘stop social cleansing’. But in fact, these new homes will help key workers —  your nurses, your police officers, your school teachers, remain in our borough near where they work. Even more absurdly, the cries of ‘gentrification’ and ‘social cleansing’ were used for Achilles Street and Tidemill Garden. These schemes offer net-gains in social housing — they are a firewall against gentrification and help low-income families remain in our community. 

The left-wing NIMBYs have tried to peddle the falsehood that these estate regenerations are not supplying social housing because the new homes will be provided at London Affordable Rent — which is pegged at 2016 social rent levels. London Council target rent is now £105.87pw for a two-bedroom property, while London Affordable Rent is £158.85pw. The 13 residents of Reginald House who would be offered a new home on the development, would continue to be housed at their target rent. For the 104 homeless families being offered a new home, it’ll be a huge fall in rent and for many, the first time they’ve ever had a secure, decent home for their family. 

Affordable housing funding is extremely restricted by an austerity-driven Conservative government. But as this article highlights, in 2016, Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, managed to negotiate funding from central government for new affordable homes. While funding for social homes, at target rent, were ruled out, the government did agree to fund new homes at Khan’s London Affordable Rent. London Affordable Rent is sent at 2016 target rent levels and is deemed a social rent. While target rent levels have fallen since, year on year – a plan devised by George Osborne to reduce the housing benefit bill — London Affordable Rent has stayed static, that’s caused the disparity. 

The long and short of it is that for these homes to be funded and built at all, they’ll need to be at London Affordable Rent. Working with a charitable provider and building at London Affordable Rent was the only way Lewisham Council could get this many genuinely affordable homes built at the Old Tidemill site. For activists, it’s a choice of viable developments, providing social homes at London Affordable Rent, or no new social homes at all. Sadly, I know where some groups would side.

The refusal of these left-wing activists to accept those trade-offs, reveals, more than anything else, just how out of touch they are with the lives of London’s precariat and working-poor. The median rent for a two-bedroom property in Lewisham is £365.75 per week, above the housing benefit cap. Moreover, ‘no DSS’ discrimination remains rife in the private sector. Many of our poorest residents cannot afford the private sector and if they can, they remain in overcrowded sub-par accommodation.

Even if new homes on Achilles Street and Tidemill Garden are more expensive than target rent council homes, they are seismically cheaper and more secure than the private sector. The homeless families moving into these homes will care more about a new chance in life than the fact that a registered charitable provider is supplying them a life-time tenancy and not the council. Nor are they likely to quibble about a rent far more affordable than their temporary accommodation or home in the PRS. 

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the working class. 

And that’s why these campaigns do not work and never build traction beyond those four tables. Because their arguments are devoid from the lived-reality of the housing crisis and the trade-offs necessary to build new social housing. Despite our reputation, councillors are not daft. We clock that no young renters joined the chorus against the Tidemill Garden development at our local Labour meetings, even if they did follow the Momentum whip.

During Lewisham Labour’s manifesto working groups in 2017, it was noted that it was our young Momentum members who were the ones most enthused by our Besson Street plans. Not only did they like that the income generated from the scheme would help provide services for our residents, they knew from personal experience how life-changing it would be to move into long-term, stable housing in the private rented sector. Like me, they can only dream of a home at London Living Rent.

Councillors speak to residents in our wards all the time and we know that the overwhelming majority accept schemes like Achilles Street, Tidemill and Besson Street are positive. Of course, we still take precautions — we ensure we engage early on any estate regen project and we ensure the facts of a scheme are widely disseminated. On Achilles Street, we held meet-and-greet drop-ins to tackle misinformation. Yet when push comes to shove, sensitive and policy-compliant council-led schemes to build new social and affordable housing are going to have broad support.

While not as politically-heated as large estate regeneration, smaller social housing developments, such as estate-infills can be trickier. Faced by densification of their area without an offer of a new home, current tenants and leaseholders on an estate often take a ‘what’s in it for us?’ approach to the building of essential affordable housing. Moreover, infills often only remain viable if they are larger in scale than many residents are willing to accept.

However, colleagues, alongside the wider public, accept the trade-offs needed to deliver social housing schemes and policy compliant applications will often be looked upon sympathetically. Broadly, public and institutional support (i.e. amongst the council’s political group) work in tandem. It is why councillors can feel emboldened to champion our promised new social and affordable housing schemes and face down the political pressure from noisy campaigns to abandon policy complaint schemes.

But in the grand-scheme of things, I know that all these battles for social housing are small-fry. Local authorities do not have the resources to purchase new land to build social housing on. The scope of what we can achieve is extremely limited. Despite our good work, we can’t even build enough council homes to replace the ones we continue to lose from right-to-buy. 

In short, only the private sector is going to get us out of this housing crisis. While affordable housing programmes have institutionalised support, across the political spectrum market-rate builds are viewed with suspicion. This suspicion leads to a widespread lack of public support for market-rate builds and in my view, this in turn leads to councillors having a pre-disposition to be swayed by NIMBY-campaigns.

In part three of this series, I’ll explain that if we don’t accept this reality, and take a new approach to development, the housing crisis will never be beaten. We need to build a new consensus — one that agrees that a lack of supply (+ building in the wrong places) is causing our housing crisis and that we need market-rate developments at large scales that we cannot deliver without reform.

This is option two, and the only one left. 

<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.

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The Great Tory Planning Power Grab

Recent planning reforms by this government are nothing else than a power grab, and risk future housing and our response to the climate emergencywrites Councillor Johnson Situ.

It takes something special to unite councils (of all political colours), planning bodies and campaigners in almost uniform condemnation. In recent weeks, MHCLG has reached that feat with a string of announcements and reforms to planning, which as ill-judged as they are impractical. Robert Jenrick has given these proposals lofty names such as ‘Planning for the Future’ or ‘Right to Regenerate’ but scratch beneath the surfaceand this is nothing more than a power grab from a national government intent on deregulating planning at the cost of genuinely affordable homes being built and our ability to respond to the Climate Emergency.   

Much has been written about the impact of another top-down reform to the planning system. Firstly, it is important to recognise that the planning system does need reform. Secondly, a decade of cuts to local government has meant that the planning head count has significantly decreased over the years. Yet we must recognise the plan making process can be made far more nimble and better at including communities from the onset if planning departments are adequately resourced.

However, a recent report from the LGA which showed that more than a million homes granted planning permission in the past decade still had not yet been built highlights a wider issue that needs resolving.

Equally, our vision for building high quality, genuinely affordable housing must be coupled with our commitment to tackle the climate emergency – which includes driving up environmental standards in residential homes. That ambition is dependent upon a framework that empowers local authorities to make planning decisions that promote positive environmental and public health outcomes. However, proceeding with the recent announcement risks degrading local authorities’ ability to promote high quality, sustainable housing through the planning system. 

So, if the government were interested in planning reforms that supported councils to meet the housing crisis and respond to the climate emergency, here are some things they could announce, and if not, policies the next Labour government should introduce instead:

A build out clause in granted permissions

The Government’s new Right to Regenerate proposals, which seem to amount to privatising public land by stealth, are deeply flawed. Many councils such as Southwark have ambitious council homes building programmes and are using land to build council homes. It is also silent on land banking from developers. Surely, any reforms to planning should enable planning authorities to refuse planning applications based on record of building out permissions?  

Enable plan making that is responsive to the local community and changing environment

It is a well-known fact that the current plan making process takes too long, and a running joke that by the time most plans are completed they are up for renewal again. This is particularly concerning for our response to the Climate Emergency and enabling councils to develop the right policies to encourage carbon saving technology at the right time. In recent years we have seen significant strides made in the renewable energy technology and communities have come together to develop co-operative energy organisations, all of which needs a national planning framework that actively supports it.

A report by The Committee on Climate Change in February 2019 calculated that if the current 27,000-50,000 homes built in timber frame in recent years increased to 270,000 annually, this would absorb and store three million tonnes of carbon. Now this will not be the answer to meet the entire housing need, but creating a national planning framework that enabled local authorities to strengthen plans to respond to modern methods of construction, should be a priority.

Local Authorities are ready to go further and in recent times many have already strengthen their requirement for environmentally friendly energy, and increasingly car-free developments are a fixture in more local plans. Here in Southwark, we have committed to a net zero development across our key masterplan area by 2030.

Development in the area will be car free and the promotion of walking and cycling as well as electric buses, taxis and commercial vehicles will help tackle air and noise pollution.  We are developing a District Heat Network linking new developments to the South East London Combined heat and Power plant, which will deliver both significant savings in C02 emissions and cheaper energy costs for residents. This will complement a range of low carbon energy options on new build homes across the masterplan area

A spatial planning system, which gives local authorities the ability to have a more formalised say in transport infrastructure

One of the key recommendations from Labour’s Planning Commission was the need for a spatial plan which provided a national framework but also placed a formal role on the local authority. The message of addressing regional inequality will be ignored if local communities get no say on whether their area has better transport infrastructure, and that applies for inner cities as well as northern towns and coastal areas. Whatever your view is on Heathrow’s third runway, it is absurd that the local authority had no formal input within the decision making, when local residents will have to live with the impact on air pollution and traffic in the area.

In short, if this government were serious about meeting the housing crisis and responding to the climate emergency, it would strengthen the role of local authorities within its most recent proposals. Instead it has continued with a decade-long vision to deregulate planning. The stakes are high, and we will need to be bold to build the social and genuinely affordable housing the country needs, as well as responding to the climate emergency. Reheated policies from the 80’s will not work and that is why Southwark Labour, like many Labour authorities, will be fighting these new proposals and campaigning tirelessly to elect a Labour government.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Johnson Situ</span></strong>
Johnson Situ

Johnson is the Labour Councillor for Peckham Ward (Southwark) and Cabinet Member for Climate Emergency, Planning and Transport

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Will a new planning system magically create new housing?

Labour would make a great mistake if they think that the disquiet in the Tory shires about the Government’s proposed planning reforms – or the departure of Dominic Cummings – will sink the Planning White Paper.  Johnson has come out plainly saying he wants abolition of the present planning system, come what may – and we have to understand why so much political capital is invested in this.

Developers and landowners have made massive profits over the last 40 years.  Indeed the economy is largely built on this speculative success. So why get rid of something that works for them so well?  What exactly is the Government’s agenda, and what is Labour’s answer? 

The White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’, proposes not reform of the current system but total abolition of existing town and country planning legislation.  The replacement would be a US style ‘zoning system’ accompanied by high tech design codes.  Thus, if developers can tick the boxes on the zones and codes they get automatic consent.  Bingo. Communities and local councils are by-passed.

No more planning applications to be submitted and poured over by pesky planners and local communities – the landowners and housebuilders are free at last.  At least that is their dream – but things are more complicated than that, and the Tory record with planning makes them highly vulnerable to close examination.

The premise of the White Paper is that the housing crisis is caused by planners putting obstacles in the path of housebuilding companies and that a new planning system will remove these obstacles and magically there will be more housing – a view fuelled by the housebuilders lobby, the Home Builders Federation.  This part of the Government’s rationale does not stack up. The facts are that housebuilders have planning consents for 1 million homes and have not built them out.   To do so would bring down house prices and that is the last thing investors want.  The truth is that there is no evidence that the proposed reforms will deliver more homes.    

The reality is that the White Paper proposals are a tangled mess, and largely unworkable as explained in recent essays by a group of planning academics (including myself), ‘The Right Answers to the Right Questions’, ed. Andy Inch, 2020.  Nor are they what the volume housebuilders have been asking for.  They have been lobbying for measures to speed up planning decisions and make more housing land available, but they have not asked for legislation that is so wide ranging it may disrupt their highly profitable business model.

The White Paper proposals requiring councils to replace existing Local Plans with zones of Growth, Renewal, and Protect, plus algorithms for housing supply targets, and design codes – many dictated from Whitehall – are complicated and contentious to deliver in most urban areas and could engender even more NIMBYism and public cynicism.  The Tory shires are already voicing concerns about ‘Growth Zones’ and housing targets being imposed on their villages.     

So what lies behind the Tory aim of deleting current planning legislation?  It is ideology. The UK planning system is one of three remaining pillars of the post-war settlement, the others being the BBC and the NHS.  The Tories and their think-tanks have always regarded these pillars as ‘socialist’, or ‘welfare state’ measures. 

Town planning was enshrined in the foundational 1947 Town and Country Planning Act which was in its original purpose a socially redistributive mechanism to regulate development and distribute the profits from land development in a fair way – alongside providing a democratic framework for rebuilding towns and cities after the war. It was a force for good aimed at benefitting all classes and all regions.  Over years these principles were watered down but the essence of 1947 Act remains in all the succeeding planning legislation.  

The ideological Tories are not defensive about this intention, but where they are vulnerable is their collusion with the vested interests that have taken control of the planning system.   The landowners, developers and financiers who are the bedrock of funding and politics of the Tory Party have huge influence over the development of land and have creamed off the massive increase in land value created by the planning system.  

They are supported by a formidable property lobby that has been absorbed into Whitehall’s machinery. They do not intend to give up this privilege.  Communities, local councils and housing campaigns have become increasingly sidelined in the face of these interests, so well illustrated by Robert Jenrick’s shady dealings with a major developer and Tory donor  in the Isle of Dogs, and Boris Johnson’s blatant favours to developers when Mayor of London.  Meanwhile volume housebuilding has been commandeered by a small number of large developers who limit supply to keep up prices.   

Labour should be demanding full transparency and an end to housebuild cartels and cronyism.  If we have done our homework, this attack will have wide support.  The other part of our challenge is to be entirely positive about planning – placing it at the centre of a socially and economically just vision for the country.   Planning must be returned to public service, acting positively to care for the health of the people and the planet, to capture more land value for the community, and to widen planning democracy.

  

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Bob Colenutt</strong></span>
Bob Colenutt

Bob Colenutt is a member of Oxford Labour Party, a member of the Highbury Group, and author of ‘The Property Lobby’, published by Policy Press, 2020

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A wink and a nudge to corruption in our planning system

What do bribery, conflicts of interest, opaque lobbying, weak oversight, curiously timed donations, excessive hospitality, and the revolving door all have in common? They are all corruption risks inherent within our discretionary planning system.  

We should be worrying about the findings made by anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, who found many local authorities lack the necessary safeguards to prevent corruption in our planning system. This begs the question – why is the left not demanding more from planning reform?

Permission Accomplished shows us why because of corruption we should be sleeping with one eye open

Discretion, as opposed to rules, is arguably at the heart of our planning system. This creates inherent risks within the framework designed to provide democratic oversight to the development of our built environment. Not one of the responses to the Planning for the Future consultation made available to date, nor the Select Committee, have focused on the need for planning reform to combat corruption.

The definition of corruption according to Transparency International is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Corruption can come in many forms. It can be in the form of political donations to local branches of a political party around the same time as a planning application. Or it could be payments for the tuition fees of local councillors’ children.

There have been some high-profile cases in the past few years that have shed light on the flaws of our planning system. Transparency International case studied many of these in their report ‘Permission Accomplished’. By way of example, the report includes an investigation in Liverpool by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) involving multi-million-pound developments where no minutes of meetings between developer, councils, and officials had taken place.

Assessing corruption risks requires us to look closely at how it occurs in the first place

A case study covered in the report looked at how a Conservative Chair of a London planning committee had become embroiled in allegations of impropriety. He was receiving excessive gifts that had not always been declared. By March 2018, following media pressure, the local councillor had referred himself to the Monitoring Officer. His self-referral warranted formal investigation.

The Investigating Officer found the volume and frequency of hospitality and gifts declared by the individual as “extraordinary”. Important to note that no evidence proved the hospitality had influenced any planning decisions. However, the council did find the actions breached their code of conduct.

Another case study in the report highlighted findings from an investigation by The Daily Telegraph. A Liberal Democrat councillor employed by a public affairs company was said to be using a range of lobbying tactics to secure planning consents for their clients. The councillor told the Daily Telegraph that the firm employed numerous former or present councillors at any given time.

If other councillors refused to talk to lobbyists about a particular planning permission certain ‘tricks of the trade’ could be used to get around this. For example, he claimed he could use contacts to try and replace difficult councillors on local authorities’ planning committees, with more agreeable ones to help secure permissions for clients.

We cannot expect every local authority leader to be followed by the eyes of Argus

Shortly after the Independent Mayor of Tower Hamlets was removed from office for election fraud, a fixer was recorded allegedly requesting a £2m bribe for four incumbent councillors. In addition, the individual allegedly also requested a £15,000 a month retainer for high-end hospitality from a developer seeking planning permission.

Below is an excerpt from a recording produced by the Sunday Times back in December 2017, having regard to an ongoing case noted in Permission Accomplished. The recording demonstrates the inherent weakness and lack of democratic oversight systemic within highly discretionary English planning system.

“We are lobbying certain members to try and approve this development. But of course, then there is the additional bit that we will be doing behind the scenes, and this is where the premium covers that.”

“The site doesn’t have planning on it. As soon as you buy, your team will have to put the application in, and the gatekeepers will bless it. End of.”

“Well it’s the elected members. Politicians that have a show of hands. You have seven people, in this case about seven. If you take out the deputy it is six key votes, six elected members, members that have been elected by people, by the public, they make the final decision”

Sunday Times Recording, December 2017

Labour Mayor John Biggs, who ran on an anti-corruption ticket, called in accountancy firm Ernst and Young to undertake a full and independent investigation of the developer’s claims of corruption. Since becoming Mayor, Biggs says he has fought hard to clean up the borough, and to tackle the corruption and wrongdoing of the past.

The whistle blowers’ allegations of bribery in connection with a planning application was swiftly considered by a Queen’s Counsel (QC) experienced in addressing bribery and corruption cases. Following the QC’s advice, the Chief Executive reported the allegations to the Serious Fraud Office. The case has since been referred to the National Crime Agency where it remains still under investigation.

Panelisation of planning decision-making removes consenting authority of councillors in beady-eyed Australia

In some places in Australia, legislation removes councillors from exercising any consent authority functions. Instead Australia in many places constitutes mandatory local planning panels, namely under the Planning Panels Act 2018. Mandatory local panels were argued to “bring expertise, transparency, and integrity” to the process of assessing planning applications. Planning authorities across Australia had exemplified the use of local planning panels from as far back as 1997.

Local planning panels have become a more conducive structure for development and industry in Australia. In particular following the success of Joint Regional Planning Panel (JRPP) introduced in 2009. These regional panels would be responsible for developments more than $20 million capital value. In effect removing local councillors from the decision-making process. This instead favours an independent decision-making body for regionally significant development applications, significantly reducing the risk of corruption.

Research reveals local authorities lack twenty-twenty vision over corruption risks

In their report Transparency International assessed 50 of 317 local authorities across the countries that have planning responsibilities in England. It found 32 councillors across 24 authorities holding critical decision-making positions in their local planning system, while at the same time also working for or on behalf of developers. This poses the question are we electing local representatives or political lobbyists?

Transparency International assessed how each local authority prevents, protects, and pursued corruption in planning decisions by local councillors. In it they judged these authorities against best practice standards. Developed by Transport International, and using evidence from their research, they built on existing work by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CPSL) and the Local Government Association (LGA).

Local authorities were scored between zero and 100. 100 being seen to meet good practice. By this measure, not a single local authority taken from the 15 per cent sample demonstrated either a top or second quintile performance. This suggests local authorities are leaving themselves open to serious allegations of improper conduct by democratically elected representatives.

@TransparencyUK found many local authorities lack sufficient safeguards to prevent corruption. Labour should be demanding more from planning reform.

The corneal erosion of institutional checks and balances make the planning system fertile ground for abuse

The report found inadequate oversight to ensure probity in the planning process. It went insofar as to highlight major corruption risks relating to councillors’ involvement in planning decisions in the current system. Low levels of transparency, poor external scrutiny, networks of cronyism, reluctance or lack of resource to investigate alleged wrongdoings, and the sums of money involved provide a fertile environment for those entrusted to make planning decisions abuse it for private gain.

We have seen an erosion of institutional checks and balances on this behaviour. Independent audits of local authorities have been abolished. A universal code of conduct for councillors abandoned for local defined standard. All in combination with the capacity of our media having been watered down. Labour needs to continue picking up the mantle in tackling corruption, as has been the case lately following calls for tougher regulation of suspected money-laundering activities.

Lines between lobbyists and elected local representatives remain terribly blurred

Bob Colenutt, in his book ‘The Property Lobby: The Hidden Reality Behind the Housing Crisis’, makes a good point. He highlights to us the revolving door between local authorities, consultants, and developers is of equal importance to developers lobbying government . Many councillors have second jobs working as lobbyists and advisers to developers and housing associations. Often working in their own or adjoining areas.

Bob pointed to the case of Southwark in 2017. Here 20 per cent of the local authority’s 62 councillors were employed as lobbyists. Almost one in ten councillors in London either work for a property business or have received hospitality from them. Nearly 100 councillors have links to property companies or lobbying and ‘communications’ consultancies involved in planning.

The local councillor is a denizen of the English planning system. It is the discretion of these individuals over decisions that shape our built environment. Is it just a coincidence that our democratic planning system encourages so many councillors to work in lobbying for developers. Or does this need to change?

Local authorities can be more eagle-eyed if they reinforce recommended guidance and best practice

We need to increase transparency, tighten rules to protect the planning process from abuse for personal gain, and to strengthen oversight over councillors to deter behaviour that would bring the integrity of the planning process into question. Transparency International made the following ten recommendations:

  1. Minute and publish all meetings with developers and their agents for major developments
  2. Prohibit those involved in making planning decisions from accepting gifts and hospitality that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process
  3. Increase transparency over gifts and hospitality
  4. Stronger leadership from the industry on ethical lobbying
  5. Improved management of financial interests, which include the repeal of Section 31 of the Localism Act
    • To be replaced with a new requirement removing councillors from decisions where it can be reasonably regarded that they hold a significant conflict of interest that could prejudice their judgement
  6. Prohibit all councillors from undertaking lobbying or advisory work relating to their duties on behalf of clients
    • This should prohibit members from lobbying councils on behalf of paying clients
    • Prevent councillors from providing paid advice on how to influence councils
  7. Manage the revolving door between elective office and private business
    • Prohibit those who have recently worked as lobbyists for developers from sitting on planning committees
    • Or receiving executive responsibilities relating to planning
  8. Provide clear guidance and boundaries for councillors so they can better understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour
  9. Provide a meaningful deterrent for serious breaches of the code
  10. Increase transparency over investigations and enforcement actions

Transparency International’s report raises yet again alarm bells about risks that remain very real. Sadly, local authorities still remain ill-prepared to address them. Labour should give these anti-corruption recommendations serious consideration, put anti-corruption at the heart of its agenda, particularly when it comes to planning reform.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Christopher Worrall</span></strong>
Christopher Worrall

Editor of Red Brick. He currently works in land acquisition for Guild Living. Chris currently sits as a Non-Executive Director of Housing for Women and is a member of the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

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Good luck to the Green Belt campaigners

Rochdale council, along with nine other councils that make up Greater Manchester, has embarked on an ambitious strategy to plan the future development needs of the whole city region. It is not without its problems and controversies, but Faisal says that is nothing to the devastating impact the Government’s Planning White Paper will have on all our local communities.

Rochdale is part of Greater Manchester, a conurbation of more than three million people. Civic leaders there are grappling with the hugely complicated problem of deciding how many new homes we need to build to meet future demand, and even more controversial, where to build them.

The fancy name of the Greater Manchester Spatial Strategy (GMSF) aims to set out our housing and industry needs for the next 20 years. Our local leaders have been debating and postponing the issue for what seems like an age. Looking that far ahead seems more akin to crystal ball gazing rather than detailed planning calculations and projections.

Debate has led to several “Save Our Greenbelt” campaigns: residents worried about the bulldozers tearing up their local countryside walks, green spaces, and beauty spots. I say good luck to them. There is nothing more worrying than the matter being left to planning officers and housing developers carving up Greater Manchester’s planning map.

Who else will speak up for our precious green belt but those who enjoy and value it? Tens of thousands have made their views known through public consultations – and we are to have yet another round starting this Autumn.

But there is one thing that should worry every single resident of Greater Manchester, never mind every environmental campaigner, that will have a huge impact on future planning decisions for years to come.

Government recently published a planning white paper which proposes reform of the planning system in England. The proposals will see councils lose control of important planning decisions. 

The Bill says it would “streamline” the planning process, cut red tape and make it easier to get new homes for local communities built. But, in fact, it would lead to developments going ahead without any proper public scrutiny and against the wishes of local people.

The Government’s plans mean that areas would be earmarked for development and then there would be no need for planning permission to be granted by local councils. What is worse, it will be using algorithms to decide how many and where up to 300,000 new homes a year will be built.  We all know how successful these computer-led diktats were in setting A-level results.

It will result in little control over developments, overriding local knowledge and circumstances, with local people having no say over developments. The Government has also stated that developments of 50 homes or less would not have to provide any affordable housing. I have been a local Councillor for a long time, and I do not ever recall ever reading a Government report which has annoyed and terrified me more than this one.

Local communities deserve the power to run its own planning system. Planning committees should not be threatened with having its powers taken away. There has been a huge amount of criticism of these draconian proposals all over the country, but the Government is not listening. They want to help their developer friends by sweeping away the local restrictions that keep them under some control.

No parcel of land will be safe from the threat of development, and with fewer affordable homes, many will be too expensive for local families. The Housing Minister Christopher Pincher publicly confirmed that he is looking to loosen restrictions in planning law, to make it easier to push through housing schemes.

And the Prime Minister meanwhile has stated he will be bringing forward the ‘most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War. The planning system already favours the developers over communities, and any further loosening of planning laws would be a disaster for towns and cities right across the country.

At the root of all this is local democracy. Local communities and their elected councillors should have the ability to make their own decisions based on local needs. What happens in our local planning committees is extremely important and should be vigorously defended. I will be continuing to campaign for greater local control and I hope our Green Belt campaigners will be doing the same.

People must have the opportunity to make their views known loud and clear, however uncomfortable it is for politicians, whether in the town hall or Whitehall. You have the ultimate power to turn us out. You cannot do that with faceless civil servants and planning inspectors who will be running the show in the future. Not to mention their dreaded computer programmes.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Faisal Rana</span></strong>
Faisal Rana

Faisal Rana is a local councillor in Rochdale and sits on the planning committee.

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Labour’s Planning Commission and the Planning White Paper Compared

Similar analysis different outcomes

During the latter stages of the previous government a Planning White Paper was expected almost on a daily basis. Like many other policy initiatives it fell foul of the Brexit stranglehold on parliament. It was partly to ensure that Labour had a response to the long expected White Paper that it launched a Planning Commission in September 2018 to develop a new suite of planning policies in advance of a General Election then expected to be in 2022.

Labour’s planning proposals made it into the 2019 manifesto but as we know Labour did not make it to government. Nevertheless, the Planning Commission’s suggested reforms sit as a powerful antidote to the view of planning and what it can achieve set out in the Government’s White Paper. Having said that the similarity in some of the analysis of what needs to change is striking.

Labour’s recommendations for greater use of digitisation in the planning system to improve accessibility and engagement with planning and the need for more investment in skills and training for planners are mentioned in the White Paper proposals.

Likewise, the need for reform of the Community Infrastructure Levy and putting in place a nationally agreed method of assessing housing need also are also reflected in both documents. Similarly, there is cross-party agreement that the design and quality of what is built need to be improved. There is also widespread agreement that local plan making needs to be simplified, speeded up and subject to statutory time limits.

However, what is massively different is the policy agenda that is envisioned by Labour and the Conservatives to achieve long lasting change to our neighbourhoods, regions and nation, and the values that need to underpin our planning system to achieve development fit for the 21st century and beyond.

Since 2010 the blame for the government’s inability to deliver on housing targets including those for affordable housing was laid at the door of planning even though the numbers of new houses approved through the planning system but not actually built rose year on year.

Alongside this, constant deregulation of planning, greater use of permitted development, sanctions against planning authorities for having too many appeals, contracted out planning services and too many local authorities without local plans in place led to an increasingly undemocratised, technically focused planning system that was increasingly at the mercy of speculators and where plan making and the visionary underpinnings of planning took a back seat.

Communities for the most part felt that planning was done to them and their views on planning were increasingly ignored or bypassed. Place making if it happened at all was the result of developers, planners and residents working together, despite the constraints of the system, to build or rebuild better communities.

And it was the need to build and rebuild strong and sustainable communities that was the starting point for Labour’s Planning Commission. We wanted place making to be at the heart of a planning system that would be value based to tackle inequality and address climate change.

The Labour Commission included representatives from key planning agencies and stakeholder groups and meetings of the Commission were supplemented by regional events with residents, developers and local authorities. The strong evidence base the Commission established documented the democratic deficit and technocratic complexity at the heart England’s planning system and led to proposals for radical change most notably in the need to build good quality homes with supporting infrastructure in genuinely sustainable neighbourhoods.

Thus, Labour’s proposals include recommendations for a new system of building standards to address quality, climate change and safety issues, and suggest putting in place new principles and guidance as well as national standards to achieve high quality design. It argues for a review of permitted development with planning permission being reinstated in most cases.

Labour wanted to see the relationship between what happens in local communities, their wider regions and the country as a whole reflected in a connected planning system with community, local, regional and national planning tiers so that infrastructure, jobs, local services and leisure and cultural facilities could be planned at the right spatial level. This would not only enable people to be properly housed it would facilitate people travelling safely to work with a transformation in greater use of cycles and public transport.

All neighbourhoods would be planned to have a high quality of life with the services they need to promote well-being on their doorstep and with the heritage of the built environment and natural environment protected and where possible enhanced. We wanted to achieve this by giving residents the ability to plan their communities alongside planning professionals who would give advice and would liaise between levels of the planning system.

That the Government’s White Paper says nothing about how to achieve well-being or equity through the planning system is perhaps not a surprise. What is a surprise is how little is said about land availability except for arguing that greater certainty needs to be given by the planning system to enable developers to come forward.

In contrast Labour suggested a radical approach to bringing more land forward by proposing setting up Public Development Corporations with the power to purchase, sell, and develop land to assist with the making and remaking of communities, alongside greater use of a simplified CPO system if necessary.

Labour also proposed introducing a land value capture system that would capture uplift for current and future communities. And Labour sees the  greenbelt not as a land set in aspic but land to be used as part of climate change mitigation and that can help reduce health inequalities.

The Government has argued for change too but their proposals for a new zonal system do little to match the rhetoric expressed in much of the White Paper and will depend on the type of zonal system adopted as well as the details of the plan that goes alongside it. It could result in a development straight jacket without measures to support delivery and the high quality development the Government says it wants to see. Likewise the proposal to support permitted development that is replicable could reduce quality rather than improving it.

Both of these proposals also run the risk of further denuding democratic oversight of, and involvement in, planning. There is no acknowledgement in the White Paper apart from keeping some sort of neighbourhood planning of the need to have citizens actively engaged in planning rather that simply being consulted (and then often ignored) about it.

Labour sought to address the need for active participation by involving  residents in the  first tier of planning – producing their community plan and making it the building block of the whole planning system.

The conclusion of TCPA is that the White Paper does not provide a single new right for community participation or a single new opportunity for democratic involvement in planning. For that reason alone the government should be asked to think again or come back with much more detail on how they will actually achieve the good quality place-making they say they want but cannot deliver through the proposals outlined so far.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Roberta Blackman-Woods</span></strong>
Roberta Blackman-Woods

Roberta Blackman-Woods is the former MP for the City of Durham (2005 to 2019) and was the Shadow Minister for Planning until November 2019.

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The ‘Planning White Paper’ and a basis for possible reform

The Government’s Planning White Paper proposes to replace the current regime of local authority determination of specific development proposals by a system of zoning.

Local Plans would define three zones: growth zone (where designated sites have “outline permission”), renewal zone (statutory presumption in favour of development being granted for the uses specified as being suitable), Protected zone (“more stringent development controls”). There is an option to combine growth and renewal areas.

For growth and renewal zones plans would “set out suitable development uses, as well as limitations on height and/or density as relevant. These could be specified for sub-areas” (eg town centres).

For protected areas, plans “would explain what is permissible by cross-reference to the National Planning Policy Framework”.

Development Management policies would be set by National Planning Policy Framework (with an option to have limited development management policies in local plans), plus local design code(s) supported by national design code. There is a national design guide and manual for streets (where there is no local design code, the national one would be applied).

How zoning works in the US

Traditional zoning involves local municipal zones for locales with zoning ordinances (ordinance is a municipal by-law).  These can be by land use and sub-categories within land use – ie different housing types ( single detached dwellings/apartments) or by density (low/medium/high).

There are a number of important variations:

a) Inclusive zoning (includes affordable housing)
b) Incentivised zoning (allows higher density development in exchange for higher local taxation)
c) Form based zoning (new urbanist approach – design based rather than directly land use/functional based)
d) Performance zoning ( based on environmental impacts)
e) PUDs (Planned Urban Development) Zoning sets parameters but individual schemes negotiated between developer and municipality

The Planning White Paper is however unclear on what form of zoning would apply in England.

Current  planning practice in England

Local plans (district/borough wide) allocate development sites  and/ or for specific uses and set both specific policies for designated sites and more general policies for non-designated ones. Local plans set policy requirements to supplement national planning policy requirements and/or facilitate their implementation locally. 

These can set density policies and housing type requirements for different sub-areas or for individual sites. Area Action Plans/ Area Supplementary planning guidance can be determined for development/ redevelopment areas. These can be supplemented by design guidance/ design code, by masterplans (for major sites) and site briefs. Local Development Orders can set specific policy requirements for areas within a local plan area.

UK Land use allocations can be considered to be a form of zoning (though the term not widely used) though not all Local Plans allocate specific land uses to sites and development can still be considered on non-allocated sites. Land use allocations may also not be strictly applied and although in theory we have a plan-led system, alternative uses may be permitted.

Local Plans however set parameters within which individual development allocations should be considered.  This system is comparable with the US PUD system which is also a two-stage system. The distinction between American system as ‘zonal’ and the English system as ‘discretionary’ is a gross over-simplification.

In England, Section 106 planning contributions (s106) can be negotiated on site by site basis in exchange for increased density and Community Infrastructure Levy can be varied by sub area (both in practice similar to US incentivised zoning system).  Affordable housing requirements set in local plan policy, which can vary by area, are parallel to US inclusive zoning approach.

The Planning White Paper would appear to propose a very simplified broad-brush approach to zoning – simplified when compared to the traditional US approach to zoning, which allows much more specific zoning categories.

The key question is whether the proposed English approach to zoning will allow for any of the variable approaches operated in US cities (where zoning is determined by the municipal authority), which are in effect deliverable in practice within the pre-existing English planning regime.

A basis for possible reform

The current planning system and planning practice in England does need reforming. (As planning is a devolved function,  the White Paper proposals do not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). There is a case for Local Plans being much more specific about permissible land uses on specific sites and the specific requirements which would then apply.

This would certainly increase certainty for both developers and local residents. It would also ensure land values reflect permissible uses. However, local authorities, at both officer and member level, need to have the power to ensure that development proposals are fully compliant both with the land use allocations in the published plan and with the policy requirements set out in the plan.

This means that a LA development management function is still required. This will include any decisions as to community mitigation and benefit through a form of scheme specific planning obligations regime, which would, where appropriate, be additional to any value-based form of infrastructure levy.

Objectors should not however be able to block schemes which are fully compliant with the published Local Plan in terms of land use and policy requirements. Moreover, applicants should not be able to appeal against LA planning decisions which are supported by a published Local Plan.

However,  local plan making must be set within a wider strategic context, as many local authorities cannot meet their housing needs within their own area, while other authorities may  resist  helping out neighbouring authorities within their travel to work area. 

The Planning White Paper is largely silent on this critical issue, and in fact proposes to abolish the current ‘duty to co-operate’ with neighbouring authorities and the requirement to produce statements of common ground. 

It is necessary that we re-establish a framework of national and regional planning which links national funding of infrastructure to decisions about the locations most appropriate for both residential and employment growth.

Neighbouring authorities should be required to agree a strategic plan within this national and regional framework. No local council should be allowed to opt out of making a contribution to meeting an area’s housing and employment needs.

Localism on its own is not enough and we need a balance of powers between the different spatial levels of governance and democratic accountability.

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Duncan Bowie</strong></span>
Duncan Bowie

Duncan Bowie is a semi-retired academic and strategic planner who has written a number of books on housing and planning.

He is a long-term member of the Labour Housing Group.

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We need a flexible zoning system to end the housing crisis

There are three things which are connected yet almost unique about the British economy. It has exceptionally stark geographic inequality; it has an extremely sharp housing crisis in its most expensive cities; and it has an unusually dysfunctional planning system.

Addressing those regional divides and the housing shortage requires replacing our discretionary planning system with a new flexible zoning system. The new reforms underway are one approach, but there are other examples from abroad which would also be major improvements over what we have now. But there must be fundamental change in how the planning system works if we want fundamental changes in inequality and housing outcomes.

Our discretionary planning system rations new homes

The current planning system is highly discretionary. This means that the planning system is empowered with a great deal of discretion to decide whether a development should take place on a specific site or not. In effect, new homes are rationed by the planning system, case-by-case.

Although there is often a local plan which “leads” development, this is not always true – York has not agreed one since the 1950s. Even when there is a local plan, the real power as to whether new homes can be built or not is in the case-by-case decisions by planners and planning committees. Applying for planning permission to build private homes, affordable homes, or social housing is never certain. One in ten planning applications fail, despite the fact that developers are presenting proposals they believe will succeed.

The discretionary planning system makes inequality worse

This discretionary planning system creates poor outcomes which have previously been set out in Red Brick, and which underpinned Centre for Cities’ contributions to the Labour Planning Commission. It forces new development into the sites with the lowest political costs rather than the sites most suitable for new homes. This is why half of all suburban neighbourhoods build less than one house a year and a fifth build zero, even though these neighbourhoods already have the infrastructure to absorb some population growth over a long timeframe.

The discretionary element also makes inequality worse, as it decouples the local supply of new homes from local demand. Some of the most expensive and prosperous cities in the country, such as Bournemouth and Oxford, build far less housing than cities with weaker economies such as Wakefield and Telford. These local housing shortages mean that the average house in Oxford costs 17 times the average income, and 6 times average incomes in Wakefield.

This mismatch between supply and demand creates terrible housing crises in the cities with the most successful labour markets and fuels inequality. In expensive cities, it widens divides between renters and homeowners. As housing costs for renters in Bristol increase, so does the wealth of their homeowning neighbours as house prices rise.

But it also creates divides across the country. As we do not build enough homes in cities like Brighton to stabilise prices, average housing equity per house in Brighton rose by £89,000 from 2013-2018. But an identical twin of such a homeowner in Sunderland would only have gained £3,000, as local land values have not risen due to the struggling local economy. This is the opposite of levelling up – the planning system redistributes wealth from the poor to the rich.

The discretionary design of the planning system creates a permanent shortage of homes

For reform to solve these problems, we need to understand why the planning system systemically creates them. The explanation lies in the discretionary, case-by-case decision making of the current planning system. Few places abroad have such a system where this feature is so important. Ireland and San Francisco are two locations which do, and accordingly have dire housing shortages.

In fact, England’s discretionary planning system can be understood most clearly by comparing it to the planning systems of the former Eastern Bloc. In these planned economies, production was also rationed by the discretionary and uncertain granting of permits by planners, but for things such as mayonnaise or cars rather than new homes. Many of the behaviours which are sometimes described in England as unique to housing popped up across sectors in these Soviet-style economies – shortages, equivalents to land-banking, absorption rates, endless negotiations between planners and firms, poor quality new products, inequality in access to supply and speculation, among others.

These are more than just parallels. Both the former Eastern Bloc and the UK housing market are “shortage economies”. Their permanent state of undersupply is maintained by how the discretionary design of their planning institutions rations production, and is the defining characteristic of their systems. A few policy tweaks here or there or a little bit more funding won’t solve this core problem.

Instead England’s planning system needs fundamental reform which learns from other planning systems abroad that result in better housing outcomes, and for the discretionary element in our system to be minimised or removed.

England’s new zoning system is a move in the right direction

Moving away from a discretionary system implies a new flexible zoning system, where provided a proposal agrees with the local plan and building regulations so that the new structures are safe, it legally must be granted permission. This is a common form of planning around the world.

The new zoning reforms introduced earlier this month – establishing growth, renewal, and protected zones in England – are a big step in this direction. Within growth zones, there is no discretionary element, as the principle of development is already accepted by the zoning. Developments which comply with a design code and legally must be granted planning permission, after planning has resolved technical elements such as road layouts. This certainty will, within growth zones, end the unpredictable rationing of new homes that the current planning system creates, and by extension, address the housing shortage.

We can argue about the details, but we need a new zoning system to end the housing crisis

There are political choices to be made as to the inner workings of such a new zoning system, and Centre for Cities has previously set out how these could work. Japan is the clearest example of such an alternative framework abroad, where there are twelve different zones which shape the density and use of land while still providing much more flexibility than our current system.

As a result, Japan has much more affordable housing than England, as it builds 900,000 homes a year while England struggles to build 240,000. An English flexible zoning system could achieve this too. We could also make the political choice to provide far more social housing than Japan, or have a greater focus on energy efficiency and climate change, or public realm and design, and the Labour Planning Commission set out some of these areas as priorities.

But while the details of such a new flexible zoning system are contestable, the principle that we need one to solve the housing crisis is not. The discretionary granting of planning permissions is the single biggest systemic problem with our framework. If we want to improve the conditions and affordability of homes across England, we need to do things differently. We need to replace our planning system with a new flexible zoning system.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Anthony Breach</span></strong>
Anthony Breach

Anthony is an Analyst who has worked as part of the research team at Centre for Cities since 2017, where he focuses on housing and planning. He won the Thinkhouse Early Career Researcher Prize 2019 for Capital cities: How the planning system creates housing shortages and drives wealth inequality.

Anthony has also worked on research on commercial property in cities, services exports, productivity, and manufacturing. He also has a particular interest in lessons for planning, housing, and UK cities from Japan and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Previously he worked at the Fawcett Society as a Research Officer.