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Letter: The Effingham Planning Decision is “Special” in All the Wrong Ways

From Ben Paton

There seems to be a deal of intellectual dishonesty in the planning rules especially with regard to what constitutes “very special circumstances”.

The planning inspector considered that the desire to rebuild a school constituted a very special circumstance. Many people could understand that.

It is the leap from that simple idea to the assertion that it is necessary to build nearly 300 houses as well as replace the school, that confuses matters.

There are two questions: whether to build a new school and how to pay for it. The second question is a matter of funding economics rather than a planning question. Planning concerns what should be built and where.

Finance and economics concerns how to pay for new buildings.
The inspector’s convenient confabulation is to say that because a new school is desirable, 300 houses should also be built. The former is a planning issue. The latter is about money.

What the inspector has countenanced is the creation of a substantial planning gain from the permission to build 300 new houses which is transparently being given primarily to produce the money to build the school.

Whilst rebuilding a school may constitute a very special circumstance, conjuring up planning gains as a convenient funding mechanism is not very special. It’s tawdry and intellectually dishonest. It is not remotely “special”. Anyone can create a few million pounds out of a hat by changing the use of green belt land.

The politicians may engage in white lies and half-truths to cover up their budget deficits. But is that really the job of a planning inspector? Who elected him?

Isn’t he supposed to apply planning law, not create profits for Berkeley Homes that it can use to rebuild a school? Does the NPPF really endorse this sort of quid pro quo? Where in the “balancing exercise” for the different planning considerations does the need to give a company a profit from new houses just so that it can build a new school come in?

And what about the counterfactual? If there were no new houses, would Berkeley Homes be interested in building a new school? No. If there were no new school would the inspector and the Secretary of State have granted permission? No.

Is it not the case that Berkeley Homes has, shall we say, incentivised the planning system by offering to build a school in exchange for permission to build 300 houses on the green belt?

The inspector has balanced a principle, that the green belt should not be built on, not against some other planning principle but against the expediency of creating a planning gain.

Not very principled, sadly not uncommon, and “special” in all the wrong ways.

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One Response to Letter: The Effingham Planning Decision is “Special” in All the Wrong Ways

  1. John Perkins Reply

    March 26, 2018 at 9:48 am

    I don’t believe that planning inspectors consider anything. Rather, it seems, they have been told by government that there is a housing need and that they must find ways of satisfying it, so they simply obey.

    Another example of intellectual dishonesty is the use of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) to allow building on the green belt and generate value where it did not previously exist.

    The argument given in the inspectors’ reports on the Long Reach and Wood Street applications clearly show the intent. Those reports state that there is a building need for which SANG would be necessary, which in turn provides the ‘very special circumstances’ for change of use to SANG. Later, the availability of SANG can be used to enable building, in order to satisfy the need for it.

    There are three ways of providing SANG: common land; local government land; or privately owned land. Because of the SANG tariff imposed by the local planning authority, green belt agricultural land, for example, with a value of less than £7,000 per hectare, when given SANG status will acquire a nominal value around £200,000 per hectare.

    It seems there is no profit in using common land, but local authorities and private owners both benefit from a substantial increase in asset value of land owned by them is given SANG status.

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