Inquiry into ‘Low carbon housing: the challenge’ – third evidence session

Feb 15, 2018 | Articles, Assembly Business, Cardiff Housing Issues, RCT Housing Issues, UK Issues, Vale Housing Issues | 0 comments

Plenary 15th February 2018

10:02
Watch on Senedd TV
Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Thanks, Chair. When we had an earlier panel of experts, there were concerns about planning issues, particularly relating to the understanding about zero-carbon homes at local authority level, and did the planning officers and the other council officials know enough and have enough understanding of this. So, do you recognise this as a problem, and what changes do you think need to be done to the planning system to help in that way?

Neville Rookes

I would say, first of all, that’s probably a very general statement, and without the specifics I couldn’t necessarily address those. But there are a number of factors to be considered in planning decisions, and it’s not just the energy efficiency. Obviously there is the design, there’s heritage, there’s the built environment considerations, et cetera, and part of that—. The decisions that are made from a planning perspective, often an element of compromise from all sides is needed, and there is usually a solution and a willingness, probably, by all parties to actually address and find what that solution is. With compromise, people don’t always get exactly what they wanted in the first instance, and I’m not saying that is what the basis of this comment was, but certainly it may be that it’s, dare I say, sour grapes in some instances, that people didn’t actually get it who provided the information.

Secondly, you cannot look at planning in isolation. If there are different calls for evidence—. There will be things for active travel, there will things for schools, there will be things for infrastructure, there’ll be flood mitigation and drainage, all of which are affected by planning decisions. Developers, section 106 agreements, will help contribute towards all of those. So, the bigger picture, which is probably what local authorities and local planning authorities have to look at. The idea that there’s a lack of understanding at local authority level—maybe there’s too much understanding of the whole picture and not just one small element.

Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Roisin, what were your thoughts on that?

Dr Roisin Willmott

Yes, I might have something to say on this. [Laughter.] We think that there are the skills within local authorities. What we have to understand is that some of the technology behind this is evolving all the time and new for everyone, even people who work in renewable energy or energy-saving sectors as well. So, everyone is always on a learning curve. But within local authorities, I think there is a general understanding. What there is a problem with in local authorities is the resources available to them—to spend time to be able to consider applications. So, that is a very big issue and something that we’re looking at at the moment. We’ve commissioned a study with Welsh Government on the value of planning and what that can produce. So, later this year we’ll be publishing that, which will demonstrate to local authorities: ‘Actually, invest in your planning services because they are very important, and will bring about other outcomes such as low carbon or many other corporate requirements.’

So, there are the skills there but there is a need for skills across the board, so not just the planners, it’s the developers, it’s the clients, it’s the constructors, and I’m sure Andy might have something to say on that angle. And I think we also need to understand that in trying to achieve zero carbon, we shouldn’t just focus on the building itself as well—we need to look at the design of sites. So, you can orientate houses et cetera to be more energy efficient without putting on any of the specific construction requirements within a single house, and also where the houses are built. So, it’s all very well to have the most energy efficient house on the side of a mountain, which is 20 miles along a track that you need a 4x4 to get to. That’s defeating the object of having a zero—. You may need zero-carbon house there for another reason. So, we need to look at where we put houses and whether they’re accessible by active travel, by public transport, and reduce that kind of carbon as well. So, we need to look at more issues.

The last thing on this—the skills within local authorities, and Neville’s commented on this already, that low-carbon issues are one part of the whole array of things that a planning officer and a planning committee will need to balance to decide on a specific application.

Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Andy, what were your thoughts on it?

Andrew Sutton

I think I’d broadly agree with Roisin and Neville. Planning is possibly the most important step in the construction process—in fact, it is the most important. It decides, across a broad remit, whether if the house is low carbon, whether it’s actually low carbon because you travel to work every day or because you’ve nipped to the shops down the track—all of these things. It’s a far broader aspect. It determines whether or not we actually will have a community or a series of isolated homes. It’s all of those things, and I think the issue is largely around resource. I think there are the skills in the planning system. I think they’re probably under-resourced, and I think there should perhaps be capacity to broaden that. I also feel that there should be more prescription earlier in the planning system. I think we leave it rather too late in the process for some of those aspects, but that drifts into other areas of my other issues with planning. But in essence, yes, we do have a planning system that can be made to work, it just needs the resources.

Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Thanks for your answers. I’ve gone back to the little bit more specific evidence that we had that there was a specific issue that was raised to do with guidance that is given to councils from the Welsh Government, which is fine, but in actual practice it may differ from council to council. A specific issue that was raised was possibly—. You raised the lack of resources—possibly there is a drive in some councils to generate fees for planning departments through planning permission. I think the point was planning permission may not always be needed in all cases, but they try to generate fees. Does that strike anyone as a problem or not?

Dr Roisin Willmott

I’ve certainly never come across that.

Andrew Sutton

I think it’s something that the Law Commission report coming out at the moment on the Welsh planning system is suggesting corrections to anyway.

Neville Rookes

I think the other thing as well is that if there are issues where developers are looking for something to be undertaken with a planning authority, there are certificates of lawfulness that they can demonstrate that, actually, it is a permitted development and doesn’t require planning permission. And likewise, if works are undertaken using permitted development rights, if a local planning authority then sought enforcement action because these things had been implemented—there’s a means of appeal against any enforcement notice as well. So, it’s almost a hollow argument that if people are complaining that charges have been made, there are the mechanisms on a legal basis for them to challenge.