News and views from Paul Bull, the Labour and Co-operative Councillor for the St THOMAS Ward of Exeter City Council. Promoted by Dom Collins on behalf of Paul Bull, both of 26b, Clifton Hill, Exeter, EX1 2DJ.
I refer to Alan Jones recent letters on students and purpose-built student accommodation.
In his most recent letter, he comments on full-time students having exemption from council tax, implying that this is granted by Exeter City Council.
Since he is a declared candidate for the ward of Pennsylvania in the forthcoming elections, I hope he knows that this exemption is granted by central government rather than an individual local authority.
It used to be the case that Revenue Support Grant from central Government more than compensated Exeter City Council for the cost of student exemption, but as this central funding is being cut year on year by the Chancellor this is no longer the case.
So it is not the City Council that is short-changing the residents of Exeter, but Mr Jones own Tory Government.
Mr Jones suggests a 5 year moratorium on purpose-built student accommodation. Once again, this seems to go against his party’s own policies.
When they came to power, the Conservative-led Coalition introduced the National Planning Policy Framework which has at its heart the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
The result of this policy is that developers appear to have the upperhand in planning decisions as planning committees can only refuse applications on purely planning grounds…and any local refusal is often overturned by the Planning Inspectorate, with the possibilty of costs awarded against the City Council.
That said, in recent months, we’ve seen the ECC Planning Committee refuse new student accommodation attached to Renslade House, and a reduced scheme come forward on the site of Radmore & Tucker after an initial refusal.
To me , it seems that Mr Jones sees the University only in terms of students – I know from my time on campus that the University of Exeter is a major employer for the city, and that’s a benefit for us all.
Exeter City Council’s Planning Committee considered the application [15/1086/03] to build student accommodation on the site of Radmore & Tucker on Frog Street (which we all know as Western Way).
I had grave concerns about this application, so after the Planning Officer presented his report I spoke against the plan:
Thank you Chair, I’ll try and be brief…but there are several points that I would like to bring to your attention.
Of course, I’ll try and restrict them to material considerations – but I may take the liberty to stray from those in one or two area
But before I start with the material I’ve planned, I would like to say that I concur with what’s been said about retaining the view of the Cathedral from the mediaeval bridge.
I spent many years in the Midlands – and at times, in Coventry where the city centre is a post-war concrete jungle and where the current Radmore & Tucker building would be considered a contender for the Sterling Prize.
Yet even there the town planners respected the view of the ruins of the old Cathedral – right up until they plonked a new shopping centre slap bang in the middle of the vista – destroying both the view and the vision.
You only have one chance to get this right – don’t follow Coventry’s example.
And most importantly, that NPPF introduces a presumption in favour of sustainable development which is the “golden thread” running through planning.
But what does that really mean?
I hope that it isn’t that any development that can turn a profit for developers is sustainable?
The NPPF helps a little in that states that the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development:
of good design;
an economic role;
a social role supporting strong, vibrant and healthy communities through supplying housing to meet existing and future needs;
an environmental role but expands this to helping to protect the natural, built and historic environments);and
to move to a low carbon economy to address climate change
I would have hoped that the documentation accompanying the application might help enlighten me on many of theses points.
But to me it doesn’t – there’s lots of pictures, but in this case none of the pictures appears to be worth a 1000 words.
And I note that Historic England have serious misgivings over these photo-montages
The NPPF sets out 12 core principles that should underpin planning.
I just want to cover a few of those core principles
In Section 1 of NPPF “Building a strong, competitive economy” the aim appears to be to should support existing business sectors, so I ask myself how this development will support the thriving and growing artistic community and independent shops we are starting to see flourishing along Fore Street?
Section 6 “Delivering a wide choice of high quality homes” looks ensure a suitable supply supply of housing.
In particular it aims to deliver a choice of quality homes to create sustainable, inclusive and mixed communities.
I am aware that this council has a Supplementary Planning Document [SPD] that seek to deliver purpose-built student accommodation [DOWNLOAD from here]– and looks to the city centre as the location for much of this.
However, each and every application that comes before this committee seems to be aimed at the high-end and luxury market.
What happens to those students that can’t afford the rents for these units?
It’s probably not a material planning consideration, but we have a 35% affordable housing threshold for those larger estates on the outside the city centre – which has delivered 600 affordable homes for mainly social rent over the pat 5 years, and there are 2000 such homes in the pipleline.
When are we going to see developers of purpose-built student accommodation starting to offer units to grow such inclusive and mixed communities?
At section 7 “Requiring good design”, the NPPF states that good design is a key aspect of sustainable development, and it is important to plan positively for the achievement of high quality and inclusive design for all developments, including individual buildings, public and private spaces.
Is this a “good design”?
Well it might be better than what’s currently there – but to my mind that doesn’t make it inherently “good”!
It seems to be a series of blocks that takes no account of the surrounding streetscape and landscape.
There are no appropriate innovations and seems to contradict paragraph 58 which seeks to ensure that developments respond to local character and history, and reflect the identity of local surroundings and materials.
All around the development site are buildings of historic importance – yet the design fails to take any account of distinctive brick and stonework of the 2 local churches
It does little or nothing to promote or reinforce the local distinctiveness and character highlighted by the House That Moves.
And in particular it does nothing to integrate this new development into the historic environment.
Years ago, our predecessors thought this area of sufficient value to designate is as a Conservation Area – are you about to go against that legacy?
And to be clear Paragraph 64 of the NPPF gives you permission to refuse a development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area.
Some of this is reinforced in section 12 “Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment” which recognises that heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource and should be conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance.
The NPPF requires applicants to describe the significance of any heritage assets affected, including any contribution made by their setting.
The NPPF seeks to ensure that there are no detrimental impacts on the reasonable outlook and amenity of immediate neighbours – some of the objections I’ve seen suggest that there will be detrimental impact.
Another factor that is covered in NPPF is a desire that landscaping delivers a good standard of amenity for all.
The only amenity I see mentioned in relation to this development is the roof gardens – and they’re not even available for all residents of this building, only the occupants of the duplex penthouses, let alone the wider community.
And at the height suggested in the application, these roof gardens will affect the views of the setting in contravention of NPPF section 12 “Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment”
The NPPF at section 4 “Promoting Sustainable Transport” states that transport policies have an important role to play in facilitating sustainable development but also in contributing to wider sustainability and health objectives.
I have reservations about green travel plans being used to prove that a development is sustainable – yet I haven’t seen even this among the documentation.
There is mention of cycle storage – but why have I also seen reference to car parking spaces?
Surely the advantage a city centre location for purpose-built student accommodation is that a car isn’t needed?
I welcome the comments from the Planning Officer that the parking spaces would be for disabled use only.
So I believe that when assessed against the policy guidance contained within the NPPF, there are sufficient grounds to warrant refusal.
Thank you for listening
The committee then determined the application and decided to REFUSE planning permission.
The reason that student accommodation appears to be gettting build is due the nature of the planning process.
The planning committee can only grant plannning permission for schemes that come forward – and they have to follow the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] which acts as guidance for local planning authorities and decision-takers, both in drawing up plans and making decisions about planning applications.
At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking.
As a result developers bring forward only developments that make them money.
Contrary to popular opinion these are NOT being build by Exeter City Council, nor are they being delivered by the University – they are being developed by commercial firms, with the aim of making a profit.
And what a profit they can make. The Printworks – one of Exeter biggest blocks of student flats, 492 studio and multi-bedroom/cluster apartments on Western Way – was sold for £40 million just a year after it was completed at a cost of £16m [Huge block of 500 student flats in Exeter sells for £40 million, E&E, 16 August 2014].
Sadly,none of this profit is reinvested back into the communities that have been affected by this development. Perhaps we should investigate a version of overage – a system that allows a seller of land to share in the potential future increase in value of the land that such seller has sold. Just imagine if just a small percentage of that £24m profit could be used by ECC?
There is a perception that ECC allow each and every application for purpose-built student accommodation to be given permission. That may seem the case, because planning officers have been working hard behind the scenes making sure that only ones that meet planning conditions come forward.
And some of those planning conditions are contained within a Supplementary Planning Document [SPD] for development related to the University of Exeter from 2007 [DOWNLOAD here : University Supplementary Planning Guidance] which outlines nine general principles which can carry some weight as material considerations in the determination of planning applications.
These guidelines include the following:
– Seeks the provision of as much purpose built student housing as possible to reduce the impact on the private sector housing market.
-Recognises that relatively high density managed accommodation on appropriate sites will need to make a significant contribution to meeting future needs. Developments will be permitted subject to management and supervision arrangements appropriate to the size, location and nature of occupants of schemes. A standard form of planning obligation relating to management arrangements is available from the Council. The planning obligation is enforceable against owners of the land and they will be required to ensure through terms of tenancy agreements that tenants adhere to the management scheme.
– Favours provision of further student accommodation in the following general locations:
– The City Centre
– St David’s Station/Cowley Bridge Road area
– More intensive use of the Duryard Campus
– Seeks the investigation of student accommodation as a priority for use of any surplus land at St Luke’s campus.
Following a public consultation exercise, this SPD was passed by ECC’s Executive on a meeting held on 19 June 2007.
And not ALL planning applications for purpose-build student accommodation are given approval.
Vita immediately appealed to the Panning Inspectorate – but at the same time submitted a compromise application (13/4843/03), this time seeking permission for an extra 6 rooftop apartments rather than 10.
Of course it came to pass that the Planning Inspector upheld both the appeals [Appeal A for 166 apartments and Appeal B for 162 – DOWNLOAD Decision Letter HERE].
The main objections to the proposals were unacceptably increased overbearing and overshadowing impact by reason of increased massing of the building. The Inspector’s report then considered the differences in the two schemes as opposed to the original permission.
He considered the new building would blend seamlessly with the design of the upper floors. The building, being located at the southern end of Longbrook Street, is in close proximity to a number of other tall buildings. In this context, he considered the impact of the limited additional mass created at 6th floor height to be unexceptional, with no adverse impact on the character and appearance of the Conservation Area. It therefore represented acceptable design that preserves the character of the Conservation Area and would not harm the living conditions of neighbours.
So what has all this development of purpose-built student accommodation meant for Exeter? Figures obtained by the Express & Echo reveal the number of student dwellings in the city rose from 1,495 in October 2009 to 2,975 in October 2014 – an increase of 98.99%. [Student properties in Exeter increase by 98% over five years,E&E, 10 February 2015].
But the same report also adds a quote from a University of Exeter spokesman said: “The University is committed to reducing pressure on the city’s housing stock by accommodating more students on campus” and added that £130 million worth of new student accommodation has recently been built on its Streatham Campus to provide space for 2,600 students.
The report highlighted that in the past three years the number of shared houses – houses in multiple occupancation [HMOs] – for students has stabilised and in some areas declined.
Recent figures show that over 260 HMO previously occupied by students are lo longer used for this purpose – that means nearly 300 properties are now being used to house young professionals who are not students, or have reverted to family homes.
ECC have taken action to limit excessive concentrations of student HMOs to avoid adverse impacts upon areas via an Article 4 Direction.
In February 2010, the previous Government announced that it proposed to create a new use class (C4 Small HMOs) to bring such uses within planning control. This change took effect on 6 April 2010
Prior to this time, a group of 3-6 people living as a single household (such as a shared student house) was not treated as a material change of use from a Class C3 family dwelling.
In June 2010 the Coalition Government announced that it intended to retain the new Use Class, but from October it intended to treat changes of use from Class C3 to Class C4 as Permitted Development that would not normally require planning permission. If Councils wish to exercise planning control over changes from Class C3 to C4 they need to make Article Four Directions removing permitted development rights. Following a short limited consultation, the Government announced on 7 September that it would proceed with this approach and laid the regulations before Parliament
The Executive meeting of 28 September 2010 considered a report on Planning issues relating to HMOs for 3-6 students – Proposed Article 4 Direction and amended planning policy. The report sought agreement to a proposed Article 4 Direction to remove permitted development rights for such uses in parts of Exeter and to undertake further work on proposed amendments to the Council’s Supplementary Planning Guidance on Student Accommodation including further public consultation.
The results of that consutation
On 07 December 2010, the Executive received a petition from 772 residents of St James requesting that:
Exeter City Council, as a matter of urgency, implement planning policies, including Article 4 Direction, which:
1. Prevent any further conversions to HMOs, except in those streets where the existing high number of HMOs has already significantly harmed the family residential character and where, therefore, it may be in the resident’s or residents’ interest to allow further conversions;
2. Provide for all future Exeter University student accommodation in purpose-built developments on the campus itself or on discrete (individually distinct or separate) sites outside St. James’ and other established residential neighbourhoods;
3. Strengthen the residential character and community cohesion of St. James’ Ward, including the identification of sites for new familyaccommodation in order to help reverse the harmful studentification process.
The Press Notice giving notice of confirmation of Article 4 Direction under the Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (as amended) was issued on 23 December 2010m with the Direction coming into force on 31st December 2011.
The Executive meeting on 05 July 2011 considered a report outlining results of public consultation on a draft Houses in Multiple Occupation Supplementary Planning Document.
With effect from 1 January 2012, the Council now resist any further changes of use to houses in multiple occupation within the area shown stippled on Plan 1, where the proportion of homes exempt from Council Tax already exceeds 20%. In other words the Council will regard a proportion greater than 20% as an over-concentration of HMO use for the purposes of Policy H5 (b).
The area covered by the Article 4 Direction was revised in 2014 – and following a new public consultation, on 21 January 2014 the Executive consider a report and decided to adopted an amended Houses in Multiple Occupation SPD which applies further restrictions on HMOs to comprise the entire area subject to the Article 4 Direction. This involves extending the area to part of Duryard and Pennsylvania wards and two areas of Newtown ward where the proportion of Council Tax exemptions at the end of May 2013 was between 10% and 20%.
Student housing – council tax
I often hear comment about the fact that full-time students are disregarded for Council Tax purposes. That means a property is exempt from Council Tax if it is wholly occupied by full-time university or college students. Student halls of residence are automatically exempt. More details from Citizens Advice website.
The reason why properties occupied entirely by students are exempt is because students, unlike other groups of people on low incomes, are not normally entitled to income related benefits, such as housing and council tax benefit.
However, the Government does recognise the need to compensate local authorities for the loss of council tax income, which would otherwise have to be borne by other local residents.
So ECC is compensated to some degree by central government funding for the extent that it has had to grant student Council Tax exemptions and discounts. This funding is reflected in the annual local government finance settlement
which distributes Formula Grant among the various local authorities. The trouble is the Formula Grant distribution mechanism is based on a complex formula, one aspect of which takes account of the relative ability of different councils to raise council tax (known as “resource equalisation”).
The variation in the level of exemptions and discounts for Council Tax for students is compensated to some extent through this resource equalisation adjustment to the amount of Formula Grant allocated to each local authority, but it is not a like-for-like relationship.
The allowance for student exemptions in the Formula Grant was always based on historical date, which has no kept pace with the increase of student numbers at the University of Exeter and that tenuous link was further eroded when Formula Grant replaced by Revenue Support Grant [RSG] in 2013.
There is a strong school of opinion in local government circles that the reduction of central government funding for local authorities will significantly undermine the effectiveness of the compensation a local authority receives for student Council Tax exemptions and discounts.