Published on Friday, 8th July 2016


On Wednesday planning permission was granted for the conversion and restoration of the prison as 73 flats, for various shabby extensions to be demolished and for 157 new flats to be built around the edges of the site.


Any development is always controversial, particularly in its immediate locality, but in my view, a good decision was made. The prison site is larger than it appears from outside and the scheme is a high-quality one that involves removing all the 20th-century outbuildings scattered around the site and placing most of the new builds along the railway line and towards the northern boundary, away from the  listed 19th-century structure.


Both the new flats and the conversion will be constructed to a high standard and a modern design for the new blocks is necessary to contrast with the main Victorian structure.  Outside the planning process, the council is working on a land deal to transfer responsibility for some scrub land outside the main entrance to the developer, who will then create a nice landscaped area.


I don't sit on the Planning Committee, but did watch proceedings and did read most of the letters of objection. Some points raised were one-offs, but there were also several themes that came through time and time again. It's worth saying something about those because they apply equally to other schemes.





Any new development has to avoid overloading the road network. However it does not have to make any financial contribution to reducing existing problems; it can also legitimately add the queues. Congestion is seen as acceptable up to a certain level and wider network issues cannot be considered. This doesn't mean nothing can be done about congestion - things will be done as part of this scheme, but by nature they minor improvements to the existing network rather than anything more radical.


National policy does not allow local authorities to refuse planning applications on traffic grounds unless they are truly critical: so a development of a thousand houses accessed only by a country lane would not be allowed without a link road for example whereas adding flats facing an already congested urban road would, provided various tweaks were made in the locality. Were any council to exceed its powers in refusing permission on wider issues, its decision would be overturned and would be fined.


Schools and doctors


In most areas of the country, most schools are at or near capacity. That applies to Portsmouth as much as anywhere else and at most three of the city's ten secondary schools will have free places next year.


Local authorities receive grants from central government to provide new spaces according to a national formula. The cost of creating an additional school place varies wildly depending on the amount of available room and the capacity of more specialised parts of the building, such as the hall and science labs. However as an average the grant covers about three-quarters of the cost, with the rest then coming from the local authority itself.


There's a catch though - government money will only be released when the project number of surplus spaces falls below 2%.


This coming school year there will be an estimated 201 spaces free in year 7. Over half that surplus is in one school: King Richards School, Paulsgrove, but that doesn't matter. At 10% the citywide surplus is far in excess of the 2% threshold and therefore were the population completely static, no new school places would be provided at any point. In fact anything over 39 spare places in year 7 would count as excessive and would mean no new spaces are needed as far as the Department for Education is concerned.


In reality, the population is continuing to rise and new spaces will be created, but those already in the pipeline means Portsmouth will meet the 2% threshold until at least 2020.


The point is that schools will remain nearly at capacity, whether there is new development or not. From a planning law perspective, as there is always the ability to add new school places somewhere in the area, this can never be a reason to refuse planning permission. It can affect the payments the developer has to make however and many very large developments have to include a new primary school gifted to the state.


It's the same story with doctors' surgeries. Yes, they are busy, but it is national policy not to provide more capacity than needed and were there underworked practices around, the NHS would look to close some of them.


Affordable housing


The prison development includes no affordable housing and makes no financial contribution for someone else to provide it elsewhere.


There has been a lot of criticism of this. However once again the national rules apply and they state that if affordable housing costs would make a development unviable then they do not have to be provided. At arriving at what is viable, the land cost is considered - so if for example a developer has overpaid for land, then that is a reason for not providing affordable housing. It also guarantees a profit of something like 20%.



I don't agree with those rules, but they are a part of the framework we have to work within. For what it's worth, when I was responsible for planning policy, I did think of bringing in a policy to make the numbers public, as has already happened in Islington for example. What stopped me doing it was the Planning and Housing Bill (now Act) that brings in mandatory starter homes. The government has still not provided the regulations that will govern how this operates, but my best guess is that the existing 30% affordable housing will become 20% starter homes (with no viability exception ) and 10% affordable housing, or perhaps 20% starter homes (with no viability exception) and then another 10% starter homes (this time with a viability requirement). Either way, it seems likely there will be many fewer affordable rented homes created in the future, although there will be more discounted homes to buy.


Tags: Planning