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Portsmouth Planning - New Approach Needed

St-James

 Looking back at planning applications over the past 3 months, there is a lot of building work planned or underway (over 700 individual developments so far this year) which is good for the regeneration of the city but as in previous years, it is piecemeal with no matching upgrade to infrastructure or services. There was a Portsmouth City Local Plan produced in 2006 which was due to be updated in 2011, but for a number of reasons this has yet to been done. You can argue that without a tranche of money from central government there is little point in having a grand vision that can never be implemented, but unless the transport and services needs are articulated, they will never be achieved. This all becomes more pertinent with forthcoming changes to planning rules that could well state that anyone can build anything without the need for planning permission as long as it is in line with the Local Plan.

Allowing developments as long as they are in line with a Local or Neighbourhood Plan makes sense and is probably a sensible improvement to a system that just isn't working – but it does assume that Local Plans are in place and are fit for purpose – neither of which are the case in Portsmouth. Case in point, local residents and politicians are up in arms about proposals to build lots of houses of the wrong 'sort' and 'standard' on the site of St James Hospital, but the planning process is not going to stop any development – all it does is slow things down and leave people annoyed and feeling disenfranchised. 

If, however, there was a clearly articulated Local or Neighbourhood Plan in place, which had been developed with appropriate consultation (and that means listening to concerns and then building in changes to find an acceptable compromise as opposed to just following the process to get a 'tick in the box' whilst effectively ignoring objections), then even under the proposed planning rules any developer would only be able to develop what had been designated and any necessary infrastructure cost – such as the need for transport improvements – would have been clear at the outset and would have been reflected in the price paid for the land. Today's process separates all of the components and leaves us with the worst of all options.

How do we get a Local Plan in place? At present a few very vocal lobby groups like the anti-car and the anti-HMO brigades seem to drive political thinking on most topics and leave us with half-baked schemes like the Elm Grove cycle route or the pedestrianisation of Castle Road. What we need is a properly representative 'Citizens Assembly' – 2,500 people from all walks, representing all views and groups across the city, assembled to understand the constraints in which we work with a brief of agreeing a solution that best meets the needs of all.

But whether we solve the Local Plan issue or not, the smaller developments will continue and as things stand, will need the Planning Committee to review and decide what is and what is not acceptable under the current rules – so what has been happening locally in the past 3 months?

There have been few big developments – a proposal for a large care home on the site of a car dealership in Cosham is one of the few, but we know others are in the pipeline (and what they have in common seems to be the replacement of a place of work with residential – it is true that times and needs are changing, but we do need to either stop pushing jobs out of the city or to improve transport so people can get to and from their place of work).

We continue to see growth in the HMO market which is good – too many 3 bed houses with a single occupant whilst so many 'singles' struggle to find somewhere to live – partly a result of us not having updated our housing mix to match changing demographics.

There have been 8 applications to enlarge small (C4) HMO's – 4 in the south of the city and 4 in the north which is interesting, given the recent appeal decision confirming that these developments do not need approval (see detail here) and also, 9 applications to turn family houses (C3) into dual use HMO's (C3/C4)  and 11 (C4) HMO's have applied for dual use (C3/C4) reflecting the increasing need for flexibility of tenure if we are to meet the constantly changing demands of the local rental market. 

At our January meeting, Jonathan McDermott told us about the new permitted development rights which allow you to add storeys to existing buildings. In the last quarter we have seen applications for several such developments, notably 30 Arundel St (3 additional storeys creating 6 self-contained flats) and 29B South Parade which has come to planning several times over the past few years, each time trying to get a proposal through the planning process to add a new top floor. Hopefully they succeed this time as any potential gain from creating this new accommodation has probably been lost in fees trying to find an acceptable solution.

So where are we? We have a planning team who struggle to keep up with the volume of change (we hear stories of 7-8 month delays in getting simple approvals), we have a planning committee intent on doing what King Canute failed to do and we have a massive exposure in the form of a missing Local Plan which ought to direct and control everything and which will become even more crucial when proposed planning changes are passed into law. 

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