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Progressive planning changes are needed not whole-scale reform

The anticipated planning reforms will be the biggest changes to the planning system seen for some time – a complete overhaul. Planning isn’t perfect, but nor is it beyond repair. If government are serious about housing delivery, they’d be talking about sensible improvements not whole-scale reforms. Instead they seem intent on riding roughshod over local people and all too willing to put private profit ahead of what our neighbourhoods actually need. So if it were up to me, what would I be doing? There’s plenty to do, but these are three things I’d start with.

Firstly, the housing delivery test. A small but technical change could really push developers sitting on land with permission to actually focus on delivery. The Local Government Association estimate that nearly 9 out 10 applications are approved and in the last decade alone nearly a million homes have not been built despite permissions being granted. The Housing Delivery Test measures the number homes delivered against the number of homes required. Where delivery of housing has fallen below the housing requirement, councils can be penalised.  

The main issue is the fact that Councils, unless they are their own schemes, do not deliver planning permissions – they are totally reliant on the market/ developers/ registered providers.  Developers may seek to restrict delivery in order to maintain profit levels; landowners may gain permission and land bank rather than actually deliver; and registered providers are also heavily dependent on state funding streams.  Crucially, events such as cyclical changes to the economy, and currently Covid-19, can significantly affect delivery which councils have no control over.

So a solution? Give local authorities the power to rescind permissions or more radical still take the build over themselves, if possible using better compulsory purchase orders if development does not begin within a year. Not a huge change but certainly could stop land-banking and start delivering housing and infrastructure.

Secondly, permitted development (PD). It has morphed into a policy that will cause more harm to a locality than actually result in good quality homes and a Government report has concluded the same. Aside from the fact there have been numerous cases of horrendous office to residential conversions and no obligations to affordable housing, PD has resulted in the displacement of valuable business and employment in many areas because the residential return far exceeds the commercial. The new permitted development rights could actually see high streets decline even further. Something that goes against what the Government are seeking to do.

I am not suggesting residential conversions can’t take place in high streets but it needs to be in a planned process that takes in to account the local economy and secures quality and space standards. In Brent we have introduced an Article 4 direction in growth areas to stop office to residential conversions and are now seeking to expand that for the whole borough. My solution would be to give councils the ability to opt in to PD with guaranteed quality of housing, rather than a blanket nationwide policy. It needs to be locally led and part of a solution to address local housing, infrastructure and economic needs.  

Thirdly, public sector land should be developed in partnership with local councils not developers. Currently, many public sector bodies have housing targets and often go to developers to deliver those numbers. This results in public sector land being sold, as well as not delivering 100% affordable housing due to ‘unviable’ financial viability assessments.

A simple solution is to legislate that public sector organisations give councils first right of refusal on land to deliver housing or enter in some sort of partnership. Councils can borrow again to build housing and combined with grants, schemes can be delivered with higher numbers of affordable and social homes on all public sector land.

Essentially, these solutions are small but significant and are certainly not only thing we need to do. Fix what is currently not working in the system, give councils the freedoms and powers to maximise affordability, infrastructure and support for local economies. Covid has changed so much and it now time to take decisive action to support councils properly in housing and infrastructure delivery. It is now time to enable councils to lead the housing market, not be hampered by it. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Shama Tatler</span></strong>
Shama Tatler

Councillor Shama Tatler is the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Property and Planning at the London Borough of Brent. She was elected to represent the Labour Party in Fryent Ward in May 2014 and has been a Cabinet Member since Dec 2016.
 
She is running for the Labour Party NEC and her reasons for running can be found here. Shama also sits on the LGA City Regions Board and the West London Economic Prosperity Board.

Visit her website below: http://www.shamatatler.com/

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We cannot borrow our way out of the housing crisis: mortgage credit is part of the problem

We cannot borrow our way out of the housing crisis: mortgage credit is part of the problem

One of the key issues highlighted in my new book about ‘Generation Rent’ is how mortgage lending drives the UK housing crisis. I am far from the first person to point this out: my understanding of the problem is drawn from the research of the think tank Positive Money, IIPP economist Josh Ryan-Collins, property cycles expert Philip J Anderson, and many others.

But no-one in government seems to be taking it seriously. As a result, a dangerous policy proposal in the 2019 Conservative manifesto has gone largely unchallenged: the promise to support the mortgage industry in delivering long-term low fixed-rate mortgages for first-time buyers, which will ‘slash the cost of deposits’. This may sound like an enticing idea, but in practice it will only pour more petrol on the fire.

The truth about where mortgages come from

When you take out a mortgage, the lender conjures new money into existence. The money doesn’t come from other customers’ savings accounts, nor does it come from bank ‘reserves’: it is created from nothing.

The main constraint on mortgage eligibility is the borrower’s ability to repay the debt. Effectively, a mortgage is a large withdrawal from The Bank of Future You. And while you can typically only borrow 90%-95% of the property value, this does little to keep mortgage borrowing in check, as property prices can rise in response to expanding mortgage credit and vice versa.

When property and mortgages collide

When cheap and readily-available mortgage credit meets residential property, house prices shoot up. This is because the supply of land, which accounts for about 70% of the value of a home, is fixed. No market can produce new land in response to the demand for housing created by expanding mortgage credit. And you cannot take out a mortgage against a home that hasn’t been built yet.

So, what you get is an ever-expanding supply of money chasing after a finite amount of property. Maybe we should think of it this way: rather than house prices going up, the value of money itself has been systematically trashed relative to the value of property.

What if we pour new money into new homes instead?

This was the rationale behind the government’s Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme, which was reserved for new-builds only. The idea was that, because the new loans would be used to increase the housing supply, the scheme wouldn’t lead to house price inflation.

But since the scheme was rolled out via huge private housebuilders, these companies were able to control the supply of housing by hoovering up as much land as possible and drip-feeding their (often shoddy) new-builds onto the property market at a slow enough rate to keep sale prices artificially high. In consequence, housebuilders’ profits have swelled, and Which? recently reported a trend of Help to Buy homes falling in value, despite rising local house prices. Most worryingly of all, Help to Buy mortgage arrears are running at six times the ordinary rate.

A culture of land speculation entrenches the issue

Maybe the land-credit feedback cycle would be dampened if it were possible to take out a mortgage to fund a self-build property. But to acquire land, you normally have to satisfy a landowner’s price expectations (claiming vacant or unregistered land in this country is almost impossible). These expectations are likely to have been warped by the speculative nature of the land market.

Most landowners know that, under current rules, a piece of agricultural land can become around 92 times more valuable with a grant of planning permission for residential buildings. If the seller doesn’t like the price on offer, they can withhold their land indefinitely with no consequences.

A whole ‘land promotion’ side-industry has sprung up to enable speculators to share in the planning uplift, using legal mechanisms like ‘option agreements’ and ‘promotion agreements’ to reduce risk and increase profits. As a result, land is scarce and acquiring it is both costly and difficult, despite the fact that only around 6% of UK land mass is actually built on.

Why planning reform won’t solve the problem

Perhaps because land speculation is so rampant in Britain, the planning system is currently painted as the big bad wolf of the housing crisis amongst conservative thinkers. There is a belief that the land market will magically start behaving like any other free market if we scrap the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. But for all its flaws, the planning system is not the fundamental issue here, even if there is a genuine case for planning reform.

In Victorian Britain, slum housing, rising rents and overcrowding plagued the Capital and other areas of rapid economic growth. This had nothing to do with rules and regulations (which were next to non-existent), and everything to do with the power that comes with land monopoly. The poor got poorer and the landed got richer: ‘twas ever thus.

We need to keep talking about land and credit

The only way to permanently stop the price of property ballooning out of all proportion is to tax the land beneath it. A land value tax could replace council tax (a ‘highly regressive’ policy that falls hardest on the least well-off), business rates and Stamp Duty Land Tax, and would disincentivise land speculation. It could raise much-needed revenue for public services hit by austerity cutbacks. Or it could even be redistributed in the form of a ‘citizen’s dividend’ or Universal Basic Income.

This idea has garnered support from across the political spectrum, but has traditionally been opposed by governments beholden to wealthy landowners and a predominantly homeowning public. So, since it may take some time to get the electorate to come round to the idea of a land value tax, a more urgent and politically possible course of action would be to reform the land acquisition process, so that local authorities can afford to build genuinely affordable social housing at scale.

In addition, the Right to Buy policy must be scrapped immediately to stem the loss of social housing – especially given that nearly half of the homes sold are ending up in the private rented sector and contributing to the soaring cost of housing benefit. The shortage of genuinely low-cost homes is acute; the number of people stuck on social housing waiting lists stands at well over 1 million.

For too long, spiralling house prices have been dismissed as an inevitable force of nature, or the product of too little housebuilding, or too much immigration – even though research from the Bank of England has concluded that the quadrupling of house prices over the last 40 years is ‘more than accounted for’ by falling interest rates. It may be dry, knotty and difficult to fit into a soundbite. But until we increase public understanding of the land and credit feedback cycle, the housing debate will only keep going around in circles.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Chloe Timperley</span></strong>
Chloe Timperley

Author of “Generation Rent: Why You Can’t Buy a Home (Or Even Rent a Good One)”. ORDER: http://bit.ly/2AX2LhE

Chloe’s professional background is in financial planning, which involves analysing pensions and investments. This led her to delve into how the financial sector sits at the heart of Britain’s housing crisis. During her research, Chloe went undercover at landlord events, spoke to MPs and activists, and joined a tenants’ union.

She also listened to the stories of scores of tenants who — like her — remain stuck against their wishes in the private rented sector.

Now, she wants to shift the housing debate away from simple narratives of supply vs. demand, and towards the underlying mechanisms that drive our dysfunctional land and housing markets.

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Westferry highlights everything wrong with planning

I’ll always remember the moment on 14 January 2020, I heard that Robert Jenrick had approved Richard Desmond’s application for Westferry Printworks: 1,524 new homes with only 21% affordable housing.  The news came through on my way into work, preparing for the Full Council meeting that very night, that would adopt our new Local Plan ‘Managing Growth and Sharing the Benefits’ and a new Community Infrastructure Levy schedule. As soon as the decision was announced, the importance of the timing could not have been clearer. 

The publication of the decision that day, saved the developer £30-50 million and took that funding away from the residents of Tower Hamlets who, through the democratically led Local Plan process, had established infrastructure needs for the area: primary schools, health centres, community centres and green space and more.

At the heart of this very long and complicated story are 2 basic questions which still need answers.

First why did the Secretary of State approve the application against his own inspector’s and officials in his own department’s advice?

Secondly why did he approve the application the day before the development would have been eligible for £30-50 million infrastructure payment?

The decision had been a long time coming.  After Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, approved the first application in 2016, the developer chose to almost double the size of the scheme in a further application.  Before the local Strategic Development Committee had a chance to make a decision, the applicant ‘appealed against non-determination’ arguably a tactic to avoid local decision making. 

During a parliamentary debate on the matter, Tory MPs fell over themselves to suggest that the fault in the process lay with Tower Hamlets Council – how painfully ironic that the delay was in part due to negotiations over the level of affordable housing.

In Tower Hamlets, we had been working on our new Local Plan for over 3 years (much of that time was spent waiting for the Government’s Planning Inspector to schedule our inspection – a required part of the process).  At its heart the Planning System – established in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 – was designed to democratise the use of land and give people a say in the development which comes forward. 

Through months of consultation, we listened and heard our community want to see more genuinely affordable homes and confidence that new development brings with it the schools, GP surgeries, public transport and shared space needed to support a thriving community. 

The most concerning responses to the consultation were those which said residents did not feel connected to new development and that residents could never afford live in new homes.  And so, Tower Hamlets Council established a vision: ‘Managing Growth and Sharing the Benefits’- introducing new policy on genuinely affordable rents, access to open space, health impact assessments and more.

The same night that we approved our Local Plan, Tower Hamlets Full Council set a new Community Infrastructure Levy.  This was a progressive policy meaning developers had to pay their fair share to invest in infrastructure. The new levy established the Westferry Printwork sites as eligible for a Community Infrastructure Levy payment. 

For years, the owners of Westferry Printworks had benefitted from not having to pay this Levy on the grounds that the complexities of the site would make development ‘unviable’ if the payment was required. Thanks to the careful evidence gathering and analysis from officers, Tower Hamlets Council successfully argued that this was not the case and so the site became ‘liable’.

Amongst the deeply depressing and some frankly embarrassing contributions from Tory MPs in the debate last month, it was the hollow arguments on housing supply that really grated.  The suggestion that in some way, Jenrick was doing us a favour by allowing such inappropriate development to take place would be laughable if the consequences of his actions were not so serious. 

Tower Hamlets has a track record of approving high levels of housing and office development, is consistently home to the highest levels of affordable housing development by housing associations and has one of London’s most ambitious Council home building programmes. 

The Secretary of State and his cheerleaders really were grasping at straws to suggest that this development was making a contribution to housing in Tower Hamlets – Desmond already had a planning consent that he refused to build out and the vast majority of homes provided in this development would have been way out of reach for most of the UK, let alone residents of Tower Hamlets.

As a proud representative of Tower Hamlets, it hurt to hear our community attacked and undermined in the House of Commons by Conservative MPs who were reading lines from a script. After several weekends of revelations in the papers, Jenrick had tried to dodge scrutiny and when he finally had to face the music it was lazy to trot out lines about a ‘rotten borough’ which are out of date or blame the Mayor of London.

This was pure deflection and tribal politics. 

I invite everyone of them who tribally stayed ‘on message’ in the chamber to come and sit with me or any of my Councillor colleagues in our surgeries where we listen to and work with our constituents who desperately need a new home and action on health inequalities. 

The suggestion that Jenrick made this decision in the interest of overcrowded and homeless families is grossly insulting, at best.  I hope that they will think on their positions and consider whether they are prepared to stand by their statements in the weeks and months to come which I expect – through the Select Committee and the next decision taken by a different Minister – will reveal further irregularities  

This whole saga reminds us just how much needs to change about housing and planning in the UK.  For communities to accept and welcome new development, they have to have confidence in the planning system.  The ‘viability assessment’ process should be taken out of the regulations.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has made great progress in London with the ‘35% threshold’ process but many other councils still report viability assessments and the regulations which allow developers to vary their affordable housing contributions as a huge barrier to securing sustainable development.  Local Authorities still need more effective powers to intervene when sites are not being developed. 

The Secretary of State’s decision on Westferry Printworks casts a long shadow over the Government’s new proposals for ‘cutting red tape’ and encouraging ‘permitted development rights’ which give communities very little say over levels of affordable housing their high streets and neighbourhoods

The Westferry decision highlighted everything that is wrong with planning. But let’s try to make it a moment to galvanise us all to work towards delivering the homes, offices, community buildings and public open spaces that residents need.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

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Another classic case of do as I say and not as I do

Planning has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last two weeks, shining a spotlight on the lack of transparency, the influence of vested interests, and the undermining of local decision-making.

As the new Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning it is my job to hold the government to account, to scrutinise and challenge their work. I’m not here to oppose for opposition’s sake, but to try and push the government into the right place, especially in this current Covid-19 crisis. However, if the process of opposition exposes something fundamentally wrong, then the gloves come off. Fair play is a fundamental British value and we cannot have one rule for a privileged few and another for everyone else. The Jenrick affair, coming hot on the heels of the Cummings scandal, is a classic case of “do as I say not as I do”.

The facts are clear. The Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick gave the go-ahead to a contentious redevelopment project in the Isle of Dogs just weeks after he sat next to Richard Desmond, the developer behind the scheme, at a Conservative party fundraising dinner just before the December General Election. Mr Jenrick has admitted that the application was a topic of conversation that night.

In January, the Housing Secretary approved the planning application for the redevelopment of Westferry Printworks in London’s Docklands, despite advice from his department’s Planning Inspectorate and Tower Hamlets Council that the proposals did not contain sufficient affordable housing. The decision by Mr Jenrick to approve the planning application by Northern & Shell on January 14 came just one day before an increase in the Community Infrastructure Levy was due to be imposed by the council at a cost of £40m to Mr Desmond’s company.

Is the timeline of these events merely a coincidence? Because of Mr Jenrick’s refusal to provide Ministry documents about his decision, we don’t know the answer. It’s vital that papers on Mr Jenrick’s decision-making are now made public. The public need to know that government Ministers are not abusing their power to do favours for billionaire friends and Tory Party donors. Mr Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, the former owner of the Daily Express and Daily Star newspapers, gave the Tory party £10,000 in 2017.

In an astonishing development, after being taken to court by the local authority, Mr Jenrick accepted that his approval of Northern & Shell’s planning application for the Westferry Printworks was unlawful. In March, Tower Hamlets took legal action against Mr Jenrick’s decision, arguing that the timing of his decision appeared to show bias towards Mr Desmond. Indeed, the former leader of the Conservative Group in Tower Hamlets resigned from the party over the affair.

After the court ordered Mr Jenrick’s department to release the documents, the housing secretary accepted his approval of Northern & Shell’s planning application had been “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” – an act which allowed him to avoid disclosing documents surrounding his decision.

This is not acceptable, and certainly not the end of the matter. Not only has the Secretary of State acted unlawfully but he has contradicted the Nolan Principles and further eroded trust in the planning process. I have now written to the Cabinet Secretary requesting that he investigate this matter.

I await a response.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Mike Amesbury</span></strong>
Mike Amesbury

Mike Amesbury is the Member of Parliament for Weaver Vale in Cheshire. He was first elected in June 2017 and is currently the Shadow Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

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Why solving the housing crisis requires planning reform

The UK has entered and will leave this pandemic while experiencing a decades-long housing shortage. The country will soon begin to repair the harm done to the economy and society by this disease, but it cannot continue to afford this housing crisis. The inequality it fuels and the damage it causes to national and local economies are too great to bear. We cannot go back to how things were before.

At its core, ending the housing shortage requires more homes. But where new homes are built matters. Yet at present, not enough houses are built in some cities, and arguably too many are built in others. This mismatch emerges as the design of the planning system means it rations the supply of land available for new homes. Ending the housing crisis will therefore require reform of the green belt and a new, flexible zoning planning system to build enough new homes.

The housing crisis is local, not national

The reason why the planning system is so important can be found in the geography of the housing shortage. Some cities have far greater affordability problems than others. For example, while in 2019 the average house in Barnsley cost 5.3 times the local average income, in Brighton that ratio rose to 13.5 times local average incomes. Despite their higher average wages, prosperous cities such as York and Bristol are generally less affordable than places with struggling economies and lower wages such as Dundee or Blackpool.

So solving the housing crisis therefore requires a focus on the most expensive cities with the worst affordability problems. But currently, as Fig. 1 below shows, there is no link between cities’ demand for housing and their supply of new homes. Many expensive cities including Oxford and Bournemouth are building far fewer homes than those which are more affordable such as Wakefield or Telford. The supply and demand of new homes have been disconnected.

Source: EPC Domestic Register 2019; Census 2011; ONS, Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) 2011; Land Registry, Price Paid Data 2011

The planning system disconnects local housing supply from local demand

This decoupling of supply from demand originates in the planning system, as the amount of land it makes available for housing is rationed. Development of new homes normally cannot proceed unless the council decides at their discretion to grant a planning permission to a site. Measures such as the green belt block new homes across large areas of land adjacent to many cities and railway stations, including Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, and London.

The rationing of land, not prices or affordability or need, ultimately decides how many houses cities build. It explains why some cities which have low demand build more than the average city, and far more than some very unaffordable cities.

The planning system prevents redevelopment in large parts of the existing suburbs

The planning system’s rationing of land can be seen in how it warps the supply of new homes within cities. Consider Exeter, an expensive city which is building lots of new homes above the average rate for cities, in Fig.2 below. A substantial number of homes have been built in the city centre (8 per cent growth since 2011), and there is a cluster of new homes being built on the eastern outskirts of the city, including near the brand new railway station of Newcourt.

Fig. 2 Housing supply in Exeter from 2011-2019

Source: EPC Domestic Register 2019; Census 2011

Nevertheless, 48 per cent of suburban neighbourhoods in Exeter are building less than one house a year. 14 per cent of suburban neighbourhoods in Exeter have actually built no new houses over this period, including a built-up area close to Digby & Sowton station. Even though Exeter has built lots of new houses, the amount of land which has been made available for development has still been subject to rationing.

These dormant suburbs which make little or no contribution to new housing supply are not unique to Exeter. 51 per cent of all suburban neighbourhoods in England and Wales built less than one house a year, or zero, from 2011-2019, providing only 2 per cent of all new suburban homes over that period.

This national pattern across cities emerges from the design of the planning system. As the supply of new homes is controlled by the discretionary granting of planning permissions by elected councillors, it is both uncertain for developers to navigate and sensitive to political pressure from anti-housing activists. The result is that as so much of the suburbs and unremarkable green belt land are off-limits to new homes, new housing supply is forced into easy-to-develop pockets on the outskirts of cities, and pressure for redevelopment is put on city centres and locations such as social housing estates and offices into flats.

Local shortages which emerge from the planning system make inequality worse within and between cities

By stunting the supply of housing in expensive cities, the planning system creates two different inequalities.

First, it drives inequality in housing costs within prosperous cities between renters and homeowners. As rents rise due to the shortage of homes, so does the wealth of homeowning neighbours as through their housing equity.

Second, it drives inequality in housing wealth between homeowners in more prosperous and weaker economies. From 2013-18, average housing equity per house in Brighton rose by £83,000 – but in Doncaster it rose by just £5,000. By preventing new homes from being built in the most expensive cities to stabilise local prices, the planning system reinforces economic inequality in them and across the country.

Ending the housing crisis requires a new flexible zoning system for planning

Solving the housing crisis and tackling these issues requires reconnecting local supply to local demand, and that entails reform of the planning system. Green belt reform is one area where this is needed, and Centre for Cities have calculated that 1.7 to 2.1 million new homes could be built on less than 2 per cent of the green belt within walking distance of railway stations outside Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester and London.

More building by councils and housing associations can play a large role here. However, the root cause of the housing crisis lies not in a specific lack of social housing but in the institutional design of the planning system. For instance, England still has one of the largest social housing sectors in Europe, at 17 per cent of all housing stock, yet it also has one of the continent’s most dire housing crises.

Ultimately, the design of the planning system must change. Building more homes in the most expensive cities will require a shift from its discretionary model towards a flexible zoning system, as in Japan and certain US cities.

This approach, where planning permission legally must be granted if a proposal complies with a national zoning code and national building regulations to ensure the structures are safe, is compatible with more social and council housing. But it would fix the institutional problems the private sector faces by reconnecting local supply to local demand, and end the housing crisis by building more homes in the least affordable places with the greatest need.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Anthony Breach</span></strong>
Anthony Breach

Anthony is an Analyst who has worked as part of the research team at Centre for Cities since 2017, where he focuses on housing and planning. He won the Thinkhouse Early Career Researcher Prize 2019 for Capital cities: How the planning system creates housing shortages and drives wealth inequality.

Anthony has also worked on research on commercial property in cities, services exports, productivity, and manufacturing. He also has a particular interest in lessons for planning, housing, and UK cities from Japan and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Previously he worked at the Fawcett Society as a Research Officer.

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NPPF tries to mix oil and water

The National Planning Policy Framework, the final version of which was published – and comes into effect – today, is good at polarising opinion.  As someone who thinks we haven’t built enough homes for a generation, under Governments of both Parties, the apparent determination to build more houses is appealing.  A small part of me admires Planning Minister Greg Clark’s willingness to take on some traditional Tory interests in his attempt to do so.

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Power in planning goes to the powerful

The letters page in the Daily telegraph is not a place I go often. But in the last week or two, since the paper launched its ‘Hands off our land’ campaign, the correspondents have reflected the mood of insurrection in the shires.
The Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework is the cause of the deep rift in the Conservative Party.  Two great Tory traditions have collided – conservation of the countryside versus making lots of money from development.
The government has dug this deep hole for itself and Pickles/Shapps/Clark and co deserve no sympathy for their plight.  When they came to power they made constant attacks on Labour’s national targets, its regional planning approach and regional plans, which in my view had quite carefully balanced the need to build homes with the need to protect heritage and beautiful places.
At that time the Tory talk reflected the extreme version of localism, where local people would dictate what would get built and where, with just a few incentives, like the New Homes Bonus, to encourage them to build.  It felt like a nimby charter and that the net result would be very little development.  Indeed, some councils reduced their development targets massively and a few declared what was a virtual moratorium on new homes, especially new affordable homes.
It’s not clear when the penny dropped and the government realised that its approach was incompatible with building more homes.  This realisation was encouraged by some developers who increasingly, according to the Telegraph and others, fill the Tory Party’s coffers with rather more than pennies.  Anyway, they now seem to have swung right round to the opposite extreme.  There are accusations that government inspectors are ‘pressurising’ district councils into changing their core strategies to get more homes built.  The Telegraph says that they have ‘identified a number of rural councils which have been instructed to make changes to their core strategies by planning inspectors that will see them giving up countryside for development. The rulings have created deep tensions at some key Tory run councils with many councillors feeling frustrated at the centralised
interference
.’
For the anti-development lobby, the NPPF is wholly unacceptable because it says that planning must not act as an impediment to growth (i.e. development) and that there will be a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development.  Those that genuinely believed in localism, and thought this government would be the conservationists’ friend, feel betrayed and outraged at this new centralised imposition.
Although there is little doubt that the planning system could be streamlined and some of the fussier rules removed, Labour’s structure for planning is beginning to look like a well-oiled machine: national assessments of how many homes are needed, some strict central policy guidance like the target for building on brownfield land and protecting the green belt, a regional assessment of land capacity and the setting of targets for each area,
balanced by local influence over sites and specific developments.
The excellent Highbury Group on housing delivery has submitted comments on the government’s plans which seem to be the height of common sense.  They argue that the planning system needs to be plan-led and not led by desires of developers or even the general needs of the economy.  Plans need to be evidence-based, taking full account of demography, geography and the natural resources available.  They point out that sustainability is a subjective consideration and not a market phenomenon, and should be contextualised by the preparation of a proper hierarchy of national, regional and local plans.
Most studies of the capacity of areas to support housebuilding find more developable brownfield land than was previously believed, although that land is often harder to assemble into good prepared sites than the greenfield option.   Some greenfield (NB not Green Belt) land will be required but not so much that it will concrete over the countryside – far from it.  With imagination and determination, the development planning process can deliver the homes we need without ruining the countryside and the natural heritage.
The truth is that Labour was right all along, or at least a lot less wrong than the Tories, and the Party should be taking this opportunity to say so to the 3.8m members of the National Trust, the 1m members of the RSPB, and the 600,000 members of the Woodland Trust.
As the National Trust says: ‘We believe strongly that any development must meet the needs of people, the environment as well as the economy.  The Government has failed to do this in its reforms. It has put short term financial gain ahead of everything else. It has failed to protect the everyday places that communities love. Power in planning goes to the powerful.’  Spot on.