Philip Barnes – Blog

Autumn Housing Bill – A Once in a Generation Opportunity?

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Perhaps a touch hyperbolic but having worked in land, planning and housing for over 20 years this Autumn’s Housing Bill feels like a rare opportunity to deliver some truly radical policies to address the housing crisis. The reason is we now have a fresh second term Government with a real commitment to increase housing delivery.

But wasn’t that the case in 2001?  In my view things are slightly different.

Firstly more housing was not seen as quite the priority it is today.  In fact in some circles it was seen as having contributed to the urban decay and abandonment in some northern cities.  Furthermore the Government was placing its faith in the new European style “plan led system” as the means to force recalcitrant local authorities to prepare plans and release sites for housing.  However with no incentives to comply, many authorities either responded slowly or barely at all, especially in the shires where there were some of the greatest housing and population pressures. A plan led system without plans. It became impossible to secure consent if a proposal was not in a plan.  With precious few plans housing output inevitably dried up.

Secondly, urged on by the Urban Task Force and others, the new 2001 Government felt that the housing need could be met on brownfield land alone.  The theory was that there would be a ceaseless supply of back gardens, local pubs and factories available to meet housing needs without the loss of greenfield land.  The National Land Use Database was set up to prove the point.  Unfortunately it couldn’t then find enough available viable brownfield land.  Neither could the local Urban Capacity Studies that became mandatory.  Then even the brownfield apartment blocks in back gardens became outlawed as they proved unpopular with neighbours once built.  Local pubs proved more popular with residents than developers and planners thought. Needle in a haystack.  Brownfield output stayed constant and greenfield output dried up. Housing needs unmet.

Thirdly my sense at the time was that Government perhaps felt it could identify where houses should be built in Regional Spatial Strategies and then development would quickly happen there.  But what about the market?  What about local community views?  What about local politics? Disconnecting with these three factors is never conducive to good policy outcomes and so it proved with housing output remaining stubbornly below need.

So why the optimism that this time radical new measures can hopefully deliver the increase in housing output that the nation needs?
Firstly there seems to be a real commitment to addressing the three key barriers to increased housing delivery.  Namely the complexity and languor of the planning system (not the planners BTW), the absence of plans and the need to plan effectively across local authority boundaries.

Secondly we have a positive pro housing national policy in NPPF.  Like any planning policy document ever written it can of course be read selectively to both support or oppose controversial development as we saw in the run up to the election.  However the underlying intention is clear – to build more homes.  The focus must now be on redesigning the process to deliver the policy objective.

So what can we expect or hope for in the Bill?  Much has been trailed already and sounds positive. Mandatory deadlines for local plans, housing zones where all brownfield applications are deemed acceptable and exception sites to deliver starter homes at a 20% discount.

But what else would be good?

Perhaps some truly radical measures to reduce the complexity of planning applications?  Maybe a return to red line consents for some schemes?  Does any application under the Environmental Statement threshold need to be supported by anything more than a 10 page Design Statement and 10 page Impact Mitigation Statement?  Let’s try and encourage overworked local planning officers to read planning applications rather than weigh them.

Other ideas which might help increase delivery include:

  • clearer recommendations for how Local Authorities must work together to deliver housing needs across boundaries – some great emerging work that can be drawn upon.
  • binding Planning Performance Agreements
  • a 4 week fast track process for simple disputes over planning conditions and the like
  • deemed consent in relation to dilatory statutory consultees, subject of course to safety considerations;
  • removing the need for planning applications on sites in an adopted plan to go to Committee

Finally most importantly is the need to unleash the smaller and custom builders.  Barratt is the first to admit that the loss of many smaller regional building businesses during the recession has had an unwelcome effect on delivery volumes.  Measures to help them by reducing planning costs/uncertainties and increase funding opportunities will hopefully be a focus for the policy makers currently writing the Bill.

Author: philipbarnesblog

Group Land and Planning Director for Barratt Developments PLC. FRTPI, FRICS

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