The controversial housing elements of the “worst-ever” Housing (and Planning) Act have, quite rightly, dominated recent debate, but the planning elements will also have a significant impact upon housing providers. Trawling through the published Act you are struck again and again by the fact this is an extreme enabling Act, leaving almost all of the detail to future regulation. This is government by ministerial diktat, democracy denied.
The main thesis of Part 6, which deals with planning in England, is that the planning system is acting as a blockage to house-building and must be unblocked – a view that many would contest. I have highlighted some of the key sections below.
Sections 139 to 142 deal with Neighbourhood Planning and aim to speed up the process for holding referenda and allow the minister to intervene if necessary. The evidence to date on neighbourhood planning is that well-off areas have used it more than less well-off areas. It is being used more toinhibit than promote development.
Local authorities have been given until March 2017 to put a local plan in place (only three in ten have done so) but sections 143 to 148 allow the minister to intervene in the local plan-making process. The regulations on this came into force on the 26th May and Greg Clark immediately put a freeze on the Birmingham local plan, which had been through an exhaustive process and had been endorsed by the planning inspector in April with an adoption date of July. This was because there had been a vocal protest, supported by the local MP, about the proposal to build 6,000 homes in the green belt around Sutton Coldfield. So much for localism. When it comes to the crunch it appears that localism will only be permitted if the government likes it. This is despite the fact that the impact assessment to the Act said that, ‘the majority of local decisions (will) remain at the lowest appropriate level whilst ensuring a local plan is in place.’
Section 150 deals with “Permission in Principle” for housing sites, a form of zoning that will allow outline permission to be granted for “housing-led developments” with detailed plans being dealt with by means of a ‘Technical Details Consent’. The idea is to give developers greater certainty about planning for major schemes. Section 151 may require local authorities to set up a brownfield register of land in their area. 73 councils have already run pilots for brownfield registers. The minister can give permission in principle on brownfield sites, something that could prove contentious since not all brownfield land is suitable for development, either because it would be better used as open space or it is in remote locations. The sagas of Wisley airfield and Manston airport (which I dealt with here) are cases in point.
Section 154 allows planning authorities to apply to the minister to create a ‘planning freedoms scheme’, that allows councils to “facilitate an increase in the amount of housing” in their area.
Sections 158 to 159 put in place a new dispute resolution procedure for planning obligations and allow the minister to make regulations to restrict the level of affordable housing provision. This has to be read in conjunction with the current debate about viability assessments, and the provisions of Part 1, which allow the minister to make regulations to “provide that an English planning authority may only grant planning permission for a residential development of a specified description if the starter homes requirement is met.” Again, this is to be determined by central diktat, rather than left to local democracy. So much for localism yet again.
Sections 161 to 164 allow for the privatisation of planning application services, but not decision-making. This has already happened on the Cambridge North West development, where the University has provided planning officers.
As with the housing aspects of the Act, many of the planning provisions will become clearer once the regulations are published. Many would argue that planning is not the main culprit for the under-supply of housing and that there are wider structural and funding problems, such as the dysfunctional house-building industry and the fact that public money is being pumped into owner occupation rather than social housing. But the Act does resolve to some extent the ongoing tension between localism and centralism, in favour of the centre. If local people or local authorities democratically decide to do something that the minister does not like you can forget it!
(This blog first appeared in Inside Housing on 15th June 2016)