The housing white paper: a wish list
If the Government wants more housebuilding, in the right places and for the right people, it must do whatever it takes to ensure that every area has an up-to-date development plan. Around 60 per cent of local planning authorities do not have a post-NPPF adopted plan. Without a plan, investor confidence suffers, development does not go to the most sustainable sites, and astonishing sums of money – including public money – are wasted in ‘planning by appeal’. The solution may be a statutory duty on local planning authorities, as suggested by the Local Plan Expert Group (LPEG).
As LPEG also notes, speeded-up local plans need clear-cut evidence. Especially, we must clear the dense fog around ‘objectively assessed housing need’, the Local Plan item that causes most controversy and delay. Everyone knows the assessment must be radically simplified and standardised, though there are major disagreements about the method proposed by LPEG (I am part of a group with an alternative proposal). Another option for the Government is to set housing numbers centrally. In effect this would introduce an England spatial plan by stealth – unlikely to be welcomed by local planning authorities.
Next on the agenda is larger-than-local planning. Everyone, including the Secretary of State, knows that the Duty to Co-operate is not working as it should. Despite notable successes, the process remains complicated, risky and slow. Some solutions that look good on paper, such as returning to a two-tier system, or merging local planning authorities, would be too controversial and take too long. A practical answer is for the Government to identify groups of authorities whose next generation of Local Plans must be joint plans.
The Green Belt is a critical issue. Many authorities are looking for additional housing sites through Green Belt reviews. But the process is patchy, and the likely result too little development, too late and not in the best places. Effective reform will need fearless national leadership.
We should also break out of the mindset that says the only answer to housing need is very large sites, such as urban extensions. Delivery at these sites has been disappointing. Part of the answer will be in public-sector-led schemes on the New Town model, which co-ordinate development more effectively, and capture planning gain to pay for infrastructure. But also smaller sites should be allocated for housing. This need not lead to urban sprawl if the sites are in sustainable locations -often on the edges of existing settlements.
Finally, as noted by the Planning Minister, more priority should be given to rented housing, including social housing. The Government should rethink Starter Homes, which as currently proposed would not meet affordable need, and would divert developer contribution from ‘true’ affordable housing. It should find other ways of paying for social housing, because the pool of developer contributions is not bottomless. It should also consider pooling S106 contributions across local authorities, because the richest areas, where market housing generates the highest developer contributions, may have the least affordable need.
This article first appeared in the January issue of The Planner.