Last reviewed 1 December 2015

The purpose of this Bill is primarily to create more affordable homes, increase home ownership and improve the way housing is managed, but it also continues the Government’s strong planning reform agenda. David Alexander assesses its progress.

Background

Current planning reforms began under the Coalition Government and are continuing under the present administration. This Bill is a prime means of achieving reform and was introduced into the House of Commons on 13 October, passing its second reading on 2 November. It is currently at committee stage and a report is expected by 10 December. The Bill has yet to be introduced into the House of Lords but should become law during 2016.

The primary origins are the Conservative 2015 General Election Manifesto, which sought to build affordable homes, including 200,000 Starter Homes to be sold at a 20% discount and built exclusively for first time buyers under the age of 40. The Conservatives will also extend the Help-to-Buy Equity Loan scheme; introduce a new Help-to-Buy ISA; extend the Right-to-Buy to Housing Association tenants and ensure that local people are in charge of planning decisions.

A second point of origin is within Fixing the Foundations, a 15-year Treasury productivity plan to encourage long-term investment and promote a dynamic economy with more homes to buy, competitive markets, minimum regulation and planning freedoms.

Planning

The Bill’s first five parts focus on starter and custom/self-build homes; rogue landlords; recovering abandoned premises; reforming social housing and simplifying and improving legislation on housing and rents. This article will focus on part 6, which covers the planning system.

  • Neighbourhood planning. The Bill proposes simplification and greater speed, with councils supporting communities who meet local housing and other development needs through neighbourhood plans. It gives powers to the Secretary of State when designating neighbourhood planning areas and holding referendums. Local authorities must notify neighbourhood forums of all planning applications in their area.

  • Local planning. There are stronger interim powers for the Secretary of State over amending local development schemes; directing appointed examiners and requiring local authorities to reimburse the Secretary of State over interventions and independent examination costs. The ultimate objective is to put in place local plans to a deadline and with league tables. Otherwise, the Secretary of State will have them written following local consultation.

  • Planning in Greater London. New planning powers will be devolved to the Mayor of London, including over wharves and sightlines and with the ability to call in applications of 50 homes or more.

  • Permission-in-principle and local land registers. Full planning permission would involve Permission-in-Principle together with Technical Details Consent. Permission-in-principle would be granted through development orders and initially apply to land allocated in the Brownfield Registers, Development Plan Documents and Neighbourhood Plans. It would be limited to suitable housing sites providing fewer than 10 housing units. Conditions will only apply with technical details consent.

    Local authorities must keep a register of all permissions-in-principle and when considering technical details, the original case will not be reopened. Brownfield land registers will also be required for suitable housing land, which must not be affected by physical or environmental constraints that cannot be mitigated. This register could include all land deemed suitable for permission-in-principle. Further consultation will cover format and indicators to assess progress.

  • Planning permissions. The Bill proposes that local sensitivities and conditions can be taken into consideration by councils and not ignored by developers. Applications for major developments can be made to the Secretary of State if local authorities are underperforming and such authorities can be designated. They are also urged to make public any financial benefits they may gain.

  • Nationally significant infrastructure projects. The Secretary of State will hold powers to grant development consent for housing linked to applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects. Such links can be functional, covering housing for the workforce, and demonstrate close geographical links between housing and infrastructure. This means either on the same site, next to it, or close to any part of the development for which consent is required.

  • Urban development corporations. The Bill will impose new consultation requirements and changes to parliamentary procedure for making orders in relation to urban development areas and corporations.

Consultations

John Healey, Shadow Cabinet Minister for Housing and Planning has identified the Bill’s strong ideological and political dimension, with increased and unprecedented centralising powers to the Secretary of State that can override both local community concerns and plans, as well as impose new house building. He predicts a difficult passage through the House of Lords.

Shelter has predicted the Bill will lead to the loss of 180,000 affordable homes over the next five years, mainly affecting low and middle income families.

Helen Hayes, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and a professional planner, felt the Bill had no vision for planning, “regarding it as simply a constraint to development… This Bill will take power away from our local communities, while also removing vital checks on the quality and sustainability of development. Local authorities will be denied the opportunity to ensure that new development meets local need and to negotiate for community facilities and affordable housing.”

In a briefing note before the Second Reading debate, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) raised several points of concern.

  • Extra duties on local authorities whose resources include a third fewer planning staff than in 2010 and a 37% reduction in policy staff.

  • Outstanding planning permissions are plentiful, but getting houses built is difficult.

  • Nine new powers have been given to the Secretary of State, contradicting the localism agenda.

  • Creating a series of new, mini-planning systems alongside each other, covering planning-in-principle directly or via the brownfield register, local plans, or neighbourhood plans.

  • Many brownfield sites remain poorly located and are car-dependent.

  • Time and resources are needed to assess sites for physical constraints.

  • The Bill should add to and not replace the overall supply of homes.

  • Safeguards should prevent the forced sell-off of council homes to fund right-to-buy discounts for housing associations.

Duncan Field, head of planning at Norton Rose Fulbright, has claimed that centralisation runs contrary to the NPPF, which favours objectively assessed local plans for market and affordable housing, and perpetuity of the latter.

Conclusion

The current Housing and Planning Bill remains a work in progress. Housing is a recognised priority in England, but should not be an ideological and political stick to beat local authorities. Working with them and sharing more resources would be much more positive.

The planning system should not be further downgraded against clear evidence of large numbers of extant permissions. The real issues are housing finance and the availability and quality of skills to physically design and build houses. A more in-depth understanding by Government of the proactive role of planning in rebuilding Britain for the 21st century is the key. The Town and Country Planning Association stated in its October response to the local plans expert group agenda: “The Government has been presented with extensive evidence of the benefits of planning to long-term place-making, human health and economic efficiency. HM treasury has chosen not to consider these arguments, or the evidence behind them.”