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More planning reform: what’s going on?

More planning reform: what’s going on? Photo © GraphicStock

The Government is making changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The consultation runs until 22 February, and the House of Commons CLG Select Committee is holding an inquiry – you can watch me giving evidence below.

CPRE’s planning experts will be blogging about various aspects of this consultation and related work in the coming weeks. Here is an overview.

1. Some of it is good.

The consultation’s strong emphasis on building more homes on brownfield land is very welcome. Not all brownfield land is suitable for development, and there are big questions about how the proposed ‘permission in principle’1 will work. But CPRE has argued for years for more brownfield development and for an up-to-date brownfield register. So it would be churlish not to welcome enthusiastically the support for brownfield housing in both the NPPF consultation and the housing and planning bill.

Also welcome is the attention given to residential density (paras 13-18). One of the first acts of the Coalition was to revoke density guidance, apparently in the belief that densities of 30-50 dph (much lower than those in Bath or Kensington, let alone many European cities) must result in tower blocks and tiny flats. Now the Government wants to encourage higher densities around transport hubs. The definition of ‘transport hub’ is absurdly broad and the suggested density of 40 dph very modest for many urban locations, but the general thrust of the policy is good. Higher densities, done well, can save countryside and make towns more liveable.   

There are other good proposals, or proposals that may be good depending on what exactly they mean and how they are implemented – see below. But…

2. This is no way to do policy.

I have written before about the oddness of reforming the NPPF before the housing and planning bill has been passed and before John Rhodes’s government-appointed panel on speeding up local planning has reported. And there are other problems with this consultation.

Its wording is often extraordinarily vague, leaving so much room for interpretation that it can be hard to know what the Government intends. As for the housing and planning bill, according to the housing commentator Jules Birch, it ‘is not just written on the back of a fag packet but deliberately left full of blank spaces to be filled in later once it gives the secretary of state the power to do as he/she chooses’.

The Government is throwing initiatives at increasing housing supply, but in planning it is all too easy to make the system less certain and therefore slower. Five years ago, the Government’s reforms were all about simplification and localism. Now they are centralising the system and making it more complex. As far as I can tell the proposed changes are not based on any serious analysis of the NPPF’s impact on house building. They arise rather from a sense that ‘something must be done’.  

And done quickly. I have been reading Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s The Blunders of our Governments, a cheery retelling of some of the great political disasters of the past 30 years – tales of the Treasury dictating policies in areas it does not understand; changes driven by ideological or personal prejudice rather than strong evidence; legislation railroaded through Parliament, with Ministers deaf to informed criticism from peers and others; and so on.

The dust-jacket of the book carries a plug from Lord Heseltine. ‘A valuable guide from two well-qualified observers to the pitfalls of politics. Will it help new generations to avoid them? Don’t invest your money on it!’ I won’t.

3. There are some potentially disastrous proposals.

Future blogs will outline CPRE’s concern about plans to make it easier to build in the Green Belt; the harmful impact of ‘starter homes’ on rural areas (the continuing failure to ‘rural proof’ the Government’s housing policies is a disgrace); and the proposal to allow small sites to be developed on the edge of settlements.

We are particularly worried about proposed housing delivery test ‘to ensure action is taken where there is a significant shortfall between the homes provided for in Local Plans and the houses being built’ (para 30). Paragraph 33 states: ‘One approach could be to identify additional sustainable sites if the existing approach is demonstrably not delivering the housing required…. A range of sites may be appropriate, which could include new settlements.’

Recent years have seen higher housing targets (local authorities are planning for 270,000 houses a year for the next 15 years); more planning permissions; more sites for house building; a publicly subsidised house building industry with fewer social and environmental obligations; and, partly as a result of the subsidies, healthy developer land banks and extremely healthy profits. All these things have failed to deliver enough new homes. So, like a First World War general, the Government is demanding more of the same. It is…

4. Attacking the wrong target

There is no simple answer to building more houses, but it as clear as daylight that giving the UK house building industry much more land will not crack the problem.  

When we consistently built over 250,000 houses a year in England, for 35 years after the Second World War, the state built half of them. Private sector output has been pretty constant, allowing for the highs and lows of the wider economy. Why does anyone think this will change if house builders are given more land?

There are things that can be done, and the Government is doing some of them, including tentatively encouraging self-build and custom-build housing. CPRE has made a number of more radical recommendations for improving the housing market in Getting Houses Built and supporting small and medium-sized builders.   

But forcing local authorities to release yet more land and issue more planning permissions will not get more houses built. Instead, it will lead to more lost or threatened countryside – and to more acrimonious battles over planning just when there is growing agreement about the need to build more houses and how to get them built.

1 Para 21: It is our intention that brownfield registers will be a vehicle for granting permission in principle for new homes on suitable brownfield sites.

Watch the evidence session (via Parliamentlive.tv)

As far as I can tell the proposed changes are not based on any serious analysis of the NPPF’s impact on house building.




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