The Government’s new Rural Productivity Plan was billed as the first ever – though we’ve had rural white papers in the past, the most recent being in 2000.
Productivity plan less than productive for rural housing
This time we have a statement that is much shorter and, as the title suggests, focused primarily on economic productivity.
‘Productivity’ is the political buzzword of the moment. Statistics show that while the UK economy is currently growing faster than many others, levels of productivity (measures how efficiently production inputs, such as labour and capital, are being used in an economy to produce a given level of output) are lagging behind many of our European neighbours.
The Rural Productivity Plan refers to the Government’s commitments to greater devolution of power and to improved broadband connections. And it promises to triple the number of apprenticeships in the food and farming sector, to 3 million starts within this Parliament. So far, so good.
However, the main topic of interest in the media interviews we did last week was the proposal for further planning reform. Since 2010 alone we’ve already had neighbourhood planning, the National Planning Policy Framework, Planning Practice Guidance and wide ranging extensions of ‘permitted development’ rights. The latter take conversions of offices and agricultural barns out of the planning application system into a fast track, light-touch system of ‘prior approval’ which means these developments are far more likely to go ahead than before.
CPRE has long supported neighbourhood planning and we would want to support moves to make it easier. The Rural Productivity Plan promises to do this. But other elements of the plan are likely to have the effect of making neighbourhood planning – indeed, any kind of local planning – increasingly irrelevant. Neighbourhood plans can only have meaning if they are backed up by giving local communities influence over decisions on planning applications. The plan promises tighter timescales for dealing with planning applications, further extensions of permitted development rights, and a fast track certificate process – as well as yet more review of other ‘constraints’. None of these proposed reforms will make it easier for local communities to influence decisions – indeed, they will have the opposite effect.
The Government wants to make it easier for neighbourhood plans to allocate land for Starter Homes through ‘rural exception sites’ (i.e. sites that would not normally be granted planning permission for housing on the open market). The Starter Homes scheme provides homes for first-time buyers at 80% of the market rate. Unfortunately, there are many issues with allowing this type of housing on rural exception sites. For example, the main criteria for these sites are that the homes must meet an identified local need and that they remain affordable in perpetuity. Starter Homes meet neither of these requirements and therefore offer no incentive for a local community to help get these homes built. In fact, allocating Starter Homes will reduce the amount of affordable housing in an area because developers do not have to make contributions to any kind of local infrastructure (including affordable housing, roads and schools) on exception sites. Consequently, despite the good intentions, the plan as is seems more likely to end up hindering rather than helping rural productivity.
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