Brandon Lewis and the Last Crusade (Part I)

The Housing and Planning Bill and the debate to be had.

“Ask yourself, why do you seek the Cup of Christ? Is it for His glory, or yours?” – Kazim, Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword

Next week sees the second reading – and thus the first substantial debate – of the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill. It was launched by housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis as the start of ‘a national crusade’ to get one million homes built by 2020.

The Bill was released amid the heated row involving the extension of right to buy to housing association tenants, which has distracted somewhat from its wider substance, covering planning, the rental market and homeownership.

It applies only to England and thus is the first meaningful piece of legislation to be considered following the passing of the English votes for English laws legislation. It is also an area where Labour, led by the redoubtable John Healey, will be looking to score some significant points against the Conservative government. Labour’s most vocal critic of the Bill thus far has been Sadiq Khan, the candidate for Mayor of London, who is warning that the measures will combine to see 21,000 fewer affordable homes in London, with no real plan to replace them.

Planning for better performance

In many ways, the Bill is a continuation of policy under the previous Coalition Government. That government’s major piece of planning reform – the National Planning Policy Framework – caused huge rows but is now broadly seen as a positive addition by the industry. However, it has not ushered in the new wave of house building that the Coalition Government had hoped for, with the recent British Property Federation/GL Hearn planning survey revealing that major application determinations are down overall as is the speed of determinations. Earlier this week, the Office for National Statistics GDP figures revealed a 2.2% slowdown in construction and just yesterday the National Housing Building Council housing revealed that new building registrations in the private sector were down 1% with those from housing associations down 4%. These elements combine to underline the Government’s urgency in steering this Bill through.

The need for speed

The Housing and Planning Bill has two main themes running through it – a desire to speed up the planning process to benefit house building, and a desire to ensure more people can own their own home.

The key plank of the Bill’s proposals to speed up the planning process is to award certain housing sites ‘permission in principle’ – effectively automatic planning permission for those sites designated for housing.

While this sounds like a potentially radical development, it is in effect an evolution of the ‘brownfield’ first strategy that has underpinned planning policy for the last few years, and will be initially limited in its execution.

Permission in principle will be granted for land that is allocated for development in a ‘qualifying document’, which would include the planned statutory brownfield land register, local development plans and neighbourhood plans. It is intended for use initially for small sites, delivering circa 10 housing units or fewer. Alongside the permission in principle, the Bill also provides for a technical details consent process, which, when combined with the permission in principle, will grant full planning permission.

Additional measures to improve house-building through the planning process include strengthening the Mayor of London’s powers over directing boroughs to award planning permission and amending local plans and the Secretary of State’s powers to deal with underperforming local authorities.

Local problems

All of these measures emphasise that local authorities are seen as the blockage to house building. The sum of the measures will considerably add to the reporting burden on local authorities at a time when many complain of being under-resourced.

One of the regular complaints from those who spend their time working with local authorities to secure consents (including this writer) is that planning officers are over-stretched and occasionally not of sufficient calibre to cope with the complex cases they are meant to be dealing with. This view was backed up by the recent BPF survey, with two thirds of developers and 90% of local authorities identifying resourcing as their biggest challenge.

In this context, the Bill’s current provisions do little to support local authorities and much to add to their challenges.

Part II continues here.