Less carrot, more stick: George Osborne hopes to shock councils into delivering more homes

Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation

Published on by Perry Miller

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In the immortal words of Judy Garland: ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’. And so today, local authorities across England will be wondering whatever happened to the bright future that was to be localism, announced with such fanfare back in the early days of the Coalition government.

For just as this week’s Budget was billed as unbridled Conservatism, unrestrained by any calming influences from the Lib Dems, so the plans unveiled today in Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation (the ‘second half’ of the Budget), reveal a Chancellor who has lost patience with local government.

The past five years have seen significant reforms to the planning system. At their heart was an idea that, freed from nationally-imposed targets and with strong community input, local communities (and authorities) would step up to the plate, plan for the future and facilitate the delivery of the homes the country desperately needs.

That was the plan. Yet with an identified need to build some 250,000 new homes each year, 2014 saw just 140,000 completed. Not only that, but research undertaken by Savills earlier this year found that three-quarters of councils lack an up-to-date local plan  and a quarter have no up-to-date strategic housing market assessment. In further news, over 60 per cent of councils cannot show a deliverable five-year housing land supply.

And so it appears that time has now run out for local government and the carrot of localism is to be replaced by the stick of Whitehall. With Eric Pickles out of the way, George Osborne is stepping in and taking charge. In a move trailed in the Conservatives’ General Election Manifesto, he is seeking to tip the balance in favour of a productive, high wage economy with rising living standards: a flexible workforce, enjoying affordable property prices, close to their places of work.

As Fixing the Foundations puts it: ‘An effective land and housing market promotes productivity by enabling the economy to adapt to change, helping firms to locate where they can be most efficient and create jobs, and enabling people to live and own homes close to where they work.’(9.2 ,p.43)

The risk, of course, is the alienation of the Conservative shires, already reeling from the proposed starter homes initiative. This proposes to deliver as many as 200,000 homes over the next five years, all built without any obligation to deliver associated infrastructure or affordable homes. If councillors could now find development forced upon them, without any involvement in the process, a rebellion will surely be brewing. With the parliamentary recess fast approaching, it could lead to some awkward constituency conversations for Tory MPs.

And while neighbourhood plans seem here to stay, it will be interesting to see whether a ‘what’s the point’ attitude become prevalent or if the changes will simply harden the battle lines for those groups progressing neighbourhood plans.

To be fair, we knew that [some of] this was coming. Back in May, we learnt that – if elected – a Conservative government would:

  • Require local planning authorities (LPAs) to have permission in place on more than 90% of brownfield land suitable for new homes by 2020
  • Designate LPAs who fail to deliver on this as ‘underperforming’ with applicants seeking consent on brownfield land being able to apply directly to the Planning Inspectorate
  • Invest in housing zones on brownfield land
  • Require local authorities to establish a register of brownfield land

Building on the above, Fixing the Foundations now proposes:

  • Intervention by government to remove all ‘unnecessary obstacles’ to the redevelopment of brownfield land.
  • This intervention to include legislating to grant ‘automatic permission in principle’ on brownfield sites identified on new, statutory registers of brownfield land suitable for housing in England. In effect, a ‘zonal’ system for England.
    • Intervention to ensure local authorities put local plans in place by a ‘set deadline’, which will be confirmed by the parliamentary summer recess (21st July).
    • Publication of league tables, setting out local authorities’ progress in providing a local plan. Where authorities fail to produce them, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government will intervene to arrange for local plans to be written, in consultation with local people.
    • Option for any major infrastructure project that has ‘elements of housing development’ to use the fast-track Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) system.
    • Councils that fail to determine 50 per cent of planning applications on time could be put into special measures, enabling applications to go direct to PINS.
    • Government to work with the Mayor of London to bring forward proposals to remove the need for planning permission for upwards extensions for a ‘limited number of stories’ up to the height of an adjoining building, but only where neighbouring residents do not object.
    • Stronger compulsory purchase powers to bring forward more brownfield land
    • Government to consider how policy can support higher density housing around key commuter hubs.
    • Government not to proceed with the Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards.
    • Mayor of London to be able to call in planning applications of more than 50 homes
    • Retention of protection for the Green Belt

As with all these things, the devil will be in the detail and developers and local councils alike will need to see the meat on the bone of some of these proposals. But one thing is absolutely clear: the Chancellor has lost patience with the way the planning system has been used to stifle development.

As he himself said today:

The reforms we made to the planning system in the last parliament have started to improve the situation: planning permissions and housing starts are at a seven-year high. But we need to go further and I am not prepared to stand by when people who want to get on the housing ladder can’t do so”.

For further information as to how PPS Group can help guide you through the planning maze, please contact me on 0203 757 6750 or perry.miller@ppsgroup.co.uk

Perry Miller

Perry Miller about the author…

Perry’s career has been defined by his involvement in politics and public affairs. After early years spent working in the Conservative Research Department and as a Special Adviser in the Major Government of the early nineties, he joined the UK’s first, and arguably foremost, Westminster lobbying agency where he advised a range of blue-chip clients.

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