Monday, 9 February 2015

Planning framework allows developers to exploit loopholes

We have a housing crisis in the UK.

If we are to address it properly, as well as act on many other fronts, we need to build about 250,000 new homes every year, probably for the next 20 or 30 years.

In 2007, there were more than 5,000 firms building between one and 10 houses a year. Now, there are fewer than 3,000 such firms. We have seen a collapse in the small- and medium-sized builder market and increasing dominance of the big house-builders, focused on their profit-and-loss accounts rather than on needs-driven development across England.

The previous Labour government did not build enough homes. The present government is building even fewer. 

Back in 2010, I questioned Grant Shapps, then Housing Minister, now Conservative Party Chairman, about his housing strategy. He said:

“I am very critical of our predecessors for raising expectations which they then completely dashed and failed to meet. We have already talked about the numbers, the lowest housebuilding in peacetime since 1924. That’s unacceptable. We have to do a lot better.”

I pressed him further, asking:

“So do we take it that success for this government…will be building more homes per year than were being built prior to the recession and that failure will be building less?”

Grant Shapps replied:

“Yes. Building more homes is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.”

Clearly, this government has never got its tracksuit off, let alone got on the pitch with medal ambitions.

However, to build the number of new homes we require, we also need a planning system that commands public support, nationally and locally.

So, in 2011, the all-party communities and local government committee - which I chair -insisted that, within the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), sustainable development required consideration of environmental and social issues as well as economic ones.

We said that the presumption that any planning application should be agreed unless it could be proved that ‘the adverse effects significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’ was just unacceptable, and ran counter to the very notion of sustainable development.

We were convinced that the priority for development must be ‘brownfield first’, with shop and office developments concentrated on existing town and district centres, not on new green-field or out-of-centre sites.

We also agreed that new planning legislation should unambiguously confirm the supremacy of local plans and that local planning decisions had to be consistent with the local plan. We said it was unacceptable that so many councils had yet to develop and adopt a new local plan. If they were serious about localism, this would be their chance to prove it.

Now come forward three years to the report we published in December 2014 on the NPPF. We concluded that, in principle and intention, the reform of the NPPF was correct but not every aspect worked as expected.

Leaving aside the massive shortfall in housing development, we also concluded that developers were taking advantage of loopholes in the framework to launch ‘speculative’ planning applications leading to unwanted developments, especially on the edge of towns and villages, contrary to the wishes of local communities.

This problem is particularly acute when a local plan or five-year supply of housing land is not in place. In these cases, developers take advantage of the absence of the plan or five-year supply to seek planning permission in areas that local communities do not consider suitable for development.

The NPPF is designed to work side-by-side with local plans. Fewer than 60% of local authorities have an adopted local plan. That is simply not good enough. There now must be a statutory requirement for councils to get local plans adopted within the next three years.

As part of our evidence gathering, far too often we heard that developers were claiming sites were unviable in order to obtain planning permission on other, more lucrative sites against the wishes of the council and community. In doing so, they are undermining and delaying the local planning process.

When our report was debated, MPs of all parties and from all areas confirmed that the government’s planning strategy was simply allowing the developers to decide where new homes were built and that this is quite unacceptable.

We believe that requiring all sites with planning permission to be counted towards an authority’s five-year supply will help put a stop to this behaviour and give communities greater protection.

Such changes will help develop plans with wide public support.

Then, we’ll need new policies to build more homes.

This article was first published in the Local Government Chronicle on 6th February 2015 at