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Planning matters

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Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? Planning reform: a view from the coalface
The following is an extract from a paper I presented at the 44th Joint Planning Law Conference held in Oxford over last weekend.The Housing and Planning Act 2016 is very much at the forefront of Government reform of the planning system. After a rather difficult passage through the two Houses of Parliament, a huge amount of the detail has been left to be legislated for later. This process of making secondary legislation has just started and it seems that it will continue with the ‘new’ Government.The mere existence of the Act reflects an escalation in importance of recognising the housing crisis within Government and Westminster – the vast majority of planning reform centres on addressing it, and has done for some time. Whilst the main political parties describe the problem in much the same way, the approaches to finding the solution are different - influenced as they are by different ideologies. Home ownership has for a long time been a central plank of Conservative party housing policy so the starter homes and the extension of the right to buy come as no surprise in that regard.Precisely what impact the Act will have is difficult to decipher at this juncture, such is the huge amount of detail left for regulations, policy and guidance later. Starter homes will no doubt be popular with those who will benefit from the initiative. One of the drivers of reform is to win the next election and if starter homes gain traction over the next three years, as it must currently be anticipated that they will, the Government will undoubtedly appeal more to the twenty and thirty year old age group than otherwise might be the case. With affordability arguably being at the root of the current crisis – particularly for first time buyers - a subsidy of this scale will undoubtedly be a major fillip to those who stand to benefit. The underlying solution to the housing crisis must be to create a step-change in the delivery of housing so that future supply far more closely matches the needs that should be provided for as a nation. It is highly unlikely that starter homes will provide this step-change but they may have an impact at the margins.The Act, in isolation, will support some incremental and modest growth of year-on-year housing delivery, notwithstanding the possible challenges that might be presented should economic downturn or recession result from the decision to leavethe European Union, or for any other reason. However, the Act must be examined in the context of the wider reforms at play across a number of different fronts. For example, if the recommendations of the Local Plans Expert Group (LPEG) were implemented, local plans should have a greater and more significant impact on housing delivery by being far more resilient, flexible, and better able to respond to change. The Group’s recommendations would help ensure local plans are able to confidently tackle ‘the big decisions’ within reasonable timescales – those that really would make a difference to housing delivery, without the fear of being found unsound or Government intervention.With the Autumn Statement not too far away, we wait to hear what the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant when, on his visit to China in July, he referred to possible plans to ‘reset’ economic policy and we will then see whether this might have any implications for planning policy or decision-making. Within, or in parallel to, the timescale for the Autumn Statement (it is due on 23 November), amongst other things, we might expect to hear more about some of our long-awaited major infrastructure projects, an announcement about the work of the LPEG and further provisions relating to the Act coming into force.The Government knows where it wants to get to. It wants to be re-elected having provided for one million new homes, 20% of these being starter homes. It refers to the one million new homes in terms of an ‘ambition’ it is striving towards; the language used probably reflecting the doubts the Government itself has about achieving such a number. In my view the target won’t be met. It won’t be met because the imperative to be re-elected will continue to compromise the Government’s ability to put in place the necessary reform that has a realistic prospect of dealing with the underlying housing problem for the longer term, such that we can once again provide for the needs of future generations, in a way that we haven’t been able to for decades. Image credit: @willupton (Twitter)


Political change – how will planning and housing policy be affected?
A week is a long time in politics; two weeks is an eternity. After the UK voted to leave the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron felt his position was untenable and the process of finding a new leader began. Given how fast politics moves these days, it will come as no surprise to learn that the country will have a new Prime Minister by Wednesday evening – Theresa May. At the time of writing, the details of a May Government are yet to be provided, but do we have any indication as to the impact on planning and housing policy? In her speech delivered before it was announced that she would become the new Conservative leader and Prime Minister, Theresa May provided an insight into her feelings on housing – one which surprised many commentators as to the breadth and complexity highlighted:   Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising.  Young people will find it even harder to afford their own home.  The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced.[1]   These are encouraging words – there appears to be: a recognition that we need to build more homes; that people are being priced out of owning their own home; and that some people are able to accrue assets while many others cannot. May also makes a very interesting link between housing costs and economic productivity that could set the scene to better understand the link between housing costs and local economic performance:   And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth.[2]   A strong supporter of Theresa May’s leadership bid has been the current Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis. Speaking before the announcement that Theresa May would become the next Prime Minister, he stated:   Whoever the Prime Minister is, we have to stay true to the manifesto we launched last year, which had two key housing policies: Starter homes and extending the Right to Buy to 1.3m people. There’s no reason that would change.[3]   This message should be unsurprising, for four reasons.First, the Conservative Party continues to have a mandate to deliver on their manifesto promises from 2015 – there is no constitutional requirement for there to be another general election if the Prime Minister steps down, and maintaining substantial parts of its election manifesto helps to underpin the Party’s democratic and political rationale for not ‘going to the country’.Secondly, the direction of travel for housing policy has been made very clear, and agreed by Parliament. The Housing and Planning Bill became an Act just in May this year; the plethora of consultations and regulations that need to be discussed, debated and agreed are already in motion and various housing policy objectives have been announced. There would be little incentive to change the direction of this complicated and wide-ranging policy reform now.Thirdly, with a great deal of high-level political attention to be focused on managing the process of Brexit itself, the fact that housing and planning policy already has its key principles established means that DCLG civil servants are in the encouraging position of being able to continue work on the details of implementation, through revisions to the NPPF, the PPG, and the regulations that will bring into force the Housing and Planning Act’s measures - all with a view to putting in place the changes over the coming months.Finally, in the face of economic uncertainty, there is a strong case for the Government doing everything it can to maintain ‘business as usual’ for housing supply and investment. Indeed, as the Government saw these housing and planning reforms as crucial to stimulate development and drive economic growth before the referendum, they will now see them as an imperative to ensure economic stability.It therefore seems that despite the political upheaval and looming economic uncertainty, Theresa May’s government will want to emphasise the role of housing, development and planning, ensure that policy reform continues to happen and do everything it can to promote stability. As this is a policy area that has seen huge change in the last few years, some stability would no doubt be welcomed by most in the sector. [1][2][3] Image Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images