For whose benefit?

The housing bill will replace social housing priorities with relaxed planning regulations to stimulate house building. But is this really the answer to solving the crisis in the sector?

· Credit: Toby Morison

The Department for Communities and Local Government’s housing and planning bill, now at committee stage in the Commons and awaiting its third reading, has been touted by the government as a means to turn ‘Generation Rent’ into ‘Generation Buy’, by building 200,000 new homes in England a year – a million by 2020. Its key tenet is for local authorities to include starter homes as part of the planning consent on larger developments. These will be offered to buyers under 40 years old at 80% of the market value and capped at £450,000 for Greater London and £250,000 outside, to promote greater levels of home ownership. The initiative marks a clear government strategy to move away from the provision of rented property as a tool of ­planning gain, to house purchase. Since some statistics suggest that the £450,000 cap for London is £100,000 more than an average couple living in the capital could reasonably afford, the plan is a contentious one.

But there are other significant clauses being proposed in the bill that, read together, create an effective reform of the planning system. These relate to neighbourhood and local planning, registers of land, planning permission, nationally significant infrastructure projects and Urban Development Corporations.

umulatively, they amount to an effective relaxation of planning regulation to stimulate house building. Crucially, the bill contains no reference to design quality – which is still covered in the National Planning Policy Framework. The NPPF, however, remains guidance, so where it may be at variance with the requirements of the housing and planning bill, it is the primary legislation of the bill that will take priority.

Planning before design

The housing bill is being received with some caution by the design profession, worried that the pro-development stance needs to be further thought through to ensure it does not result in reduced build quality or further exacerbate the economic divide between England’s rich and poor. By default, with more powers being handed to the secretary of state to determine applications in the case of local authority under-performance, it appears that the proposed bill could in some regards be considered as going against the government’s own 2011 Localism Act.

A key aspect of the bill is its ‘permission in principle’ provision, which allows consent in principle to be granted on land allocated by the local authority for development – typically land held on the LAs’ now required brownfield register, or development or neighbourhood plans – initially expected to be limited to smaller development sites of 10 homes or less. Kathryn Hampton, senior associate at law firm Nabarro, explains that full planning permission is only given once ‘technical details consent’ has been approved, and likens the new policy to outline planning permission and reserved matters, but with notable differences; namely that the LA cannot impose conditions on the permission in principle, as the government considers that any conditions should be reserved for the technical details consent stage itself.

What this amounts to is the adoption of a ‘zonal’ approach to planning, with design matters being addressed further down the planning line. Architect Alex Ely, author of the mayor of London’s Housing Design Guide, sees this as problematic, saying: ‘It means is that planning will become more about land use and density than architecture and detail. I fear this will mean reduced design quality as it is not a priority from the outset.’

With design decisions only as good as the people making them, Ely wants to see more emphasis on design enshrined in policy, adding: ‘If design quality is robustly stipulated, there would be less scope for it to be watered down and a clear policy basis for any refusal.’ Nabarro’s Hampton also states that the LA will be bound to the terms of the planning in principle – they won’t be able to reconsider the principles of development when determining the technical details consent unless the circumstances of the in principle consent have changed considerably. Board member at the Housing Forum Andy von Bradsky isn’t concerned with a zonal approach per se but with the implications of ‘redline’ planning on community engagement. ‘Permission would be indicative and doesn’t contain detailed consent,’ he points out. ‘I’d be worried about how much local residents would be able to inform and shape the terms of the planning in principle consent.’

In conflict with localism

Von Bradsky picks up here on the government’s drive to expedite the planning process to such an extent that it would seem to contradict its moves to promote localism. ‘Local Plans have to be in place by 2017 and if local authorities delay publishing them, then the secretary of state will have the option to intervene,’ he says, talking of the extended powers under the bill for developers to go straight to the secretary of state for planning permission if the local authority is deemed to be under-performing. Together with extended permitted development rights for office to residential conversion, von Bradsky thinks there’s a smack of centralisation to the decision-making process. ‘The government pushed localism so far that it seems to have become an impediment to housing delivery,’ he adds. ‘The move back to centralised decision making and permitted development is palpable and I’m wondering how it will work against local level devolution in the long run.’

The design profession is worried that the pro-development stance could result in reduced build quality or further exacerbate the economic divide between England’s rich and poor

Taking subsidy from the poor?

But it is the contentious starter homes policy that most worries von Bradsky, who sees it as more politically ideological – driven more by the Exchequer than DCLG – than about sorting out the housing problem. ‘The government has set its face against housing for rent and towards home ownership, but this initiative could be seen as taking a subsidy from the poor and giving it to the aspiring classes,’ he notes, concerned that the continued squeeze on homes for social rent will ‘build to a pressure pot’. Senior lecturer at Northampton University’s Institute of Urban Affairs’ Dr Bob Colenutt agrees, blaming volume housebuilders’ vested interests and calling the issue ‘an economic problem that has nothing to do with housing need; this bill seems to be about house building at any price’. He claims the bill makes no mention of the needs of the homeless, key workers or elderly, potentially leading to what he calls a ‘sub-class’ of society’s most vulnerable.  This leaves local authorities following up their duty to meet housing need with only the NPPF to fall back on.

National Housing Federation policy leader Adam Morton meanwhile is generally in favour of the bill’s intention to release more affordable homes, but is clear that it shouldn’t come at the expense of the social rented sector. Morton is also highly circumspect about the stipulated possibility of selling homes at full market rate after just five years, thinking: ‘The government needs to show there would be no selling on of homes by buyers just keen on speculating.’ He wants measures to prevent profiteering, perhaps in the form of covenants on developments with planning consent. Senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research Bill Davies agrees, saying ‘clauses to ensure starter homes remain starter homes in perpetuity’ should be written into the planning permission.

Preparing the ground

Davies, and even the highly circumspect Colenutt, seem generally more amenable to the bill’s proposal to maintain a register of brownfield sites and to grant suitable development consents on them to meet the need for self-build and custom build. Davies says it is ‘good, as there’s a real lack of custom build in the UK and it’s important to prioritise land for SMEs’. But he cautions that: ‘It’s got to differentiate clearly between the small custom builders and larger developers.’ The London Housing Guide’s Alex Ely sees the bill has ‘latent potential’ to kick start a custom build boom, but only arising out of resource strapped local authorities ‘taking the initiative to enable development’. For him, that also means LAs releasing more than infill plots – ‘the kinds of sites that are handed over to larger developers’. But von Bradsky thinks it’s about more than land availability. ‘We’ll need more facilitators like Igloo to create the support network for custom build to work on a wider scale,’ he thinks. But it may be about creating an economic model as well as a planning one. Getting custom build to really work ‘will take government intervention and perhaps preferential lending rates – we need a level playing field to allow smaller, less experienced custom builders to get on board,’ he adds.

Those looking to this bill for some kind on incentivisation of the rented sector will be disappointed; the needs of society’s most vulnerable are simply not addressed

Link to infrastructure

As a means of linking housing supply to infrastructure, the bill proposes to give the secretary of state new powers to grant development consent for housing linked to major infrastructure projects like HS2 or Crossrail 2. In principle this should be good news, formalising an obvious link between the two. The NHF’s Morton cautiously welcomes the move, feeling that it is ‘an anomaly that housing wasn’t tied to infrastructure. The new policy should speed housing delivery in relevant areas.’ But Colenutt feels the proposed policy is redolent of the ‘enterprise zones of the Thatcher years’: there would seem to be a strong link between this policy and the urban development corporations recently touted by ‘northern powerhouse’ tsar Michael Heseltine as a means of driving urban regeneration – with the planning deregulation that it’s associated with. For Nabarro’s Hampton the jury’s out: the policy sounds good but needs more detail.

The bill mentions guidance on the amount of housing but isn’t clear on the scale of development,’ she says. ‘Everybody wants to know what the parameters are and what type of housing they mean but as yet there’s no detail on that.’

More power to the mayor

Proposed additional powers for the mayor of London to determine applications should expedite housing delivery, especially where development sites crossing neighbouring boroughs can get stalled in bureaucracy. It could lead to the kind of resi/infrastructure thinking that has seen the Northern Line extension to Lambeth/Wandsworth’s Nine Elms development – itself desirable despite the project’s extremely high density. But given mayor Johnson’s controversial intervention at Mount Pleasant and the fact he has just called in the luxury £800m Bishopsgate Goodsyard application despite strong community objections, his exercising of powers may lead to more housing in the capital, but perhaps not the right type.

What price devolution?

In all, to drive the housing agenda forward, the bill seems to concentrate a lot of planning power back to communities secretary. The government’s demand for  Right to Buy, which is being foisted on housing associations and paid for in part through the forced sale of higher value local authority properties, will only exacerbate the need for housing for social rent and precipitate a crisis in the sector unless housing associations are in a position to step into the breach. But Genesis Housing Association, which manages over 30,000 homes, stated at a recent NHBC press briefing that the proposed housing bill will force a review of its development programme and operating costs. It still intends to bid for Section 106 schemes but may well have to scale down their value and scope. What comes through from those interviewed is a disconnect between the ideological notion of home ownership and genuine housing need, be it social or affordable rent: one that the 20% discount from market value cannot address. Those looking to this bill for some kind on incentivisation of the rented sector will thus be disappointed; the needs of society’s most vulnerable are simply not addressed.

Furthermore, the relaxation of planning regulations and shift to centralised decision making seems to attribute blame to planning authorities and punitively punish them for their apparent under-performance. But the picture painted from those spoken to here is one of local planning authorities stretched to the limit and hampered from more proactive housing approaches simply through sheer lack of resources. With the bill going through its final reading early next year, it is only by addressing this resourcing shortfall that LA planning teams will be able to concentrate on ensuring that the devolved decision-making the public expects from local and neighbourhood plans remains just that – devolved.