Despite the Localism Act, pressure is being put on councils to pass new housing development

Since the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) became law in April,  there has been a steady build up of news items regarding housing associations, think tanks, and assorted others, pressing for more house building.   The prime reason given has, since June, gradually moved to a story of ‘kick starting the economy';  more affordable housing (social housing), and population growth are now less often sited than they were, whilst reducing house prices with increased supply is rising up the list of excuses reasons.

Following the dire economic figures at the end of July, an accusing finger was turned, yet again, towards planning legislation as a key constraint on housing building.   Not lack of demand, a mortgage famine, or land banking by developers – but planning rules.  The Daily Telegraph ran an article as part of its ‘Hands off our Land campaign’ subtitled,  Planning laws could be watered down again in a desperate Treasury move to rescue the UK economy from recession.’  

At the time, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was said to be unhappy to reopen the Pandora’s Box of planning, and suggested instead that land with current planning permission, banked by developers, should be used first.

However, things have moved on apace and the Financial Times now reports that  the Treasury, Housing Minister, and Downing Street Policy Minister are working on an economic regeneration package to kickstart new house building – seemingly oblivious to the level of empty housing, which on different accounts currently stands between 750,000 – 1million.  Neither is there any discussion of the favourable VAT treatment on new housing (built by volume developers), as opposed to renovation often done by smaller local developers who frequently produce more community enhancing outcomes.

An interesting article by Jill Kirby on conservativehome discussed this new ‘house building package’ and is worth  a read,  but, just as enlightening are the comments below the article.  The suggestion is that the Government is pulling back from the whole idea of localism and decisions on what gets built where being made by those who live in an area.  However, whether the genie will go back into the lamp now it has been released is another matter!!   For,  there is also a suggestion that the Government knows full well that the long term damage to the country outweighs the short term advantages.

Here is part of Jill’s article –  “Speaking of national control, housebuilding policy is also in the news again, with a package of new measures about to be announced, according to the Financial Times . Back in 2011, the Localism Act promised to ensure that decisions about housing would be taken by local communities. However, aware that many communities, given the choice, will be resistant to large-scale housebuilding, the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has been busy devising sweeteners to be paid to any local authorities favouring development, in the form of the New Homes Bonus and the Growing Places Fund.

So far, these financial incentives are proving insufficient to persuade enough local councils to fast-track planning applications. Carrying out genuine local consultation on development proposals can take years, as any local councillor will tell you. The DCLG is becoming frustrated and wants more houses built, quickly. So we learnt yesterday that the Prime Minister and/or his Deputy are soon to announce a follow up to the “radical new strategy” they launched together last November, which promised to “reignite the housing market and get the nation building again.” Apparently the latest initiative will offer fresh incentives to housebuilders to start up their concrete mixers. In an elaborate ploy to avoid committing any further direct government expenditure, the Government will underwrite bonds issued by housing associations, to enable them to borrow cheaply in reliance on the Government’s credit ratings. (Sub-prime, anyone?) At the same time, the DCLG will relieve developers of current requirements to build a percentage of social housing as a condition of planning permission. Such requirements have until now been an ingredient of the “Section 106 agreements” which local councils have used to get affordable housing and other community facilities funded by developers rather than taxpayers. These will now be dropped if they are holding up development.

There is every reason to accept the FT’s account of the forthcoming proposals, since they are closely in line with ideas already floated by ministers. In effect, by watering down s106 agreements and guaranteeing housing association finance, the Government is re-nationalising the provision of social housing and usurping the right of local councils to decide the balance of social and private housing. Despite the rhetoric of the Localism Act, pressure is also being exerted on local communities to agree to development in order to meet national, rather than local, need.

Ministers believe that a mass housebuilding programme, in both private and public sector, is the route to economic growth. If the achievement of that objective means overruling local decisions, or indeed removing decision-making powers from local authorities, it will not hesitate to do so.

As with independent local policing, local control of planning seems increasingly confined to the realms of political rhetoric. Ideas that seemed beguiling in think-tank pamphlets are proving difficult to put into practice. Readers will no doubt cite their own examples. The question is, should the Government come clean and admit that localism is an unworkable concept – or attempt to cling to the rhetoric whilst lowering our expectations of what it can deliver?”