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Planners give evidence to MPs on Housing and Planning Bill

Housing and Planning Bill represents “the end of English discretionary planning,” says Town and Country Planning Association

Representatives of six bodies including town and rural planners gave evidence last week to the Public Bill Committee scrutinising the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill. Representatives from the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Planning Officers Society, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and Historic England were all questioned by a group of seventeen MPs on whether the measures in the Bill would be effective in delivering new homes whilst giving adequate protection to designated areas and the historic environment. Brandon Lewis, the Minister of State for Housing and Planning, was also questioned.

Much of the debate focused on the Bill’s measures to promote the development of starter homes, whether starter homes could be counted as affordable housing, and whether starter homes would “crowd out” other forms of affordable housing, such as housing to rent. The question of how to define affordability was also debated, and the Planning Minister Brandon Lewis cited figures to demonstrate that starter homes in certain areas were indeed affordable. On the Bill’s emphasis on brownfield development, the proposed local authority register of brownfield land was broadly welcomed by all the witnesses, although some had reservations as to how the “permission in principle” idea would work in practice.

Trudi Elliott, Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said many of the challenges of housing delivery were outside the issues in the Bill, “including access to finance and a skills shortage right through the supply chain.” This was reflected in the figures for development starts and completions when compared with planning permissions, she said: “As a result of previous changes, planning permissions per year are up to 242,000, whereas completions or starts have got up to only between 131,000 and 133,000″. She also highlighted the shortage of resources in planning departments across the country: “There has been a 37% cut in resource going into planning, particularly development management.” Planning officers have managed to keep the statutory targets (the granting of permission) on target, she said, but the shortage of resources is having an impact on both pre-application work and post-planning permission work. Kevin Hollinrake MP said the question of resources was a matter for local authorities to prioritise: “Some local authorities have reduced resources within their planning departments back to 50%,” he said.

The RTPI is calling for an amendment to the Bill which would place more restrictions on the “permission in principle” applied to brownfield land. Trudi Elliott said not all brownfield land is the same: “Part of the reason why brownfield land has not been developed is the constraints of the site,” she said. “The Government have been looking at the criteria to address that. We think accessibility needs to be added to the proposed criteria – it is a massive issue for place making. If we do not link homes to jobs, we really are in a difficult situation. The other challenge we have on place making is linking up homes, jobs and the infrastructure required and when that infrastructure goes in.” However, Brownfield Briefing has pointed out that the RTPI has not called for the same restrictions to be placed on greenfield sites, “which are far more likely to have limited access to public transport or employment areas.”

Speaking for the Town and Country Planning Association, its Head of Policy Dr Hugh Ellis said the Bill signalled a radical change to planning processes and the end of English discretionary planning. “The powers in the Bill on permission in principle are extraordinary,” he said. “They apply to all land and all forms of development contained in the appropriate documents, which is all development plans. There has been a very strong narrative that this will only apply to housing, and only to a small number of houses, but the permission in principle idea, which is as close to zonal planning as we have got in this country, gives the Government the power at any time to introduce it to all forms of development. For example, fracking could easily be a part of it in a minerals plan.”

He continued: “Anyone who does planning will tell you that you cannot make a decision in principle about a site until you know the detail of its flood risk appraisal and the degree of affordable housing you want on the site. To try to split principle and detail as if they are not connected in reality is extremely dangerous. Understanding the principle of a site means you have to understand the detail of its implications.”

Speaking for the CPRE, its Chief Executive Shaun Spiers pointed to a statement in the impact assessment recently published by the DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) – see our news item “DCLG says a million homes on brownfield land is ‘wildly over optimistic’” for more details. The statement says “we have wildly exaggerated the availability of brownfield sites,” he said: “We did research with the University of the West of England to show that there was enough suitable brownfield land, most of it already in planning, to provide 975,000 homes, and that that stock is constantly replenished. We do not understand why the impact assessment queries that, because we have never seen any analysis from the Government to query it. That aside, the fact of the brownfield register is a positive thing. It will make smaller sites available for small builders, which is a big need – possibly for self-builders. I think that when the brownfield register is completed it will entirely verify our 1 million figure.”

Shaun Spiers said the CPRE is “extremely concerned about the fact that local authorities will be required to commit to implausibly high housing numbers – sometimes double the average housing output over the past 15 years – which will mean they will have to release sites, sometimes in the green belt and sometimes in areas of outstanding national beauty, which will then be developed by developers and the brownfield sites will go to waste. You cannot crack this problem unless you also look at how the housing numbers are calculated.”

The CPRE has also expressed a concern that the Bill does not address the problem of affordable homes in rural areas. Shaun Spiers said that the measures to develop starter homes will limit other forms of development, as “the local authority will have a duty to provide starter homes.”

Speaking for the Planning Officers Association, Mike Kiely said there should be a proper debate about the inclusion of housing in nationally significant infrastructure projects, as the measures suggest that “up to 500 housing units completely unrelated to the nationally significant infrastructure project can be given consent just because it is nearby.” On the “permission in principle” idea, he said: “Permission in principle is a potentially good idea that is in danger of going off the rails. It would be wrong if we see it as a move to a sort of zoning principle… It is a fundamentally different way of going about things.” Mike Kiely also pointed out that the Bill was inaccurate on its statement of assessing housing land availability. “The people who drafted the Bill have misread the national planning policy framework,” he said. “On when a strategic housing land availability assessment needs to be produced, it talks of looking at sites larger than 0.25 hectares that are capable of taking at least five units. The threshold is a quarter of a hectare, not five units.” Producing a brownfield register for land capable of producing five units would be an impossible burden on local authorities, he said, as “frankly, every site in London is capable of taking five units… If the threshold is at 0.25 hectares, that is manageable.”

To read the debate in full, see the PDF on the Parliament website.