Mending The Planning System (Has Anyone Tried Switching It Off And On Again?)

When I recently blogged about the Raynsford review of the planning system, I really wasn’t expecting shadow CLG Secretary of State Roberta Blackman-Woods to announce yet another one at the Labour party conference, at a CPRE fringe event. This is CPRE’s write-up. It will be called “People and Planning”. According to Building magazine we can expect proposals to streamline the compulsory purchase system and “tougher measures to stop developers sitting on sites“, as well as a rethink on CIL and on the Government’s recently announced OAN methodology consultation. 
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had the following passages in his conference speech, leading on from references to the Grenfell Tower tragedy:
We have a duty as a country to learn the lessons from this calamity and ensure that a changed world flowers . I hope that the public inquiry will assist. But a decent home is a right for everyone whatever their income or background. And houses should be homes for the many not speculative investments for a few. Look at the Conservative housing record and you understand why Grenfell residents are sceptical about their Conservative council and this Conservative government.

Since 2010: homelessness has doubled, 120,000 children don’t have a home to call their own, home ownership has fallen, thousands are living in homes unfit for human habitation. This is why alongside our Shadow Housing minister John Healey we’re launching a review of social housing policy – its building, planning, regulation and management.

We will listen to tenants across the country and propose a radical programme of action to next year’s conference. But some things are already clear tenants are not being listened to.
We will insist that every home is fit for human habitation, a proposal this Tory government voted down. And we will control rents – when the younger generation’s housing costs are three times more than those of their grandparents, that is not sustainable.

Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections. We also need to tax undeveloped land held by developers and have the power to compulsorily purchase. As Ed Miliband said, “Use it or lose it”. Families need homes.

After Grenfell we must think again about what are called regeneration schemes.

Regeneration is a much abused word.

Too often what it really means is forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out. 

We are very clear: we will stop the cuts to social security.

But we need to go further, as conference decided yesterday.

So when councils come forward with proposals for regeneration, we will put down two markers based on one simple principle:
Regeneration under a Labour government will be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators. 

First, people who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before.

No social cleansing, no jacking up rents, no exorbitant ground rents. 

And second councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place.

Real regeneration, yes, but for the many not the few.

That’s not all that has to change.”

Liberal Democrats’ leader Vince Cable took a similar theme in his own party conference speech:
“If there is any single lesson from the Grenfell disaster, it is that people in poverty aren’t listened to. Nowhere is inequality more marked than in the housing market. Property wealth for the fortunate coexists with growing insecurity and homelessness for many others. Home ownership, which spread wealth for generations, is no longer a realistic prospect for younger people with moderate means.

To put this right, we must end the stranglehold of oligarchs and speculators in our housing market. I want to see fierce tax penalties on the acquisition of property for investment purposes, by overseas residents. And I want to see rural communities protected from the blight of absentee second home ownership, which devastates local economies and pushes young people away from the places where they grew up. 

Homes are to live in; they’re not pieces on a Monopoly board. But whatever we do with existing homes will not be enough. A doubling of annual housing supply to buy and rent is needed. 

For years politicians have waffled about house building while tinkering at the edges of the market. I want to recapture the pioneering spirit that in the mid-20th century brought about developments like Milton Keynes and the new towns…I want to see a new generation of garden cities and garden villages spring up in places where demand presently outstrips supply.

But we know that private developers alone will not make this happen.Just as social reformers in the 1950s and 60s saw government roll up its sleeves and get involved with building, government today has a responsibility to be bold…and to build more of the homes we need for the 21stcentury. It is utterly absurd that councils are allowed to borrow to speculate in commercial property…but are stopped from borrowing to build affordable council houses.”

The shadow of Grenfell of course looms over the politics of planning and social housing. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, had earlier in the month announced a “green paper on social housing“:
A wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector, the green paper will be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation.

It will kick off a nationwide conversation on social housing.

What works and what doesn’t work.

What has gone right and what has gone wrong,

Why things have gone wrong and – most importantly – how to fix them.”
Shelter also put out a press release, big on hyperbole, short on analysis, referring to the ‘legal loophole’ of ‘secret viability assessments’, focusing on the reduced levels of affordable housing achieved in Kensington and Chelsea compared to the borough’s 50% policy target and making the explicit link to Grenfell:
New research from Shelter reveals that a legal loophole has been used by housing developers to avoid building 706 social homes in Kensington and Chelsea – more than enough to house families made homeless from the Grenfell tower fire.”

How is the government’s position on the role of viability in planning (set out in paragraph 173 of the National Planning Policy Framework, a non-statutory, hardly obscure, planning policy document, now over five years’ old) a “legal loophole“?
Poor Raynsford review, is planning is too political for whatever emerges from it to gain traction? Its recommendations are due to be presented to next year’s party conferences. I hope that clear distinctions are drawn between changes to be made to the basic legislative hardware of the system (is it resilient, efficient, clear for users?) and to be made to the software (the NPPF, PPG structure – is it kept up to date to reflect the Government’s policy priorities and guiding users’ behaviour appropriately?), the purpose of the changes being to influence the content, scale, quality and pace of the data processing: individual plans and decisions actually coursing through the system, leading most importantly to delivery of political priorities, whatever they may be for the next Government. The review is somewhat hamstrung by not being able to set out those priorities as its starting point. 
So, what of the Government’s position? Regardless of what will be said at the forthcoming Conservative party conference, surely the current Government is not currently in a strong position to make further major changes. However, there is much unfinished legislative business, arising from:
– partly implemented enabling legislation (Housing and Planning Act 2016, Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017)

– uncompleted consultation processes (the Housing White Paper and associated documents, February 2017; Planning For The Right Homes In The Right Places, September 2017)

– other previously floated initiatives (for instance in the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto)

– other previous initiatives, partly overlapping with the above (a House of Commons library briefing paper dated 12 July 2017 lists 22 pre-June 2017 announcements that have not yet been implemented, or cancelled). 

 I have tried to take stock of where we are in terms of legislative as opposed to policy changes. This is a list of where I believe we are with the main planning law provisions of the 2016 and 2017 Acts (with relevant commencement dates indicated, although check the detail: in many cases a provision in primary legislation may have been switched on but still requires further secondary legislation for it to have any practical effect):

 Housing and Planning Act 2016 

 * Starter homes – providing a statutory framework for the delivery of starter homes – not in force, not really needed since the Housing White Paper u-turn

* Self-build and custom housebuilding – requiring local authorities to meet demand for custom‐built and self‐built homes by granting permissions for suitable sites – from 31 October 2016

* Neighbourhood planning changes – from 12 May 2016

* Permission In Principle/Brownfield Land Registers

    * Housing and Planning Act 2016 (Permission in Principle etc) (Miscellaneous Amendments)(England) Regulations 2017 – 6 March 2017

    * Town and Country Planning (Permission in Principle) Order 2017 – 15 April 2017

    * Town and Country Planning (Register of Previously Developed Land) Regulations 2017 – 16 April 2017

* Extension of Government’s ability to designate poorly performing LPAs such that non-major applications can be made direct to the Planning Inspectorate – from 12 July 2016

* Planning freedoms schemes – from 13 July 2016

* Resolution of disputes about planning obligations – not in force

* NSIPs including a housing element where functional link or close geographical link – from 6 April 2017

* Powers for piloting alternative provision of processing services – from 12 May 2016 (but no pilots yet)

* Urban Development Corporations/designation of new town areas – from 13 July 2016

* Compulsory purchase changes – mostly from 3 February 2017

Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 
 * Neighbourhood planning changes – (partly) from 19 July 2017, subject of a previous blog post)

* Power to direct preparation of joint local development documents – not yet in force

* Restrictions on pre-commencement planning conditions – from 19 July 2017 (although Regulations not yet made)

* Restriction on PD rights re drinking establishments

    * Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) (Amendment) (No 2) Order 2017 from 23 May 2017 (subject of a previous blog post)

* More compulsory purchase changes – partly in force, various commencement dates

 And these are the limited areas where we can expect further legislation:

* CIL reform (probably limited reform in this Parliament)

* Further PD rights? Maybe not. There has been silence in relation to upwards extensions in London and further rural PD rights, although limited light industrial to residential PD rights come into force for three years from 1 October 2017, following amendments to the General Permitted Development Order last year. 

* 20% increase in planning application fees (definitely)

* Completion notices reform (maybe, floated in Housing White Paper, subject of a previous blog post)

* Statutory three month deadlines for Secretary of State decisions (maybe, floated in Housing White Paper)

* Planning appeal fees (maybe, floated in Housing White Paper). 

* Regulations as to the “technical details” procedure for permissions in principle (definitely)

 I had to get my head round all of this in preparing to speak at Conference.*

*The RTPI’s Planning Issues For The Housing Agenda conference on 4 October.

Simon Ricketts, 30.9.17

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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