In a bold statement given by the Communities Secretary at the Conservative Party Conference yesterday morning, Sajid Javid pledged to take unprecedented steps to boost housing delivery. He called for councillors and MPs to be prepared to make difficult calls even if they are unpopular. A former public sector colleague of mine used to say if a contentious planning application ultimately leaves the applicant and the objectors dissatisfied in equal measure, then the decision is probably about right. It is this balance which is often tricky to achieve.
Mr Javid explained to the conference that the provision of housing was his number one priority. He said that the Government would soon be launching a £3 billion Home Builders Fund to build more than 225,000 new homes. The allied strategy includes increasing urban regeneration by building on brownfield land, especially in abandoned shopping centres and also increasing unit density around railway stations.
Some of the boldness contained in the statement is Mr Javid's comment that "everyone agrees we need to build more homes but too many of us object to them being built next to us. We've got to change that attitude." Those involved in the provision of housing know this only too well but I am not persuaded that those who have championed localism necessarily hold his view that more houses are needed and next to where they live.
Whilst the concentration on prioritising the use of brownfield land is nothing new, telling his fellow MPs that they need to make tough decisions on housing in their patch sits a little uneasily next to Eric Pickles' 2013 request to trust him in that he won't let the bulldozers wreck Middle England. In his article in The Telegraph on 26 March 2013 heralding the Government's planning reforms one year after the NPPF came into force, the former Communities Secretary said that "the reforms safeguard our glorious green spaces and countryside. They protect the Green Belt - that vital green lung that prevents urban sprawl and they defend Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and other important environmental designations. Nothing will change that today. Nothing will change that tomorrow."
The NPPF states that when considering planning applications, LPAs should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt and inappropriate development should not be approved except in very special circumstances. Despite this policy protection, a BBC study in June 2015 concluded that the number of new homes on Green Belt land had increased five-fold in the preceding five years.
In that same rallying cry, Mr Pickles said that "putting local planning centre stage, the intention is to let residents, not remote Whitehall officials, decide where the new homes and the new businesses go, and which cherished sites need to be protected."
There is a fundamental tension in the Government's planning policy between localism and the presumption in favour of sustainable development in the NPPF. Coupled with the expectation from the former Chancellor that the Government expected all bodies involved in planning to prioritise growth and jobs, it has been incredibly difficult to reconcile, at a local level, the drive for growth and localism. Localism is called the 'NIMBY Charter' in some quarters with some feeling that it gives too much power to residents, councillors and local action groups to delay, frustrate or prevent much needed housing development.
The Localism Act 2011 finally put regional housing targets to rest but some local planning authorities ("LPAs") have faced considerable difficulty persuading their councillors and local residents that their objectively assessed housing need (which translates into provision targets in the Local Plan) are what is actually required. There have been numerous examples of where Examinations in Public have stopped before they have properly started because of the Inspector's concerns over the housing need numbers being too low. Often the arguments have centred on the esoteric niceties of projecting net migration numbers and the number of newly created households. Throw into the mix differing views on inward migration from inside Europe and beyond and it is not difficult to see how conflicting political views can affect a statistical exercise.
So what about neighbourhood planning? Can this be the saviour of localism in a planning context? Neighbourhood planning was introduced by the Localism Act 2011 and the Plain English Guide to the Act states:
'Instead of local people being told what to do, the Government thinks that local communities should have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live. The Act introduces a new right for communities to draw up a neighbourhood plan.
Neighbourhood planning will allow communities, both residents, employees and business, to come together through a local parish council or neighbourhood forum and say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go – and what they should look like.'
Local communities can choose to set planning policies that are used to determine planning applications, Neighbourhood Development Plans ("NDPs"), or grant permission through Neighbourhood Development Orders ("NDOs").
An NDP is a plan which sets out policies in relation to the development and use of land in a particular neighbourhood. It should support the strategic development needs set out in the Local Planning Authority's Local Plan and should plan positively to support local development. A neighbourhood plan has the same development plan status as the Local Plan, once the neighbourhood plan has made it through the referendum and been adopted by the LPA.
An NDO is a development order that deems planning permission to have been granted for specific development or specified classes of development within all or part of a neighbourhood area. Like neighbourhood plans, NDOs must be in accordance with the Local Plan and also like NDPs they will be made by the LPA on the initiative of a parish council, where the neighbourhood area has a parish council or a neighbourhood forum (where the neighbourhood area does not have a parish council).
As conformity with an approved Local Plan is required, many observers do not think that neighbourhood planning has delivered the power to local people as was promised. As a carrot, in the Localism Act 2011, the Government incentivised neighbourhood planning by legislating that parish councils who have a NDP are entitled to receive 25% of Community Infrastructure Levy receipts, as opposed to 15% to those parish councils without.
The former Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Planning, Nick Bowles, said during his tenure that the neighbourhood planning process was too complex to function. This may be the reason why only 199 neighbourhood plans have been approved (source - Planning Resource 21 September 2016).
The Housing and Planning Act 2016, which received Royal Assent on 12 May 2016, seeks to simplify and speed up the neighbourhood planning process. It enables the Secretary of State to prescribe time periods within which LPAs must undertake key neighbourhood planning functions. It also enables the Secretary of State to intervene in an LPA's decision on whether to hold a referendum on a NDP or NDO and provides for the LPA to notify a neighbourhood forum in its area of planning applications within the area. The 2016 Act also requires that where a NDP is in force and the LPA recommends the grant of planning permission or permission in principle, a report must set out how the plan was taken into account and identify any areas of conflict between the plan and the recommendation. This provision came into force on 1 October 2016.
Another key provision of the 2016 Act is the power for the Secretary of State or an LPA the power to grant permission in housing-led development on land that is allocated for development in a qualifying document.
It will be interesting to see what 'unprecedented steps to boost housing delivery' are contained in the White Paper, which is due to be published later this year. Yesterday morning Mr Javid said "if we choose popularity over progress today, we are betraying the voters of tomorrow." It will also be interesting to see how popular these new steps prove to be and whether there is a further move away from localism in planning.