Read the comments section of any national newspaper and it will not take you long to find an article bemoaning the shortage of housing and stressing the need to build more houses as quickly as possible.  Ten years ago, the Barker Review of Housing Supply said that about 250,000 homes needed to be built every year to prevent spiralling house prices and a shortage of affordable homes.  Instead, the UK has built between 135,500 homes (in 2012-13) and 219,000 (in 2006-7) and is currently building about 141,000 homes a year. It is almost trite now to say that everyone agrees we have a major housing crisis and it must be relieved as soon as possible.

Except, in reality, not everyone agrees.  Read a bit further in those same newspapers and you will soon find articles stressing the importance of protecting the greenbelt as well as specific objections to any particular proposals no matter where they seem to be.  Developers complain about how planning rules make housing expensive (both in upping the price of available land and in adding to the actual costs of construction)) while environmental campaigners allege that developers can pretty much develop wherever they want so long as they are willing to appeal or offer enough sweeteners to planning departments under pressure to meet government targets for new homes.  Local residents always cite the increase in traffic when objecting to plans although it is hard to imagine any form of development which will not have this effect and objectors rarely specify what sort of development would be acceptable.

Put bluntly, when it comes to building new homes, whatever decision is made on any particular planning proposal, someone will be unhappy.  The current government seems to have recognised this and has decided that anybody who works hard and aspires to own their own home should have the opportunity to do so.  The government’s aim is to get 1 million homes built by 2020. Bearing in mind that in 2007 the Labour government set a target for 240,000 homes to be built a year by 2016 (a figure that was dropped by the coalition government and which the UK is nowhere near achieving), what hope is there that the new one will be met?

Crucial to the aspiration to vastly increase house building is reform of the frameworks that inform the grant or refusal of planning permission.  In 2012, the government issued its revised National Planning policy framework that reduced more than 1000 pages of planning guidance to around 50.  But in many areas, planning policy is still stuck at first base with no or inadequate development plans and insufficient land allocated to housing.  The Housing and Planning Bill therefore contains provisions which are supposed to make it easier to build these 1 million homes.

Neighbourhood Plans

It may not be a coincidence that the continued drop in house building even after the worst of the 2008 crash had passed coincided with the introduction of another level of planning bureaucracy. Neighbourhood planning was designed to give communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood by choosing where they want new homes, shops and offices to be built, commenting on what those new buildings should look like and what infrastructure should be provided, and granting planning permission for the new buildings they want to see go ahead. The Government estimates that the neighbourhood planning process takes about two years to complete. Clauses 92-95 of the Bill introduce measures which aim to speed up the process.  If enacted, the overall effect will be that

  • the Local Planning Authority (“LPA”) must, generally, designate the neighbourhood area if the area meets prescribed criteria or has not been determined within the prescribed period.
  • once the neighbourhood development plan or order has been approved by an independent examiner, a referendum must be held to gain the approval of a majority of voters of the neighbourhood.
  • if the proposals are approved in the referendum, the LPA will be under a legal duty to bring them into force by a prescribed date.
  • the Secretary of State will be able to intervene in the process, at the request of the parish council or neighbourhood forum if the LPA fails to decide whether to hold a referendum, does not follow the recommendations of the independent examiner on the proposal or makes a modification to the plan or order that was not recommended by the examiner.

As at October 2015, there were 100 neighbourhood plans approved by the local residents in a referendum.  In November 2015, as a way of emphasising how problematic this additional layer could be, on the same day as the residents of Earls Barton in Northamptonshire voted overwhelmingly in their local referendum in favour of a neighbourhood plan, the Communities Secretary approved 39 homes on a site not allocated for development in that plan.  The reasoning was that while the neighbourhood plan should be given significant weight in view of its advanced stage and evident high degree of local support, the proposed development was sufficiently small not to be premature in terms of jeopardising future development within the plan.  There seems to be little indication that the result would have been different had the plan been implemented, thereby raising the question of whether these plans will just become another hurdle for developers to get over when their interests and the views of the local community do not coincide rather than a genuine attempt to bring developers and local residents to one mind on suitable sites for development.

 The Local Plan

It might be surprising to note that despite the length of time they have been around, there is no statutory requirement on LPAs to actually produce one. In September 2015 the Government reported that only 64% of LPAs had adopted a local plan and 18% had not even published one.  The Government’s intention is now that where no local plan has been produced by early 2017, it will arrange for the plan to be written itself.

If passed the clauses in the Bill will:

  • permit the Secretary of State to direct that the examination process for the plan be suspended, that the examiner should consider any matters set out by the Secretary of State, hear from any one specified by the Secretary of State or require the examiner to take other specified steps.
  • give the Secretary of State the power to direct a LPA to withdraw an unadopted plan.
  • allow the Secretary of State to issue a “holding direction” to require a LPA not to take any steps toward formally adopting the local plan.
  • give the Secretary of State additional powers to require the LPA to prepare or revise a local plan, submit it for examination and consider adoption of it.

If high level planning is causing delay, then perhaps these changes will improve matters.  On the other hand, the government’s own figures show that in the year to September 2014, the number of planning permissions for new homes reached 240,000, in part as a result of the 2012 simplification of the planning system achieved by introducing a slimmed-down National Planning Policy Framework. Despite this, the House Builders Federation says that there are over 150,000 plots for new homes with outline planning permission that are stuck in the system waiting for detailed permission.

Land Allocation Registers

The Bill will enable the Secretary of State, by regulations, to require LPAs to each compile a register of land in their area. The intention is to require registers to be kept of brownfield land which is suitable for housing development.  The Bill will allow for the register to be split into two parts.  One part will include all the land which, by regulation, must be on it, while the second will include land which, while brownfield, is not suitable for housing.  According to the Explanatory Notes, this second category could include land that is affected by physical or environmental constraints that cannot be mitigated or which would not be capable of supporting at least five dwellings.

Land which is in the first part of the register would be deemed to have automatic planning permission in principle so it is easy to imagine some quite heated debates as to which land should or should not be included in this category.  It is perhaps not surprising that LPAs will be given discretion to exclude from the register land where, for example, the development of land might be particularly controversial and the LPA considers that the normal planning application route would be more appropriate.

It remains to be seen whether most LPAs use this discretion to avoid making unpopular decisions or whether it helps at all towards the stated aim of allowing 20,000 custom and self-built homes a year to be built by 2020.