Will Boris' battle over planning rules spell the downfall of the town hall?
The Government’s plan to overhaul planning rules, announced with only the scantest of details in the Queen’s Speech, could put the Prime Minister on a collision course with Tory backbenchers from the Home Counties. In political terms, taking on the NIMBYish tendencies of wealthy suburban voters who’ve long formed the backbone of Conservative support is bold. But in planning terms, the plan to give central government more say on development – and thus reduce that of local authorities – may not be bold enough.
To get more spades in the ground and cool runaway house price inflation – which is now officially running at 10.2% a year – Britain needs to slash the red tape that frequently ties developers up in knots. Consider the numbers for a moment.
In 2019-20 the total housing stock in England increased by around 244,000, an improvement on previous years but still well short of the government’s target of 300,000 a year. Meanwhile, the National Housing Federation says the magic number needed to ease our housing crisis is more like 345,000 new units per annum. By any measure, we clearly have a very long way still to go.
Thankfully, there is now growing acceptance at cabinet level that the vetoing powers of local authorities need to be reined in if we are ever to make good on the government’s housebuilding targets.
One proposal being considered, which I warmly welcome, is to axe the current Section 106 Agreements which often require developers to contribute disproportionately to local infrastructure as a precondition to securing full planning approval. Developers know from bitter experience that while these financial contributions are supposed to be “fair and reasonable both in scale and kind”, this is rarely the case. The complex bargaining arrangements which have evolved over time have acted more as an obstacle to the building of affordable homes than the community boon they were originally intended to be.
Inevitably, construction projects have stalled as developers and local authorities haggle endlessly without a sod of earth even being turned over. And there is a nagging suspicion that some local authorities have been weaponising these preconditions, making them so onerous that developers often have little choice but to walk away.
The process has been sluggish for years and I know of projects where planning permission has been provisionally green lighted within weeks, only for the Section 106 talks to drag on, rudderless, for many months thereafter.
New rules a false dawn
In 2014, the government attempted to end these pointless stalemates, introducing an exemption for self-builds and smaller developments. But the new rules ended up proving a false dawn, after some councils resolved to fight them tooth and nail. Eight months after the exemptions were announced, the High Court ruled them ‘unlawful’, and though the Court of Appeal reversed that decision the following year, the matter was far from over.
A further U-turn followed, with the courts eventually ruling that where a new Local Plan was adopted after 28 November 2014, this should take priority over the Section 106 exemption. So in the end what we were left dealing with were exemptions to the exemption. With different councils playing by different rules, the government now wants to replace the Section 106 stealth tax with a simpler Infrastructure Levy, something which should bring greater transparency and certainty to the planning system.
Not near me, please
Even though a central plank of the government’s manifesto is to build more houses, the trouble is that while almost everyone is in favour of housebuilding, many caveat that noble sentiment with “but just not near me”. In the current climate the construction of new towns like those built after the Second World War seems almost unthinkable. But as someone born and raised in one of them, I feel the lessons learnt from the last wave of new towns, coupled with the post-lockdown demands of buyers, make them a compelling solution to the housing crisis.
Those on the front line of the current unwieldy planning system also need more support and clearer guidance. Planning officers are frequently too few in number and drowning under the weight of both applications and bureaucracy. But with MPs and councillors in the shires dead set on preserving the status quo, the stage is now set for a bitter revolt by backbenchers when a bill finally goes before the Commons this autumn. Given the urgent need for housing, it would be sad to see the government’s plans derailed and sadder still to see councils go on slamming the door on newcomers.
England needs more houses, so let’s not allow local politics to get in the way of that.