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Planning for a fight

Announcing the White Paper is the easy bit. Developers should not count their chickens on this reform just yet, as there may be a significant backlash from Conservative councillors.

Reforming the planning and housing system in England is never easy. The proposals in this week’s White Paper could quite possibly go the same way as plans formulated by Labour officials and politicians in the 1970s to sell council homes to tenants – squashed by the complaints of elected party members who didn’t want to lose one of the major items under their control.

For all the claims about giving people a greater say, Conservative councillors in suburban and rural areas – used to selling themselves at election time as people to “save you from unwanted development”, will see that ability largely stripped off them. They won’t be able simply to designate the entire district as ‘protected’ as the Planning Inspectorate will have to make sure the plan is sustainable.

The danger for the government is that Conservative opposition will make common cause with opposition parties and lobby groups, making it too difficult for them to implement such a fundamental change. The White Paper needs to become law, and this means parliamentary approval. Passing through Parliament may not be straightforward: it was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto which gives the Lords the opportunity to pick it apart, and even an 80 seat majority only needs 40 rebels to force compromise.

It’s entirely possible to imagine that 40 Conservative MPs will take fear in what their councillors are saying and demand a greater voice for local government. Many MPs will privately tell you that councillors are a nuisance. But they are a nuisance who deliver leaflets, attend fund-raisers and help them get re-elected – and they are not easily crossed.

Labour reaction to the proposals have, so far, concentrated on the potential changes to the means by which affordable housing may be delivered, especially the intention to consider discounts to first-time-buyers as a legitimate affordable product. Camden leader Georgia Gould has said that “government is showing contempt for our communities and attacking council’s ability to build council homes. They’re trying to sneak through changes that allow developers to completely ignore communities. We must call this out & demand these plans are stopped” whilst the Deputy Mayor for Housing in London, Tom Copley, has referred to the White Paper as a “confused mass of appalling proposals”.

Pressure groups have reacted in a similar way. The Head of Policy at the Town and Country Planning Association have said that “This kind of disruptive reform doesn’t suit anybody, neither landowners nor developers.” RIBA have called the proposals “damaging”, charity Shelter says that social housing “could face extinction” and the Campaign to Protect Rural England has said that the proposals will be responsible for “speeding up nature’s decline”.

One of the architects of the plans, Nicholas Boys Smith, believes the main reason why we don’t built enough homes in England is because our system is not rules-based, it operates on a “uniquely discretionary case by case basis”.  This, he argues, has created more planning risk, pushed up the price for permissioned land, and acted as a barrier to entry for small developers and other innovators.  He highlights the importance of the SME sector in delivering sufficient new homes, and dismisses concerns that this will reduce democratic buy-in from locals – insisting local people’s views will get a boost.

The plans are certainly ambitious.  Jenrick says he wants the SME sector to build “a substantial chunk” of the 300,000 homes that must be built each year, and points to 30 years ago when SMEs delivered 40% of the homes.

One senior Tory councillor, Matthew Green from Westminster City Council, gives conditional support to the plans, stating that if new rules support high quality housing for residents and key workers and more affordable homes, then he welcomes them.

There’s no guarantee that a lack of a planning committee will lead to approval for controversial schemes. Council officers will still need to approve the reserved matters. Will an ambitious officer, aware that his/her councillors are opposed to a major project, always be able to give an objective decision, or will they feel that the surest route to promotion is to follow the wishes of the councillors who may be the ones deciding on their promotion?

This could lead to a situation where decisions are still made, in effect, by politicians, but in private rather than at committee. Having to refund application fees won’t bother councillors.

If the white paper is implemented, councils will have to engage with communities to write new local plans which will be “visual and map-based”, designating the areas for growth, renewal or protection. Once the plan is in place, involvement of elected officials with individual development will be over. Schemes will be assessed purely on technical compliance, though there will still be the opportunity for neighbours to object.

Local communities will have an ability, through the council, to write a design code for their area. A national model is promised for the Autumn, but it’s clear that it will be far less detailed than current local plans are. It is however possibly bad news for anyone thinking about an architecturally bold approach in a traditionalist-minded area.

Johnson may also have given himself an inadvertent short term problem with housing delivery. If you happen to be a developer who has a difficult site you think would probably be designated as ‘growth’, what would you do? Draw up plans under the existing council plan, go through all the processes to hopefully get a small scale permission the council is happy with? Or hold on to it for four years until the new system kicks in, so you can develop it at maximum density without the council being able to stop you?

As ever with major changes, the questions are easy, the answers less so

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