Thursday, 16 October 2014

The housing crisis is a national one so why aren't new settlements of national significance?

Ah, Garden Cities. Like Matthew Le Tissier in an England shirt, everybody agrees that they should work, but nobody seems able to get them to. The Lyons Review has added to the growing body of support for the concept.

The evidence is clear that Garden Cities will not happen without local support and therefore we propose that the process will be locally-led with designation proposed by local authorities; proposals from other parties including LEPs or private developers could be valid where the support of local communities and alignment with local plans is clearly evidenced.

Regular readers will know that I regard locally-led Garden Cities as the planning equivalent of turkey-led Christmas dinners so I shan't dwell on the need for local support, but the suggestion that non-locally-led proposals should be clearly aligned with local plans demands closer inspection. Advice to the review has suggested that progressing through the Local Plan process is likely to take at least three years.

Three years? It is ten years since the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act introduced the need for Core Strategies and still only 57% of LPAs have an adopted plan. It is almost inconceivable that a Garden City or indeed any new settlement of scale could fully align with a local plan process. Putting aside our NIMBY friends, the influence of local elections three years out of four, and squabbles between LPAs about cross-boundary housing requirements, new settlements are a leap of faith. Only a bold promoter would invest in a scheme to the point of indisputable deliverable without the confidence that an allocation will be forthcoming. By the same token, only a bold LPA would submit for examination a local plan that included a new settlement with indisuptable evidence of delivery. Boldness is a rare quality and leaps of faith are unlikely to stand up to the test of soundness.

That is the current square that needs circling, but since Mr Lyons goes no further than the extent of Government intervention proposed in the Garden City prospectus (identifying broad areas of search, setting criteria, and inviting proposals on specific sites), there is no sign that it will be circled any time soon.

What could the answer be? Well, the since the housing crisis is a national one why aren't new settlements of national significance in planning terms? This is a
call made in 2012 by an advisory panel chaired by Tony Pidgely to classify large housing developments as major infrastructure projects.

Under the Planning Act 2008, Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) are approved by the Secretary of State via a single Development Consent Order, circumventing the need to apply to the LPA for planning permission. The Government extended the NSIP regime last year to cover certain business and commercial projects.

If the test for non-locally-led proposals is to be clearly aligned with local plans then, like Matthew Le Tissier in an England shirt, we may as well consign Garden Cities to the 'what might have been' file. Those planets will just not align. Adopting a local plan is akin to sailing a ship that is constantly buffeted by winds that change direction and threatened by rocks that are not marked on any maps. New homes, at scale, is surely a matter of national significance and new settlements are surely worthy of having their planning merits examined in a forum that offers some solace from the storm.

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