Thursday, 16 October 2014

On Lyons, Localism & Leadership

Putting aside the terrible title ("Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need" sounds like a key words were thrown into a hat and picked out at random) and the glaring difference between an identified need for 243,000 homes a year and an identified target of 'at least' 200,000 homes a year, there is much to commend the Lyons Review. Despite though a promise of 'national leadership', the key issue for many practioners, the return of regional planning, has been sidestepped. 
On the plus side, of the ten key recommendations for planning reform summarised here by Planning Magazine there is merit in nine (I imagine that the policy of 'local homes for local people' was thrown in by a SpAd because I cannot think that any of the Commissioners felt that was a sound idea that is workable in practice).

A "national spatial dimension to the NPPF to identify opportunities for substantial housing growth created by national infrastructure investment" is a welcome, if tentative, step towards a national plan and Housing Growth Areas point councils towards the kind of enabling role that is more commonly adopted on the continent (see here notes of Nick Lee's (NJL Consulting) visit to Hammerby) .
The 'Use It Or Lose It' provisions have been widely trailed and certainly we at Barratt Development's have no issue with this in principle. As my colleague Philip Barnes said here, our business model requires that we get on site and start building as soon as possible. For the reasons I set out here though, in response to the charge that some planning permissions can 'sit in limbo', the shortening of a life of a consent would be a concern.
What is striking to me, however, especially given the trap that the current Government fell into, is that localism is still seen as being able to address one of the identified causes of the nation's inability to house itself, which is that not enough land is being brought forward. Apparently, the "artificial scarcity of land" is compounded by the fact that communities "do not have all the powers they need to ensure that homes are built in the places they want, and some are not taking responsibility for meeting local housing need."

Hmm. The planning system might restrict the use of land, but local plans should plan to meet objectively assessed housing need so land for development should not be scarce. Similarly, the local plan system provides all the power a community could possibly want to ensure that homes are built in the places it wants.
"Decisions about how and where new homes should be built should be taken locally by local authorities and their communities with the tools, flexibilities and devolution of funding needed, but on the basis of clear commitments that housing need will be met."
Well that sounds nice. Who could possibly object to that? Let us not forgot though what happened when housing targets in the RSS' were scraped and when regional planning was replaced by a 'duty-to-cooperate' (DtC)? This happened. As the report recognises, only 190 of 336 (57%) LPAs have adopted plans in place and though the reasons for this will be different in each case, I would wager that when are boiled down many of those reasons will actually be the same: an absence of political will. 
The deadline for the submission of a plan (2016), the requirement for a 'Strategic Housing Market Plan', the 'Right to Grow', and the simplified two-stage local plan making process all skirt around the fundamental problem, which is that the higher-than-local planning does not sit comfortably alongside the clamour to devole power to the lowest possible level. The Lyons remedy is, therefore, something of a fudge.
"Where there is a failure to cooperate across boundaries to meet needs in a housing market area, councils will be required to produce a joint strategic plan, with the Secretary of State having the ability to intervene and instruct the Planning Inspectorate to ensure that it happens. This will address the weaknesses in the current Duty to Cooperate and ensure that
NLP published a review of the NPPF's impact  earlier this year (here) and found evidence that cooperation with surrounding LPAs is becoming "an integral concern for many Inspectors’ reviews of Plans". Brandon Lewis told the Commons Select Committee examing the operation of the NPPF that ten local plans had failed the DtC so far. Why then wait for LPAs to fall out or to fail the DtC test? Why allow a plan, or more often than not more than one plan since it takes at least two to tango, to get all the way to examination before intervening. Why not a requirement to produce a joint strategic plan at the start of the process rather than the end? As the GMCA has already recognised, the higher-than-local nettle needs grasping. Others will no doubt follow, but we need more local plans and more planning permissions now. 

Interestingly, a recent YouGov poll has suggested that the public would actually support regional planning. Only 14% of 1,715 people surveyed thought that local councils should take decisions on the siting of new towns and major new housing projects. Will this be enough for the election strategists to reconsider their commitments to localism? That is perhaps a little optimistic, but it will hopefully provide food for thought. The Lyons Review states that  "the Government must provide long term political leadership by making housing a national priority", which sounds good, but including 'housing is a national priority' on an election pledge card is not leadership. Leadership would be to state that it is for the Government to approve the number of new homes within a particular authority, and for the authority and the communities within in to determine where they are built. That would not only be popular with planners, but it might just be popular with the public too.


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