Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Housing Federation (PGP 55)

PLANNING GREEN PAPER

  The National Housing Federation represents over 1,400 independent, not for profit social housing providers in England. The Federation's members include housing associations, co-ops, trusts and stock transfer organisations, and they own and/or manage more than 1.7 million homes provided for affordable rent, supported housing and low cost home ownership, and deliver an increasingly diverse range of community and regeneration services. The large majority of the Federation's members are registered with the Housing Corporation.

1.  THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE SYSTEM OF LOCAL PLANS AND THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS TO REPLACE THEM

  Simpler statements of core policies supplemented by action plans should be easier to get to grips with than lengthy local plans and Unitary Development Plans. The planning system needs to be a simpler, clearer conduit for land use decisions, and the proposals are sympathetic to that objective.

  The core policy statement should be supplemented by a district-wide map illustrating where the main development activity will take place. One of the problems with part-area local plans prior to the 1991 legislation was that necessary, but unpopular development, was sometimes not allocated (or not sufficiently allocated) within the properly planned area and assumed to go in the area not mapped. It is important that the new system does not allow that kind of buck-passing.

  We see risks in moving towards a system in which Local Development Frameworks implement the land use aspects of Community Strategies that local authorities have a duty to produce and implement. Community social, economic, and environmental well-being all have land use aspects, and whilst there is an inherent attraction in community-based planning, there will be no constituency to insist on the provision of unpopular developments. These may include some of the supported housing that housing associations provide for vulnerable people, and—in some instances—general needs affordable housing. It is not clear how the Government proposes to address this issue.

2.  THE ROLE OF REGIONAL PLANNING BODIES

  We welcome the establishment of Regional Spatial Strategies and their proposed statutory basis. These should provide a framework for other regional strategies. To enable them to work effectively, the Government should recognise their contribution by funding them properly, rather than simply issuing advice that regions should undertake the work within their existing budgets.

  We welcome the opportunity that Regional Spatial Strategies will create to achieve closer integration of the land use aspects of society's interests in health, education, transport, waste, etc. Efforts are already being made in the preparation of Regional Planning Guidance to take into account these wider interests, but Regional Spatial Strategies will inspire both greater effort in this regard and also more enthusiasm amongst the other interests to examine the land use issues generated by their own strategies at the regional level.

  It is important that the proposed abolition of county structure plans does not result in policy that would otherwise have been specified at the county level being presented at the regional level instead. Coupled with the proposal to slim down national planning policy, we consider that care will be needed to limit the material that funds its way into regional policy. The criterion for deciding whether or not to have a regional policy on an issue should be: "does this issue have distinctive qualities in this region". If not, the issue should be dealt with at another tier.

3.  THE PROCEDURES FOR SCRUTINIZING MAJOR DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS

  The Federation supports the view that some development projects are of a national significance that cannot be the subject of unacceptably long inquiries. These have proven to be prohibitively expensive and it is not clear that they improve the quality of the decision that is finally made. We have concerns that the parliamentary process will be subject to a "three line whip", thus making proper parliamentary scrutiny less robust. It will be of paramount importance that MPs whose constituencies are affected by proposed schemes are adequately supported, both administratively and professionally.

4.  BUSINESS PLANNING ZONES

  This approach repeats past mistakes in assuming that it is the planning system that is holding up allegedly vital development. There is no evidence for this: the Department's own report on cluster development, for example, prepared by the consultancy Ecotec, found that planning was not an issue inhibiting cluster development. Where certain high profile developments are refused, this is for good reason.

  We also feel that the Government has misunderstood the essentially desirable nature of planning as a means of both ensuring high quality development in sensible places and as a means of protecting the legitimate interests of existing land uses and people. We reject the idea in paragraph 2.10 that "Business planning zones will allow planning controls to be lifted where they are not necessary." They are necessary everywhere but require sensitive application.

5.  PROPOSED CHANGES TO PLANNING OBLIGATIONS, CPOS AND COMPENSATION AND USE CLASSES

  The Federation has no major comments on proposed changes to CPOs but would welcome reforms that assist regeneration projects with planning consent that are in danger of delay, caused by intransigent or absentee landowners.

  On Planning Obligations, the Federation makes the following points:

  Subject to safeguards, we welcome the proposals in principle. The main adjustment we would like to see is less opportunity for local variation in how tariff is raised, waived and used. The draft proposals would generate a significant rulebook in each authority, which would be very difficult to get to grips with for our members who often have to deal with many local authorities. Certainty and simplicity would not necessarily be the outcome. Far more likely would be developers playing one authority off against another in an effort to drive down tariff rates.

  We consider it important that if housing associations act as the developer they should be exempt from payment of the tariff. This should also apply to redevelopment of existing stock held by registered social landlords. As the intended beneficiary of "a large proportion" of the anticipated tariff, to levy tariff on new affordable homes would be robbing "Peter to pay Paul" and give a false impression of additional funding.

  The principal effect of the change on local planning services will be to oblige planning staff to understand fully and clearly the financial aspects of the development proposals they are dealing with. Until now this has not been necessary. Planning schools and training courses must gear up for this, and the Government must put in place the measures necessary to ensure that the system will work properly from its first day of operation.

  It is essential that the provision for affordable housing be realistically budgeted for within the negotiated tariff. The budgeted amount should reflect the cost of buying into the housing development that is deriving the tariff being negotiated. A key issue is that the obligation for providing affordable housing is being transferred to another partner—the housing association—from the developer by the tariff approach.

  It is important that any requirement for onsite provision that will facilitate mixed balanced sustainable communities, is not lost once the tariff is paid by the developer to the local planning authority. It is, therefore important that the tariff system is not purely cash based, and that "in kind" contributions such as onsite affordable housing units at discounted prices are considered as appropriate forms of tariff.

  Regarding brownfield sites, the Federation is particularly concerned that local planning authorities will be able to reduce or waive the requirement for a tariff (and consequently affordable housing funded by the tariff) if the site is considered too difficult, with a tariff levied, to develop. Whilst the local planning authority's planning brief for the site may include a requirement for affordable housing, which may in turn reduce the land consideration paid to the vendor, it is not clear that the local planning authority and the affordable housing provider will be in a particularly strong bargaining position to ensure that an appropriate level of affordable housing is provided on site. Using Greater London as an example, most available sites for development now and in the future can be considered as brownfield sites by both developers and local planning authorities. Much social housing in the future will be provided from such sites and it is imperative that the supply of affordable housing is safeguard by the planning system accordingly.

  We welcome the extension of tariffs (to raise money for affordable housing) to both commercial developments and to all but the smallest housing developments, both of which Federation has been requesting for some time. There is a particularly strong connection between commercial development and the need for affordable housing, as it is employment growth in an area that is often at the heart of rising demand for housing there.

  We support the use of a mechanism that, by virtue of being clear from the outset, will enable some or all of the costs to be passed on to the landowner, rather than have to be absorbed by the developer or eventual customer.

  The implications of the proposals for affordable housing will need considerable further attention. The National Housing Federation wishes to work with the DTLR to tackle these points. There are some very real risks in the proposals that we urge the Government to address:

    —  The arrangements must be organised to ensure that the level of tariff generated substantially exceeds the value of the affordable housing which housing associations are currently able to negotiate within existing planning policy. There is currently insufficient evidence in the Government's proposals that this can be relied upon. There is a significant level of local choice about tariffs that is offered (which could easily work against affordable housing provision). The worst outcome of the proposals would probably be to establish the arrangements and then only insist on a very small minimum level of tariff.

    —  The proposals are silent about the relationship between tariff funding and other Government funding for affordable housing. There is a risk that the Housing Corporation will have an eye to the availability of tariff in deciding its own allocations, rather than treating its own funds and tariff as additional. In the longer term we are worried that Housing Corporation funding will be cut as the significance of tariff increases.

    —  Private house builders might be able to claw back some of the tariff they have paid unless the economic rules which underpin negotiations between private developers and housing associations for on-site provision of affordable housing are set firmly. Most crucially, there should be controls over the price that developers can charge housing associations for land and build cost for affordable housing within mixed tenure developments.

    —  We have identified at least five stated objectives for the tariff system in the consultation paper, of which the provision of affordable housing is only one. We support the strong emphasis given to affordable housing, but we would welcome the withdrawal of some of the other commitments if we are to be sure that the Government's intentions for affordable housing are to be delivered. In particular we are very doubtful of the merit of the idea that an objective should be that "the local community is not disadvantaged by accepting development in their area" (para 2.3). It is clear that this is intended to buy off self-interested residents. This is potentially a very slippery slope. As well as being contrary to all planning principles, it will have the reverse effect from that intended: it will simply encourage people to hold on for a still bigger payoff and carry on arguing.

    —  Each local authority should be required to set up a special unit of staff devoted to implementing the tariff regime. This should be physically and culturally separate from the planing team. It is essential to the credibility of the planning service that planning decisions are not seen as a tax raising activity, as that would call into question the true reason for each planning decision.

  The issues highlighted above are explored more fully in the Federation's Planning Green Paper submission to the DTLR.

6.  WHETHER THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS WILL SIMULTANEOUSLY INCREASE CERTAINTY, PUBLIC PARTICIPATION AND FASTER DECISIONS ESPECIALLY FOR BUSINESS.

  Greater speed in planning decisions is of course a worthwhile objective, provided this does not undermine other objectives, such as public involvement and high quality decisions. We are anxious that one way to speed up planning decisions will be to reject in principle arguments for on-site provision of affordable housing, since this will inevitably result in negotiating taking longer than they otherwise would. It is therefore essential that measures of speed in planning administration are drafted in a way which does not penalise the time taken on the often difficult schemes with which housing associations are involved.

  Speed of decision is not a universal problem. It is the larger and more controversial schemes which tend to take much longer than we would like, but it is difficult to see how setting tougher targets for planning authorities will achieve real benefits: authorities will have little choice but to respond by pruning the non-statutory but frequently higher quality features of their services to achieve the arbitrary deadlines. We would prefer to see a system of quality measured by customer satisfaction, which allows speed to be considered alongside alternative benefits. The monitoring used by the Planning Inspectorate might be a suitable model.

  We note that the Green Paper proposes that planning permissions should lapse after three years instead of five. This serves to illustrate, at least in some cases, that planning is not on the critical path of a development. There must be some doubt that a few days saved on a planning application is worth the effort when major developments particularly can take so long to bring to fruition.

7.  PLANNING'S CONTRIBUTION TO THE URBAN RENAISSANCE

  The planning profession and system is a key stakeholder in the urban renaissance needed for England's towns and cities. A single criticism that has been levied at the planning in the past has been its perceived conservatism in the face of increased demands for more flexible approaches to land use and urban design. Another criticism has been planning's perceived inability to deal quickly and effectively with planning applications for major developments, including those which include affordable housing requirements.

  The National Housing Federation believe that the planning profession and system have a difficult task attempting to balance the needs of developers wishing to undertake schemes quickly, whilst ensuring that the scheme in question meets national and local criteria and priorities. Developers often complain that local planning authorities' requirements for affordable housing are unduly onerous, despite the case that the requirement to provide affordable housing on new developments over 25 units (15 in Inner London) rests with the developer not the local planning authority.

  The Federation believes that the urban renaissance agenda can only be a success if the planning profession begin to see itself as custodians of the vision set out in the Government's Urban White Paper. This will require an acknowledgement by the planning profession and other stakeholders of the value of:

    —  Good quality urban design from developers with appropriate planning powers to enforce such quality from the drawing board to the site.

    —  Effective integration of the Local Development Frameworks into the area's Community Strategies.

    —  Recognition of the intrinsic benefit that affordable housing offers to the desired objective of mixed, balanced sustainable communities.

    —  A robust appreciation of planning's contribution to the sustainability agenda.


 
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