Memorandum by the House Builders Federation
The House Builders Federation is the trade association
which represents private house builders in England and Wales.
Our members account for over 70 per cent of the new homes built
each year. House builders are one of the main regular private
sector consumers of planning and other local government services.
It is essential that local government is able
to interact with its stakeholders in a way that enables the local
community to improve. The Government has placed welcome emphasis
on the need for local government to engage with the private sector,
both in terms of forging partnerships and also in terms of delivering
efficient, quality services.
Whilst some local authorities are trying very
hard to embrace the agenda of Best Value and better corporate
governance, too many councils still exhibit a culture of inefficiency
and obstructionism. Many local authorities simply do not have
enough quality in their decision making. This manifests itself
in, for example, an unwillingness to see communication with stakeholders
as a legitimate aspect of the work of a local authority. We have
recently initiated a programme of meetings across the country
to enable senior councillors, officers and senior management of
local house builders to discuss Best Value as it relates to planning.
Although many authorities have been very positive, and an encouraging
dialogue has often resulted, a disappointing number of planning
officers have made clear that they are simply not prepared to
discuss this important issue.
Local Leadership, Local Choice rightly says
in para 1.13 that there is a lack of clarity about where decisions
are taken and by whom. The role of the council's officers to provide
professional advice to the decision takers is clouded. People
do not know who to praise, who to blame, or who to contact with
their problems. There should be more empowerment of, and delegation
to, professional officers, meaning that committees or cabinets
take genuinely strategic decisions, overseeing the quality, consistency
and effectiveness of delegated decisions.
Too much local government is process driven
and does not spend enough time considering outcomes. Partly this
is a consequence of problems of resources; partly it results from
a culture of remoteness. The new local government structures should
facilitate and encourage strategic debate with stakeholders as
to the direction of policy and the outcomes which are best for
the community. Poor quality ad hoc decision making reduces the
publics confidence in local government.
House builders are one of the main stakeholders
in the local government planning system. One of the most pressing
manifestations of the organisational difficulties in local authorities
encountered by house builders is the failure of council departments
to communicate with each other and the lack of a clear line of
responsibility for decision making. For example, a developer may
negotiate with a planning department a Section 106 agreement,
which will mean a contribution to the benefit of the community
say a village hall, or part funding of improvements to a local
school. In a large number of authorities, these agreements take
far too long to draft and finalise. Once they leave the planning
team, they become bogged down in a bureaucratic, under resourced
and often unresponsive legal department, or alternatively highways,
or education. In such cases, nobody seems to own the process,
and nobody is really accountable for the outcome. Furthermore,
councillors need to have the right information in order to make
decisions at committee. Too often, applications reach the committee
stage without this happening because council planning officers
are not empowered to see applications through from start to finish.
They should be on hand at all stages of the process to help councillors,
the applicant, and the public and to enable an informed debate,
but all too often this professional role is undermined by lack
of resources or lack of support from elected members.
Any creation of cabinet style government on
elected mayors should aim to improve the process of engagement
with stakeholders. Those key elected members who fulfil these
roles must be genuinely accessible and accountable, and the process
by which decisions are made must be transparent. It is vital that
planning, a highly sensitive issue, is open to scrutiny, not just
in retrospect, but as decisions are taken. Too much power must
not be vested in a small group of individuals who are not sufficiently
open to question.
For this reason, in accordance with the Governments
intention stated in paragraphs 3.10 and 3.23 of the White Paper,
it is important that the Secretary of State should issue regulations
ensuring that planning decisions should fall under clause 3(1)(a)
and not be the subject of executive arrangements.