Thursday, 18 December 2014

Back yard blues

From: Inside edge

Will the planning regime for new homes prove to be quite as nimby as many Conservatives would like?

Yesterday’s communities and local government questions saw the usual group of Tory backbenchers seeking reassurance about development in their areas. I’m not sure they will have been totally happy with the standard replies they received. 

James Gray asked about the criteria that used to determine the number of homes that will be built in his North Wiltshire constituency.

Grant Shapps told him: ‘Local authorities and communities should plan for sustainable development in their area, taking a visionary and strategic approach to be responsive to the market using robust evidence of the number of homes required.’

Gray pressed him about evidence that developers were exploiting the policy vacuum to press ahead with large-scale planning applications and complained that ‘the whole of Swindon seems to be moving westward’.

Shapps told him he was ‘absolutely right’ and that ‘taking account of the housing needs survey so that homelessness and affordable housing are addressed, the numbers should be set through a process of local decision making’.

He cited an 18% increase in starts of new homes recorded by the National House Building Council as evidence that the bottom-up approach was starting to work.

Nothing apparently new there but the emphasis on ‘robust evidence’ and the housing needs survey is interesting.

Duncan Hames, a Wiltshire Liberal Democrat MP, followed up with a question inviting the minister to ‘confirm that decisions on house building should be based on meeting local need rather than catering for population movements from elsewhere in the country’.

That’s always seemed to me to be the crucial issue. Any policy that caters solely for ‘local homes for local people’ without taking account of immigration, internal migration and economic change seems destined to perpetuate the under-provision of new homes.

At first glance there’s nothing very surprising about the reply from Shapps. ‘The idea that Ministers can sit in Whitehall and somehow dictate these tractor-like targets on five and 10-year plans has finally ended, I am pleased to say. My hon. Friend will be relieved to know that deciding where housing should go will now be an entirely local decision, prompted by the new homes bonus and other mechanisms.’

However, making it ‘an entirely local decision’ is not quite the same as ‘decisions….based on local need rather than catering for population movements from elsewhere in the country’.

The new planning system is still a work in progress but it’s clear that local plans will have to demonstrate an evidence base and be credible or risk being called in. 

The national planning policy framework will include a presumption in favour of sustainable development but consultation on the detail only closed yesterday. 

And in an era of cuts and austerity the new homes bonus could have more of an impact on local authority decisions than seemed likely when it was first proposed. 

Of course, with housing starts languishing at around 25,000 per quarter, none of that will make much difference in the short term. 

In the longer term though perhaps the nimbys will not have quite everything their own way if developers ever regain the confidence to start expanding again.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Webb

    I take it Shapps prefers the bottom-up approach because he thinks that way we may hear what he is saying better.

    It is always going to be a time to get worried when Government Ministers give such indefinate responses to their own side. Normally this would be an opportunity to trumpet success, not bury the truth.

    When is the reshuffle due by the way?

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