Saturday, 28 November 2015

Another fine mess

From: Inside edge

Should we now write off any prospect of a solution to the new homes crisis for the rest of this parliament?

Despite a ‘warm welcome’ from planning minister Greg Clark, today’s report on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) by an all-party committee of MPs calls for a rethink of several fundamental principles. 

In particular, the Communities and Local Government committee wants the government to remove the default ‘yes’ to development from the document  and to launch a second consultation on a rewritten version.

The default ‘yes’ would only have applied in cases where there was no local plan and it was therefore the key to tackling anti-development or feet-dragging local authorities. The second consultation is something that ministers have repeatedly denied was a possibility.

The committee does also say that  ‘it is it is reasonable and practical for the NPPF to have as an overarching principle a presumption in favour of sustainable development’ but only if it is clear that sustainability is to be judged on environmental and social grounds as well as economic ones.

Put that alongside calls for the reinstatement of ‘brownfield first’ and ‘town centres first’ policies, and little wonder that the National Trust and Daily Telegraph are hailing the report as a vindication of their campaign against the NPPF while Labour’s Hilary Benn seems unable to resist climbing on the bandwagon. 

Little wonder too that developers and housebuilders are calling on ministers to ‘stand firm’. They can probably live with ‘brownfield first’ but argue that the default ‘yes’ is essential when more than half of local authorities still have no local plan seven years after being legally obliged to produce one. And they will worry that a second consultation will open the door to a more fundamental rewrite and further delay.

Clark’s rose-tinted response to such a critical report makes no sense until you consider the possibility that this is him preparing the ground for u-turn or three. For example, he will ‘carefully consider’ the committee’s new definition of ‘sustainable development’. 

The prospect of watering down the NPPF and delaying its implementation will do little to tackle the continuing shortage of new homes. The Home Builders Federation published figures today showing another 10 per cent fall in approvals, meaning that the planning permissions coming through the system are half what is required to meet demand.

So all in all we are left with a mess. The planning system will only ever deliver enough homes through a combination of carrots and sticks. The main carrot (the new homes bonus) seems too small to be effective and the main stick (the default ‘yes’) is now being call into question. 

But could the committee be rescuing us from an even bigger mess?  The MPs consider that going ahead with the document as drafted would be fraught with problems. 

They argue: ‘The Government has set great store by the brevity and simplicity of the NPPF, but in its current form the draft NPPF does not necessarily achieve clarity by virtue of its brevity. There are many examples of inconsistent drafting which need addressing. The significant gaps in planning policy and guidance could lead to a huge expansion in the size of local plans as local authorities attempt to plug the gap. 

‘There is a danger that, far from speeding up the planning process, in the short term the NPPF will slow it down by introducing ambiguity where previously there was detailed guidance—”planning by appeal” could be the outcome.’ 

They also argue the NPPF should keep the current definition of affordable housing (a cost low enough for households to afford in the context of local incomes and local house prices) rather than define it as housing where eligibility is determined with regard to local incomes and house prices. 

These are crucial points and would be welcome improvements to the final document. Getting the NPPF right does not amount to the vindication claimed by the Telegraph.

However, the problem is that the government’s approach to planning in general and its speedy scrapping of the old Labour system in particular only ever made sense it it could get a new system in place quickly. That now looks less likely - and so does the prospect of more new homes any time soon. 


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