Posted by: Jules Birch17/03/2011
Another day, another rap over the knuckles for Messrs Pickles and Shapps - except that this time it comes from a Commons committee with a Conservative majority and it’s more like a club over the head.
MPs on the communities and local government select committee say their abolition of regional spatial strategies has left a vacuum at the heart of the English planning system and risks creating a ‘damaging intertia’ that will hinder development.
And they call on the government to include effective strategic planning arrangements in the Localism Bill and ‘ensure a biting obligation on local authorities to have regard to the evidence and to meet identified needs’.
They want action to ensure that robust and consistent evidence goes into local development plans. ‘It is not acceptable for ministers to abdicate their responsiblities in this regard by leaving all the responsiblity with under-resources and under-skilled local planning authorities.’
That’s pretty strong language in any context but particularly so within the polite conventions of select committee reports. ‘The DCLG has not explained how infrastructure, economic development, housing and environment protection be retained at a strategic level nor has it explained how the current planning system will move to the new system, after the Localism Bill comes into effect, without any transitional arrangements in place,’ they conclude
On housing, Shapps told them in an oral evidence session: ‘Building more homes is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged. The idea is to get a system which delivers housing in this country.’
And he explained the government’s localist approach would make local authorities more responsive to local needs and provide more houses in future.
But the MPs warn that: ‘The tension between local choice and national need cannot merely be wished away. There is a balance to be struck between housing targets set at a national or regional level, which are seen as being imposed against the wishes of local people, and leaving it to local communtiies to decide, which can lead to house building proposals being effectively blocked.’
Eric Pickles criticised research by Tetlow King for the National Housing Federation that indicated plans for 182,000 homes had been dropped as based on ‘iffy’ evidence. But when the committee invited the consultant to rebut his claims in January, it said the number had grown to more than 200,000.
The MPs welcome the government’s recognition of the need for more homes, and its plan to build 150,000 affordable homes, but ‘question whether either of these aspirations will be achievable under the government’s current proposals for the planning system’.
And that figure of 200,000 homes lost from the planning system leads them to ‘conclude that the government may well be faced with a stark choice in deciding whether to compromise on its intention to build more homes than the previous government, or on its desire to promote localism in decisions of this kind’.
Ouch. And there’s more. ‘No evidence was produced to support the Government’s view that local authorities will achieve comparable rates of house building to those in the past, let alone an increase. If the evidence of success fails to materialise very quickly, the Government is going to have to review its selection of levers of influence.’
The MPs also uncovered widespread scepticism about whether the new homes will work and no evidence that it will increase housing supply by the 8-13% claimed by ministers.
‘Much of the evidence suggests that the New Homes Bonus may well be ineffective in increasing house building at all, let alone the building of the right homes in the right places,’ they say.
They warn that the bonus ‘is particularly likely to fail in the affordable housing sector’.
And they say it needs to be linked explicitly to the delivery of homes provided for in local plans following robust assessments of housing need.
It’s an extraordinary call for a u-turn on key aspects of housing policy from a committee with five Conservative, one Lib Dem and four Labour MPs.
But are Eric and Grant listening?
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context