Latest figures from the National House Building Council (NHBC) has shown that the level of house building is stagnating, threatening to lock future generations out of owning a home.
In August 9,978 new homes were registered with NHBC – a drop from 11,310 the month before – and in August 2010, almost the same number of homes (9,954) were registered.
NHBC Chief Executive Imtiaz Farookhi said: “At a time of significant national debate about the planning process, our registration figures support what is increasingly being recognised by objective commentators. This is that the number of homes being built is simply too low to support the needs of the UK population.
“Insufficient supply inevitably leads to higher prices and this is creating a two tier Britain, split between those lucky enough to already own a desirable property and the younger generation who can see their own aspirations of home ownership dashed by unwillingness at local level to build the homes that would make that possible. It is impossible to see this as anything other than social divide.”
Five years ago in 2006, 185,000 new homes were built. In the first eight months of this year, that figure is more than 100,000 homes lower (72,827).
Tom Burke’s political commentary: These plans for planning need urgent rethinking
27 September 2011
The government’s national planning policy framework is bad news for business, the environment and for its own green economy ambitions
There is almost certainly a good case to be made for simplifying the planning system by reducing the large volume of planning guidance issued by central government. But the government has not even tried to make it. Instead it has made an argument so clearly implausible that even the Daily Telegraph has seen fit to take up arms against it.
The planning system, we are told, is a major obstacle to economic growth. Growth is now the primary imperative of government policy. Therefore, the planning system must be made to generate growth. We are also short of houses because the planning system discourages investment by housebuilders. Out must go 1,000 pages of planning regulations and in must come 58 pages of sloppily drafted good intentions.
No one should doubt the government’s appetite for growth. The economy grew by a mere 0.2% in the last quarter. The accuracy implied by a number this precise is wholly misleading when it comes to the economy. All we really know is that it did not grow a lot – and nor did it shrink very much.
Nevertheless, such is the government’s hunger for growth that it is now proposing to throw out more than 60 years of successful planning in its pursuit. This will not generate much growth of any kind, let alone green growth. But it will certainly destroy the government’s claim to be “the greenest government ever”.
The proposed National Policy Planning Framework will create a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This sounds green enough but is in fact just a cynical word play dreamed up by a malign alliance of Treasury mandarins and Murdoch-trained spin doctors. As the rest of the document makes clear, any development not specifically forbidden will now be approved.
What the government actually means by ‘sustainable development’ is the tired old Treasury mantra of ‘sustained growth’ – that is, growth that goes on for ever. It definitely does not mean growth that recognises environmental risks and constraints. Indeed, at one point it specifically instructs councils that retail and leisure needs must not be “compromised by limited site availability”.
This is not a policy based on any evidence worthy of the word. It is actually a demonstration of something Goebbels understood: if you repeat a lie often enough it will be mistaken for the truth. The planning system has not been a significant constraint on development in Britain, now or in the past, no matter how many tabloid-friendly anecdotes are thrown up in shabby surveys from business associations.
As the government’s own statistics make clear, more than 80% of planning applications are approved. Of those refusals that are appealed, some 90% are then approved. This means less than 15% of planning applications are refused. It is hardly inconceivable that one in ten planning applications may actually be bad enough to warrant refusal. As for house-building, if the planning system is such an obstacle why do the housebuilders have a quarter of a million permitted dwelling sites in the south-east alone that they have yet to build on?
The main constraints on development and thus growth are stagnating real incomes, the exhaustion of personal credit, the reluctance of banks to lend and the collapse of confidence in public policy on too many fronts to remember. If you underinvest for decades in competence and capacity in local and central government, you should not be completely surprised when it takes longer and longer to get anything at all done.
We know exactly what we need to do to generate growth and what is more, growth that would also be green. Investing in the infrastructure for a carbon-neutral resource-efficient economy will kick-start the growth that is currently missing and make our economy more resilient to the price shocks of an age of scarcity.
We need to spend many billions of pounds of public and private money on the grid enhancements, high-speed rail network, carbon capture and storage pipelines, distributed generation technologies, integrated recycling plants, energy efficiency improvements and electric vehicle charging networks that are the platforms for growth of the economy as a whole.
These investments would underpin national prosperity in the 21st century in exactly the way the motorway networks underpinned prosperity in the 20th century and the railways in the 19th century.
It is clear that the government has learned nothing about its own political heartlands from its recent searing experience with trying to sell the public forests. Whatever its actual intentions – which are likely to have been perfectly decent in the case of Greg Clarke – this policy proposal is now firmly cast, along with the Red Tape Challenge, as an ideologically driven sop to its business contributors.
Paradoxically, this sorry farrago is likely to be bad for growth and for business. This government has, until now, escaped any political backlash for taking forward the previous government’s policy on infrastructure planning. This is the planning that really matters for growth.
Now that the shires and the NGOs are fully aroused these waters are likely to become a lot more turbulent. The battering that the high-speed two (HS2) rail link is currently receiving is a harbinger of rows to come that will impede growth, some of which would be honestly green.
The current planning system, for all the frustration it causes to business leaders who are compelled to take the interests of others into account, was pretty predictable as the success rate of applications demonstrates. This predictability has now been removed.
Local communities and their allies in the pressure groups will now feel thoroughly entitled to use every possible opportunity to delay and defeat development projects they dislike. If you abandon a rules-based approach to life you should not be surprised when others feel that they no longer have to play by the rules.
Tom Burke is a founding director of E3G and a visiting professor at Imperial and University Colleges, London. He also advises Rio Tinto
The new planning rules: faster, simpler – but at what cost?
Many architects have broadly welcomed the governments’ proposed planning reforms, but some are concerned that the lack of detail could prove a minefield.
Planning has emerged as the unlikely battleground between the government and Middle England. A subject that for many years has been of little interest outside council chambers has suddenly been elevated to the level of national debate. Architects are just as well versed as planners and developers in the challenges the current system can pose. But with consultation on the proposed national planning policy framework ending in just over two weeks, what do the changes mean for the architecture and design profession?
Ministers have already achieved one of their goals for reform — brevity. More than 1,000 pages of planning policy will be scrapped, replaced by a national planning policy framework (NPPF) of 52 pages. Key principles in areas including design are intended to guide local plans and free applicants from bureaucracy.
The RIBA sees the framework as a step in the right direction. The institute’s policy manager Rebecca Roberts-Hughes says: “As a whole, the RIBA welcomes the draft NPPF. The section on design is strong and there are opportunities for architects in the focus on local and neighbourhood level planning. The recognition of the importance of design review is also good news.”
Lack of detail
But the response from architects has not been entirely positive. Cutting so much detail has inevitably allowed readers to interpret the document differently. Some have warned that a lack of detail could compromise the principles that have guided planning in recent years. The Urban Task Force recently warned that a decade of positive progress on the urban renaissance could be reversed.
Alex Ely, partner at Mae Architects, believes the planning framework lacks direction. “There is no evident model for what the government is trying to achieve,” he says. “Previously, planning policies were trying to deliver the urban renaissance agenda. The only obvious objective is economic growth.”
The opportunity for interpretation is at least partly intentional. As part of a drive towards localism, ministers want to reduce the amount of policy emerging from Whitehall. Instead, guidance is intended to allow councils to set their own policies tailored to the needs of their areas. But local authorities have struggled to complete local plans since their introduction seven years ago. Faced with cuts, some wonder whether the situation is likely to improve.
Ben Derbyshire, managing director of HTA, says: “To work well, there’s going to have to be a step change in the amount and quality of plan making that local authorities are involved in. They have to be high quality and finished. At the moment only 33% of local authorities have that.”
Presumption in favour
A “presumption in favour of sustainable development” is the cornerstone of the planning framework. The policy is intended to create a culture where the default answer to planning applications is yes. Where a local authority does not have a local plan, the presumption will apply. It is this that has enraged the countryside lobby. From a design point of view, architects are concerned that the definition of sustainable development is not specific enough.
Derbyshire believes that in the absence of a local plan, poor quality development could take place. “We strongly think the definition in favour of sustainable development needs to be greatly improved. It should be a pretty strict definition,” he says.
Ely adds: “It could mean anything, couldn’t it? You get the lawyers involved — they will argue the case for anything.”
Richard Simmons, former director of Cabe, says this prospect may be intended as an incentive to local authorities which have struggled to produce a local plan. But he has doubts about the success of such a strategy. “This feels a bit like holding a gun to the head of local authorities and saying ‘get on with it or face the consequences’,” he says.
Design Council Cabe has welcomed the framework’s reference to the importance of good design and a clause that allows development of poor design to be refused. Nevertheless, deputy chair Paul Finch believes the definition of sustainability should be bolstered. “It would be better if there was a statement saying that the process of design is where you reconcile your economic, social and environmental considerations,” he says. “We think it is design that achieves that.”
The RIBA and Design Council Cabe lobbied ministers for design review to play a part in planning, and were rewarded with its inclusion in the document. Philip Singleton, chair of the RIBA planning group and director at Facilitate Urban, says this should help ensure architecture is represented in planning despite local authority cuts.
“There have been significant cuts in a lot of local planning authorities,” he says, “and therefore the resources that they have, in terms of both planning applications and skills in design analysis, may have diminished.”
As ever, there is a potential stumbling block — who will pick up the bill? Design Council Cabe’s Bishop Review of design support is drawing to a close and its recommendations are expected shortly. Consultation on changes to the planning fees system has also taken place, raising the prospect of greater local control over what developers should pay. But none of this is certain. Developers may or may not pay more if they are guaranteed a better service, one that promotes the importance of design. Whether councils will have the freedom to charge what they like is yet to be confirmed.
Whatever the final details of the reforms, a major overhaul looks certain. As the national row rages on, the government has refused to countenance a full U-turn. But ministers’ recent remarks have been increasingly conciliatory, signaling the potential for changes.
As it stands, the framework offers potential for the architecture profession. Its success will depend on pinning down what is “sustainable”, and whether good design is something for which the government thinks developers should pay.
First step towards new planning bill for Wales announced
By Adam Branson Friday, 30 September 2011
A review of how the Welsh planning system should be delivered in the future was announced today by the Welsh planning minister.
Environment and sustainable development minister John Griffiths said that the review would be conducted by an independent advisory group under the chairmanship of John Davies, a former Welsh director at the Planning Inspectorate.
The review will inform a white paper, which the Welsh government expects to be published in 2013, and ultimately a new Planning Bill, which the minority Labour administration in Wales has pledged to bring forward before the next assembly elections in 2016.
Griffiths said: “I want to ensure that all those with an interest in planning have an opportunity to feed in their views and for those views to be considered before the Welsh Government brings forward a planning White Paper during 2013.”
The advisory group is expected to report in June next year.
Birmingham could be surrounded with trees in a bid to stop the city spreading into the green belt under a new scheme being hatched by senior councillors.
More than a million trees would be planted on fields as a defence against housing development on the edge of suburbs such as Sutton Coldfield and Longbridge and eventually circle the whole city.
The scheme has been dreamt up by Birmingham City Council’s planning chief Peter Douglas Osborn amid fears than new Government guidelines could see green fields replaced with concrete and bricks.
And he believes the trees could be donated to the city by the Woodland Trust which is launching a major wood creation campaign for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year.
Coun Douglas Osborn (Con Weoley) said: “If we could circle Birmingham, or even the West Midlands, with trees and woodland we would have a sustainable and visible line over which the city should not spread. The West Midlands is about 350 square miles and 300 of that is developed urban land. It is vital we do not lose the other 50.
“I have asked officers to produce a feasibility study. The Woodland Trust is willing to donate trees, the council is a major landowner, we could even ask school children and volunteers to help plant them.”
He stressed that there is no legal protection and an excavator would have no trouble clearing forest if allowed.
“But this would be a clear visible boundary and people would be motivated to protect it more than say a sub standard agricultural field,” he added.
And it has the backing of senior councillors, including Liberal Democrat cabinet member Martin Mullaney.
Council officers are working on a feasibility study to ensure the plan will work in practice. Other West Midlands councils have also been sounded out.
The Woodland Trust has launched a Jubilee Woods scheme to plant six million trees in 2012 to mark the Queen’s 60 years on the throne. A spokesman confirmed that it had held discussions with Birmingham City Council. He said: “A Jubilee Wood would not only be a lasting tribute to The Queen – it will also form a valuable community asset for the future.”
The Government’s controversial overhaul of planning regulations has placed the potential for economic growth as a priority and leading conservation groups fear that the green belt could be sacrificed for development
Historically of course Brum was encircled with forests such as the Forest of Arden, is not good agricultural land in the main.
The National Trust: a big scary opponent for the government
Sep 29th 2011, 17:11 by Bagehot
Just recently, however, it has become something of a political force.
The National Trust’s presence at all three party conferences is a first: as is the fact that their director-general, Dame Fiona Reynolds, gave a speech at the Lib Dem reception openly tackling the coalition government over its proposed changes to planning rules, changes that the Trust fears will put the countryside in danger of unwanted development.
But it is all part of a pattern. The planning row is the second confrontation this year between David Cameron’s government and the trust, a giant of the voluntary sector, with nearly 4m members and more than 60,000 volunteers (the first involved a row over a botched forestry privatisation).
Now, the planning row is a complex one. We at the Economist have written about the pros and cons of the government’s planning reforms before, and will doubtless do so again. For this week’s print edition, however, I have written a piece that focuses narrowly on the emergence of the National Trust as a voice of opposition to the government.
Talking to government sources, I am assured that the activism of the trust is not such a big deal. Why, I was told by one senior figure earlier this month, only 50,000 of their 4m members have signed their petition against our planning reforms, and there are 60m people in this country. A fair point (though the petition just passed the 100,000 mark). But I wonder if the trust’s very vocal criticisms are as harmless as ministers think, for one simple reason.
The whole premise of the coalition’s public sector reforms is that Britain has become too centralised and too statist a place, especially during the years of hyper-active, endlessly-meddling New Labour. The coalition says that its big idea is devolving power down to local communities, to volunteer groups and to a patchwork of private firms, charities, mutual outfits and social enterprises, whose knowledge and energy will drive change and improve outcomes more surely than any desk-bound Whitehall bureaucrat. To much mockery, Mr Cameron has called this idea his Big Society, which he contrasts with the Big State. He does not use the tag so much nowadays, but the ideas linger on. It certainly matters a great deal to the government that voters should believe its reform plans are part of an optimistic, creative reshaping of the state, rather than a right-wing plot to slash the state back.
That, I would argue, gives the National Trust quite a lot of clout, because it already embodies something rather the Big Society in action. Thus, for all that ministers may grumble about the “nihilistic selfishness” of the trust’s position on planning, and point to the crying need for new housing in Britain, I think they will struggle to sell their plans as long as groups such as the trust withhold their blessing.
Here is my piece, cross-posted from the print edition:
IN GENERAL, governments are loth to attack anything that routinely appears in children’s books (this newspaper once dubbed that the Richard Scarry rule, after a popular illustrator). From farming to firefighting, some things resonate so strongly with the public that only the boldest politicians will risk a scrap. It thus shows either remarkable courage or folly that David Cameron’s government is deep into its second public fight of 2011 with the National Trust, a huge charity whose holdings read like a bedtime-story index, including 40 castles, hundreds of woods, beaches, mansions, farms and a dozen lighthouses.
With some 50m visitors each year, the National Trust is as integral to many British childhoods as Marmite or picnics in the rain. It has heft in the adult world, too. With almost 4m members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own, sister organisation), the trust has more than seven times as many paid-up supporters as all Britain’s political parties put together. Trust bosses cite that statistic in their rows with the government, the latest of which is over a bid to loosen planning laws to establish a presumption in favour of “sustainable development”.
The trust has long spoken out against airport expansions or other schemes that menace its properties. But it was a slumbering giant in national politics: a genteel guardian of crumbling aristocratic piles, through which deferential heritage fans were herded behind velvet ropes. In the past decade, however, the trust has undergone a cultural revolution, adapting to a country from which deference had vanished as surely as liveried footmen or dressing for dinner.
Today, members are encouraged to feel almost like collective owners of its properties, lounging on lawns, playing ancient pianos or enjoying games of croquet. Stern guides have been replaced by volunteers offering fancy-dress outfits or cooking lessons to children. Slogans such as “time well spent” and advertising showing families roaming the countryside play expertly on the anxieties and aspirations of parents in a crowded, time-stressed island.
Still more recently, that evolution has been accompanied by a public political awakening (this year, for the first time, the trust is lobbying politicians at all three political-party conferences). Strikingly, it is Mr Cameron, who wants to cultivate a “Big Society” built around volunteering, charity work and local communities—ie, rather like the National Trust—who has borne the brunt of this new assertiveness.
In the fight over planning, the trust has played rough. It has placed petitions in its stately homes (over 100,000 people have signed), and sent concerned letters to all its members. Its website offers protest posters and the chance to e-mail MPs.
Ministers are determined to avoid the fate they suffered in February, when a bungled privatisation of state-owned woodlands was scrapped after the National Trust (among others) decried it. Dame Fiona Reynolds, the outfit’s director-general, says she did not seek either confrontation. But she points to the charity’s founding statute, which gives it a formal role promoting the preservation of lands and buildings of beauty or historic interest, and acknowledges it wields considerable clout in public debates.
The row over planning laws is not over. Ministers insist they are “resolute” in their determination to push through a new framework that at once hands powers to local communities to shape new building projects, but at the same time makes it harder for villages or towns in many rural areas to say they want no development at all. One minister accused campaigners, including the National Trust, of “nihilistic selfishness”, arguing that a chronic shortage of new homes only hurts future generations. Yet there are signs that the coalition is feeling the heat. The prime minister recently wrote to Dame Fiona calling Britain’s landscapes a “national treasure” and urging dialogue.
His conciliatory tone looks wise. It is not just the trust’s 60,000 volunteers, or its localist commitment to serving home-grown produce in its tea rooms, that makes it seem a more sensible model than an adversary. In the complex, frenetic place that is 21st-century Britain, the National Trust has created a parallel world of wholesome, family-friendly calm, rooted in an enviably self-confident approach to history. Mr Cameron would love to achieve half as much.
SIR – The awful results of the draft National Planning Policy Framework are already being seen. Because ministers have allowed it to be “given weight” in current decision-making, green-field housing is being allowed, contrary to established plans.
The only way to prevent further damage is to withdraw the draft formally, not to keep it in place and “consult” on its details.
The Conservative government in the Eighties handled a similar situation better. Its 1983 draft Land for Housing circular was similar to the current draft NPPF in its pro-development tone and origins in the building industry. Public and parliamentary reaction was effective and the circular was withdrawn after three months.
It was replaced in June 1984 with policies that instead strengthened the role of the green belt. This change of policy was the start of improvement to the planning system which continued until 1997.
Planning adviser, Campaign to Protect Rural England
West Midlands Regional Group
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
It wasnt quite the one way street, in 1988 the conservatives came back again with proposals to downgrade development plans, these were reversed in 1989.
Similarly there were growing problems towards the end of the Major regime and beyond with slow development plans. The last years of the Major era were stable ones for planning now looked back at with nostalgia, but its easy to be rose tinted.
When David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, described the housing market as ‘dysfunctional’ he was right. An expanding population, demographic changes and current lifestyle expectations have all contributed to the current crisis of supply and demand.
Add the lack of available credit and the situation for would-be home-buyers is bleak.
It is not so much demand that is riding high, but need. As for the supply; credit restrictions also affect developers with only the larger and more experienced attracting the confidence of funders in what is undeniably a complex and challenging building industry sector.
The net result of the current market is a significant upturn in the rental market. There is a demand, but renting is increasingly expensive. Affordable renting? That was dealt a blow by central Government which, instead of stimulating activity, is cutting back funding for affordable housing and even forcing redundancies within planning departments.
Every way you turn there is a restriction. The Eric Pickles/George Osborne response to the supply blockage is to look just at the front end; land supply. With a presumption to development, easing up some greenfield land and a change of use for what are factories, offices and warehousing, the volume house-builders, they think, will be back in business in a big way having lots of cheap land rather than that nasty, difficult-to-deal-with brownfield inner city stuff! Cheap land equals lots of cheap houses bought with restricted wealth. Voila. A masterstroke so far from reality that respondents are left incredulous.
The prime minister has stepped into temper the better heeled complainants, while the RIBA say that it doesn’t matter anyway as the homes that would be built are all far too small. Like the two old ladies in Carnagie’s Deli who observed that the food was terribleand the portions too small.
What happens when these permitted development change of use applications hit the detailed application phase is not clear from the emerging NPPF.
But chances are they will join the long list of current applications that inch through the planning system day by day and will shortly be administered by smaller planning departments. And that is where Pickles will find the blockage in the housing world; not in the supply end of land availability, not in the in the delivery end which awaits mortgagees; but in the middle, mired somewhere in the planning departments. The evidence is in ‘planning by appeal’. It is no longer the expensive and time consuming consequence of a failed application but a realistic alternative to a local level consent.
Government will not do what they ask entrepreneurs to do – speculate to gain. But with properly funded, decisive, even pro-active, planning departments we could see greater house building activity immediately.
Let the fewer and larger developers who are skilled to take on complex high density brownfield, rather than low density greenfield sites, do deals on housing supply with the Local Authority in exchange for a speedier planning process. On the stat sheet that is not speculation. It is investment, namely it shows a tangible return. No favours need to be done, no back scratching. Just fund the application process properly, get a speedy decision and in return accept an obligation to build houses – even to space standards appropriate for the market demands.
This will not solve the housing crisis – what it will do is show us how bad the housing crisis is by having a fast flowing, efficient conversion of land-bank to product. And it can start tomorrow.
This is the statement the NT have just issued
Statement from Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust, following her meeting
today with Planning Minister Greg Clark:
“We had a very constructive meeting, talking through the range of issues the National Trust has with
the draft National Planning Policy Framework.
“There is a vast amount of detail which we could not cover in this meeting, so the next step is to
schedule a series of meetings to examine the detail. We welcome this opportunity to get involved in
improving the document and do everything we can to ensure the resulting planning framework is
one which balances the needs of people, the environment, as well as the economy
What happens next is that the DCLG is now proposing a ‘forensic process’ to go through the NPPF, just as many have asked for.
Next week their will be a special meeting of the planning sounding board to discuss this. Many have been pressing the DCLG to come up with a firm plan of how to get from a to b this has been lacking so far,
I have penned a proposal for the possible structure of talks for the CPRE to consider and shared with the NT. So watch this space.
Clearly after the 17th things will switch from campaigning mode to talks mode, and things are likely to be very quiet, that is if the government respond seriously and positively to the talks proposals.