Britain is incapable of building enough homes and it’s the planning system that’s to blame. So says triumphant George Osborne in his grand Productivity Plan, a document unveiled today as a blueprint for a more prosperous nation.
Titled “Fixing the Foundations” (implying that the government’s “Laying the Foundations” strategy from 2011 produced rather shaky footings), the plan proposes a number of measures based on “streamlining” the “excessively strict” planning system, to stimulate house-building. It has been received with rapturous applause by the development industry, but are the regulations really what’s stopping homes being built? Is it not down to the fact that developers are sitting on land, because it is more profitable to leave it vacant than build on it? Or that they are exploiting the system to avoid building the kind of affordable housing so urgently needed? Or that the borrowing cap is critically preventing councils from building their own homes?
By eroding the power of local authorities and centralising planning power even further, is Osborne aiming his firing sights in the right direction – or is he revealing his flawed understanding of housing supply?
One of the most radical proposals in the plan is to introduce a “zonal” system, which would see planning permission granted automatically for housing schemes on brownfield land (ie land that has previously been built on, such as former industrial sites).
Zoning is already used in the rest of the world, from the US to France and Germany, where areas are designated for a particular use. The decisions about how land will be developed are agreed before an application is even submitted. The outline rules are set out in advance, so the developer makes a proposal in accordance to what is specified in the zoning plan.
Britain is almost unique in having a discretionary planning system, where the decision to develop a site is taken only when an application is made – and the discussions happen during the individual planning process, on a case-by-case basis. Introducing housing zones might sound like a sensible way to avoid the delays of negotiation, but is this really the case?
“Zoning is certainly not a panacea for speed,” says Janet Askew, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, whose research has focused on regulatory systems in planning. “It is an incredibly complex process, with zonal plans undergoing convoluted discussions before they are agreed. The fact that land is zoned for housing doesn’t mean it goes through the planning system more quickly at all.”
To Askew, introducing a zonal system makes little sense, because once land has been designated for housing in a local plan (which goes through a statutory consultation process), it will almost certainly get permission. [Actually there have been several prominent cases in recent months where LPAs have refused schemes in outline in brand new plans] “It simply threatens to remove power from the local authorities to negotiate over the crucial details of a scheme, in terms of mitigating what impacts it could have on the area,” she adds. “It completely flies in the face of localism.”
Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, agrees, arguing that granting automatic planning permission for housing schemes would “undermine any possibility for making good quality places where people want to live.”
“Our real concern is if you can’t have a conversation about things like internal space standards, accessibility and green space, we’re really risking creating slums of the future,” she says. “We appreciate the government wants to speed things up, but it shouldn’t just be about quantity but quality. If planning is deregulated any further, we’ll end up with places that we’re going to regret building.”
Housing charity Shelter has cautiously welcomed the introduction of housing zones, a policy it recommended in its own report to the government. But it also emphasises that the crucial question is what sort of homes will be built, not just how many.
“Councils could use zones to force developers to compete with one another on quality or affordability, rather than on land price,” writes Shelter policy officer Pete Jefferys. “A council would zone a piece of brownfield land for development then welcome bids for how it could be developed, ensuring that affordable housing and infrastructure are also included.”
But how far councils will have a say in negotiating such matters remains to be seen, in a context where planning powers will become increasingly centralised and focused solely on lubricating applications through the system.
A second part of Osborne’s plan addresses an extension of “permitted development” rights, allowing people to grow their homes upwards. The last few years have seen planning regulations further slackened by stretching the scale and scope of what you are allowed to build without planning permission – known as permitted development.
In the name of boosting house-building, the Productivity Plan proposes to allow rooftop extensions in London to be built “up to the height of an adjoining building” with no planning permission. (But before all you neighbours of the Shard start rubbing your hands with glee, the plan states it will only extend to a “limited number of storeys”).
Osborne’s plans ‘risk ushering in a new generation of poorly planned and hastily built housing’. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Osborne’s plans ‘risk ushering in a new generation of poorly planned and hastily built housing’. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images
For Henderson, this is one of the most alarming proposals. “When we saw permitted development rights extended for things like conservatories, it massively upset communities, leading to a huge number of neighbour disputes and a feeling that local people are no longer having a say in how their communities are being developed,” she says. “And it will do very little to address the housing crisis. London needs to accommodate an extra one million people in the next 15 years – and they’re not all going to live in loft extensions.”
As Askew puts it, “there have been a lot of little nibbles to extend permitted development over the last few years, but they add up to a big shift.” From allowing office to residential conversions, a policy that has seen swaths of workspace lost, to the “vacant building credit”, which allows empty buildings to be converted to housing without any of the usual contributions to affordable homes or amenity space, the bonfire of red tape is having damaging consequences.
Underlying Osborne’s frenzied drive for growth and productivity, there is also an explicit admonishment of public sector planners in not doing their job well or fast enough. The plan will introduce new penalties for local authorities that make 50% or less of their planning decisions on time, while introducing powers for the government to impose local plans on areas that haven’t produced their own. Yet there is not a whisper about supporting the sector that has been relentlessly drained of resources, bullied beyond all capacity to function.
“What we really need is to rebuild the planning service,” says Henderson. “It is demoralised, deregulated and poorly resourced, which makes it challenging to make decisions quickly and efficiently. Rather than imposing harsher penalties, it should be about investing in skills.”
By prioritising his abstract dream of productivity over the reality of making decent places to live, Osborne risks ushering in a new generation of poorly planned and hastily built housing that will bring none of the community benefits the planning system is there to provide. Instead of relentlessly chipping away at local authorities (as a distraction from addressing the real obstacles to housing supply) he should be strengthening planners’ ability to plan – not to mention lifting the borrowing cap, reviving affordable housing grants and stopping developers squatting on empty land for years.