In what the Guardian has labelled a “fresh assault on Britain’s planning laws,” the Government has announced plans that would automatically grant planning permission for developments on all ‘suitable’ brownfield sites, as part of the Chancellor’s ‘Fixing the Foundations’ package. The Treasury states that the aim of this radical move is to ensure that 90% of the country’s viable brownfield sites have approved development on them by 2020.
Other aspects of this announcement include: measures to fast track major infrastructure projects which include housing elements through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure regime; a removal of the need for planning permission to build upwards to the level of adjoining buildings in London (subject to no objections); strengthened compulsory purchase powers to bring forward more brownfield land and devolution of planning powers to the Mayors of London and Manchester; the threat of Whitehall intervening in councils which fail to meet the local housing need; and the imposition of penalties on local planning authorities which determine less than half of planning decisions on time.
For years now, politicians of all colours have acknowledged that the UK desperately needs more houses, but there has been insufficient action to accompany the rhetoric. The topic featured prominently during the 2015 General Election campaign, with both major parties promising policies in their manifestos to tackle shortages.
Policies in the Conservative manifesto aimed at tackling the problem included: a pledge to build 200,000 new Starter Homes over the course of the 2015–2020 Parliament; delivering 275,000 additional Affordable Homes by 2020; a pledge to prioritise brownfield development, ensuring that brownfield land is used as much as possible for new development; and ongoing protection of the Green Belt. Today’s announcement certainly meets the last two of these pledges, but it seems unlikely that the UK’s burgeoning housing needs can be met simply by building on brownfield land. Business Secretary Sajid Javid has defended the policy, stating that there is “no need” to build on the Green Belt in order to meet the Government’s targets. Decisions on Green Belt allocations are, however, likely to continue having a significant element of local determination.
George Osborne is often criticised (or praised, depending on your political allegiance) for being an exceptionally political Chancellor. His announcement of a new ‘National Living Wage’ in the recent Budget deliberately encroaches on an area which traditionally has been Labour’s political property. This latest announcement could be considered to be just as politically motivated.
The plan to grant automatic approval on brownfield land achieves two vital political objectives: potentially increasing the Conservatives’ voter base in key areas, whilst simultaneously having a fairly low risk of alienating existing Conservative voters. People who become home owners as a result of the new planning regulations (or lack of them) will be more likely to vote Conservative, and the Government’s continuing commitment to protecting the Green Belt may reduce the prospect of extensive levels of new development in the rural Tory heartlands. NIMBYism is an incredibly powerful consideration in politics – especially in rural areas – and Osborne’s plans adeptly avoid many of the issues that would accompany a roll out of development predominately on Greenfield land.
What Happened to Localism?
Where these planning proposals will be met with fury is among councillors in local authorities around the country. Over the last five years, phrases and terms such as ‘Localism,’ ‘locally-led,’ and ‘decentralisation’ were central to the Coalition Government’s messaging – even if councillors felt that documents such as the NPPF (also known as the ‘developer’s charter) did not live up to the lofty rhetoric of respecting local interests. The proposals announced today indicate clearly that the new Conservative Government has no intention of continuing to allow councils to determine development with a principal focus just on their own Local and Neighbourhood Plans.
The proposed guidelines will be met eagerly by developers across the UK, who are regularly frustrated by what they feel to be an unnecessarily obstructive and slow planning process. One question that will need to be worked out is what automatic approval could mean for Affordable Housing figures. Regularly, housing applications are turned down because of developers failing to incorporate what the planning authority thinks to be an acceptable level of Affordable Housing. If councils are to be overruled by Whitehall to approve all applications on brownfield land – which often will lie in heavily developed areas, where the need to Affordable Housing can be more acute – then it seems likely that the Government will need to set a statutory Affordable Housing percentage for all such developments.
Also included in the policies being announced are measures to ensure that major infrastructure projects that include housing elements will be fast tracked and the threat of Whitehall intervening if councils fail to meet local housing need. Penalties will also be imposed if local planning authorities fail to make less than half their planning decisions according to schedule.
Will the New Regulations Solve Britain’s Housing Crisis?
According to figures from Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity, in 2014 there were 1,368,312 households on council housing waiting lists across England. This means that just in England there is a need for significantly more than a million Affordable Houses, not by 2020, but in 2015. Quite simply, even if the measures announced today succeed in meeting or slightly exceeding the targets set out by the Conservatives in their manifesto – which taken together result in slightly fewer than 600,000 new homes by 2020 – they will not solve the UK’s housing crisis.
The planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners has said that 90% of the UK’s land mass is undeveloped, adding that “tougher choices” would need to be taken if more than two million homes are to be built by 2030. James Fennell, Managing Director of NLP, stated that some development needs to take place on the Green Belt, alongside brownfield development, in order to tackle the country’s housing need.
Any action taken by the Government to make it easier to build more houses should be welcomed. However, as the measures announced today will not come close to meeting Britain’s housing need, many commentators consider that the Government needs to start taking bolder decisions to really tackle the problem.