Levelling Up or Opting Out?

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We grow ever more concerned at the direction of travel taken by central Government in relation to housebuilding and planning more widely. Recent announcements by Michael Gove and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) have already seen a negative impact this week on local decision-making from Planning Committees but unfortunately professional Planning Officers also.

The housing and affordability crisis is well documented, but the recent proposed changes fly in the face of the generally acknowledged importance of the housing market to the UK economy and the Government’s long-term commitment to homeownership for all. The current direction emphasises an utter lack of commitment to their own stated aim of delivering 300,000 houses per year and exposes an absence of a long-term strategy at the heart of Government.

Gove’s Written Ministerial Statement includes immediate threats to the supply of new homes, with the underlying message clear to Planning Committees across the country that the duty to maintain a 5-year housing land supply and to produce a Local Plan that reflects real housing needs, are reduced. The statement apportions lesser importance to housing targets, despite targets already being non-mandatory. The fundamentally misunderstood Green Belt has yet again been further strengthened, with no requirement for local authorities to review boundaries even where housing needs are significant and regardless of the function or quality of the land within it.

Although subject to consultation, the proposed changes through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill lack definition in key areas, such as rewarding Councils that have historically over-delivered, how a plan will be measured as up to date, and the timings/operation of some transitional arrangements plan making, such as the 2-year period to revise local plans that are already under review. In order to reduce risks of speculative development, the Government proposes to reduce 5-year housing supply requirements to 4 years where plans are ‘advanced’ (without definition of advanced), which immediately affects a raft of current planning applications and appeals currently in the system.

There are proposals to guard neighbourhood plans against developer appeals by increasing their ‘protections’ from two to five years, ignoring the fact that it is existing Government policy and the wider requirement for Districts to plan effectively beyond parish boundaries that undermines the strength of neighbourhood plans at present, rather than errant developers. The intention that local communities have a greater say in what is built in their neighbourhood is laudable and one that nobody takes issue with, but the system must be accountable. Recent announcements have included that the Planning Inspectorate should no longer override sensible local decision-making with the inevitable question as to what constitutes sensible decision-making and its inherent subjectivity.

Yet again we hear the intended focus on brownfield development, despite the viability challenges that much of brownfield land in towns and cities faces, most pertinently in the delivery of any affordable housing and the protection of much land for other uses. The well-trodden path of seeking penalties proposed for developers land banking, which many local authorities are actually already actioning, notably through shorter implementation conditions i.e. to commence within 1 year. The ‘character’ test for developers falls into the more absurd of the suggestions, that poorly performing developers can be stopped from getting planning permission.

This is by no means exhaustive, and will no doubt be added to over the coming weeks, but the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the ‘tilted balance’ within the National Planning Policy Framework is the main tool to hold Councils to account. Its removal is of considerable threat to the supply and delivery of new market and affordable homes in the UK and reflects the opinion of those who shout loudest rather than those who are actually most in need but typically less engaged in the planning system.