Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)



  360. Who shall decide how many homes there are in each region?
  (Mr Whitaker) Clearly government has got to take some form of national overview. Unfortunately, the idea that "predict and provide" is dead has led to a situation where nobody wants to make that difficult decision of saying, "We believe we need X number of houses". We have got to the point where the regional planning guidance sets the figure and that figure cascades down. I believe that if we turn that system on its head and have a bottom-up planning system, in some areas the numbers would go down quite considerably. Certainly, if we widen that out, because planning is about a lot more than housing and I cannot see many local people volunteering for abattoirs or incinerators, for example, the top-down process has got to be very strong. I think it has to be very strong in terms of ensuring that the right number of houses is built in the right places, and that regional split has got to be a national decision.


  361. Are you comparing houses to abattoirs and incinerators?
  (Mr Whitaker) Unfortunately, I would not want to do that because I believe that all this development is necessary, that we should all be finding the most appropriate sites for that development. Unfortunately, house building seems to be thrown into precisely that pot of things that people do not really want.

Christine Russell

  362. In your evidence you highlight the fact that you are concerned about the abolition of the structure plans. It follows on from what you have just been saying that you are concerned about who exactly in the future is going to identify sites for development. What do you feel is the appropriate body to identify housing development sites? Leave abattoirs and incinerators on one side.
  (Mr Whitaker) If you have a cascading system, which is what we have at the moment, we have the idea that there is a national figure towards which we should be aiming. That is rather blurry at the moment but the regional figure is very strong and the regions divide that down to the counties and then the counties divide that down to individual local authority areas. Our concern is that if you remove county structure plans, the regions will have to tell the individual district authorities the number of houses that they should be providing, in order that when you count them all up at the end of the planned period, they meet the total that you set out to provide in the first place. We are concerned that that gap between the regional level to the local level is a very large one, if you remove the sub-regional strategy. We put forward in our submission that a sub-regional strategy will be necessary, if only to distribute houses amongst districts to ensure that the distribution goes to those areas that have the best capacity for meeting those housing requirements or that have the most appropriate sites.

  363. In your opinion, who should determine that regional strategy?
  (Mr Whitaker) I think there needs to be a lot of agreement and a lot of coalition working between the regional level and the local level because quite clearly the region has a much larger overview and does not know the detail that the individual districts know. That knowledge has got to feed in to the regional level. Clearly, you cannot say, "It is going to be the regional assembly that makes that decision" or "it is going to be the local authority that makes that decision". They have got to come together in some way.

Sir Paul Beresford

  364. What about the relationship at the next tier up, between the regional level and government?
  (Mr Whitaker) That is clearly going to be an important relationship. The regions will have to say, "Yes, we are a region that wants to see growth" or, "we are a region that needs change".

  365. Or does not want to see it, at least not at the level identified?
  (Mr Whitaker) There is a difference between needing growth and needing change and wanting it. I think there are a number of difficult decisions that are perhaps being ducked at the moment that do need to be taken. I think there is a guiding role for government and government offices in the regions.

  366. Do you not think the government can influence demand then?
  (Mr Whitaker) No, I do not believe that government can influence demand.

Christine Russell

  367. Is what you are saying—and I am not trying to put words into your mouth—that you can see there is a need for sub-regional planning and would you therefore agree that that is probably just recreating, under a different name, structure plans?
  (Mr Whitaker) I think in the development plan system generally there is a lot of detail that goes into the various levels of plans that is totally unnecessary. We are supportive of the local development framework proposals, the LDF proposals. We believe the regional spatial strategy will be a lot simpler. Certainly, with our interest in the sub-regional strategy, of course we only really need housing distribution in that but there is a lot of detail that currently goes into structure plans that is merely repeating national policy or merely repeating local policy that is more appropriately provided in a more local development plan.

  368. Obviously Mr Milligan and I are familiar with the north-west. How would you define sub-regional? Would it coincide perhaps with Lancashire, Merseyside, Cheshire and Greater Manchester? What would your definition of sub-regional be?
  (Mr Milligan) The north-west is a region that would be covered by regional planning guidance and I think within that region you would have sub-areas. Perhaps in your backyard that would be linked to Chester, Cheshire or north-east Wales. I would say that would be a sub-regional area within the north-west. It may well be that you could take other areas within the north-west like the Mersey belt, the Greater Manchester conurbation, Merseyside, or something of that nature, as a sub-regional area. I think what Andrew is saying is that we do not need a full structure plan for those sorts of areas; we need a regional plan which is setting overall housing figures and policies in that area. Below that, you have a sub-regional strategy which says, "Chester will not grow", or "Chester will grow" or, "north-east Wales will grow and Chester is not growing", for instance, within that, and the figures and housing allocations within that will flow down to the local authorities to make the allocation.

Helen Jackson

  369. You lay stress in your submission on what house builders want, which is certainty from the planning process. Do you think that the local development framework system that is proposed is going to provide that simplicity and clarity that you are looking for?
  (Mr Whitaker) We certainly have concerns over whether, if things are simplified, that will provide certainty of, for example, the classic red line around a site that says, "This area will be appropriate for housing development". I think you can have criteria-based policies and they can be as detailed or as wide as you want to make them, as long as you can give us that certainty. If you have simpler development plans and you remove other things that give the development industry certainty, such as outline planning consent, then you are going to end up in a situation where nobody is certain, not least developers and not least local communities, about where change is going to occur and where development is going to occur.

  370. I am not quite clear from that answer on the new proposal, which does really take the map out of the local development framework, whether you think that is a good thing for the house development industry or not.
  (Mr Whitaker) If you have a local development framework policy that says, "Within the urban area as defined"—however you define that, and I cannot really see how you are going to get away from defining that area on a map because you are either in or you are not—"we will allow regeneration of brownfield sites within there for development", that seems to me a perfectly reasonable policy to have in the development framework.

  371. But if you have within your development framework, perhaps through a local action plan, a clarity which says, perhaps with a line, "These are protected countryside green areas on which we do not expect housing to be built", would you also welcome that?
  (Mr Whitaker) I think we would welcome that because that provides the certainty and the clarity for absolutely everybody in the system.

  372. Are you really expecting local authorities, where they have countryside or green areas that they want to protect, to ensure that they put together local action plans, if you like, and to put the line in those areas where it is necessary?
  (Mr Whitaker) I do not think that you need to identify areas where you are not going to see any change or where you do not want to see change. I think you should concentrate on the areas where you do want to encourage development and where you do want to see change. I think action plans are most appropriate for those kinds of areas, rather than, for example, in a rural authority by identifying the whole rural area as an action area where nothing is going to happen. Action implies that you are going to see something happen rather than the corollary of that, that nothing is going to happen.

  373. You would accept that on the fringe areas of large cities close to the Peak District, like Sheffield, my constituency, whatever you do about the encouragement of house building within the more brownfield areas, the temptation certainly for your industry is to build in areas where there are pleasant views, woodland and fields around, which would very quickly eat up the green space?
  (Mr Whitaker) I think if we want to create balanced communities and sustainable development, we do need to be looking at various choices and at various different options. I believe that local development frameworks could identify action plans for sustainable urban extensions in appropriate cases.

  374. How would you propose to bring the community and the public interest into the discursions?
  (Mr Whitaker) We think that that is very important and a lot of our members are working with other people to come up with innovative ways of including the public in making those decisions. We think that the idea of local development frameworks involving local communities where appropriate—and I would describe "appropriate" as being some sort of threshold in local communities—would be different depending on the size of the community. For example, where you meet that threshold, you should have the local community on board and you should be encouraging them to get involved in detailed discussion with you on your application.

  375. Your submission argues against the involvement of single pressure groups from local communities in those discussions. Will that not stifle the discussion?
  (Mr Whitaker) I think we have seen a number of examples, such as moving towards community strategies and community plans, where, if you structure public involvement, you do actually iron out the peaks and troughs both of pressure groups and indeed development excesses. If you structure public participation, and I think that is what we have said in our submission, we want to see some defined limit to consultation because otherwise you can consult for ever and ever and never get anything done. You will never be able to achieve consensus on all possible developments, but you will actually achieve some support for your development if that has much wider support than merely one pressure group. That was the point that we were trying to get across.

  376. If the pressure group or a combination local pressure groups suggested, for example, that there should be something built in structurally on, say, local ecology impact in a particular area, would you see that as slowing up the process or would you be prepared to back that sort of suggestion?
  (Mr Whitaker) I think we have a number of examples, I am sure, where those kinds of issues are taken on board by developers and development schemes are modified quite significantly to take account of local interest. I am sure Stuart has a number of schemes where those interests are certainly taken on board. The local community knows precisely what it wants for that area and precisely what is important to them, and therefore they are best placed to inform the developer.

Mrs Ellman

  377. You say that the National House Builders Federation's opposition to the tariff system is fundamental. Does that mean that you are happy with the current system?
  (Mr Whitaker) We are fairly happy with the current system.


  378. You do not have to pay much?
  (Mr Whitaker) I do not think that is necessarily the case. We are happy with the current system in as much as it allows us to mitigate the impact of development. That is what it is supposed to be there for; it is a planning obligation. We are concerned at the proposals in the planning obligations consultation paper which suggest that we will have a standard tariff system, to which we are not opposed. Unfortunately, the planning obligations consultation paper talks about a tariff system plus continuing to negotiate for site mitigation, so the tariff is to pay for wider community benefit. We do not accept the premise that all development is bad and therefore always has a bad impact for which one should always be mitigating.

  379. Could you clarify what you are saying? Your written evidence says very clearly: "Our objection to the tariff system is fundamental". What you are saying now is not about being fundamental; it is about the way it is put forward in the consultation.
  (Mr Whitaker) Our objection to the consultation paper and the tariff system proposed in there is fundamental because it removes the link between the development and the planning requirement. Effectively, it is a development land tax, and that is why we are fundamentally opposed to it. If we move down to a system of a tariff based on an association with the development, then I think that we could usefully discuss the practical implementation of that.
  (Mr Milligan) From a practical point of view, the industry does not object to a tariff as such. I take the point about not paying enough. The reality is that the developer does not pay; the land value pays. I do not think the development industry has a problem with that. The development industry wants to know what it is dealing with. It is quite happy to have some form of easily understood, standardised tariff. Our objection is to put that tariff on top of a section 106 negotiation that goes on anyway. If that was one process and one matter with some sort of standard system, the development industry would be happy to know how it is going. It can work out land values and it can do development economics that way. That is not a problem. If that percentage or that contribution goes up, it comes off the land value at the end of the day. We do not have a problem in principle with that. Where we have a problem is in delivering the additional tariff which adds to this timescale and which we are tyring to avoid and reduce at the moment by getting development schemes through the planning system quicker than is currently happening. If you put this system on top of what we have already got at the moment, it just would add further time, which is completely at odds with what the Green Paper is setting out to do in terms of speeding up and making the system more efficient.


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