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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-209)



  200. The Treasury wants to loosen them.
  (Mr McCarthy) I hope not. The proposed tariffs arguably give you a clarity. There are, I know, issues about them, but the idea of the tariff is that you know from the beginning what you have to do. If you get that right, that should be factored into land value, and it is not at present. We have been trying to work this up, because even the London Plan fails to say what the genuine planning gain is. It gives numbers of homes. In our view, planning gain should give you access to free land, and that land should have been decontaminated, with ground works all completed. That is the subsidy that should come through planning. That on its own is sufficient in most areas to give you affordable home ownership, certainly in the London context, and with elements of grant, but you can stretch that grant, for various forms of rented housing.
  (Mr Robinson) I think there are two things about using the planning system to provide affordable housing. One is that it is actually very dependent upon private developers deciding to build something in the first place, and I do not think we should necessarily take that for granted. Secondly, it means that the location of the key worker housing once again is dictated by where the development is taking place. One of the things we have learnt through the work we have done with key workers is they are incredibly particular about location. It is partly to do with the fact that they are running a very tight personal economy, and they are very interested in their commuting costs, but if they are working anti-social hours, that is a very big issue for them. The whole point about planning section 106 is it is completely random, whereas if you started off by looking at what the key workers needed, and where they ought to be, you would not want to be dependent on a private sector developer coming along to drive your programme.

Mrs Ellman

  201. Is it important to have mixed tenure?
  (Mr Cowans) I think it is crucial to have mixed tenure. The interesting thing about the research today is that it suggests that 70 per cent of people living in affordable housing would prefer to live in a mixed tenure neighbourhood rather than an exclusively social housing neighbourhood, and a lot of the research also suggests that people looking at the estate from the outside have a higher view of it if it is mixed tenure rather than single tenure. It is central, and what worries me about the planning process is that, even with tariffs or commuted payments or whatever methodology is developed, there is not sufficient of a vision of what the final development ought to be looking like. I do take the view that it is the developers' fault. Developers like ourselves have constraints, they have requirements, they have end points, but as Dickon says, is the way cities develop to be led by people making a whole series of ad hoc decisions about investment, or is it to be led by some greater vision? The planning system ought to be much more led by master-planning rather than by reactive, individual, site-based planning. Having said that, I would recognise that is very complex and difficult to do, but without that, whatever the methodology and the system that you adopt, you risk some very perverse and strange outcomes.

  202. If there was a vision, how could it actually be achieved?
  (Mr Cowans) I do not know anywhere—maybe it is my ignorance—where the local authority has set out what it, as the elected organisation, thinks its city ought to look like—maybe Newcastle is a good example—how many people ought to live there, what it ought to feel like. Newcastle has been in a sense an advocate for community aspirations. It has identified in each of its quarters a very clear, detailed master plan, and in one case it has tendered the implementation of that. People argue that tariffs are good because you get certainty. This master-planning system is good because you are very clear about what is required, and the skill—and it does require private developers, housing associations, regeneration companies and all sorts of people working together—to create that neighbourhood. That is a very interesting process.

  203. Has it actually happened?
  (Mr Cowans) It is happening now, yes.

Ms King

  204. On this subject, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted the need for an intermediary agency which would assemble sites, promote mixed use and tenure and recycle receipts. Do you think such an agency would be useful, and do you think that local authorities would be the right organisations to set them up?
  (Mr Cowans) Yes, it is very important that we have something like that. There are community land trusts in the US and all forms of land-pooling. Germany and France have been doing this for a very long time. They create a sense that the whole community can benefit from collaborative working in a way that we just do not do; it is not in our culture, but it ought to be.


  205. What about council estates? Did they not do just that?
  (Mr Cowans) I am not sure they did really. Having spent 20 years managing them, I am pretty sure some of them did not. There are some examples where that was the case, but there are many where it was not. Essentially, the issue here is how we coordinate our development effort to give life to these mixed tenure communities. We are not coordinating at the moment; we are all over the place, often competing. That is another factor in land price increase. Yes, there ought to be an intermediate organisation. Some people argue it ought to be English Partnerships. I am not sure about that. It definitely ought to be somebody. It could be the local authority, although they are not very good at compulsory purchase orders, which would be the order of the day, I think. There are some arguments for people like ourselves to do it. There are some arguments for the local authority being the agency and contracting it out. The structure could be debated, but there is definitely a need for it.
  (Mr McCarthy) I want to echo two things there. First of all, us. On a local basis that is exactly what we can do. We are not-for-profit organisations. We run an entirely open book. Our concern is community and social benefit. We offer that route. Why create a new vehicle if one already exists? On a regional basis, because so often housing markets do not respect local authority boundaries, I think the RDAs are missing this role. They need to have a more overt social and housing role than they have at present.

Christine Russell

  206. We have heard a lot this morning about development of brownfield sites and the difficulties thereof. I notice in your Places For People submission you are really arguing in favour of urban extensions. Is that not going to be about urban sprawl and threatening Green Belts. Why do you think it is necessary?
  (Mr Cowans) It is a very emotive subject. We do not necessarily think it will result in that. Much of the so-called Green Belt around existing urban areas is not of much use to anybody really.

  207. It is very important to the CPRE.
  (Mr Cowans) I would imagine it would be. The quality of that Green Belt is an issue, we think. This idea that you draw a line on a map and everything on one side is sacrosanct may not be very sensible really. There are some smaller settlements where it might be sensible to have extensions, to make them slightly bigger in a planned and sensible way over time. Or do we prefer to have big new towns? We take the view that sensibly planned urban extensions would have a role—we are not suggesting it is a panacea or the only solution, but it would not be very sensible to rule them out either.

  208. Is that the best sustainable development? Are you not just increasing car dependency, for instance?
  (Mr Cowans) It depends how it is done. If you just build an enormous great estate, the answer would be yes, but if you did not, and you had a sensitively planned process that had due regard to schools and sensible shopping arrangements and the economy, that would be different, but our capacity as a nation to plan that is not high. It can be done, but we do not have a lot of experience of doing it. That is one of the reasons we decided—and we both have a similar view about this; we have discussed it—that we are in the business of creating places and not just estates. So we build doctors' surgeries, local chemists—whatever it takes to make that place attractive we will take it upon ourselves to develop. We are not making a special plea for urban extensions as the answer, but it is surely one of them.


  209. Very briefly, if there were three changes to government policy which would really influence affordable housing, what would they be?
  (Mr McCarthy) One, it is about the assembly of land and entering into partnerships with organisations like ours to master-plan, create and capture value, to actually stretch grant and create mixed sustainable neighbourhoods for the future.
  (Mr Robinson) I think government policy has to get to grips with the way in which social housing has been residualised, and virtually the only people that get access to it are economically inactive. We must get back to a recognition that people in low-paid employment can expect access to decent social housing. Key workers with families on low pay, earning 14,000-15,000, need social housing. That is the reality, but they are not getting access to it. We must have government subsidy to address that.
  (Mr Cowans) One is the creation of land assembly agencies which would then tender the assembled land on, because I do not want to disadvantage the developers. The best developers are moving in this direction anyway. Secondly, an amendment to the grant regime so that grants are payable to total schemes and not just the affordable part of them. That would be one way of pulling together the whole development effort so that developers, housing associations and others would have to create consortia to get hold of the grant, and there would have to be much more transparency between sale receipts and the total scheme costs. That simple thing would pay benefits in our view.
  (Mr Power) The Housing Corporation currently does not rule out mixed tenure. It is not illegal to create mixed tenure estates. Our change would be to encourage a sense of place, a context, a development which takes those things into account, a mixed tenure with affordable housing funded as part of a mixed tenure scheme.


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