Memorandum submitted by Campaign to Protect Rural England (H&R 7)

 

 

The Housing and Regeneration Bill

 

Submission of evidence by CPRE to the Housing and Regeneration Bill Committee

December 2007

 

Introduction

1. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) recognises that we need more homes to house a growing number of households. Since new housing has the greatest impact of all development in terms of land-take and associated activity, it is vital that these new homes are provided in a way which meets needs and minimises harm to the environment.

2. We are concerned that the Government appears to be resurrecting the discredited 'predict and provide' model in planning future housing supply, ie. based on long term forecasts which assume that past trends will continue. CPRE has long called for an approach to housing supply based on 'plan, monitor and manage' as opposed to 'predict and provide.' This allows for the possibility that assumptions may change or that some trends may not materialise. Rather than slavishly follow forecasts or market 'demand', we believe the level and location of new housing should be informed by a robust assessment of need and the capacity of the environment to accommodate development. The land-use planning system should be at the heart of this process.

3. CPRE sympathises with many of the Government's aspirations for this Bill. We would welcome the creation of a new agency to promote regeneration and deliver more social housing. How it carries out these activities, however, is crucial. We could not support a body purely concerned with achieving long term housing target with no regard to the consequences or the means by which these targets are met. We have some concerns regarding the extensive suite of powers the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) is to be given. These together add up to something far greater than the powers held separately by its predecessor bodies. Since the HCA will have compulsory purchase, land disposal, development, plan-making and development control powers, the question of how potential conflicts of interest will be managed also arises.

4. We would also urge the Government to strengthen provisions in the Bill relating to sustainable development, affordable housing and brownfield land. In particular, we would like to see a duty placed on the HCA to continue and extend English Partnerships' work on the National Brownfield Strategy and National Land Use Database.

Part 1

The Homes and Communities Agency

5. CPRE appreciates there are potential benefits in bringing together the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships under the auspices of the new 'Homes and Communities Agency', in terms of better co-ordination and targeting of resources. The HCA should be well-placed to play a leading role in taking forward the Government's housing agenda.

6. We believe it is vitally important that the HCA champions urban regeneration and recycling of land and buildings, and does not open the way to a wave of greenfield sprawl. As such, it should have a wider role than simply being the Government's house-building agency. The HCA needs to understand how the planning system works and the implicit goal of securing the best use of land in the public interest. Since the HCA is concerned not only with improving the supply and quality of housing, but with regeneration and supporting 'the creation, regeneration or development of communities or their continued well-being' it must be prepared to challenge the assumption that new homes should automatically be provided wherever it is felt there is a development opportunity.

7. How the HCA works with and alongside local communities, local authorities and existing plans will be crucial. What mechanisms are there for ensuring that the HCA will not simply be a vehicle for imposing the Government's will on communities rather than acting in a spirit of consensus and co-operation? To what extent do the Bill's provisions provide the basis for ensuring the HCA's activities are transparent, open and accountable?

8. We believe that planning powers are best exercised by democratically-elected local planning authorities which take account of public consultation according to long-established planning principles. Where the HCA has been given this power, or delegated it to another body, it is essential that environmental, community and amenity groups can engage with the decision-making process, and are not merely passive recipients of information or development. In our view, delivery arrangements should be well integrated with established planning mechanisms, notably the Local Development Framework and development control functions, and avoid setting up a parallel planning process. The latter could lead to confusion and undermine public confidence in the planning system.

9. We suggest, therefore, that the Bill be examined and clarified with regard to the following areas:

the basis on which the Secretary of State will decide to appoint the HCA local planning authority (LPA)

the likely number of areas for which the HCA is likely to become an LPA

whether the HCA will become the LPA with regard to a particular site or an administrative area

the scope of the HCA's delegation powers

safeguards the Bill provides to maintain local democratic accountability where the HCA has been appointed as an LPA.

10. We consider the Bill's provisions on rules governing the HCA's activities relating to the acquisition and disposal of land (Clauses 5-12 and 27) would benefit from further examination. Given that the HCA's sweeping powers may include planning powers, careful consideration should be given to ensuring that safeguards are adequate to avoid abuse and to deal with potential conflicts of interest which may arise, eg. between the HCA's roles as developer, landowner and planning authority.

11. Provisions outlined in Schedule 3, paragraph 27 would permit the HCA to use any common, open space or allotment for any purpose for which planning permission is obtained (including the carrying out of operational development) despite any restriction in any other enactment relating to land of that kind or by which the land is specially regulated. The implications of this in respect of land thought to be subject to special protection, such as National Parks and Green Belt, need to be examined carefully.

12. We are similarly concerned by provisions in the Bill that would give Secretary of State the power to extinguish public rights of way and curtail "further investigation", including a public inquiry, if the Secretary of State considers he/she has "sufficient information (Schedule 3, Part 2). The implications of this clause need to be carefully examined to ensure the legislative framework provides for a full investigation and public inquiry to take place where necessary. These are essential to maintain public accountability and transparency in decisions affecting rights of way.

13. With regard to land acquisition powers, we believe the current 'brownfield restriction' whereby English Partnerships may use compulsory purchase powers to acquire land which is vacant, under-used, urban, contaminated, derelict, neglected or unsightly, to be essential. This helps target resources effectively, gives priority to tackling brownfield blight and promotes regeneration. This would not rule out development on greenfield land, which can be sought via established planning routes. It is vital that development control and compulsory purchase powers are accompanied by safeguards to ensure transparency and accountability to the local community.

14. With regard to land disposals, we suggest a duty to achieve best value as measured in terms of what is best for the community, rather than best financial return, would make it easier for the HCA to act in a way that promotes communities' well being and contributes to wider sustainable development objectives (Clause 10, Restrictions on disposal of land). Best 'market value' is too often achieved by greenfield development, rather than by re-using brownfield land and contributing to urban regeneration; or it may mean market homes are built when the greatest need is for affordable housing. Achieving the highest financial return will not necessary secure the most effective and efficient use of land in the public interest, which we suggest should be the paramount consideration.

15. CPRE congratulates the Government on exceeding its target of securing 60% of new homes on brownfield land by 2008. We have seen great progress in the renewal of our towns and cities over the past decade, with around three quarters of new homes currently being provided on brownfield sites. More needs to be done, however, to extend the benefits of urban renewal throughout our large conurbations and to those towns still in need of investment and renewal, as John Calcutt's recently published review of housebuilding acknowledges. We need a renewed commitment by Government to brownfield redevelopment and a new national brownfield target for securing at least 75% of new housing on brownfield land by 2011.

16. The National Land Use Database identifies enough brownfield land to accommodate a million homes (around 27,000 of the 63,000 hectares identified is considered suitable for housing). We know much more land is available than this, since NLUD does not look at sites of less than 1/4 hectare. Nevertheless, NLUD remains the most authoritative source of information on brownfield land in England. Research by CPRE found that many local authorities seriously underestimate the amount of brownfield land available for development, and shows what actions can be taken to address this (Untapped Potential, 2007). A key finding was that London alone has enough small sites close to town centres to accommodate around 60,000 new homes. The research highlighted the importance of comprehensively assessing brownfield potential and then taking action to realise it.

17. We note that the HCA will have a duty with regard to derelict land and we welcome this. So that we make the best use of our brownfield resource, and reap the benefits in terms of urban renewal, it is vital that English Partnerships' groundbreaking work on NLUD and the National Brownfield Strategy continues. Given that housing is the HCA's priority, we fear this work may not receive the priority it deserves and could be sidelined or even abandoned should the Agency face pressure to deliver housing numbers or cut costs. We believe this would be shortsighted, given the huge resource brownfield land represents and the need for action to tackle brownfield blight and dereliction in ways which can improve the quality of life of existing communities. To ensure we can continue to benefit from this work, we suggest a statutory duty be placed on the Agency to monitor, publish and disseminate data on brownfield land and take action to promote its reclamation and re-use.

18. New development provides an opportunity to secure more sustainable patterns of land use and activity. For this to occur, however, new homes should not be planned in isolation, but in the context of wider objectives, such as regeneration and conservation of the natural and built environment. We believe these objectives should inform the work of the Agency. We recommend there should be an explicit duty to consider implications for sustainable development and contribute to or facilitate sustainable development. We believe that Clause 34 should be amended to reflect this.

 

Part 2

 

Affordable housing

19. CPRE supports the Government's target for 70,000 new affordable homes a year by 2010/11. We welcome the increased investment in affordable housing announced in the CSR. Far too much of what is built fails to meet needs. Simply building more and more homes will not tackle the affordability crisis, which is often particularly acute in rural areas (Planning for Housing Affordability, CPRE 2007). At the same time, the lack of affordable family accommodation in many cities is fuelling urban-rural outmigration and pushing house prices up in rural areas beyond the reach of local residents. Measures are urgently needed to ensure that affordable homes in rural areas remain affordable in perpetuity.

20. We believe Community Land Trusts have considerable potential for securing the use of land for the benefit of communities over the long term, not only for affordable housing, but for a wide range of uses, such as open space, community facilities and workplaces. We urge the Government to consider how this legislation could better support and encourage Community Land Trusts and other innovative schemes which empower communities to play a key role in meeting their own local housing and other needs.

Part 3

21. CPRE welcomes proposals for sustainability certificates for new housing. We suggest consideration be given as to how these might be improved, for example, by extending their terms of reference and making them mandatory. We also believe these should apply to all homes, not just new properties.

22. In our view, a key performance measure of whether a property is sustainable is locational, ie. whether homes are on brownfield or Greenfield sites and reduce car use. We suggest that an additional criterion i) 'furthering the re-use of suitable brownfield land and buildings', be added to the meaning of sustainability (Clause 243).

 

December 2007