Housing and Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) (HPB 59)

Summary

1. Extra duties are placed by the Bill on local authorities who are already struggling in the wake of very significant funding cuts since 2010. A recent study by Arup, on behalf of the RTPI across councils of the North West found very significant reductions in local planning authority budgets and staffing since 2010. The study found that there are a third fewer planning staff overall, including a decrease on average of 37 per cent in planning policy staff and 27 per cent in development management staff.  These reductions are impacting on delivery and development.

2. We are surprised by the focus on planning permission in the Bill. A large number of planning permissions have already been granted but have yet to be built out. Sufficient housing is needed for all those who need to buy or rent it and in the right places. It is not simply a matter of the number of planning permissions being granted.

3. The immense discretion afforded the Secretary of State, which an additional 9 powers, means that the impact of this Bill is very difficult to judge. It is a worthy aim for a country’s planning system to be straightforward but this Bill risks creating a variety of mini-planning systems all alongside each other. There would be, for example, permission in principle via the Brownfield Register, permission in principle via a Local Plan, permission in principle via a Neighbourhood Plan, and permission in principle directly. This is difficult for applicants and the public to figure out, understand and navigate. Complexity also adds cost and time.

4. Permission in principle is supported by the RTPI but must be limited to local plans and the Register.  Greater use of brownfield sites for new homes is a part of the solution but this is not a magic bullet, and some sites are very inaccessible.  On housing within national infrastructure, there is a need for primary legislation to permit housing to be included in such schemes. While welcoming this move, we stress that those large developments adjoining infrastructure projects should not be solely housing: balanced communities with a variety of land uses are the best way to benefit from infrastructure investment.

Permission in principle and Brownfield Register

5. Draft proposals made in February 2015 by the Coalition government set out an intention to require local authorities to maintain a register of brownfield sites. This is now to be implemented through Clause 103 and Clause 102 establishes the concept of "permission in principle." A key issue for us in enabling proper planning of the country is that sites should, when developed, have good access by public transport to a range of places of employment. This is so important that the RTPI believes it should be specified as a criterion. Many brownfield sites are so poorly located that their development would generate high volumes of car traffic and long commutes. For sites which are progressed through the Register, there is considerable leeway in deciding whether a site is required to be on the Register, although promoters can request inclusion.

6. Assessing whether a site has physical constraints, as proposed in the Bill, can also take time. Some sites can be developed if money is spent on overcoming physical constraints. This will potentially affect the viability of development on these sites. If the Register is to be inclusive it will have to contain various sites whose deliverability in commercial terms is simply unknown. Or, resources will need to be found to fund studies of environmental matters before inclusion in the Register. It is hard to see how banks are going to be able to lend against proposals with that degree of uncertainty.

7. The RTPI maintains that once the Brownfield Register is compiled a further stage of permission in principle would be needed covering matters of public consultation. Furthermore, sites in the Register must be accessible, and will probably require an element of technical assessment which will need funding.

8. The Government proposes that planning permission in principle can be achieved through other means, such as through local plans. This is welcome as other safeguards apply in this case such as public consultation.

Starter homes

9. Starter homes need to add to the overall supply of homes - not replace other vital housing such as shared ownership and affordable rental homes. Clause 4 says local planning authorities must include starter homes in certain planning permissions. This is unprecedented: up to now LPAs could ask for a proportion of homes to be "affordable" in schemes across a whole district, but this was always open to negotiation. Now not only is social rent and shared ownership potentially driven out and replaced by starter homes up to £250,000 in price, but this appears to be obligatory and not open to local negotiation. This lack of discretion may affect delivery.

10. If the driver behind this initiative is to widen access to home ownership, we are concerned that this clause may fail in its intention. It is also critical that strong safeguards are erected around this policy to prevent abuse such as selling the home on after purchase or having more than one.

Housing within national infrastructure

11. Clause 107 proposes that an element of housing may be included in national infrastructure schemes which follow the special Planning Act 2008 route to permission. Proposed Subsection 4B of Section 115 of the 2008 Act would define related housing development as that which is on the same site, next to, or close to the infrastructure development; or which is otherwise associated with it.

12. We can see merit in these arrangements as they would enable the most use to be made of certain kinds of investments such as new railways. However no major new railways have been promoted through the 2008 Act despite the arguments which were put forward in favour of it at the time. There is a need for primary legislation to permit housing to be included in such schemes. While welcoming this move we stress those large developments adjoining infrastructure projects should not be solely housing: balanced communities with a variety of land uses are the best way to benefit from infrastructure investment.

November 2015

Prepared 17th November 2015