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Written evidence submitted by the Home Builders Federation [FPS 073]

 

The Future of the Planning System in England

 

The HBF is the principal representative body of the housebuilding industry in England and Wales. This submission reflects the views arising from discussions with our membership, consisting of national and multinational plc’s, through regional developers to small, local builders. Our members account for over 80% of all new housing built in England and Wales in any one year.

 

We address the eight issues on which the Committee has invited submissions below:

 

  1. Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?

 

1.1.  There are many faults with the current planning system. It is complex, cumbersome and slow. In a plan-led system, plans should be kept up-to-date and responsive to change. It was telling that, when faced with a global pandemic and lockdown many planning authorities were unable to continue to perform their planning function due to antiquated practices and a lack of flexibility in processes and policies. We therefore agree with the Government’s proposals to digitise the planning process and to make greater use of technology in planning.

 

1.2.  Plans need to be more focussed and prepared and produced in a shorter timescale in order to remain relevant. It is indefensible that the country does not have total coverage of up-to-date local plans and that some local authorities continue to fail to produce a robust plan.

 

1.3.  Much of the content of local plans is generic “policy” that merely repeats national policy or policy that is irrelevant to decision making. This makes the process unnecessarily long and makes much of the plan irrelevant.

 

1.4.  Even where local plans allocate sites for development, the principle of development is frequently revisited at subsequent stages of the planning process. This should not be the case. Too much weight is given to a very small number of objections to planning applications, even when the proposals are policy compliant. Local communities should be more engaged with the local plan making process and, once allocated and adopted through the local plan process, the principle of development on sites should not be reopened. Greater weight should be given to the silent majority, particularly those disenfranchised in the current housing market, rather than the vocal minority, particularly when deciding policy compliant planning applications.

1.5.  We therefore agree with the Government’s proposals in Pillar 1 of the planning white paper (PWP) to streamline the plan making process and encourage greater public engagement at the plan-making stage.

 

  1. In seeking to build 300,000 homes a year, is the greatest obstacle the planning system or the subsequent build-out of properties with permission?

 

2.1.  Recognition should be given to the huge progress made in boosting housing supply over the course of the past seven years. Between 2013 and 2019, net housing supply almost doubled to more than 240,000 net additions in 2018-19, with further growth expected when figures for 2019-20 are published later in 2020. However, this supply has been driven by Government support for homebuyers in the form of Help to Buy which is now being wound down. Increases in production have also been derived from vast increases in investment and delivery from a relatively concentrated group of companies. In this context, maintaining these record levels of output and progressing towards 300,000 homes per year will require further reform of the planning system and an acknowledgement of the scale of this challenge with such a number being unprecedented in terms of net additions.

 

2.2.  In order to build 300,000 homes per year we must plan for more than 300,000 homes per year. As recognised by the most recent study into housing delivery undertaken by Sir Oliver Letwin, the delivery of housing is a complex issue that cannot merely be dismissed by criticising the build-out rate of sites with planning permission.

 

2.3.  The concept of preparing a trajectory plan – an annual assessment of the delivery of dwellings on sites with planning permission – is not new and should be followed by all local planning authorities. It should be obvious that a site granted planning permission for 1,000 dwellings should not be counted within the local five-year housing supply the day after it receives planning permission. The lead time of converting a planning permission into dwellings on the ground can be many years and this should be reflected in a trajectory plan. Continually stating the total number of homes with a valid planning consent as a fair representation of deliverable sites and/or dwellings without preparing such a trajectory plan is, in itself, misleading and symptomatic of what is, in our opinion, the real problem hindering housing delivery.

 

2.4.  One significant obstacle to achieving further increases in housing delivery is that there is a view within many local communities and local planning authorities that housing provision is undesirable and that land identified and granted permission for such development should be limited to the minimum needed to meet housing needs. Thus, many local authorities calculate their housing supply to two (or more) decimal places and make heroic assumptions regarding delivery rates that are unachievable in the local market. Such precision leads to a lack of choice of sites in terms of location and type, contributing significantly to delaying the delivery of housing and, thus, contributing significantly to not meeting housing needs.

 

2.5.  This negative approach towards meeting housing needs is demonstrated very clearly by many local authorities who, when faced with an increase in housing needs, rapidly seek to prepare plans based on the previous methodology of calculation to avoid having to meet higher housing requirement numbers. We have seen this negativity most recently with the Government’s proposals to amend the standard methodology for calculating housing need. Far from embracing the challenge to tackle the housing crisis many local authorities are seeking to dismiss the housing requirement figures as “unachievable” or “unrealistic”. Similarly, the introduction of the standard methodology of calculating housing needs led to some authorities submitting poorly prepared plans for examination merely to beat the deadline of transition to the new methodology. These plans have, subsequently, been rejected by planning inspectors meaning local authorities are in an even worse position regarding housing delivery. 

 

2.6.  The Government’s proposals to introduce a presumption in favour of sustainable development on sites within renewal areas is, therefore, supported. Such areas will allow more sites to be developed at the same time, providing choice within the housing market. We similarly, support he proposal for a mandatory housing requirement figure for each local authority being provided centrally rather than locally as this will ensure consistency of approach and a clear national spatial strategy.   

 

  1. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?

 

3.1.  We continue to support the use of design tools such as Building for a Healthy Life (the most recent iteration of Building for Life 12) to ensure that all parties involved in development can have a conversation about the design and layout of development. There are, however, many competing demands within the realm of urban design, many of which are not complementary, leading to tensions within the urban design of schemes. While we support the greater use of local design guides, we have some concerns regarding the almost mandatory use of design codes as proposed in the PWP. Such codes take a considerable amount of time to prepare yet contribute little over and above other design statements such as masterplans. 

 

3.2.  Ensuring individual dwellings are fit for purpose should be the realm of building regulations not planning considerations. Thus, mobility standards, energy efficiency and space standards should be prescribed through such regulations.

 

  1. What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?

 

4.1.  We support the use of a standard methodology for calculating the housing need and requirement of a local authority. However, while it is important that the figure for the country as a whole meets housing needs, there is no reason why each local planning authority should “consume its own smoke”. HBF was a supporter of regional planning primarily because this allowed a debate regarding opportunities and constraints across a much larger geography than an individual local authority to be held, meaning housing needs could be met across a wider geography. It is, therefore, lamentable, that the duty to cooperate did not achieve a more positive response from local authorities. Similarly, first attempts at producing joint spatial strategies have not received the political buy-in that would help deliver spatial strategies across a wider area.

 

4.2.  We would support the production of a national spatial strategy with sub-national housing requirements set out clearly within it.   

 

  1. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?

 

5.1.  Modern society and modern practices use digital technology. It is lamentable that the planning process continues to rely on antiquated processes to engage the public. Direct subscriptions to notifications regarding planning applications and evolving local plans should be commonplace rather than novel and the examination of plans and proposals should be widely available online. While some people cite accessibility to the internet as a constraint there are as many people for whom physical accessibility to visit Council offices is a similar constraint.

 

5.2.  The development industry already uses dedicated websites and social media to engage with the public and local communities on development projects. There is no reason why local planning authorities and the planning process should not use such tools in order to give more households the opportunity to contribute to debates about the future of their communities.  

 

  1. How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?

 

6.1.  The current planning system provides this protection well through the use of local plans and planning policy.

 

  1. What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?

 

7.1.  The policy of green belt should be re-examined to ensure that it is still relevant to achieving sustainable development. The objectives of the green belt should, similarly, be re-examined. Similarly, there should be a national review of green belt boundaries to ensure that the objectives of the green belt (as defined/redefined following the review above) are met by land identified as green belt.

 

7.2.  Undertaking this national review of both green belt policy and boundaries would ensure that the policy is seen as fit for purpose within the modern planning system, particularly with regard to delivering sustainable development.

 

  1. What progress has been made since the Committee’s 2018 report on capturing land value and how might the proposals improve outcomes? What further steps might also be needed?

 

8.1.  The Committee advocated amendments to community infrastructure levy as recommended by the CIL Review Report of 2017. We continue to support the recommendations of the CIL review report.

 

8.2.  In particular, HBF believes that site specific planning obligations are the most responsive way to maximise the capture of uplift of value on each site but, more importantly, is more likely to ensure the delivery of necessary infrastructure alongside development. The latest report by the HBF, “Building Communities”[1] evaluates the contributions from developers to be in excess of £8bn in 2018/19 with the majority of that uplift in value being used to subsidise the delivery of over 50,000 affordable homes.

 

8.3.  HBF has raised concerns over the Government’s proposed Infrastructure Levy albeit there is very little detail set out in the PWP. Nevertheless, a single payment, tariff-based levy on development, although much simpler than complex site-specific negotiations, is too inflexible to take account of the many variables affecting the viability of different types of sites in different market areas of the country.

 

 

I hope you find these representations helpful. We would, of course, be happy to discuss the issues raised in greater detail and look forward to hearing from you.

 

 

October 2020

 

 


[1] https://www.hbf.co.uk/documents/10454/HBF_Report_building_communities_Sept_2020.pdf