#12. Housing? Hmmm…


First appeared in Highley Forum and Highley News, September 2015

Anyone who reads the local newspapers will be aware of a growing sense of anger across the county at the way planning decisions are being made without reference to the needs or wants of local communities. At first it was about the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), but now it is the perceived increase in the number of applications decided under delegated powers by planning officers, a process that blocks an application being called to committee where it might be refused permission against the advice of a council planning officer.

Local people see local developments and assume that housing developers are doing their bit, except that the bulk of the houses they see being built aren’t for social housing and the ones that are “affordable” they can’t afford to buy, even on government schemes. There is also the factor that too few “affordable” houses are built anyway for the simple reason that there is not as much profit in them for the developer as there is in housing for sale at “full market value”.

But despite there being little the Local Authority can do about the situation, it’s still “the local council” that gets the criticism for the shortage of social housing.

Government recently published a policy document, part of the government’s overall Productivity Plan, called Fixing the Foundations, in which it announced its intention to do something about “the failure of Local Planning Authorities” (LPA) to enable the building of enough houses to meet demand. Government placed no blame on the development industry, which understandably is in no hurry to build more houses than it can sell, nor does the government acknowledge that Local Authorities are so strapped for cash – enough to meet government aspirations anyway – that it struggles to fund the building of enough social housing to meet existing local needs.

Notwithstanding the increase in the number of applications being decided under officer delegated powers and the speed at which that allows an application to be decided, that recently published government policy document still blames “an excessively strict planning system”. It’s difficult for a Local Planning Authority to know what to do, short of giving up altogether.

Not surprisingly, given the extent of political donations to political parties by the large housing development companies, nowhere is the blame placed at the door of the housing industry, nor is it acknowledged that one of the primary factors to blame for this parlous state of affairs was the abolition by Eric Pickles (during his tenure at the Department for Communities and Local Government) of the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS), which were intended to ensure that local authorities contributed their fair share of land for housing development, but critically having first identified where it was actually needed.

In place of the RSS Pickles gave us the Localism Act. The Localism Act was pathetic because it didn’t provide an effective alternative to the RSS which, if properly applied, targeted housing where it was needed, even to the extent of encouraging cross-border cooperation between LPAs to meet mutually-agreed needs of benefit to both Authorities. All the Localism Act did was create a mess for which Local Planning Authorities got the blame. LPAs found themselves pressured into building houses where they weren’t needed just to meet quotas.

One aspect of that policy document that really does worry me is that Section 106 agreements are identified as a delaying factor. Section 106’s are negotiated agreements between a developer and the Local Authority to finance schemes for the improvement of local infrastructure likely to be affected by a development, so when I read of proposals to introduce “a dispute resolution mechanism” for section 106 agreements, ostensibly to speed up negotiations and allow housing starts to proceed more quickly, what I actually see is an opportunity for developers to argue the toss about how much they should be paying.

Am I wrong to be sceptical? Well, when you understand that there isn’t supposed to be a dispute to be resolved about a draft section 106 agreement, any plan to introduce a procedure to “resolve a dispute” makes me look closely at the spaces between the lines.

We know from arguments started by land agents acting on behalf of housing developers how readily developers disputed the interpretation of Shropshire’s 5 year housing land supply in order to swing things in their favour. Aspects of that coalition-government policy made it incredibly difficult for local councils to prove their case and so disputes arose, as evidence the arguments put forward by Taylor Wimpey to overturn an earlier refused appeal. The ability to dispute elements of the 5 year housing land supply was central to Taylor Wimpey’s case. Policies intended to resolve disputes invariably provoke them.

You can see how easy it is for a developer to make the case that a local council, doing nothing more than acting according to its published Plans, is “proving difficult”. A cash-strapped Local Planning Authority will now be concerned to avoid giving any excuse for a developer to start a “dispute resolution” action under the government’s new policy. Which is why I am nervous for the future of s106 agreements, because “negotiations” are likely to become decidedly one-sided.

If I appear overly critical of government intentions it’s because all the changes to planning policy to date have favoured developers against the interests of Local Planning Authorities and the local communities they are charged to look after. In the case of ALL disputes and consequent delays, there is an existing way out available anyway in the form of an appeal against non-determination. So why not leave well alone?

How does it go? “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” Have you ever seen a repentant politician?