At least with this Housing White Paper the Government recognises the scale of the housing problem, ends the rhetoric and makes some practical suggestions.
The most important shift is its stated intention to increase the number of homes for rent which will, if carried through, have positive impacts on the ‘Buy To Rent’ (BTR) market together with those social housing providers who build mixed tenure housing, whether Housing Associations (HA) or Local Authorities (LA).
However, the lifting of the requirement for all except single-plot exception sites to pay the Affordable Housing Contribution (AHC) meant that Shropshire Council’s capacity to provide social housing was hard-hit because almost 90% of its housing development is on sites of less than ten houses.
And as regards the larger developers? Whilst they will no longer have to deliver 20% of schemes as starter homes there will be an expectation that housing sites will include a minimum 10% of homes for affordable home ownership.
Which still leaves questions.
The White Paper ignores the impact of the government’s recent Right to Buy (RTB) legislation giving Housing Association tenants the right to buy their properties at a large discount for which they will have to be compensated. LAs will be forced to sell off high value social housing to compensate HA’s for having to sell their houses at a loss. The consequent loss of LA social housing stock will radically affect LA’s ability to fund the building of social housing at a rate that will make up that loss, creating an unsustainable situation.
A basic understanding of the social housing market tells you that the availability of social housing at affordable rents can make the difference between a family or an individual just about managing and not being able to manage at all. The reality is that the cost of renting will continue to be out of reach for many of those on low incomes.
Together with the squeeze on benefits of all kinds and the introduction of Universal Credit, there is supreme irony in the proposal to increase the rate of building houses if no one can afford to rent them.
Significantly for Highley, the White Paper makes no mention of linking future development with infrastructure, something which Shropshire’s housing providers – whether private, LA, or HA – have never, to my knowledge, lobbied for. You cannot in all conscience build houses in communities without thought for the impact those developments will have on local roads, shops and schools.
And yet at the core of everything we’re talking about here is the NPPF, at the core of which is the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. Without serious consideration of infrastructure in a meaningful way, as against the superficial, cynical way developers interpret that “presumption”, the word “sustainable” is meaningless.
Consideration of infrastructure is critical at the outset and makes inter-departmental planning an imperative, but nowhere in this White Paper is that addressed, and even if it were it is unlikely that the necessary resources would be available to allow it to happen.
That omission is significant because, despite Government plans to allow local authorities to raise fees by “up to” 20% for planning applications, the extra fees will not overcome the shortage of experienced senior staff created during the madness of voluntary redundancy a few years back. The need for inter-departmental planning could put even more pressure on already over-stretched planning departments, who now have to consider how the proposals they are considering align with the wishes or constraints placed upon them by local politicians with a political agenda to meet.
As always with changes as profound as those proposed, we need to look closely at how they impact on Highley because the devil is always in the detail, especially when you hear talk about the scale and speed of supply and “improving” the planning system.
The Planning Task & Finish Group has yet to produce its final report because it chose to await the outcome of the local elections – see #31 at https://dtremellen.com/).
I have warned elsewhere about the hidden significance of a passing remark by a senior planning officer at the Area Committee meeting of the Shropshire Association of Local Councils (SALC) at the Severn Centre back in January of this year, who made reference to Highley as a “market town” instead of as it has always been in planning terms, a ‘Key Centre’. Now whilst that might have been an unconscious slip of the tongue, it was actually more of a Freudian slip.
The changes that planning officer referred to involve the planning classifications of ‘communities’ being determined by the Shirehall planners, regardless of how those communities might insist they want to be classified.
Now in the case of the distinction between a ‘Market Town’ and a ‘Key Centre’, it isn’t great, in planning terms it has always meant that both are considered as “almost” synonymous. The key word there is almost. As a Market Town you were considered fair game for anything, as a Key Centre you were considered fair game if the numbers needed boosting, land was available, and someone was willing to try their luck at getting OPP.
No more. The changes proposed to how the planning system will operate WILL herald new local targets for housing as determined by Shirehall, driven now by the White Paper. It isn’t Market Town or Key Centre, it’s Market Town/Key Centre. In effect (and regular readers will know how I like a good analogy) the same car now has a different driver with a heavier right foot.
Policies and Principles.
I’m hoping that I’m right in believing that government-set national targets shouldn’t affect Shropshire “too adversely” (I’m choosing my words with care here) since this Authority went through a ‘Full Objectively Assessed Housing Need’ exercise as a result of the Teal Drive appeal, the outcome of which prompted Shropshire Council to do what it should have done some time ago and treat its 5-year housing land supply as a rolling requirement subject to continuous review, rather than a number fixed in time. That was an object-lesson to all concerned that it doesn’t pay to rest on your laurels!
However, there is a sizable elephant in the room that could have implications for Highley in that shortages in housing land supply in other Authority areas could me made up by ‘expecting’ those Authorities with a proven 5-year supply to find more housing land to make up the national figures to meet government expectations.
I get that impression from reading the White Paper’s mention of the “Duty to Co-operate”, which places a legal duty on councils to engage with neighbouring authorities to maximise the power of Local Plans. That requirement has actually been in the NPPF since day one but hasn’t been effective in achieving government aims.
So, when the White Paper proposes to strengthen the NPPF by requiring authorities to “demonstrate a clear strategy to meet local needs as well as any needs that genuinely cannot be met within neighbouring authorities”, it tells us that the failings of the past will not be allowed to continue and local authorities will be expected to produce a single, joint “Local Plan”.
There is also something that looks remarkably like the old Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). Re-branded as ‘Spatial Development Strategies’ (SDS) they are Local Plans for a combined area.
Massaging the figures.
Forget it, someone saw that coming. Local authorities will be required to carry out regular ‘housing delivery tests’ to ensure that house building is meeting housing requirements. The stick to beat LAs into compliance will come in November 2018, when the NPPF’s now notorious “presumption in favour of sustainable development” will over-rule local plans if delivery falls below 25% of housing requirement, rising to 65% from November 2020.
More elephants in the room:
- land-banking by developers
- and the amount of land with Outline Planning Permission (OPP) that isn’t being built on because it simply isn’t attractive to a developer.
Whilst we’re not troubled by land-banking (yet), the second point formed the basis of the argument used by the agent for the 20-house development on Woodhill Road, who argued that if land with OPP wasn’t being developed then it could not be considered “deliverable”, which is the condition that has to be met to justify inclusion in Shropshire’s 5-year housing land supply.
We do have land with OPP which has been standing idle for several years…
- the land adjacent to The Cedars (35 houses)
- the land between the pen factories and Netherton Lane (30 houses),
…both of which would have featured in the Woodhill Road arguments had the application not been withdrawn for reasons which were not explained at the time – or since, come to that – but my own thoughts were that enough actual development was going on (Taylor Wimpey’s 58 houses off Jubilee Drive; Star Housing’s 2-phase development on Rhea Hall of 10 houses on the old garage site, then 19 bungalows on the “top” site) to inform any speculative plan to make a lot of money out of a redundant field that this particular market was, at least for now, already well catered for.
The White Paper looks to be putting conditions on applications for OPP that puts a time limit on the ‘build-out speed’, which could be expressed as: “use it or lose it”. Applied effectively, I can see that making a significant difference.
Reasons to be nervous.
Any “simplification” of planning policy can result in an over-simplification that renders situations arguable. It happened with the NPPF and when the two-year review of that policy by a cross-party Parliamentary committee recommended sweeping changes to address the regulatory weaknesses in the NPPF the report was simply ignored.
A few weeks ago I drove up to Shirehall to sit in on the first meeting of the Task & Finish Group called to review developer contributions. It lasted ten minutes, ending in confusion because two of the committee members had not shown up, resulting in a motion to postpone the group’s first meeting (until after the elections on May 4) being passed by default, delaying Shropshire Council’s consideration of developer contributions and thereby missing the deadline by which responses to the consultation on this Housing White Paper would be heard.
That angered me – and others present, including several very senior council officers – because that T&F Group needs to take account of the White Paper’s exploring a new approach to developers’ contribution to infrastructure which would “encourage” more efficient land use through higher densities and reviewing space standards.
Now, whilst it is unlikely that ‘houses-per-hectare’ will be specified, it is at least likely that use of the word “encourage” means increased density will be “encouraged” by allowing concessions on developer contributions related to density. Now that is a detail I would like clarification on.
The significance of the failure of some of those T&F Group members to take their responsibilities seriously means that long overdue reform of our Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) will be delayed further, as will the White Paper’s welcome attempt to standardise an ‘open book’ approach to another developer contribution, Section 106, which of course refers back to my earlier mention of infrastructure.
Direct and indirect impacts on Highley.
There is absolutely no question that our own Local Plan is in need of serious re-assessment. Planning for more homes in the right places is not just ‘a’ key issue, it is ‘the’ key issue.
Let’s go back to what I said earlier about Local Authorities co-operating across neighbouring boundaries.
That requirement took on added significance when we became (peripherally) a member of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) because some neighbouring West Midlands authorities do not have the develop-able land to meet their housing need.
- Spatial Development Strategies produced by combined local authorities with the ability to allocate strategic sites across boundaries.
- Local Plans allowing neighbouring authorities to produce a single Local Plan for their combined area.
- There is talk of a separate consultation to look at how local authorities can make use of compulsory purchase powers to promote development on stalled sites, and additional support will come from the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) (which funded much of ST&RH’s Rhea Hall development), which will take a more proactive role on compulsory purchase. I’m not sure on the details of that and I doubt any details will emerge until the current consultation ends.
- The Government expects the HCA to lead the way on faster delivery via its Accelerated Construction Scheme on public sector land, aiming to build-out at twice the normal rate via joint venture arrangements.
- Going part way to acknowledge how under-funded Local Planning Authorities are, there are plans to allow increases in planning fees by at least 20% and £25 million of new funding will be made available for “ambitious” authorities in areas of greatest need – although I’d like to see a clear definition of “ambitious” and “greatest need”.
- Something that I welcome because I have pushed for it for several years, is that planning permissions will be much more focused on build-out speed determining the likelihood of achieving planning consent.
- I’m not sure how it will affect small and medium-sized developers, but there are proposals to require larger house builders to publish data on build-out rates and to reduce the time required for builders to start work once a permission is granted from three to two years. Where no progress has been made and there is no prospect of completion, there is a proposal to withdraw planning permission.
I commend this White Paper as a definite right step in the right direction, but it needs consideration alongside Shropshire’s own Local Plan Partial Review 2016-2036, which will inevitably be influenced by it. The only question is by how much.
The threat of “use it or lose it” is not new, it was made back in 2013. For the sake of balance, this is a housing developer’s view…
And an interesting view from the latest Private Eye (1444, 19 May – 1 June 2017)…
CONSERVATIVE promises of “a new generation of social housing” and newspaper headlines proclaiming a “council housing revolution” would be easier to believe if the past seven years had not seen the precise opposite.
Projections by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) last year suggested 350,000 social rented homes would be lost between 2012 and 2020 as a result of three different government policies.
These are the end of funding for social rent in favour of higher “affordable” rents; increased Right to Buy discounts for council tenants; and (on the statute book but yet to happen) the extension of Right to Buy to housing association tenants with discounts funded by forced sales of the most valuable council houses as they fall vacant. By contrast, reforms to allow councils to build again have generated only a few thousand new homes.
No sooner had the latest policy been announced than senior Tories were on the TV sofas conﬁrming that there will be no new money, just the £1.4bn announced in the 2016 autumn statement to produce 40,000 new homes. At one new home for every nine lost, this sounds like the previous Tory “housing
revolution”, after they had promised one-for-one replacements for homes sold under Right to Buy.
However, the rhetoric about council housing marks a clear shift in tone since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Councils and housing associations would build “thousands of new homes” but would be expected to sell a proportion of them after 10-15 years. Tenants would get ﬁrst refusal, but the proceeds would be reinvested in new social homes.
The policy also has one potentially transformational element: reform of the law on compulsory purchase to allow councils to buy derelict buildings and brownﬁeld land more cheaply, rather than being forced to pay full market value regardless of whether the land has planning permission for housing. Landowners waiting for windfall proﬁts from valuable sites might just see that as a revolution.