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Monday, November 23, 2020

Why does a political battle loom over planning rules?

image copyrightReuters

They’ve been described as long overdue, nonsensical, shameful, radical, and as difficult to deliver as a moon landing.

Proposed changes to England’s planning system have provoked strong political reactions ever since they were unveiled over the summer.

But arguments over their impact are heating up, with the government facing a growing rebellion over the proposals from its own MPs.

Why are politicians talking about planning?

In August, ministers announced a long-anticipated overhaul of the planning rules that determine house building and land use in England.

The government said the current system, still largely based on laws passed after the Second World War, had become outdated and ineffective.

A completely new blueprint, ministers argued, was required to make sure more houses are built more quickly in the right areas.

Alongside this, they published shorter-term plans to tweak the formula currently used to estimate housing need in each local authority area.

As a devolved issue, rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are set by politicians there.

What are the new proposals?

The current regime – where local planning officials assess applications case-by-case – would be replaced with new rules based on zones.

Councils in England would have to classify all land in their area as “protected,” for “renewal,” or for “growth”.

In protected areas, including areas of natural beauty, places at risk of flooding, and the green belt, development would generally remain restricted.

But councils would have to look favourably on development in “renewal” areas, whilst in “growth” zones, applications conforming to pre-agreed local plans would automatically gain initial approval.

Building site

image copyrightPA Media

Local residents would get a say on the 10-year plans underpinning the zones, but their ability to comment on individual applications would be curtailed.

In addition, each council would have to plan for a share of homes from the government’s 300,000 annual house building target.

These quotas would be calculated by ministers and made binding – although how they would be enforced has not yet been specified.

The government says the revisions to the current formula will “form part of the process” in drawing up the new binding targets.

The targets will additionally take into account an area’s population, land constraints, and rates of development on brownfield sites.

Boris Johnson

image copyrightGetty Images

Why have they been controversial?

Ministers say the changes will speed up the planning process, and prevent viable developments being derailed by a “small minority” of vocal opponents.

They argue local input can still be reflected at the plan-making stage, whilst user-friendly plans and better use of technology can help drive engagement.

But Labour criticism that the plans would sideline local communities has been shared by many Conservative MPs and councillors.

The proposed new formula for calculating housing need has provoked unease from Tories in particular, including former Prime Minister Theresa May.

Women looking at a smartphone

image copyrightGetty Images

Ministers say the new calculation – which incorporates changes in housing affordability over the last 10 years and ditches a current cap – will ensure a “step change” in the number of new homes being built.

Research from the House of Commons library has forecast it will increase quotas in small villages and rural areas more than in large towns.

The analysis also estimated London, where the cost of housing is highest, would see a greater increase in targets compared to big regional cities.

Analysts at property agents Savills have pointed out it could produce unexpectedly low targets in areas including Liverpool.

Such predictions have led MPs in Conservative-leaning shire constituencies to warn of unrealistic numbers of new homes in their area.

They also argue high targets for London could undermine the government’s priority to “level up” the country and spread wealth outside the capital.

Why it is a problem for the government?

Boris Johnson has put the planning shake-up at the heart of his ambition to make housing more affordable.

But doing this, whilst also directing housing to parts of the Midlands and North as a form of investment, has proved a difficult balancing act.

The homebuilders’ trade body has also warned wholesale changes to the system could lead some councils to delay adopting local plans.

The prime minister also faces a struggle to keep his backbenchers from Tory heartlands on board.

With Labour vocally opposing the plans, he will require their votes in Parliament to enact many of the main changes, which require legislation.

What happens next?

The government is due to formally respond to a consultation on the new housing need formula, which closed at the start of October.

A separate consultation on the wider changes to the system closes on 29 October as well, and is due to be examined by committee of MPs.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has said ministers will “give careful thought” to whether the proposed new formula should be changed, and there is “scope for compromise” on where new homes are built.

Legislation to enact the changes will follow, ministers say, after the responses to the consultation have been considered.

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