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Starter Homes threat to emerging local plans

Words: Simon Wicks
Couple viewing estate agent window

The strengthening of the government’s Starter Homes policy through the Housing and Planning Bill could disrupt the local plan process, a leading planning barrister has claimed.

Speaking at the annual Cornerstone Barristers planning law day, Mary Cook noted that the Bill, which proposes to place a duty on local authorities to promote the supply of up 200,000 Starter Homes for first-time buyers, was likely to cause delays or suspension of emerging local plans.

“Local plan examinations in their early stages now run the risk of being caught by this new legislation,” she said. “If just submitted it seems to me likely that these plans will have to be altered to accommodate the 200,000 Starter Homes.”

Speaking on the topic of ‘Delivering new homes’, Cook noted that a lack of clear guidance about whether Starter Homes were classified as ‘affordable housing’  would throw uncertainty on the affordable housing numbers already allocated in emerging local plans.

She continued: “The introduction of Starter Homes casts applications into some doubt. What’s the [section]106 going to look like? How are you going to be designating those Starter Homes?

“You read the Bill and you realise you won’t find the answers to those questions. Quite how the 20 per cent market discount is going to relate to affordable homes will be different in different areas.”

A group of Labour MPs has tabled amendments to the Bill which seek to clarify some of the issues Cook raised independently. One amendment seeks to enable planning authorities to ask for planning gains that offer affordable housing other than Starter Homes.

Cook herself stressed that more attention should be paid to reforming the private rental market than encouraging first-time buyers – particularly among the Starter Homes target market of under 40s.

“I would like to see the government helping a lot more in the private rental sector – and rather more flexibility than buying a place that you have to stick to for five years.

“In today’s jobs market that’s quite difficult to know your job is so secure that you will be staying in the same place for five years.”

Local plans vs neighbourhood plans

In a conference that looked at a range of planning legal issues emerging under the Conservative government, Cook’s colleagues delved into conflicts between local and neighbourhood plans, particularly around issues of ‘prematurity’ – where an application precedes the adoption of a neighbourhood or local plan.

In particular, they highlighted frustrations with inconsistent approaches to the weighting of neighbourhood plans by inspectors, the courts and the secretary of state during applications and appeals.

Paul Shadarevian noted a legal judgment (in Woodcock Holdings vs SSCLG) which had countered the secretary of state’s practice of recovering appeals and attaching greater weight to emerging neighbourhood plans than required by paragraph 216 of the NPPF*.

But he also drew attention to an ongoing case in East Hertfordshire where the secretary of state had intervened on vague grounds to delay an application in an area with no neighbourhood plan, no adopted local plan and no five-year housing supply. This, though unspecified as a “novel point of law” was presumably to allow the neighbourhood plan to get under way and catch up.

“I think things are still up in the air,” said Shadarevian. “Faced with a neighbourhood plan up to date that deals with the supply of housing in the context of no five-year supply we cannot know which way the secretary of state will go.”

Colleague Mark Lowe QC noted: “We will have to learn to live with them [neighbourhood plans] and to deal with them and influence them where we can."

He continued: “It’s a race to get the application out before the neighbourhood plan tries to scotch it. Your powers of influence are pretty limited but I suspect you are better inside the tent talking to the community and trying to steer it.”

The annual conference also featured presentations on the Ebbsfleet garden city from development corporation chief executive Robin Cooper, and the sustainable development presumption – which highlighted inconsistencies between policy and practice in relation to wind energy. Attendees were also given an update on CIL and the latest case law.

* NPPF paragraph 216 states that:

From the day of publication, decision-takers may also give weight to relevant policies in emerging plans according to:

● the stage of preparation of the emerging plan (the more advanced the preparation, the greater the weight that may be given);

● the extent to which there are unresolved objections to relevant policies (the less significant the unresolved objections, the greater the weight that may be given); and

● the degree of consistency of the relevant policies in the emerging plan to the policies in this Framework (the closer the policies in the emerging plan to the policies in the Framework, the greater the weight that may be given).