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05/01/2017

The housing white paper - a wish list

A document

A statutory obligation to produce a local plan, reform of housing need assessment and a greater focus on small sites - these are among the measures needed to solve the housing crisis, argues Cristina Howick

If the government wants more house building, in the right places and for the right people, it must ensure that every area has an up-to-date development plan. About 60 per cent of local planning authorities do not have a post-NPPF adopted plan. Without a plan, investor confidence suffers, development does not go to the most sustainable sites, and astonishing sums of money, including public money, are wasted in ‘planning by appeal’. 

The answer may be a statutory duty on planning authorities, as suggested by the Local Plan Expert Group (LPEG). 

As LPEG also notes, speeded-up local plans need clear-cut evidence. We must clear the dense fog around ‘objectively assessed housing need’, the item that causes most controversy and delay. Everyone knows the assessment must be radically simplified and standardised, although there are big disagreements about the method proposed by LPEG (I am part of a group with an alternative proposal). Another option for the government is to set housing numbers centrally (unlikely to be welcomed by local planning authorities).

"We should break out of the mindset that says the only answer to housing need is very large sites"

Next on the agenda is larger-than-local planning. Everyone, including the secretary of state, knows that the duty to cooperate isn’t working as it should. The process is complicated, risky and slow. Some answers that look good on paper, such as returning to a two-tier system, or merging local planning authorities, would be controversial and take too long. A practical answer is for the government to identify groups of authorities whose next generation of local plans must be joint plans.

Many authorities are looking for housing sites with green belt reviews. But the process is patchy, and the likely result too little development, too late and not in the best places. Effective reform will need fearless national leadership.

We should also break out of the mindset that says the only answer to housing need is very large sites, such as urban extensions. Part of the answer will be in public sector-led schemes on the new town model that coordinate development more effectively, capturing planning gain to pay for infrastructure. 

Finally, more priority should be given to rented and social housing. The government must rethink starter homes, which as now proposed would not meet affordable need, and would divert developer contribution from true affordable housing. It should find other ways to pay for social housing, as the pool of developer contributions is not bottomless. It should also consider pooling Section 106 contributions across local authorities.

Cristina Howick is planning partner at Peter Brett Associates

Photo | Shutterstock

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