Last week London's City Hall London played host to the first of Housing and Planning Minister Gavin Barwell's roundtable discussions following the publication of the Housing White Paper.
A show of hands at the request of the chair, Liz Peace showed that the minister had a well-represented cross sectoral audience at his feet. This allowed for some good questions which, on the whole, were answered fairly well by the minister. His main message, and one that the RTPI has been saying for a long time now: that there is no silver bullet to the housing crisis (for our range of recommendations, see the RTPI’s #16ways).
It was a relief to hear minister acknowledge this, particularly as there is now a sense that planning no longer seems to be as much of a scapegoat for the country’s housebuilding problems. That’s not to say planning is not being targeted, but it does seem that more attention is being paid to housebuilding practice as well.
The minister was keen to show off his metaphorical bag of carrots and sticks; a rise in planning fees for local authorities being a nice ripe carrot in one hand, with the threat of a (phased) Housing Delivery Test stick, aimed to tackle authorities who are the poorer at housing delivery in the other.
Some of the development sector in the room said they were “incandescent” that a developer’s track record in delivering on their planning permissions could now potentially be a material consideration in the planning application process (moving decision-making away from an each-case-on-its-merits principle). They warned of a backlash where builders would would be less inclined to come forward, resulting in lesser rates of housebuilding. A bold claim, which the minister acknowledged, but it seems he is at the moment willing to take that risk, subject to consultation responses. He stressed the consultation was an opportunity for local authorities to tell him what powers they need to be able to incentivise delivery.
Raising planning fees will help but more needs to be done to retain high calibre planners in local authority planning departments.
The issue of public sector land release dominated a large portion of the discussion, the business community particularly suggesting that there is a significant role for it to play reminding the minister that London lacks a HCA-style organisation best placed to advise on how to make best use of surplus land. The view was echoed by others in the room, although for different reasons, one local councillor making the point that there is an expectation by communities that public land should be released for public good, namely social housing.
Of course, new policies and legislation for making things like land release happen are only as good as the people who implement them, so it was refreshing to hear the minister answering positively to questions about local authority skills and resourcing.
Whilst planning skills are disappointedly not mentioned specifically in the Housing White Paper, the mention of “skills” section specifically in relation to that question, suggests it was implied. Raising planning fees will help but more needs to be done to retain high calibre planners in local authority planning departments.
Some planners in the room raised the slippery topic of Objectively Assessed Housing Need (OAN), concerned that a new methodology (as suggested in the White Paper) could hinder existing assessments. It seems, however, that councils will have the option to adopt one, they will not be obliged. Acceptance of the new methodology should allow a smoother assessment process by the Inspectorate. The minister emphasised that he wanted to see more honesty in approaches to housing assessments and, as if lifted straight out of RTPI literature, would like to see all approaches to delivery should be place-based.
The minister is also clear on his approach to Green Belt. Those suggesting a conversation about a review will be disappointed, but the White Paper seeks to make policy clearer on what is and isn’t appropriate development in the Green Belt.
The issue of capital gains tax and stamp duty rises were raised as the minister took questions from those concerned about changes affecting landlords, particularly in relation to preventing people from downsizing. However, as tax policies come from the Treasury and not DCLG, the minister was unable to comment. He did however say that if allowing more access to housing meant a little disruption in the rental market, he would make no apology. He also was of the view that hurdles to downsizing are as much about emotional attachment as they are about taxes.
His concluding remarks were also familiar to us: that constant changes to the planning system and legislation have not been helpful in the past, but that he hoped the White Paper would set planning on a course that would negate the need for further changes down the line. Let us hope that is the case.
We hope members will take the opportunity to engage with the minister as he makes his way around the country this week. If you have not been able to get a ticket but have views on the White Paper, email firstname.lastname@example.org before 31st March to help inform the RTPI’s response.
Planning Policy Officer, RTPI - @HarryBurchill