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Richard Blyth: Michael Gove’s long-term plan for housing

Head of Policy, Practice & Research Richard Blyth analyses the key features of the Government's long-term plan for housing

What’s been proposed, changed or responded to?

Earlier this week the Secretary of State for Housing and Levelling Up, Michael Gove, set out new measures to ‘unblock’ the planning system in England and build more homes under the banner of a ‘long-term plan for housing’.

The initial announcements were followed by the launch of three supporting consultations on major planning issues:

Following all of this, has DLUHC also updated the Planning Practice Guidance on ‘flexible options for planning permission’ and ‘when is planning permission required?’ and published a new Letter to Chief Planning officers.

Via its England Policy Committee, the RTPI will be submitting full responses to the consultations, as well as the recently published DLUHC call for evidence Freight, logistics and the planning system (deadline 6 October). But in this blog post we pick through some of the initial announcements’ key features.

Skills, capability and capacity

A key strand of the government’s proposals concern boosting planners’ and the system’s capacity and capability. This is a subject which the RTPI has been working closely with the government. There are several threads to the proposals that build on recent investment in our Future Planners Bursary Scheme.

First, on additional funding the Government has announced £24m for ‘the planning skills delivery fund’ to which councils can apply for £100k. The scheme focuses on projects to clear planning backlogs and initiatives to upskill areas of planning specialism that could be delivered within six months. The announcement’s language suggests that this would be subject to a competitive bidding process, which would be a shame, given the Secretary of State’s recent comments about the toll that this approach to funding can take on already stretched councils.

Second, the government are looking to establish a ‘super squad’ which will be a…

‘…team of leading planners and other experts charged with working across the planning system to unblock major housing developments, underpinned by £13.5 million in funding.’

This is reminiscent of, but not exactly comparable to, the ATLAS initiative established in the 2000s. It is important this “squad” works with local planning departments to build capacity.  And we believe the planners it employs should be chartered town planners – preferably not taken too much from the public sector for fear of exacerbating staff shortage.

Third, following a consultation earlier this year, the Government has confirmed that it will raise fees for planning applications for the first time since 2018, and substantially for the first time since 2012.

There will be a 35% increase in the fees for major applications and a 25% increase in the fees for others. Crucially, the increase will rise with inflation as suggested by the RTPI and protected for planning services within council budgets. What remains to be seen here is how this will be enforced in practice because today announcements suggest that Government wants expects to ringfence planning income via guidance rather than legislation.

In its consultation documents on fees and performance the government itself acknowledged that this additional income alone won’t solve the resourcing crisis in LPAs.  However, in combination with additional support measures and future engagement with the sector about planning’s performance framework, these announcements are excellent news. The fact that government is now so clearly and keenly aware of the benefits a more effectively-resourced and skilled planning system also positive, and light years from where we were just a few years ago.

In response to these new proposals, Victoria Hills said:

“I believe this investment into the planning system will make a significant contribution to alleviating the pressure placed on England’s planning services. Well-resourced Local Planning Authorities have the power to make a unique contribution to their areas, helping to deliver the affordable homes, public services, and critical infrastructure individuals, families and communities need."

Development Delivery

Looking at “how”, the government’s proposals addresses the ongoing challenge of “build out” in a number of locations. There is currently a limit on what councils can do to ensure that permissions which are granted are actually turned into homes or other buildings. This is in contrast to many other countries where the planning system is more focused on outcomes.

In the past various different models of delivery focussed planning have been used in England, such as development corporations or special delivery “vehicles” such as Cambridgeshire Horizons, and it would seem sensible to deploy this approach on a broad scale.

This needs to cover issues such as assembling viable plots of land where there are multiple owners, problems with water, power and transport, plus ensuring that social infrastructure such as GPs are in place for new and existing populations.

Local plans

We have a plan-led system of development in England, and it is important that plans are produced efficiently and with genuine public involvement. The Government launched a consultation on local plans today which the RTPI will be responding to in due course. We would agree that the length of many plans makes them hard for the public to engage with. We are also aware that - with sufficient investment - more digital means of expressing local plans may help ensure that the full range of views within an area are heard.

However, we are strongly aware that the absence of strategic planning over wider areas is one of the current reasons for delay to local plan production, because each council is trying to make its own plans without reference to a wider strategy. We will be investigating how this problem could be overcome as part of our research programme very soon.

NDMPs could possibly present a means by which the length of local plans could be reduced, but as we’ve evidenced, proper public and parliamentary scrutiny will be needed in order to do so effectively and without undermining popular consent to planning policy.

The nature of development

For some time now the Government has been arguing for better quality design  - with some degree of success. This agenda is continued this week with the formal establishment of the Office for Place, the plans for which the RTPI has assisted with in recent times. As an arms-length body, the OfP will be suitably located in Stoke-on-Trent and will be able to act as a critic and a friend in the drive for better designed development.

 What next?

The announcements this week come on top of the continued length progress of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill through Parliament. That will probably return to the Commons in the early autumn and provides part of the basis for the proposals this week. The RTPI will continue to monitor and feed into the Parliamentary process alongside our work responding to these new consultations and wider research work programme that will be looking more comprehensively at how best to deliver local and strategic plans in England.

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