So after what has seemed like an endless rally of ping pong between the two Houses of Parliament, the long awaited Housing and Planning Act 2016 has received Royal Ascent – the widely anticipated (yet another) reform of the planning system. The Act covers a number of areas, but of greatest interest to us planning professionals will without doubt be the sections covering Starter Homes and Planning in England.
The first key point to make is that this Act lacks much of the detail that will enable us to understand how these reforms will actually work in practice; secondary legislation in abundance will therefore be where the real interest lies in due course. So what does the Act give us?
Part 1, Chapter 1, ‘Starter Homes’. That is no coincidence. As the Government’s flagship solution to addressing the barrier to home ownership it takes centre stage at the head of the Act. The Act imposes a general duty upon LPAs to promote the supply of starter homes in England, so those LPAs intent on pursuing an alternative agenda will need to think again. We are given a definition of a Starter Home and a definition of who is a qualifying first-time buyer. Whilst further nuggets of interest include power to the Secretary of State, through further regulation, to dictate that LPAs can only grant planning permission for residential development where the starter homes requirement is met – but we don’t know what this “requirement” will be at this stage. The Secretary of State is also given power to intervene where LPAs are failing to carry out their function in relation to the delivery of starter homes. So we know what a starter home is and how the Government intends to go about getting them delivered in general terms, but with so much left to secondary legislation before LPAs know what they are supposed to be doing, delivering 200,000 starter homes by 2020 is looking distinctly unachievable.
Turning now to Part 6,‘Planning in England’, we have the expected Permission in principle – or outline planning permission as I like to call it – and brownfield registers. But hang on a moment, the word “brownfield” does not appear anywhere in the 234 pages of text. What we have is provision for a requirement for a Register of Land to be compiled by an LPA, but where the type of land, content of the register and methods surrounding formation of the Register is being left to secondary legislation. Returning briefly to Permission in principle, this was subject to a House of Lords amendment so that it will only relate to “housing-led” development.
I have searched long and hard for how these reforms may streamline the planning system and either speed up housing delivery or the development plan process. I’m struggling on the former. As for the latter, it’s all about powers of intervention. The Act (sections 139–148) introduces a raft of measures for the Secretary of State to intervene in both neighbourhood plan and local plan processes, to issue Directions prescribing, for example, streamlined consultation periods for neighbourhood plans, and to halt local plan examinations and request that the examiner, or examination, gives consideration to certain matters or takes a certain procedural step. Of significant interest to all concerned will be the power that is now conferred to the Secretary of State to intervene if he thinks an LPA is failing to do what “it is necessary for them to do” in connection with the preparation of a development plan document.
The Act essentially allows the Secretary of State to take over the show. I don’t think anyone really envisages that this will occur extensively, but it serves as a warning to LPAs that the Government is serious in its intention to ensure that the local plan process is sped up. This is a good thing because the development industry needs local plans to progress.
We are well versed in clearly presenting the economic benefits of development proposals to LPAs and communities and The Act now introduces a requirement for any financial benefits of a development (whether or not material to the application) to be clearly presented and commented upon in a committee report.
There is so much more that the Act introduces, but does not quite give us the detail we expected. This includes:
- The ability to apply directly to the Secretary of State for planning permission in designated areas, we assume where there is poor performance;
- The piloting of a process where “alternative providers” can determine planning applications;
- ‘Planning freedoms schemes’, where local areas can enter into schemes that display or modify certain planning provisions with the specific intent of significantly increasing housing delivery; and
- The ability to not only allow LPAs to set their own planning application fees, but also leave them vulnerable to refunding applicants when certain timescales are not met.
So what is my overall opinion of the Act? The Government is intent on delivering significantly more housing and boosting home ownership and the Act mirrors this rhetoric, which is to be applauded. But I am left a little disappointed that it gives us too little when what the industry needs, amidst a housing crisis, is not just a book of ideas but a clear plan of action.
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