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The Housing & Planning Bill: Raising more questions than it answers

What, when, why?

The Housing and Planning Bill was published last Tuesday. Trailed as The Housing Bill it is great to see planning in the title as that is what it is – a planning bill with a strong emphasis on housing and, sadly, it seems nothing else. As noted in previous blogs this bill has come about due to the ongoing housing crisis. The bill covers England and Wales though some elements only relate to England.

The bill potentially introduces some huge changes for many tenants and those looking to buy. Whilst these are very important and controversial, our focus lies with woods and trees; what this bill means for our precious ancient woodland; and how it will impact upon everyone’s ability to create environmentally sound communities where people really want to live.

All change for planning

The bill introduces some very new thinking into the English planning system. Since the inception of the planning system we have had a plan-led approach. That is, sites for housing can be allocated in the Local Plan, which gives a clear direction of travel, but a subsequent, detailed planning application and approval is required prior to development. Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) have long had discretionary powers to use Local Development Orders (LDO) to designate certain types of development in specific geographical areas, essentially negating the need for developers to apply for planning permission.

The new bill amends these powers, putting a legal duty on LPAs to compile a register of all the brownfield sites (previously developed land) suitable for housing development. If the allocated land satisfies the development order with regard to the scope and type of development (the associated guidance says this is currently intended to be limited to 10 residential units), then a LDO granting permission in principle can be placed on it.

But what if this land is of high biodiversity value (0.5MB, PDF), and what about adjacent sites? A brownfield site may be seen as being suitable for housing, but what about buffering the adjacent ancient woodland? We also have concerns about the apparent move towards considering housing in isolation; what about the other amenities, opportunities for employment, retail, leisure and recreation as well as the all-important green infrastructure critical for health and well-being? All of these should be considered as part of the development package.

Even more worryingly, the bill sets out that development plan documents and neighbourhood plans could also be eligible for permission in principle. This is concerning because the lodging of an application for planning permission is a key opportunity for local residents and environmental groups to engage with the LPA and the applicant to improve proposals.

Local Planning Authorities: will they still be allowed to plan?

Also heavily trailed is the ability for the Secretary of State (SoS) to Intervene in the local plan-making process if he/she thinks an LPA is ‘failing or omitting’ in plan-making. This is horribly vague and lays LPAs open to intervention and the threat of having their plan-making powers removed, whilst subsequently having costs claimed against them.

In a time of austerity when LPAs have suffered significant cuts (1.6MB, PDF), plan-making is often lagging behind due to issues of staffing and the need to create a sound (and therefore expensive) evidence base. It seems difficult to believe that the SoS could deliver sound plans in a more cost-effective manner than local officers, communities and their elected representatives. This looks like a huge step backwards for localism and I for one worry that local details such as important greenspaces and habitats would get lost in a top-down national government led approach.

All systems go for neighbourhood planning

There are some positive elements coming out of the bill. For instance, it makes some clear provisions for speeding up the neighbourhood planning process, enabling prescribed dates to be set. Whilst most LPAs are great at supporting groups and dealing with neighbourhood plans in an expedient fashion, I have heard many examples of neighbourhood planning groups being kept waiting for months while LPAs consider designations. As such this move can only be a good thing in terms of enabling local communities and really giving them the motivation needed to push plans forward.

A threat to woods and trees?

So what does all this mean for woods and trees? The bill’s housing-centric approach seems unhealthy: whilst we all understand the importance of a home to call our own, that home cannot be viewed in isolation. What about the community it lies in? Are there places for children to play? For biodiversity to thrive? Is it safe to walk and cycle? Is the air polluted or is it at risk of flooding? These are all critical questions in which the natural environment has to play a central role.

But this bill and the accompanying rhetoric seems to insist that housing can be considered in isolation. For example, a written ministerial statement encourages LPAs ‘not to seek tariff style contributions’. This can only be referring to the Community Infrastructure Levy which is increasingly critical for providing local infrastructure such as schools, roads and open spaces. The new bill places an obligation on LPAs to promote the supply of starter homes, but with limited money for infrastructure both hard and green, will these homes really be places people want to live, or will we just be building the slums of the future?

Here at the Trust we believe a strong, plan-led system spearheaded by local communities and elected members is the only way that we can create better places rich in woods and trees – places where people want to live for generations to come. This bill seems to take a step towards undermining that approach. As ever the devil will lie in the detail- the most common phrase in the bill being ‘in regulations made by the Secretary of State...’ Wording that could give carte blanche on further measures - this will be an area for scrutiny where we will be working hard to influence as the bill and the accompanying regulations as it goes forward.