Roy Kennedy on getting ministers to focus on housebuilding rather than legislating for peripheral planning concerns
The Neighbourhood Planning Bill, which this week had its Lords Second Reading, is the sixth piece of legislation in six years that makes changes to the planning process in England. A piecemeal attitude to public policy development that is not only damaging but fails to develop systems that will stand the test of time.
The failure to include the proposal to put the National Infrastructure Commission on a statutory footing, despite a commitment in the last Queen's speech, is worrying. And with our country in the midst of a housing crisis, the Bill does nothing to build a single house – seeking instead to focus on issues that local government and industry consider to be peripheral.
While everyone seems to be agreed that we need to build more homes, the consensus breaks down when ministers fail to move from their affordable housing model, which provides unaffordable units for many people in our communities.
A key concern is the failure to get new homes built on sites where planning permissions have already been granted and nothing in this Bill to seeks to address this problem. Neighbourhood planning which enables local people to be more fully involved in influencing the planning process is to be welcomed, and we will back amendments to promote neighbourhood rights of appeal and strengthen the weight given to neighbourhood plans.
With the latter needing to be approved by referenda, it is vital that a minimum threshold needs to be achieved on the turnout. Otherwise, we risk plans being approved with a derisory vote that undermines the proposal and calls into question the validity of referendum based approvals. We also need the government to make progress in supporting Planning Departments, which are chronically underfunded after years of public spending cuts but also faced increased demands.
The pre-commencement planning conditions highlight a problem with government thinking. They are not the reason for homes not being built, and if ministers fail to address the real issues they are doomed to fail on their stated objectives to build thousands of more homes. So we must address why are developers in certain areas are not building on land they own and for which they have obtained the required permissions. And we must protect against inadvertently encouraging inappropriate development by lowering standards of acceptable development.
The Bill makes provision for permitted development to be recorded on the planning register. This is yet another requirement that places further burdens on Planning Departments without any further financial provisions.
The Bill also streamlines compulsory purchase powers, including the temporary possession of land to enable schemes to store equipment and machinery; and allowing councils to capture the value from increased land prices to invest in the infrastructure needed to compliment and facilitate new housing schemes. But there are also gaps, particularly in respect of Mayoral Development Corporations and Transport for London.
Labour will try to persuade ministers of the merits of our case as the Bill passes through the Lords, and amend their proposals. If they choose not to, the subsequent legislation will not lead to the delivery of one single social home, help the struggling SME builder or tackle the growing skills crisis in the construction sector.
Lord Roy Kennedy of Southwark is Shadow Housing and Planning Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordRoyKennedy
Published 18th January 2017