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Clark slammed for late-night Housing Bill ‘privatisation’ shift

Communities secretary Greg Clark MP has been criticised for taking housebuilding powers away from public hands as a result of a series of amendments made to the government’s Housing and Planning Bill over the festive period, debated this week in a Commons motion that only concluded at 2am.

At the centre of these amendments is the power handed to developers to choose who will process their planning applications. Instead of sent to local planning authorities, companies would be able to choose a “designated person”.

A planning expert at the University of Northampton, Dr Bob Colenutt, told the Guardian that the move would “replace a public sector ethos with a developer-led ethos”.

“The ‘designated persons’ are likely to be consultants who also work for the private sector, which introduces probable bias and reduces the public scrutiny trail. And it is very likely to reduce the right that the public has to make comments on planning applications,” he told the paper.

In a briefing of the tabled amendments, the LGA voiced concerns with Clark’s planned changes given that the planning system, as it stands, “is not a barrier to development”.

“Applicants and developers need stability and certainty from the planning system in order to deliver the homes we need, it is important that new reforms do not destabilise local success and that planning decisions are made locally through a democratically accountable planning system,” the briefing read.

The association is also fighting against the secretary of state’s intention to be able to direct a local authority to dispose of its land, arguing that councils are “best able to manage locally their assets to meet the needs of communities” and should thus “retain the flexibility to manage” their lands.

Another amendment, also tabled by Clark, would allow the communities secretary to “impose restrictions or conditions on the enforceability of planning obligations entered into with regard to the provision of affordable housing”.

“Local planning authorities should be able to determine locally the mix of affordable housing products for rent and sale, including the number type and location of starter homes, in line with local assessments of need and viability as determined in their Local Plan agreed with communities,” the LGA argued.

Changes to section 106 seeking to introduce a new dispute resolution procedure for planning obligations were another sticking point in Clark’s string of changes.

Councils claimed that section 106 planning agreements “are a means of meeting policy requirements of a local plan” and are key to assessing a development proposal as a whole, meaning they should not be considered through a separate process.

Labour also took issue with the government’s plans to dilute the definition of affordable homes, revealed by PSE in December, in order to help meet its ambitious housing target. Its shadow housing minister, John Healey, argued that “instead of building more affordable homes, they are branding more homes as affordable”.

One of the few amendments made by Clark that was broadly welcomed by councils was the intention to pilot an approach allowing local planning authorities to locally set planning fees in order to recover costs.

This has been campaigned for by the LGA and the District Councils’ Network (DCN) for some time, although a PSE local government source said the move, hoped to be an “unalloyed victory”, could instead be hedged by “Whitehall’s love of pilot projects”.

“And in time-honoured civils service fashion, these pilots will be doomed to success,” the source added.

Discussions in the early hours

Several MPs also attacked the government for starting the Bill’s motion until nearly 9pm despite the “huge amount of new clauses and amendments” tabled over the Christmas period.

Labour’s Roberta Blackman-Woods MP said she took “real issue” with this scheduling, commenting: “We are considering most of them this evening when seeking to determine what the changes mean for housing associations with regard to regulation and deregulation, and to large-scale systemic changes to our planning system.

“Most planning organisations and agencies have simply had no time to assess what these changes will mean for them or the planning system. Never in my experience of many Bills in this House have I witnessed 65 pages of government new clauses and amendments being produced at the last minute for a Bill that is 145 pages long. That is simply appalling and means that there will be no proper scrutiny in this House of almost a third of the Bill.”

Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP for Slough agreed that she was “very unhappy” with the programme motion, “merely because of the time we are starting to debate it: 10 minutes to nine”.

“This means that really important clauses will be considered after midnight, for example on whether there can be any priority for local people when it comes to purchasing of starter homes, which is included in new clause 57,” she continued.

“There a number of really important issues which frankly I think our constituents, who are concerned about housing and planning, would not expect to be decided after midnight. That is not grown up; it is a return to the days when I first came to this House and voted against beating children at 4am. I vowed never to have such important votes at that time of the morning again.”

(Top image c. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)


Ed   07/01/2016 at 12:41

This sounds worse than the system we have now.

Christine   11/01/2016 at 12:52

It not only sounds worse than what we have now, it is worse. Where is the ability of local people to comment let alone object to proposed developments?

Richard   19/01/2016 at 09:01

This at last will get building going. The obfuscation, delays and sheer bloody mindedness of objectors AND planners has got us into the situation we are now in. This bill will sweep away the nimby's and luddites. REMEMBER, before 1945 there were no planning laws in the UK and ownership of land conferred rights to build. look at pre 1945 constructions, any monstrosities? NO, trust people and they will do the right thing for their environment.

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