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The housing crisis

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2012

The Government’s desire to boost growth by relaxing the planning rules around the proportion of new developments that must be affordable housing have come under criticism from local authorities and housing campaigners. Adam Hewitt reports.

Increasing the rate of house-building solves a number of problems at once and it has been a key concern of the Coalition Government.

The latest package of measures, which ministers said would create up to 70,000 new homes and 140,000 jobs, includes a controversial proposal to let developers renegotiate agreements with local authorities about the number of affordable homes they have to include in a development project.

To ensure there is a still a net increase in affordable homes, the Treasury would provide up to £300m from under-spends across other departments for ‘direct’ investment in affordable housing.

Developers say the amount of affordable housing insisted on by councils is stalling otherwise viable construction projects. Those that have not started a project after five years of having for it permission will be able to appeal to the planning inspectorate to lift the conditions.

Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Some of the proposals are controversial; others have been a long time in coming. But along with our housing strategy, they provide a comprehensive plan to unleash one of the biggest home building programmes this country has seen in a generation.”

In the planning and housing community, reaction has mostly been negative, as much for the symbolism of the Government’s move as the practicalities.

LGA chairman Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell, the Conservative leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, said it was important to separate myth from reality: “There are enough approvals in the system for 400,000 new homes and more than three years of building. The latest figures on councils’ planning approval rates show that they are at a 10-year high, and have accelerated since the National Planning Policy Framework was introduced earlier in the year. The planning system is clearly not the problem.

“Removing affordable housing requirements will not make it easier for developers to sell houses more cheaply, and so will not address the underlying wider economic issues that are stalling development.”

“The Government has to be careful to avoid creating a situation which could mire future planning decisions in acrimonious challenges and judicial reviews which could slow the planning approval process.”

London Councils executive member for housing, Mayor Sir Steve Bullock, said: “We are concerned that the announcement means getting rid of not just affordable housing but also other necessary community infrastructure like schools, roads and health centres. Local support for new housebuilding will be undermined.

“Barely six months after publishing the National Planning Policy Framework, the Government is once again throwing the planning system into uncertainty, with the reprise of ideas like turning empty offices into housing. This could create inappropriate living conditions and impact on business space price and availability, as housing can be sold for more than offices. Ultimately it should be up for each local authority to decide whether it wants to implement this in its local area or not.”

Rachel Reeves, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said: “We need to get Britain building again, but the Government has slashed the housing budget and the number of affordable homes being built is down by 68%. The fundamental problem is not the planning system or Section 106 agreements for muchneeded affordable housing, it is the lack of confidence and demand in the economy, slashed public investment and the government’s failing economic plan.”

Friends of the Earth’s head of campaigns, Andrew Pendleton, said: “Local people and the environment will be forced to pay the price for these desperate planning reforms, which are being introduced to try and mask the Government’s failure to dig us out of the economic slump.

“These changes attack the core of a fair and democratic planning system. David Cameron promised to champion localism, but these proposals will allow developers to bypass councils, limit the ability of local people to have their say on developments in their area and create a catalyst for disputes between neighbours.

“A strong planning system is needed to ensure top-quality homes, built to the highest environmental standards are located in the right places.

“We also need to tackle the appalling shortage of affordable homes – Government financial carrots should be used to encourage homes we can be proud of and provide for those most in need.”

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