Chipping away at planning obligations won't solve the Nimby problem, by Jamie Carpenter

With the publication of the Labour Party's Lyons review of housing delivery unexpectedly delayed, the Conservatives were this week given the opportunity to seize the initiative on housing, one of the areas where polls usually find Labour to have a significant lead.

Among the key planning-related announcements to emerge from the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham was David Cameron's pledge to provide 100,000 new discounted homes for young people by building on brownfield land no longer needed for industrial or commercial use.

According to reports, the homes would be exempt from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) development tariff and normal affordable housing obligations.

Full details of the initiative - badged the "Help-to-Buy: Starter Home" scheme - have yet to be published. But should the reports be correct, the measure is set to be the latest in a growing number of policies to erode local planning authorities' abilities to seek developer contributions.

In March 2011, former planning minister Greg Clark told local planning authorities to reconsider, at developers' request, existing section 106 agreements that currently render schemes unviable, and "where possible modify those obligations to allow development to proceed".

The coalition government has since legislated to introduce a new appeal mechanism to allow developers to challenge affordable housing obligations, has proposed the introduction of a 10-unit threshold for affordable housing contributions, and changes to CIL regulations earlier this year have prompted fears that local authorities could miss out on millions of pounds of infrastructure funding.

Meanwhile, councils are unable to seek the usual section 106 contributions from developers taking advantage of controversial permitted development rights allowing offices to be converted to homes without planning permission.

The government's first moves to make it easier for developers to escape section 106 contributions were made when the country was still in the grip of recession and justified on the basis that freeing firms from having to make such payments could assist the economic recovery. But with the economy having now recovered from the recession, does this argument still hold water?

It may be attractive for politicians to dismiss section 106 and CIL as red tape that can be dispensed with at little cost, but the reality is that funds obtained through these mechanisms are substantial and important for making developments acceptable in planning terms.

Research published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) earlier this year estimated that the total value of planning obligations in 2011/12 was £3.7 billion. The study estimated that between 31,000 and 33,000 affordable homes were generated by the section 106 deals agreed in that financial year.

But the chipping away at authorities’ ability to seek section 106 contributions does not only mean less cash in the pot for affordable housing, local transport projects and education, community and leisure facilities.

The strategy also appears to run counter to the government's attempts - through policies such as the so-called Boles bung - to reduce the extent to which development is blocked or delayed as a result of local opposition.

Communities must have the confidence that new developments in their area will be accompanied by the necessary infrastructure, or these efforts are doomed to fail.

Jamie Carpenter // deputy editor, Planning

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