Homes and localism at odds in Labour review, by Jamie Carpenter

What would the planning system look like under a Labour government? Last week, the picture became much clearer.

The party's 180-page Lyons Housing Review contains 39 recommendations - many of which relate to the planning system - and gives the most comprehensive indication yet of how local planning authorities and applicants would be affected by a Labour administration.

The review, led by former BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons, sets out a blueprint for how the supply of new homes in England could be increased to more than 200,000 a year by 2020. It provides new detail of how Labour's flagship planning policies, such as "use it or lose it" permissions and a "right to grow" that would stop councils from frustrating the expansion of their neighbours, would be implemented in practice.

Predictably, the Lyons review has been dismissed by communities secretary Eric Pickles, who says it contains plans to allow "unelected officials" to rip up green belt protections and dump "rebranded eco-towns" on local communities. However, to dismiss the review out of hand does it a disservice, especially given the input of a heavyweight panel of a dozen experts from the planning, housing and development sectors that advised Lyons on drawing up his conclusions.

Indeed, for planners, there is plenty to welcome in the review. Lyons suggests allowing council planning departments to set fees locally on a full-cost recovery basis. The review carefully considers calls for a national spatial plan to be introduced (it proposes a "national spatial dimension" to the National Planning Policy Framework). And the report also acknowledges planners' difficulties with the duty to cooperate.

However, familiar tensions between the policy goals of localism and the pressing need to build more homes can also be found in the recommendations. The proposals sound several populist notes, including a measure to empower town halls to "ensure that a proportion of new homes are released and marketed locally before further afield" in areas with a public stake in new housing. Under Lyons' plans, garden cities would be "locally-led", while New Homes Corporations would be "directly accountable to local communities".

But an iron fist nestles inside Lyons' velvet glove. The review actually contains some tough, centralising proposals, including handing the secretary of state powers to direct the Planning Inspectorate to intervene where councils are too slow to prepare local plans or fail to cooperate with their neighbours to meet local housing needs (see News Analysis, p6). Existing criteria for placing councils in special measures should be broadened so that councils could face designation for under-delivery on housing, it suggests.

By proposing to hand more powers to the secretary of state, Labour leaves itself vulnerable to Pickles' claims that its proposals are anti-localist. But, should it win power next May, Labour will surely need to contemplate the introduction of some potentially unpopular policies if it is to meet its stated goal of building 200,000 homes a year by 2020. Localism cannot solve the housing crisis on its own.

Jamie Carpenter, deputy editor, Planning

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