Legal Viewpoint: Practical points on benefit pilot plans

The government plans to pilot a development benefits scheme. Its proposal to hand some of the cash generated by residential developments to individual households (see related links) raises some interesting questions.

The theory is that opposition to housing plans might be reduced if the "benefits" are distributed more tangibly among neighbours.

This is a bold idea. Never before has a government so seriously and openly contemplated wooing those who would otherwise object to development by handing them cash directly. In this sense, the pilot represents a considerably more striking concept than either the New Homes Bonus or the "Boles Bung", as the initiative to share Community Infrastructure Levy revenue with parish councils has become known.

Opponents will argue that this is thinly veiled bribery. But whatever might be said on a philosophical level, the proposals give pause for reflection on a number of more practical points. First, the stated objective of the proposed regime is to address "the impact of new housing on those living nearby" and, in particular, "noise and nuisance" from building sites. This implies a misreading of the situation, in two respects.

The first is that it tends not to be the prospect of construction activities that triggers opposition to development. Such hostility is a complex phenomenon, but is strongly influenced by a perception of long-term downward pressure on house prices. Disturbance from temporary construction activities is rarely residents’ principal concern. The other point is that effective mechanisms to address complaints of nuisance feature in both statute and common law. It is difficult to see any logical justification for further provision in this context.

Second, the plans raise the prospects of frequent disputes, frustrating administrators and impeding delivery. Who gets paid, who doesn’t and how much are likely to cause controversy. Catch-all mechanisms tend to prove blunt instruments for such sensitive issues. Equally, case-by-case decision-making will surely engender disenchantment and dispute. Will the legislation contain a procedure for resolution in such cases? The published paperwork contains limited detail in this respect. Councils in particular will be anxious to understand what the government has in mind.

Various other questions arise. Where, for example, will the funding come from? Both developers and councils will complain that their budgets are already stretched, and it is true that there is little fat to trim. How much cash will be needed? Experience suggests that it will take substantial sums to overcome hardened hostility to new housing, so there is a risk that a lot of money will be spent for little gain.

Whatever their philosophical merit, plans for such a delicate regime will require careful calibration if they are to have the effect that the government seeks.

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