Councils promised resources to speed up planning machine

The government intends to address a lack of resources in local authority planning departments that is slowing down development, planning minister Gavin Barwell told a London conference last week.

Housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell speaking at the Planning for Housing conference
Housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell speaking at the Planning for Housing conference

Barwell told delegates: "If we want a fast planning system, we need the planners to make it happen. I’ve heard lots of concerns, from local authorities and developers, about capacity constraints within planning departments and the impact this has on performance, and I want to work with you to address these."

The minister was speaking at the Planning for Housing conference, organised by Planning. Asked by a local authority delegate whether he would back an increase in local planning authority fee rates, Barwell replied: "Many developers say to me they would be prepared to operate in an environment where you could pay a premium fee to get a premium service. There’s clearly a lot of interest in this area, and if I say I’m reflecting on that, I hope that will reassure you."

Speaking exclusively to Planning after his speech, he said it was "perfectly fair" for councils to seek the resources required to offer the swift decisionmaking and local plan production that he was demanding.

But he said he would not hesitate to use his new powers to intervene if he was dissatisfied with the progress of plan-making. "If people are not getting a plan in place or addressing the need in their area, it’s my job to step in," he said.

He warned areas falling short in plan-making not to expect him to use his call-in powers to shield them from unwanted developments. He said he receives a lot of letters from MPs in areas lacking a local plan with a five-year housing land supply asking him to block unplanned development. "My message to my colleagues and other MPs and councillors is that the way to stop speculative development is to have a local plan, with a five-year land supply that meets your objectively assessed housing need. It’s in your own hands."

Barwell said he would not be pushing back the "early 2017" local plan submission deadline, but added: "If people are doing their best to get it done, that’s the important thing. I want to deal with people who are not doing their best."

The minister told delegates he will also be putting pressure on developers to build out permissions more quickly. "If we make the changes that developers have been calling for, I think it’s absolutely right to say they need to step up their game." In his first months in post, Barwell has emphasised that increasing delivery of all housing tenures, not just owner-occupied properties, is essential to meeting housing need.

Last month, he was widely reported as having said that he would consider allowing some types of rented homes to count towards the government’s goal of building 200,000 discounted Starter Homes for first-time buyers aged under 40 by 2020.

Addressing the conference, he clarified the reported quotes, saying that the Housing and Planning Act 2016 is clear on the definition of a Starter Home, and that rented properties "can’t be included in the target for Starter Homes".

However, the minister added that he is considering suggestions that Starter Home regulations should be flexible enough to ensure that other tenures are not stifled. He said he is "reflecting on" suggestions that the act’s national requirement for Starter Homes to be delivered on "all reasonably sized sites", could deter institutions from investing in large blocks of private rented sector accommodation, on the basis that they "might prefer to deliver sub-market rent as part of that offering" rather than discounted market homes.

His overall approach, he said, will be to try to improve each element of the "chain" involved in housing delivery. "It’s getting the land in first of all, speed and certainty of decision-making, speed of build-out rates, diversifying the market and then making sure you’ve actually got the people needed to run the system – be it the planning system or be it the construction industry."

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