Ten things we learned from the Planning for Housing conference

The 2017 Planning for Housing conference, organised by Planning, was held in London last week. Here are ten things we learned:

DCLG chief planner, Steve Quartermain
DCLG chief planner, Steve Quartermain

1 Application fees ‘to rise by year end’

Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) chief planner Steve Quartermain said the government’s commitment to allow all English councils to raise planning application fees by 20 per cent should come into force by the end of 2017, almost six months later than signalled in the housing white paper. "My anticipation would be that the regulations should be brought into force at the time they are laid," said Quartermain.

2 The National Planning Policy Framework could be shortened, chief planner says

Quartermain said it is not the DCLG’s intention to make the revised framework a good deal longer: "If anything, there may be opportunities to make it even more succinct." He said the department is looking at whether there is an opportunity to wrap ministerial statements issued since 2012 into the revised document. The redraft may offer an opportunity "to say more" on high-quality design and higher development densities, he added: "We are working with the industry to shine a light on how that’s done." He also said the department is looking at whether it needs to change the framework’s wording in light of the Supreme Court’s Richborough decision. He reiterated that the government aims to publish a draft revision in early 2018 and finalise it by spring at the latest.

3 The housing need methodology is a starting point, says Quartermain

The chief planner stressed that it will be up to individual authorities to decide how last month’s consultation on a standardised methodology for assessing housing need, including its indicative assessments for each authority, should inform their local planning approach. Quartermain said the affordability adjustment mechanism proposed captures councils’ growth ambitions in setting their figures. He said local authorities will be "free to choose another methodology" that gives a higher requirement, but should then expect to face more scrutiny at examination. Simon Neate, director at consulancy Indigo Planning, said his firm’s analysis of government data concludes that, under the standardised approach, 51 per cent of planning authorities’ housing targets would increase by, on average, 240 homes per annum.

4 Duty to cooperate will ‘need more effort’

John Rhodes, chair of the government’s Local Plans Expert Group, said the housing need consultation proposal for statements of common ground between authorities in the same housing market area "won’t help significantly". He added: "The duty to cooperate should be a duty for councils to agree. It needs real teeth to make it work. The policy needs to recognise that there is no point in having a duty to cooperate that allows local authorities not to meet their housing needs." Rhodes also warned that there could be "perverse outcomes" from the consultation’s proposals to cap increases in assessed housing need for individual authorities under the DCLG’s proposals.

5 Development advisory body may re-emerge

Stephen Kinsella, executive director for land at the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), soon to be renamed Homes England, said his organisation is trying to persuade the DCLG to replace the disbanded Advisory Team for Large Applications (ATLAS). Kinsella said the loss of ATLAS "leaves a void". He added: "If we can’t actively support local authority partners lacking their own resources, then developments are just paralysed."

6 Land value capture is on the infrastructure commission’s agenda

Phil Graham, chief executive at the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), said his organisation is looking at ways of spreading the burden of infrastructure spending more widely and allowing public sector landowners to capture land value rises. Graham said the demand for infrastructure provision is "clearly greater" than the amounts budgeted to support the commission’s forthcoming national infrastructure assessment. "One of the key ways to increase that pot is to explore how to access land value uplift," he said. "A lot can be done to get housing and infrastructure planning better aligned."

7 The housing delivery test is a blunt instrument, says developer

Tony Pidgley, chairman of developer Berkeley Group, said that effective measures are in place through the appeals system to penalise councils failing to meet their housing needs or lacking adopted local plans. "We get the best reaction when we engage with the local community and local members rather than putting more pressure on local authorities to deliver." But he said decisions on appeals and section 106 agreements take too long. Keith House, Liberal Democrat leader of Eastleigh Borough Council and deputy chair of the Local Government Association’s environment, economy, housing and transport board, said the DCLG’s indicative housing need figures will "sharpen minds quite quickly" and urged councils to think harder about their role in delivery.

8 Government seeks transparency and certainty on developer contributions

Harriet Fisher, policy team leader at the DCLG, said the government’s "preferred" response, due next month, to its Community Infrastructure Levy review panel, would be to "try and speed up decision-making and create more certainty about the contributions developers will be expected to make". Use of viability assessments, she said, is adding complexity and uncertainty to the planning process, leading to delays and reduced contributions to infrastructure and affordable housing. Fisher confirmed that the government still intends to announce its response to the review in next month’s autumn budget. Iain Gilbey, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said that a local infrastructure tariff, as recommended in the review, would be a welcome change in providing a "top slice" of funding for infrastructure without affecting viability or reducing funds available for affordable housing.

9 London affordability advice proves popular, official says

Applicants have responded positively to London mayor Sadiq Khan’s affordable housing and viability supplementary planning guidance. John Wacher, viability team leader at the Greater London Authority (GLA), said that since the draft guidance was published last autumn, there has been an increase in the number of applications submitted meeting its 35 per cent affordable housing threshold, thus avoiding the need for a separate GLA viability assessment. Pidgley welcomed the GLA’s position as "very straightforward".

10 Ninety per cent of planning decisions follow advice, council leader claims

Cherwell District Council leader Barry Wood said the vast majority of applications are made in accordance with officer advice. Wood said committee decisions are "rarely party political" and tend to be based more on local knowledge. Milton Keynes Council leader Peter Marland advised applicants to "do their homework" ahead of committee meetings, engage early, familiarise themselves with community aspirations and get to know the "wants and needs" of planning committee members.

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