Councils should plan strategically on regional or county level, says housing minister

The government wants local authorities to come together in 'regional groupings' and prepare strategic plans in return for Whitehall infrastructure funding, the housing minister has said.

Housing minister Kit Malthouse speaking at the Policy Exchange conference fringe event yesterday
Housing minister Kit Malthouse speaking at the Policy Exchange conference fringe event yesterday

Kit Malthouse told several fringe events at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week that one of his key missions is to tour the country to encourage councils to plan on a regional or county scale. 

He said the government was keen to replicate the Oxfordshire housing deal, in which the county's councils promised to deliver 100,000 new homes and a joint spatial plan by 2031 in return for £215 million of government infrastructure funding and a less stringent housing land supply requirement.

The move forms part of government efforts to boost housing delivery, Malthouse said, as he warned authorities not to operate as "little islands".

Government money would come from the £5 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund, which aims to pay for infrastructure where it would unlock housing growth.

Speaking at a fringe event hosted by the Planning Futures think-tank on Monday, he said: "Our general thrust is for groups of local authorities to come together to form a kind of strategic partnership and vision for a particular region or area, fundamentally so that we can fund the infrastructure that's related to it. 

"We are unable to put the infrastructure that's required throught the [Housing Infrastructure Fund] against proposals unless they have that kind of pan-regional or cross-area coordination." 

At a Town and Country Planning Association event the day before, he said: "We are trying to encourage as much as possible for two-tier areas to get together and produce a kind of strategic plan. 

"That's what's happening in Oxfordshire, where we've given the whole county the planning freedoms and flexibilities and some time to produce a strategic plan which will include the infrastructure that they want to build."

At a Conservative Home event yesterday afternoon, he said: "I'm touring the country at the moment, talking to areas about them putting together strategic plans to release large amount of land."

He said such a grouping could be on a county, region or "growth corridor" scale and should result in large amounts of land coming forward for development.

He went on to say: "At the moment, we are trying to move away from a position where so many local authorities operate as little islands. 

"Given the scale of what we need, it's just not sustainable. There are lots of boroughs with big contraints on what they do, whether it's green belt or [Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty] or national parks. 

"They haven't got the space but still have a strong housing requirement and we really need areas to work together, to work out where it's best for these things to go.

"I have £5 billion to spend on infrastructure and unless I can get groups of authorities that can agree broadly about where the housing can go, I'm a bit stuffed in handing it out."

Earlier that day, he told a Policy Exchange think-tank fringe event: "What we are trying to do is get groups of local authorities to get together and think regionally about what their housing requirement is."

He said such an approach would allow councils to pool their section 106 funding to pay for new infrastructure.

In 2010, communities secretary Eric Pickles abolished the old system of regional planning introduced by the previous Labour government and replaced it with the duty to cooperate, in which councils have a legal duty to work with neighbours to meet housing need.

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