Ten things we learned at the Conservative Party conference

Housing and planning featured heavily at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this year. Here are ten key messages we picked up from last week's event.

Housing secretary James Brokenshire
Housing secretary James Brokenshire

1. The housing minister warned local authorities not to "take their foot off the accelerator" following the publication of new household projections that indicate a much lower level of housing need in many parts of the country. Asked about the impact of the new projections on housing need, Kit Malthouse told a fringe meeting that the new projections have "caused some very anomalous results". He said: "We are hoping to make a rapid announcement about that because councils are doing the maths and saying ‘I’m off the hook.’ But my message is: don’t take your foot off the accelerator." More details here.

2. In revising its standard method of assessing housing need, the government is considering looking at whether the household projections mask pent-up demand. Malthouse said "part of the problem" is that the new projections are based on a "period of particularly low housing growth" during which "there was an artificial constraint on household formation". He said: "We are looking at data on the increase in the number of people staying at home to see whether that artificial constraint means we should look at the numbers again." More details here.

3. The government wants local authorities to come together in "regional groupings" and prepare strategic plans in return for Whitehall infrastructure funding. Malthouse told several fringe events that one of his key missions is to tour the country to encourage councils to plan on a regional or county scale to boost housing delivery. Warning authorities not to operate as "little islands", he said: "Our general thrust is for groups of local authorities to come together to form a kind of strategic partnership for a particular region or area, so that we can fund the infrastructure that’s related to it." More details here.

4. The government will consult on a new permitted development right to allow property owners to extend their buildings upwards. In his speech to the conference, housing secretary James Brokenshire said he will "publish proposals to permit people to build up on existing buildings rather than build out to use more precious land". A statement issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government after the speech said the government will be "introducing a new permitted development right to allow property owners to extend certain buildings upwards, while maintaining the character of residential and conservation areas and safeguarding people’s privacy". More details here.

5. The housing minister will consider further measures to boost local authority planning team resources if it "becomes clear" that they are constraining development. Malthouse pointed out that the government raised planning application fees earlier in the year and said it is "thinking about" a second rise in fees that it trailed last September. Asked about whether authorities should be allowed to set their own fees, Malthouse said: "I’m always happy to look at that. If it becomes clear that capacity in planning departments is really a constraint on development, then we may well have to do something about it, so we will keep that under review."

6. The government has received about 14 responses from councils in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor keen to promote new settlements following a call for expressions of interest, according to the housing minister. Malthouse wrote to local authorities in July to invite councils in the arc to submit "ambitious proposals" for growth, setting a deadline of 14 September. He told a fringe event: "I think we’ve had 14 responses, something like that." Malthouse added that local authorities are now more willing to accept the need for large-scale new settlements, in part due to the availability of government infrastructure funding. More details here.

7. The housing minister called on councils to be "much tougher" with developers to ensure that sites with planning permission are built out. Malthouse said new powers in the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) currently allow local authorities to give only two-year permissions, to take a developer’s track record of delivery into account and to withdraw a site from a development plan and reallocate it if it’s the case that it’s not being developed. He added: "What I want to really reinforce over the next few months with local planning authorities, is that they must be much tougher in this game of chicken that takes place in the planning system at the moment." More details here.

8. Councils must also be bolder in their viability negotiations with developers, the housing minister told the conference. Malthouse said councils "have to be firm" in situations where a developer tries to renegotiate promises made in a section 106 agreement because of economic changes that have reduced the value of the site’s land. He said he is "giving thought" to how the government can make sure both that councils take such a stance and that development is built. More details here.

9. The housing minister insisted that better quality design is a key way of boosting housing delivery. Malthouse told a fringe event: "We have to do something to improve acceptability among the population." New housing developments are often resisted politically because of their design, he said. The new National Planning Policy Framework, he said, puts "much greater emphasis on design" and gives local authorities "much greater powers to turn schemes down on the basis of design". "Really good, solid design is much more likely to get you planning permission and get the local community behind it." More details here.

10. A senior figure at the Local Government Association (LGA) responded that pressure to deliver new homes is preventing councils from promoting higher design standards. The housing delivery test, which comes into force in November, measures council’s delivery of new homes against their local housing requirement, with penalties for authorities that fail to deliver enough. Martin Tett, chair of the LGA environment, economy, housing and transport board, told a fringe event: "The ability to turn things down on design grounds is limited. There’s enormous momentum in government to get boxes built and I’m worried that the design principles will be forfeited in that rush." More details here.


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