However, the opportunity is being lost to address the integration of planning and housing strategies for the delivery of housing
Policy and research director Kelvin MacDonald, responding to the consultation on the draft Housing Bill, commends the ODPM for engaging in such a potentially constructive period of consultation in advance of the bill entering parliament.
He says that the RTPI welcomes most of the bill's provisions, in particular, the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, something for which the RTPI and ROOM have consistently campaigned, and the extension of licensing to form part of a strategy for declining or low-demand areas. "We also welcome the provisions relating to the right to buy, including the right to acquire, in so far as they demonstrate a willingness to examine the retention of affordable stock as well as concentrating on the supply of market and affordable housing through the planning system."
However, MacDonald says that he is concerned that, as successive pieces of legislation are brought forward, the opportunity is being lost to provide an integrated strategic framework for housing and for planning for housing that is embedded in legislation in a clear and comprehensible way. "The opportunity is being lost to address a key government priority - the integration of planning and housing strategies for the delivery of housing."
The RTPI's detailed comments are restricted to clauses dealing with clearance and demolition, the home information pack and the right to buy. MacDonald says that it is extremely concerned that there is a widening gap between the statutory justification for using compulsory purchase powers leading to demolition or clearance as between the housing bill and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill.
"The latter bill," he points out, "allows wide discretion within the phrase 'if the authority thinks that the acquisition will facilitate the carrying out of development, redevelopment or improvement', whereas the housing bill appears to limit the use of powers under the 1985 Housing Act to the new definition in the bill of 'hazard'. There is therefore an urgent need to rationalise legislation for compulsory purchase so that those engaged in the redevelopment and regeneration of neighbourhoods are not hampered by legal uncertainty as to which power to use."
The RTPI recommends that the reference to the 1985 Act be removed until such a time as the rules on compulsory purchase are rationalised through an integrated compulsory purchase bill.
Turning to the question of home packs, MacDonald says the RTPI is concerned that: "Under the bill, an obligation would be placed on a person acting as an estate agent to have available a copy of the home information pack before marketing the property. And, although the consultation states that the government believes that the bill's provisions would not prevent an agent advising an enquirer that instructions had been received to market the property but that marketing - eg providing details of the property and arranging viewings - could not commence until the pack was ready, the RTPI believes that this is unclear and could lead to 'gazumping'."
"This could result," he adds, "in serious delays in the home buying/selling process in areas of high demand. In turn, this could lead to offers being made verbally or 'informally' before the pack is available and the property is officially on the market. We suggest, therefore, that the intent behind these clauses be more clearly expressed and allowance should not be made for apparent loopholes to these clauses."
The consultation states that the section on the right to buy modernises this scheme by tackling profiteering and emphasising purchasers' responsibilities so that it contributes more effectively to the supply of affordable housing.
But MacDonald says that the RTPI does not believe this proposal will significantly ease access to affordable housing for those in need. "The fundamental problem remains - in both England and Wales - that the stock of social housing has been reduced and is not being replaced."
He maintains that "if the ODPM and the Welsh Assembly Government are serious about the growing issue of affordability and access to decent housing for all, then this issue must be tackled in a more comprehensive fashion, including the allocation of additional resources both for new build and for schemes such as Homebuy".
In England, the government has already announced the 42 areas in which the discount would be restricted. Six of these have asked to be excluded from the list and 12 additional authorities have asked to be added.
"While this has been done on the basis of national indicators of housing stress, the RTPI argues that such decisions ought to be taken through a local planning process that allows housing authorities to identify areas in which discount might be restricted or, even, the right to buy or acquire might be withdrawn. This decision could be made on the basis of, for example, future plans for regeneration and redevelopment, local housing markets and demographic factors.
"The RTPI suggests that such decisions could be made within the local housing strategy or within the local development framework and therefore proposes that a clause be inserted to give local planning authorities the right to identify areas in which the right to buy regime might be modified and that this right is to be exercised through a statutory plan prepared under planning legislation."