With the exception of the house building industry, the government's proposals to make the release of land for housing more responsive to market signals has won few fans.
But while ministers may feel that they can brush aside the countryside protection lobby, they will find it harder to ignore the spectrum of opposition on display at a House of Lords seminar last month. The event, organised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), came in the run-up to the government's response to last year's Barker review of housing supply.
The seminar took place the day after a Campaign for More and Better Homes conference (Planning, 4 November, p9) had underlined concerns about an under-supply of housing. It highlighted widespread doubt that the proposals outlined in this summer's consultation paper (Planning, 22 July, p1), which are expected to form the basis of draft PPS3, are in fact the right answer to the problem.
The RTPI, for example, has spent much of this year trading blows with the CPRE over housing supply. But the consultation paper has given both bodies the opportunity to offer an olive branch to one another.
RTPI policy development officer Chris Scrafton told the seminar that the institute wants more homes. "We are not building enough affordable housing and we are not building where we need to be," he warns.
Chartered Institute of Housing policy officer Abigail Davies agrees with Scrafton, saying that focusing on price will not tackle under-supply and that the proposals are problematic for regeneration and sprawl. "We need to look at the full range of market information and not just price," she maintains.
Greater London Authority principal strategic planner Duncan Bowie warns that the consultation plans would be "extremely unhelpful". He claims that planners at the Government Office for London are struggling to work out how the proposals could be applied to the capital, where the planning system delivered 47,500 permissions last year.
According to Bowie, the proposals would make it hard to plan on a sub-regional or regional basis, given that London's housing market is skewed by the capital's position in the global economy. This means, for example, that the multinational companies underpinning the capital's prosperity need part-time accommodation for their executives.
To allow the market to dictate housing provision in such a context would be absurd, Bowie insists. In the city of Westminster, he points out, it would take an enormous increase in supply to satisfy demand. "If you follow the logic of the Barker review you would increase housing supply in Westminster. Unfortunately, the land is just not there," he says.
In his view, the real problem with the consultation is that the market will not provide the larger affordable homes needed most in the capital.
Forty per cent of households on the capital's housing waiting lists are seeking four-bedroom properties that could only be supplied by the social rented sector, he explains.
Scrafton warns that building more homes where prices are already high is not the solution because it would undermine planners' efforts to foster urban renewal. "A market-led approach would simply exacerbate the problem," he argues. "All future house building will be in places where there is market demand. Regeneration areas where there is no evidence of market demand will simply be ignored."
The mismatch between the levels of planning permissions and completions shows that the planning system is not solely to blame for shortfalls, insists Scrafton. "Planning should not be following demand, but instead creating it by improving areas. By placing all the emphasis on the market you reduce the potential of planning-led strategies."
Chris Brown, chief executive at Igloo Regeneration, worries that government plans could divert investment from the deprived communities in which his company works. The net impact would be to widen the divide between such areas and the wealthier parts of the country, he fears. "That would be a disaster from the point of view of deprived communities," he says.
"People talk about housing market cycles. Now we have policy-making cycles," he reflects. "In our business we are increasingly nervous that the housing market is going to fall off the edge of the cliff. If you plan on the basis of where house prices are high, you are never going to get brownfield regeneration."
Instead of putting the market in the driving seat, Brown argues that the government should apply a more stringent version of the sequential test focused on poorer areas. "Where you have a housing market that is in trouble, you should focus all the effort on that regeneration area until it has been done," he advises.
Friends of the Earth planning campaigner Hugh Ellis goes further, describing the consultation paper as an attack on the very concept of planning. He feels that it is based on a vision of the economy that would deliver growth in a "golden arc" running across the south of England, ignoring the enormous inter-regional disparities that helped drive the establishment of the post-war planning system.
"This is the vision that will be delivered through Barker and it cannot be allowed. It will lead the UK into the position it occupied in the 1930s," contends Ellis. In his view, the concept of using market triggers to stimulate land supply begs questions about the implications for spatial planning, such as how the infrastructure needed to support such development can be provided.
A reliance on supplementary planning documents (SPDs) to facilitate the release of sites would further undermine already fragile public confidence in the system for allocating land use, he maintains. Whereas local development frameworks are subject to a statutory examination in public, there is no such requirement when putting together SPDs.
"Supplementary guidance requires minimal public engagement. Imagine the response of communities. It is as though the government is determined to undermine confidence in the system," concludes Ellis. As he sees it, the stakes could not be higher: "We have a fight on for the future of planning."
PLANNING AND THE MARKET: KEY PROPOSALS
- Local authorities should allocate a rolling five-year supply of land for housing and a further ten years' worth of sites to top up the five-year pipeline as and when it is exhausted.
- Councils should allocate brownfield sites first, but once these are built on developers will be able to bring forward allocated land at any time regardless of whether it is a previously developed site or not.
- Only in designated low-demand areas will authorities be able to hold back the release of sites in the five-year supply.
- Authorities will be obliged to ensure that sites detailed in the five-year pipeline are ready to develop and will be expected to monitor how housing numbers are being delivered with an annual report.
- If an authority is not delivering enough homes, it should set out in the report how it intends to get things back on track by reviewing site allocations or changing the phasing of allocated sites.
- Regional and local planners will work out housing numbers on market as well as demographic information.