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Councils want more homes built – should restrictive planning laws be relaxed?

The Local Government Association has recently announced plans which they say could result in half a million more homes being built by 2020. This all sounds very impressive.

But perhaps the planning departments of the local councils which the LGA represents should already being doing much more to increase the number of new homes being built.

The LGA has published a plan called “Investing in our nation’s future – the first 100 days of the next government. ” This is aimed at whoever forms the new government which will come into office in May 2015.

Under the banner “Helping everyone find homes at an affordable price” the plan sets out a number of proposals which the LGA think could provide many more new homes.

These are very much centred on the idea that local government should play a much greater role in the provision of affordable homes than at present. This seems to hark back to the glory days when local authorities built huge housing estates for council tenants.

Councils want more important role in providing new housing

Since the days of Mrs Thatcher in the 1980’s the role of town halls in providing new housing has been greatly reduced. Right-to-Buy laws have enabled many council tenants to buy their homes while local authority spending powers to build new houses have been greatly reduced.

So it comes as no surprise that the LGA wants to see an immediate removal of the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap, which restricts the amount they can borrow to build new homes.

They also want councils to be able to retain the receipts from Right-to-Buy sales to be used in building replacement housing.

Another plan is to create council-led local land trusts with powers to pool surplus central and local government land for housing and make decisions about its disposal.

Such Trusts would operate on a ‘build now pay later’ model to support large sites to come forward with necessary infrastructure and affordable housing, a model which could also be applied to private sector landowners.

Should councils be building more homes or should this be left to developers?

Everyone agrees that there is a serious shortage of new housing and particularly affordable homes. But should local councils should be building these new homes themselves or should they instead concentrate on enabling developers to provide the necessary homes?

Instead of coming up with grandiose plans which a new government might or might not choose to adopt councils would do better if their planning departments adopted more pro-active policies now.

At present if often seems that most planners prefer to adopt a negative attitude to new development. Local planning policies which may have been drawn up years ago are applied inflexibly and little thought seems to be given as to how the demand for new homes can be satisfied.

Planners should keep their plans under review to see if more land could be released for new homes. For example is all land currently classified as green belt really serving a useful purpose?

If planners continually reject plans for new developments the developers will appeal against refusal. This leads to delays and expense during the appeals process and very often the outcome is that planning consent is granted at the end of the day.

So the end result is that the new housing has been delayed and the council (and therefore council-tax payers) end up footing the bill for the developers costs.

Even when planners do approve development they often make it subject to numerous conditions which developers have to meet. Some of these may be important, such as ensuring that estate roads are substantially completed before any homes can be sold.  

But many conditions are minor or ‘standard form’ ones inserted without considering whether they are really relevant.

Complying with these conditions can involve builders in more delay and expense as they will not be able to sell any houses until buyers are satisfied that the council has signed-off on them. So planners should be careful about the conditions that they attach to any planning consent.

Relax tight planning controls and encourage more private development

Perhaps we should start to question whether the whole structure of planning legislation 0needs a thorough overhaul. The current system largely dates back to the post-war period when town planners conceived wonderful plans for the redevelopment of our towns and cities.

Private development was to play little part in this. Planners had little time for the privately-built suburbs that sprang up in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead councils would build well-planned and integrated estates while new towns such as Stevenage, Harlow and Basildon were planned and built from scratch.

Of course it was necessary to provide many new homes after 1945 to replace those lost by bomb damage during the second world war. And it was also time to get rid of old nineteenth-century slums.

But the strange thing is that the suburban homes despised by the planners are still as popular as ever, while many of the wonderful new council estates are little-liked and some have even had to be demolished and rebuilt.

Older homes of the type which were being condemned as unfit for habitation under post-war redevelopment plans have now taken on a new lease of life as often very desirable properties.

There are many thousands of Coronation Streets up and down the country which fortunately escaped demolition by the planners and now provide sought-after homes.

So it is debatable whether post-war planning policies have brought us better housing or whether market forces would have done the job without government interference.

One thing is for sure – ‘planning’ seems to have failed to plan for enough homes to be built.

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