Planning reforms risk choking off affordable housing, sector warns

The government’s proposed reforms to England’s planning system have divided opinion in the housing sector, as housing providers and planners warn that they risk choking off affordable housing and creating ‘the slums of the future’.

Yesterday, the government announced the biggest shakeup of the planning system in decades, opening consultation on its white paper Planning for the future.

The plans, widely interpreted to be amenable to smaller developers, will see land in England divided into three types, with new homes automatically waved through in designated ‘growth’ areas and developments on brownfield sites given ‘permission in principle’ subject to basic checks by local planners.

Housing providers focused their attention on the news that exemptions to section 106 agreements, which force developers to build a certain number of affordable homes in every new development, are set to be extended with the agreements replaced by a new ‘infrastructure levy’.

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said scrapping section 106 agreements will make it harder for England to get the social and affordable homes it needs if they are not replaced by direct investment from government.

She pointed out that section 106 agreements delivered almost 28,000 affordable homes last year, accounting for around half of the total number of affordable homes built.

“Any alternative to section 106 must ensure we can deliver more high-quality affordable homes to meet the huge demand across the country,” Henderson said.

“Any new system must also enable the ‘levelling up’ of communities that have already been left behind, such as rural communities or places with a struggling local economy.

“We must also remember that, ultimately, the best way of ensuring we build enough social housing is through direct investment from the government.”

The Northern Housing Consortium, which represents housing associations across the North of England, broadly welcomed the reforms, saying that the North has lost 65% of its planning capacity since 2010/11 and current means of assessing housing need often undercut the region’s housing ambitions.

Its chief executive Tracy Harrison said that the government needs to work with people in the North of England to ensure the reforms are fit for purpose right across the country.

“Section 106 has traditionally delivered lower amounts of social housing in the North – because lower land values in many places mean development is more marginal,” Harrison said. “The new infrastructure levy must be designed in a way that doesn’t erode this further.”

While some planners praised the government’s proposals for their stated focus on quality design and on opening space for SME developers, other planners and architects reacted with fury.

The Royal Institute of British Architects’ president Alan Jones called the proposals ‘shameful’, saying they ‘do almost nothing to guarantee the delivery of affordable, well-designed and sustainable homes’.

Jones said: “While [the proposals] might help to ‘get Britain building’ – paired with the extension of permitted development – there’s every chance they could also lead to the creation of the next generation of slum housing.”

Jones also criticised the government’s commitment to make all new homes carbon neutral by 2050, saying the target needs to be ‘brought forward radically’.

Nigel Riglar, president of the public sector-focused Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT), warned that reducing local responsibility for planning risked ‘cutting the heart’ out of local authorities and also criticised the carbon neutral by 2050 proposal, calling it a ‘retrofit timebomb’.

“Houses built now are not being built to meet that target, so it will be householders in our local places footing the bill to decarbonise their homes,” Riglar said. “My fear is housebuilders won’t start building carbon neutral homes until January 1 2051 – can we really afford to wait that long?”

The think tank IPPR agreed there are concerns about the reforms’ implications for local democracy, saying the planning system is ‘the wrong target’ for the government’s proposals.

“If the government really wanted to address the central constraints to the building of affordable and high-quality homes it should set its sights on reforming England’s broken land market and speculative housebuilding model,” said Luke Murphy, IPPR’s associate director for energy, climate, housing and infrastructure.

Legal & General urged greater focus on the UK’s older people, pointing out that the new ‘growth’ or ‘renewal’ areas risk serving as a barrier to new retirement communities. L&G also highlighted that the current provisions lack provision and priority for other in-demand tenures such as dedicated Build to Rent.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government rejected claims that its planning reforms will reduce the quality of new homes or not deliver enough affordable housing, calling them ‘completely untrue’.

In a blog, it stressed that new developments will only be fast-tracked if they are high-quality and meet ‘stringent building standards’, while local leaders will be encouraged to work with their communities under the new system.

It added that the new infrastructure levy will be more transparent and raise more revenue than the current ‘opaque’ system of section 106 payments, ensuring that ‘at least as much’ affordable housing will be delivered.

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