Government shifts gear on planning reform

Before coming to power, and in the early years of the last Parliament, the Government made much of its commitment to localism. Critics called the Localism Bill a ‘NIMBY’s charter’ that would allow small groups to block developments, and exacerbate England’s housing shortage.

However, the Conservatives rejected the assumption that communities were automatically predisposed to oppose developments in their area, and refused to see localism and development as a zero-sum game. By giving communities more say in shaping their local area, they claimed, local opposition would fall away, allowing for the rapid development of housing and other infrastructure. The Party’s green paper Open Source Planning stated:

“If we enable communities to find their own ways of overcoming the tensions between development and conservation, local people can become proponents rather than opponents of local economic growth.”

The resulting reforms centred around neighbourhood planning, which devolved power over housing developments to the parish level, and created financial incentives designed to promote local developments by allowing parishes and local authorities to hold on to some of the financial returns.

In many areas, the Government is continuing its localist drive. The Conservatives are committed to giving communities the power to reject the deployment of new wind farms, and Osborne announced in the Budget that local authorities will be given the power to set their own Sunday trading regulations.

However, today’s announcement marks a shift in approach to housing, and in many ways a return to national-level planning. Neighbourhood planning, though still nascent, has so far failed to deliver the level of housing England needs: less than half the number of homes needed to keep pace with demand were built in 2014. Just 19 Neighbourhood Development Plans were in force by September 2014.

Apparently frustrated by the slow progress of the localism to deliver new housing, the Government is publishing a series of measures to catalyse development from the centre:

  • Developers will be given automatic planning permission for proposals on brownfield sites, and ministers will be given the power to impose local housing plans on councils if they fail to produce ones.
  • Penalties will also be imposed on councils that fail to process their planning applications quickly.
  • Developers who want to build upwards in London will be allowed to do so without the need for planning permission.

The housing shortage is serious, and is getting worse with every year that supply fails to meet demand. Many will back the Government in prioritising building over qualms about local democracy. Supporters will argue that the need for new homes is too great to be blocked by a few disgruntled locals concerned about their own property values; the cost to them is far outweighed by the society-wide benefits.

It is worth noting, though, the sharp shift back towards the old NIMBY/development dilemma, and its re-casting as a zero sum game. Yes, the Green Belt will continue to be protected as a default nod towards the NIMBY mentality, but local control is being rolled back significantly – with the Government taking more of a role in specifying where building should and shouldn’t take place. Not so long ago, localism was the Government’s preferred means of increasing the number of homes being built; a complementary, rather than a competing, policy objective.

There is, however, a risk that cutting local communities out of some controversial decisions will reduce trust in the process outside of the exemptions the Government is creating. The evidence shows that trust in councils, developers and the decision-making procedure are a crucial factor in whether local residents will support a plan.

If people see undesired developments going up around them without having been given a say, if they see opposition ignored, why would they seek to get involved in a process that seems rigged in favour of developers? Despite the apparent failure of neighbourhood planning, the Government should not abandon the principle that giving communities more say in local developments can improve trust in the process, result in housing that is well-suited to the area, and ultimately overcome NIMBY opposition.

Demos is currently researching the prospects for community-led housing models, where local residents come together to address local housing needs themselves. Among these models are co-operatives, community self-builds, and Community Land Trusts, where land, and any profits received, are held for the benefit of the community, allocations are made on the basis of need, and rules are put in place to ensure homes for sale and rent remain affordable in the long term. We are looking into whether these models offer an alternative route out of NIMBYism if scaled up, and thus if they represent part of the solution to our chronic shortage of affordable housing.