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President's Piece April 2015

Date: 18/4/2015

Over the last six months the priorities of the key political parties have become clearer and this is confirmed in the Manifestos published this week. Like many of you I have been keeping a lookout for references to planning and housing matters which seem to be very topical at the moment.

A common theme in all three manifestos is the recognition of the housing crisis and the ambitious target of 200,000 new homes (300,000 by the Lib-Dems) by 2020. Achieving this is clearly going to be a major challenge especially given the priority given by the Conservatives and Lib Dems to protect the Green Belt. As we set out in our recent POS manifesto paper on the subject, green belt was one part of a post war strategy to manage growth by focusing development on new towns and restraining urban sprawl and preventing settlements coalescing elsewhere. As such it is a policy tool and unlike national parks or AONBs does not relate to the intrinsic qualities of the landscape. It is therefore an area which should be reviewed in the light of the most sustainable locations for new development. It is encouraging that Labour plan to implement the recommendations in the Lyons Review which include a number of POS proposals for the planning system.

Garden Cities certainly seem to have caught the imagination of the politicians as part of the solution. However, a common theme is that these should be locally led.  Getting local councillors to support large scale development in the form of a new settlement appears to me to be something of a challenge. Certainly the previous Government struggled with its Eco-towns programme which again was supposed to be locally led. At the end of the day we seem to be facing a major crisis which demands Government action and, as we set out in our manifesto, there needs to be a national growth strategy which links decisions on new settlements and regeneration priorities to new infrastructure like HS2.

What will certainly not help us deal with the problem is the proposal by the Conservatives that the right to buy should be extended to housing association properties. How the Government can force autonomous organisations, many of them charities, to sell their housing stock to tenants at a discount is beyond me. Many associations rely on private finance to build homes for affordable rent and the uncertainty caused by this proposal could lead to supply from this source drying up altogether.

It is encouraging that the Lib-Dems propose to take away the recently introduced threshold on affordable housing on small sites. This policy needs reconsidering especially in rural areas where it is leading to a significant drop in supply.

One of the worrying things about all three manifestos is the emphasis on housing development without a matching reference to employment. Various initiatives of all parties appear to favour housing at the expense of employment or mixed use areas. We are seeing employment being driven out of our towns whilst we should be building mixed use sustainable communities. A much more balanced approach is required which is plan led for each area. This is an area where there should be more local rather than national control and national changes to permitted development rolled back.

Infrastructure provision is mentioned in a number of manifestos but without a clear proposal for how it is to be funded. How to bring forward roads, schools, health and community facilities in step with development is something which has dogged the planning system since 1947. A big part of the solution must rest in capturing some of the uplift in value created by the grant of planning consent. The Lib-Dems propose piloting techniques for capturing this value. I suspect that until there is a consensus on this we will continue to have developments with a lag in infrastructure provision. This makes it much harder to persuade communities and politicians to accept growth. 

This election promises to be a close call. As soon as we have an outcome the Society will be approaching the new government to promote practical solutions to these issues and stress the importance of a strong planning system to deliver the growth that the country desperately needs.

Finally I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible at our Spring Conference in Dorchester on 18th and 19th June. Here we will be looking at some interesting examples of planning delivering quality development and on the second day considering what the new Government holds for planning. The Board has agreed to subsidise the conference to enable as many members as possible to attend. Full details are set out on our website.

David Evans, President 2014/15

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