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Planning for new homes

Moss new Regeneration expert John Moss says that getting acceptance for development would be easier by deciding the type of housing from the start.

There has been a lot of criticism of the Conservative Party green paper, Control Shift, which proposed scrapping regional housing targets and giving local communities a far greater say over development proposals in their area. The major house-builders, housing associations and housing lobby groups like Shelter and Chartered Institute of Housing have all suggested this could amount to a “Nimby’s Charter”, with the result of a BANANA situation, (building absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody). The consequences of this would be ever spiralling house prices and greater pressure on existing social housing.

The current situation often sees house-builders buying land speculatively, then negotiating to reduce S106 contributions and affordable housing percentages. Even then, their Housing Association partners often end up subsidising their purchase of the affordable element with social housing grants from Government. Those obligations ought really to be known up front and factored in to the costs of development and in doing so, squeezing the residual available to pay for the land first, thus reducing the amount of grant needed.

When you consider that the Homes and Communities Agency budget is £5.3 billion a year you can see why tackling this is of interest to the Treasury! However, and quite surprisingly, Labour’s planning legislation has created a framework which might actually help to deal with both these problems.

Beneath the laborious Local Development Framework, through which many councils will currently be ploughing, are two further levels of detailed planning which can be used to define development in more detail. These are Area Action Plans and Special Planning Documents. To adopt one of these, a council needs to go through a consultation process involving local residents and businesses in drawing them up. What I believe they should do is to draw them up in much more detail in order to demonstrate to local people that there is benefit for them in going along with development.

Take for example a rural village which is losing or has lost its Post Office, pub, school and shop. Isn’t it clear that more homes means more business and therefore more chance of keeping these facilities? Yet locals often feel that they have to resist even the designation of land for development because once it is designated, they fear it will be bought up by developers who will build big executive houses for weekending bankers and there will be nothing for local people.

Wouldn’t it be a better scenario, if, before the land was even designated for development, the Council worked with local people to identify the type of homes needed for local families, specifying not just the number but also the type and even the tenure of those homes. And, wouldn’t it be better if the local community could be assured of the right sort of development to support local services, before anybody got the chance to even apply for planning consent?

Working with local people to design at this level of detail can give them the confidence that the development is going to meet their needs and address their concerns. Because any additional support for infrastructure and community facilities will also be factored in to these planning documents, this will support councils in securing them from developers. No developer buying the land will have any excuse not to have factored in the costs in working out how much to pay for the land.

Only where the land value has been squeezed right down to its existing use value would grants be considered. Given that the increase in land value from agriculture to residential can be a factor of 1,000%, there ought to be enough in the ”pot” for everybody.

And it is not just in rural communities that this can work. Major housing renewal projects cause great anxiety amongst residents. Party politics always intrudes with the opposition usually accusing the ruling group promoting a scheme of wanting to move people to the other side of town or even out of town. Fear is a great motivator and fear of losing your home – however awful that home might be – is the greatest motivator of all.  Getting those residents involved in an exercise to plan their new homes is crucial to gaining support. The Castle Vale project in Birmingham is probably the best example of how the involvement of a community, in this case almost 20,000 people, can result in agreement and support for change.

But it really ought not to be that hard to do. Councils just need to have the confidence to promote sensible development and to engage with local people about it, before the developers appear, and be willing to set out in detail what they want.

And if a developer tries to do things the “old” way and ends up paying too much for the land, well that’s just tough. It is not the role of taxpayers’ money to support inflated land values.


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