Planning for the Future White Paper: What future plans for housing our ageing population?

JohnSneddon
John Sneddon
Managing Director, Tetlow King Planning

As reported by the Housing LIN, it has been less than a week since the Government publication of the recent White Paper by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government called Planning for the Future which has a consultation period until 29 October 2020 - White - Planning for the Future. (opens new window)

White Papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. Alongside this one, there is an accompanying consultation issued on the same day called Changes to the current planning system (opens new window). The consultation for this ends on 1 October 2020. It is also worthy of immediate note that these only apply in England.

Another important thing to say is that the White Paper changes (whatever they might ultimately be) will take many years to become important to individual planning applications some might come in a little earlier but even those will be several years in my view. The second document changes are more imminent and could be in place next year, if not this year, although they might alter and change as they form.

My primary comments here are about what these consultation documents on the town planning system might mean to the specialist housing and care development sector. There had been a lot of activity, effort and campaigns this year on specialist housing by various bodies asking for a sea change in government policy which has been seeking to increase the supply of specialist housing, such as retirement housing and extra care housing, to levels we see in other countries, improve design and have clarity on the use planning use class. There also seemed to be a genuine interest at government level on what was being said and promoted. A sign of this was the Minister of State for Care’s comments (opens new window), issuing a letter in early May 2020, praising retirement and extra care housing developments across the country saying that whatever their size, or whether private or not-for-profit, they were playing a vital role in protecting the most vulnerable in our country in what has been very difficult times. Thus, there was some expectation that the White Paper might seek to address the issue of the supply of such developments building upon the positive changes to the National Planning Policy Framework last year as well as providing further clarity and recognition of the numerous benefits such accommodation.

Alas, there is little if anything in these consultations on this. Critics of this viewpoint might well say that it’s not what the White Paper, or second consultation, is about instead it’s the “big idea” fundamentally changing the whole system and not just the needs of different and diverse groups who will benefit from the proposed reforms in due course. There is certainly a degree of truth in that but it could be countered by saying that the consultations do raise the issue/solution of First Homes which are dwellings discounted from market price for first time buyers/key workers which are of course a positive thing but many might argue the other end of the spectrum also needs attention – ‘last time buyers’ in specialist housing and the benefits this brings to the housing market and society in general but particularly the sophistication of any local housing market providing the right dwellings for the right demographic group in a local area.

In the simplest terms, the White Paper is presented as a change to the system which the PM says in the foreword is “Radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. It’s worthy of note that not all White Papers have a foreword by the PM. Thus, it is a sign of its importance to this government. The second consultation, as per its title, is about changing national policy as it exists now.

The White Paper is seeking views on a set of proposals to reform the planning system and to streamline and modernise it, improve outcomes on design and sustainability, reform developer contributions and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed. It has 24 express proposals and 25 questions (some of these with several parts). Anyone else get annoyed with these consultations deciding what questions they want us to answer? We will decide what we want to say thank you. If you give some form of statement, the document says “...make it clear which questions you are responding to”. It feels like you are being corralled into how to respond but to be fair there will be thousands of responses and some poor souls will have to classify and interpret them. Some of the questions are so technical that few members of the public and many developers will find them difficult to understand never mind answer.

These proposals cover local plan-making (your Council’s own development or local plan), development management (the process of determining individual applications) and development contributions both financial and otherwise alongside various other policy matters like enforcement.

The planning world is still getting to grips and debating what these changes mean and the impacts they will have but the tone of them and direction might be seen from part of the PM’s Foreword:

“Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places. People cannot afford to move to where their talents can be matched with opportunity. Businesses cannot afford to grow and create jobs. The whole thing is beginning to crumble and the time has come to do what too many have for too long lacked the courage to do – tear it down and start again”.

It would be easy to rise to such a comment as a practitioner, but the comment does not assign blame as such and governments created the system, we all work within. I am in agreement with the issues on the complexity of the system and that change needs to happen but I am also mindful of the numerous issues that come into planning like biodiversity, affordability and global warming being just three that are very prominent but there are an infinite amount of others not least what a local community would and would not like to see built.

It’s would be easy to be cynical when new changes come along particularly when you consider the “brave new world” we were all promised in 2012 with the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework which was said that at that time to be reforming a planning system that was elaborate and forbidding such that it replaced over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty pages yet we have a system now that is arguably even more complicated than it was pre 2012.

To summarise, the headline White Paper proposals (noting I cannot cover all in this forum):

  • streamline the planning process with more democracy taking place more effectively at the plan making stage;
  • simplifying the role of Local Plans (this is the reference to zones – growth areas where planning will be automatic (effectively granting outline permission), renewal areas suitable for some developments and protected areas where development is restricted;
  • Local Plans should set clear rules rather than general policies for development;
  • local councils should radically and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities;
  • Local Plans should be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test;
  • Local Plans should be visual and map-based, standardised, based on the latest digital technology, and supported by a new standard template;
  • local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate will be required through legislation to meet a statutory timetable (of no more than 30 months in total);
  • decision-making should be faster and more certain;
  • digital and online enhancements;
  • new focus on design and sustainability;
  • improve infrastructure delivery in all parts of the country and ensure developers play their part;
  • the Community Infrastructure Levy and the current system of planning obligations will be reformed as a nationally-set value-based flat rate charge (‘the Infrastructure Levy’);
  • more ambitious for affordable housing provided through planning gain (using levy above);
  • local authorities’ greater powers to determine how developer contributions are used
  • extend the scope of the consolidated Infrastructure Levy and remove exemptions from it (prior approvals and permitted development);
  • aim for the new Levy to raise more revenue than under the current system of developer contributions and deliver at least as much – if not more – on-site affordable housing as at present.
  • ensure more land is available for the homes and development people and communities need, and to support renewal of our town and city centres;
  • a new nationally determined, binding housing requirement that local planning authorities would have to deliver through their Local Plans;
  • speed up construction where development has been permitted;
  • provide better information to local communities, to promote competition amongst developers; and
  • views requested in relation to diversity and equality

It would take a dissertation to dissect these but they do not seem very radical at all – we will still have Local Development Plans but they will be less complex (looking more like ones we had in 60s/70s). We will have a top down imposition of housing figures to Councils much as we have now and we will have zoning but we effectively have that now with development limits and countryside designated in local plans. The changes to developer contributions mooted seem complex but at the same time simple, because there is little detail, which is never a good sign I find.

The overarching point I think is the issue that it says nearly all decisions to grant consent are undertaken on a case-by-case basis, rather than determined by clear rules for what can and cannot be done. That seems to be one of the main aims alongside how development will contribute to the public purse/infrastructure and public consultation which will be streamlined but somehow become more important in the process.

Then the second consultation Changes to the current planning system is about the following as headlines:

  • changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need;
  • planning appeal submission will have a fee and planning application fees will reflect the
  • securing of First Homes through developer contributions in the short term until the transition to a new system
  • supporting small and medium-sized builders by temporarily lifting the small sites threshold (40 to 50 has been suggested) below which developers do not need to contribute to affordable housing extending the current Permission in Principle to major development

Conclusion

Neither of these consultations say anything about the demographic changes that the country is experiencing or how that will be addressed. While some will say that this is to be expected in a national level document looking at the system that will bring a sea change in delivery of all housing, it is still enormously disappointing that nothing is said about making the delivery more suited to the demographic changes that is being experienced or enhancing the sophistication of the increased delivery that is raised to meet local needs in terms of care and specialist housing.

It’s not all about numbers. It is also about building the right type of housing. Yet there is little in here to see that this is a priority and while First Homes and affordable are vital and which I fully support (it is one of our specialisms) to not raise anything of consequence on the benefits of housing for the older generation and those with or without care needs is to say the least disappointing. Perhaps they are working away on some game changer legislation or policy advice - let’s hope so because I see recent local plans projecting 25% increases in over 75s and 35%+ increases in over 65s over 20 or so years and yet the plans says virtually nothing on how their needs will be satisfied.  

The other issue is that change like this can lead to stagnation in investment a “lets wait and see what happens”. There are no reasons to do this because the main changes will take a long time. The specialist housing sector needs to continue to impact on local plans that exist now which in some ways are more important than national policy.

Continue to pursue projects and seek good advice on planning. We are always willing to assist. Email us at: all@tetlow-king.co.uk and seek to make comments on the consultations, which we can help with, particularly the second one as it is more immediate.

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