Don’t bet your house on planning changes making it easier to buy a home!
PUBLISHED: 05:31 13 August 2020
Will the government’s proposed changes to planning law suddenly allow millions of much-needed new homes across the country to be built?
Almost certainly not because, as governments (of both parties) have often done in the past, ministers have looked at the problem and then just spoken to their friends to come up with a solution that in no way addresses the real issue.
Listening to Boris Johnson and Robert Jenrick, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s one reason that not enough homes have been built to keep up with the growing population over the last 20 years: obstructive councils looking for excuses not to allow enough homes to be built.
All the experience I have picked up over the last 38 years of covering councils in Suffolk suggests to me that this is only very partially true – I would probably say that only about 20% of the delays to development are cause by obstructive councils (usually with the backing of residents) while 80% of the delays and failures to deliver can directly be laid at the feet of the developers themselves.
Yet to hear Messrs Johnson and Jenrick, you’d be forgiven for thinking the developers – many of whom happen to be substantial donors to the Conservative Party – are a threatened species who need protection from wicked council planners.
I’ve sat through numerous planning committees where schemes have been given planning permission – albeit conditional on agreeing a few details – but where nothing has happened for years because the developers could not agree comparatively small conditions like making a contribution to expanding a local school because of the extra pupils that the new homes will attract.
Sometimes permission is granted, but the developers choose to sit on it to see if the value of the land and the potential homes will rise. There are figures showing that across the country there is outstanding full planning permission for a million new homes to be built on sites that are being “landbanked” by major developers.
What is also interesting is that if the changes do come in, it will effectively be the end of local discussion of planning issues on significant areas zoned for housing development.
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If a local authority were to designate an area for residential development in its local plan – say Ipswich with an area like Ravenswood – there would be nothing local residents could do to protest about any proposal to build homes in that area.
The developer would have to ensure that there was enough infrastructure to cope with them – that the schools, surgeries and other facilities nearby could be expanded to cope – but there would be nothing the residents could do about the homes themselves, or the type of homes.
That would render the current debate about building new council homes alongside new starter homes and market-rental homes totally redundant. Residents might not like the mix, but there would be nothing they could do about it. There would certainly be no legal case they could pursue.
One of the significant points about this is, of course, that opposition to new developments tends to cut across normal political boundaries. You get opposition from Labour supporters and Conservatives – and in fact it is Tories who are often leading the charge to prevent new buildings going up and ruining what they have always known.
In that sense, the arguments about developments are very difficult for a Tory government. Do you back the developers who are putting hundreds of thousands if not millions into party coffers? Or do you back the party activists who want to retain their green and pleasant spaces either in the countryside or in the town?
And the fact is that many new developments don’t really make a great deal of difference to the demographic the government and its supporters want to be seen to be helping. It’s a myth that new homes mean more owner-occupiers. The property-owning democracy is becoming an increasingly-unattainable myth for many people.
These new homes, especially flats and “starter homes,” are increasingly being bought by individuals or companies for the buy-to-let market, forcing prices up and genuine first-time buyers out of the market for their own property. For many people rent-or-buy is no longer the question. The question is: “Can I find a house with an affordable rent and guaranteed tenure, or do I have to look for a private rent with little security?”
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