In 2010, before he became Planning Minister, Nick Boles famously declared that he preferred chaos to planning. He said: ‘Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people’s communities should develop, or do you believe it can’t work? I believe it can’t work, David Cameron believes it can’t, Nick Clegg believes it can’t. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.’
Mr Boles should have been more careful about what he wished for because planning for new housebuilding is now looking more chaotic than ever. The Tory form of localism has unleashed more NIMBYism at the same time as the Government has become more centrally dictatorial with its presumption in favour of development. Which wing of the Tory Party is in the ascendant – the developers’ friends or the environmentalists’ friends? The Tories are looking decidedly confused as to whether their objective is to restore developers profits or to get get more homes built – not necessarily the same thing.
The chaos is nowhere better demonstrated than in the growing confusion about planning gain – the benefits negotiated by local government on behalf of the community when planning permission for new development is sought.
A comprehensive study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – ‘Thousands of affordable homes axed’ – shows how the Government’s relaxation of so-called ‘section 106 agreements’ is being exploited to remove requirements to build affordable homes within new schemes, in contradiction of local planning policies to meet affordable housing targets.
According to BIJ, 60% of the 82 biggest housing developments currently in the planning system fall short of local affordable housing targets, ‘preventing thousands of cheaper homes being built’. They show how financial viability assessments – normally confidential therefore not subject to public scrutiny – are persuading councils to accept much lower affordable housing quotas. There are, say BIJ, increasing anomalies whereby developers are making big profits despite citing viability as the reason for cutting the number of affordable homes in their schemes. Many councils have adopted the Government’s mantra that it is better to get any development on any terms than to get no development. BIJ report strong concerns that councils often do not have the technical expertise or resources to challenge developers during s.106 reviews.
The Government also seems confused about its strategy, if that isn’t too grand a word, for achieving affordable homes. This was classically illustrated by two stories in Inside Housing. In the first, Housing Minister Mark Prisk criticises housing associations for not ‘converting’ more of their homes, when they are re-let, from social rent to ‘affordable rent’ levels (which are much higher). Evidently Prisk said that providers must ‘maximise’ conversions to affordable rent if they want to get their hands on a slice of £2.8 billion available in the 2015 to 2018 second round of the affordable homes programme.
Yet IH also reports that the London Mayor is considering increasing funding in the 2015/18 programme to enable more homes for social rent to be provided, having effectively axed social housing from the current programme. IH say this is because of concern over high housing costs. (About time, we say).
So with the one hand the Government is demanding the ending of more social renting and with the other the Mayor is conceding that there is a need for more.
People involved in development often say that the thing they want above everything else is ‘certainty’. On current form, Boles and Prisk are hardly the people who are likely to provide that.