Chairman’s Response to “Planning for the Future”, White Paper, August 2020
8 October 2020
Mims Davies MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
Dear Ms Davies,
An open letter
“Planning for the Future”, White Paper of August 2020
We are deeply concerned by the government’s proposals for more changes to planning law, which would effectively grant blanket planning permission to developers’ schemes without democratic control. The law is already skewed heavily in favour of property interests. We see the results all around us, in the spread of identikit housing estates that are heavily dependent on cars and that lack the infrastructure – schools, medical centres and road systems – to support them.
Lindfield provides a by no means uncommon example. Our village has absorbed four major developments since 2012, increasing the population rapidly by more than 1,200 (24%). 660 more cars have spilled onto narrow village roads. Two more large developments are on the way. No new infrastructure has been added. Irreplaceable countryside is being lost and its fragile ecology compromised. This is not natural development. Moreover, with approved sites for more than 7,000 dwellings available in Mid Sussex (a ten-year supply at the current build rate), no rational argument can be made that the degrading of Lindfield and other communities has anything to do with local, or even regional need. This is speculative development pure and simple.
It is worth considering how we have got to where we are today. During the 2010 election campaign, the Conservative party promised a localism agenda that would do away with top-down housing targets and give communities the right of appeal against unacceptable planning decisions. Once the party was in office, these pledges were swiftly forgotten. The subsequent National Planning Policy Framework, with its stated presumption in favour of development and feeble protections for communities, created a highly prejudicial environment that appeared to encourage development at any price. We see this, for example, in appeal decisions across the region by Planning Inspectors and The Secretary of State, which time and again find that development is inherently beneficial – regardless of how inappropriate the site is. Neighbourhood Plans are routinely brushed aside in the process, broadcasting the clear message that the time, energy and expense invested in them were wasted.
It transpires, though, that turning developers loose to do largely as they please does not increase the housing supply. A government White Paper of 2017 (“Fixing our Broken Housing Market”) noted that despite a 67% increase in planning permissions between 2008/09 and 2015/16, new build completions were flat. The White Paper identified a key reason: “it may be in the interest of speculators and developers to snap up land for housing and then sit back for a while as prices continue to rise”. And indeed, developers have learned that speculating in land can be at least as interesting as property speculation. Current legislation allows them to accumulate planning permissions, which increase the value of the land by several multiples. They hoard this land in “land banks”, enhancing the value of their balance sheets and pleasing their shareholders. They are then free to release housing at a level consistently below demand, keeping prices high. Nationally, more than a million planning permissions are lying unused.
This is a textbook case of vulture capitalism, which primarily benefits landowners and developers. The ironic result is that an overall shortage of truly affordable housing stubbornly persists, while desirable locations are hammered by unwanted and unneeded speculative housing schemes. There is a simple reason for this state of affairs: it maximises the profits of property interests. There is an obvious lesson to be learned from all this: the real reason for our housing shortage is the developers’ exploitative business model, aided and abetted by government policy – not the tired and evidence-free mantra that that the planning system is too onerous.
Nevertheless, we now have before us proposals that would grant property interests even more licence. The Prime Minister introduces the August White Paper by saying of the planning system, “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” – seemingly forgetting that his party has been in charge of planning legislation for ten years and has already altered it substantially.
Relying on property developers to voluntarily solve the housing shortage or build the economy out of recession is illusory. The experience of the past decade should make this pellucidly clear. We would point out three areas in which the new proposals are in our view fundamentally flawed:
1) The zonal planning system, in which applications based on pre-approved “design codes” would receive automatic approval. This would eliminate a whole stage of local oversight and remove the public’s right to comment on individual planning applications. Such blanket approvals would be a direct attack on local democracy and would increase the likelihood of unsuitable building schemes.
2) The use of an algorithm to impose new housing targets on local authorities. One would have thought that after the exams debacle of the summer, the government would be wary of algorithms. This is at best a very blunt instrument that would replace local, granular analyses of housing need with a centralised, top-down directive. The new mechanism would be blind to local geography, ecology and building patterns. The proposed algorithmic approach has already been shown to produce perverse results, increasing targets sharply in the southeast while actually cutting targets in deprived northern areas. Reliance on a mechanical formula is a poor substitute for reasoned policy.
3) The centrally imposed targets are entirely unrealistic. The current housing target in the Mid Sussex District Plan, for example, is 964 units per year, vs an actual (average) completion rate of 760 over the past three years. Thus, the completion rate is already 27% “too low”, indicating that the existing target is unachievable. The proposed new target of 1,305 lies fully 35% above the current one, or 72% above the actual completion rate. The imposition of such an implausible requirement ensure that the local authority remains in default, making it even more vulnerable to speculative planning applications.
The combined effect of these proposals would be to intensify the free-for-all that property interests already enjoy. If the past ten years are anything to go by, there is no reason to expect any result other than more waves of the wrong kinds of housing in the wrong places. Developers, left to their own devices, have no incentive to bring supply into line with demand, or to concentrate on truly affordable housing; both actions would dilute their profits.
In the absence of any discernible evidence to support these proposals, one is compelled to look elsewhere for explanations. It is well attested that property developers make substantial donations to the Conservative party. Media reports cite £11 million since August 2019. This relationship is both suspicious and worrying. It should go without saying that public policy should serve the public and must not be treated as a commodity that can be traded.
There is an adage that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The White Paper is in need of a fundamental rethink in this light. We suggest two measures that would help us break out of the corrosive cycle of failed housing policies:
1) Require developers to use all their existing planning permissions before granting any new ones. This would at a stroke force them to build in order to gain access to any additional business.
2) Grant communities the right of appeal against planning decisions (as promised at the 2010 election). Alternatively, remove this option for applicants. Current legislation is skewed sharply in developers’ favour by allowing them a second hearing not available to communities. The playing field should be levelled so that the same rules apply to all. The first of these measures would increase housing supply, while the second would provide a level of quality control in the process.
The White Paper’s proposals as they stand would be toxic for your constituency. We urge you, as our elected representative, to do your utmost to convince the government to think again. In the absence of any meaningful change to these proposals, we urge you to vote against them. Please reply informing us of your position and what action you plan to take.
Yours sincerely, Gil Kennedy, Chairman
WE URGE ALL LINDFIELD RESIDENTS TO RESPOND TO THE GOVERNMENT’S
CONSULTATION EXERCISE BY 29 OCTOBER
MORE IMPORTANTLY, PLEASE CONTACT OUR MPP MIMS DAVIES REQUESTING HER SUPPORT