UK Politics

Planning changes threaten homes targets, say MPs

Building site
Image caption The committee said action had to be taken to prevent delays to house building

Plans to build 150,000 affordable homes by 2015 may not be achievable, because of changes to England's planning system, says a committee of MPs.

It said axing "regional spatial strategies", targets for houses and other developments, left a "vacuum at the heart" of the planning system.

The committee said planned new homes have dropped by an estimated 200,000.

The government says "top down" targets failed and its plans gave councils a "clear financial incentive" to build.

Regional spatial planning strategies, introduced by Labour, set out a development plans for nine English regions over 15-20 years.

They included house building targets as well as developments that might be locally unpopular but were strategically important - like mineral extraction and waste treatment sites and accommodation for Gypsies and travellers.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles described them as "Whitehall's grip on local planning policy" when he announced they would be abolished in July 2010 and said they had failed to increase housebuilding.

'Stark choice'

But the communities and local government committee said that, since that announcement, fewer houses were due to be built.

"With the figures for new house building contained in local authorities' plans already estimated to have reduced by 200,000... we conclude that the government may well be faced with a stark choice in deciding whether to compromise either on its intention to build more homes than the previous government, or on its desire to promote localism in decisions of this kind," it said.

The Localism Bill, currently going through Parliament, scraps the regional strategies and hands decisions on new homes to local authorities. But the report said "transitional arrangements" should be introduced in the meantime, to prevent the resulting "hiatus in planning" from delaying house building.

The government proposes a "New Homes Bonus" scheme to encourage councils to build homes by matching the extra council tax from the new properties.

But MPs said there was little evidence to show how effective it would be, casting doubt on government predictions that the housing supply would increase by 8-13%.

They questioned whether the government's "aspiration" to build 150,000 affordable homes over the next four years "will be achievable under the government's current proposals for the planning system".

And they said incentives should not just be based on how many homes are built - but where they were sited and how well they integrated into the local community. The New Homes Bonus was "a bold experiment" but they were not confident it would be successful.

The committee also raised doubts about "vague and imprecise" wording in a new statutory "duty to co-operate" on local authorities and other bodies - and recommended it be strengthened, to avoid legal battles.

The committee's Labour chairman Clive Betts said abolishing the regional strategies was creating "inertia" in development and would "make it much harder to deliver necessary but controversial or emotive 'larger than local' facilities - such as waste disposal sites, mineral workings or sites for Gypsies and Travellers".

He said it was "not acceptable for ministers to abdicate their responsibilities" and leave it to "under-resourced and under-skilled local planning authorities".

But the government said it was confident that councils and communities would back more house building because of the benefits they would get from the £1bn New Homes Bonus.

Planning Minister Bob Neill said: "It was under the last government that house-building rates fell to their lowest peacetime levels since 1924. Regional targets clearly failed to build the right number of homes in the right places. Top-down targets just alienated the public and undermined support for new housing.

"Under the coalition government's reforms, councils now have a clear financial incentive to build from the New Homes Bonus. Latest figures from the National Housebuilding Council and from the Office for National Statistics already show a surge of optimism from a construction industry that is beginning to build again."

Shadow housing minister Alison Seabeck said: "Planning permissions for new homes were down 22% on the year in the last quarter of 2010 and the select committee is right to be worried about the 'detrimental effect on the economic recovery' that the government's policies are having."

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