Kate Barker is rapidly becoming the patron saint of housebuilders.
Her first report on housing in 2004 dispelled the myth propagated by John Prescott that the housing shortage was down to greedy developers hoarding land and pointed the finger at the real culprit – the planning system. Now we have the publication of her long-awaited report into how this quagmire of a system should be drained. Added to other encouraging stories – for instance, this week’s positive revisions to the planning guidance document PPS3 and the Conservatives’ move away from nimbyism – and housebuilders must feel there’s someone watching over them.
Barker has come up with a list of recommendations that manages to go far beyond what was anticipated, yet still appears workable. The improvements proposed are pragmatic: such as reducing the number of domestic applications that planners have to deal with, thereby allowing them to focus on larger schemes. The last thing we needed was for the present system to be torn up, only to be replaced by five years of chaos while the new one bedded in.
Her recommendation that local authorities should review the green belt is brave, given the environmental sensitivities. Nobody wants to replace the New Forest with new towns, but reconsidering the worth of scrappy, marginal land on the outskirts of towns surely makes sense.
If that proposal is brave, her recommendation for a separate body to be set up to tackle planning applications for large infrastructure and energy-related projects is a no-brainer and chimes with the Eddington Transport Study – another pragmatic document that identifies the need for planning reform. The lack of infrastrastructure is often the biggest barrier to regeneration and this new focus from government on improving its delivery presents the sort of joined-up thinking our sector has been crying out for.
Who is going to pay for it is another matter, and on this front the way forward is far more controversial. In his pre-Budget report on Wednesday, the chancellor signalled his intention to press ahead with the planning gain supplement – albeit with caveats. This could still undermine housebuilding and regeneration.
That said, an interdepartmental group, led by the Cabinet Office, has been set up to take the Eddington and Barker reports forward. This will culminate in a white paper on planning in the spring. Implementing change in the planning system is never easy – indeed the barriers are immense. But the difference this time round, and why we have cause to be optimistic, is that the proposals are both workable and backed by government determination to make a change, particularly when it comes to housing.
Denise Chevin, editor