The angry reaction from the House Builders Federation to PPG3 is predictable, but will John Prescott listen to its argument and reconsider some of his most criticised ideas?
PPG3 will not be a sexy document.
Planning guides are not written to be arresting. The language will be conditional and even circumspect. It will breathe the air of utter reasonableness, of setting out universal truths, insofar as they can be defined, but which necessarily have to be interpreted according to local circumstances.
Little in the document will hint of the war that has been raging to influence the contents of PPG3, seen as the Bible of housing planning policy. The key battlefield has been over the question of housing mix for both private and affordable housing. A coalition consisting of the National Housing Federation, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter, the RTPI and the Local Government Association has been pressing for the mix, as well as the quantity of affordable homes, to be indicated in local development documents. It seeks an explicit requirement that targets should be monitored to enable them to be measured against local priorities.
The most contentious issue for the affordable housing sector concerns private housebuilders’ provision of affordable housing under section 106. The coalition is anxious to challenge the contention of developers that requirements for social housing should be diluted where the commercial viability of the site is under question. The coalition wants to permit changes to social housing provision only where there has been a genuine change in funding or planning policy and even then subject to an amendment to an existing planning permission. For every site that under-provides social housing another should increase the provision for low income households.
The implicit accusation behind these proposals is that builders have fulfilled their obligation to provide affordable housing by putting a clutch of starter homes in the least attractive part of any site. The coalition wants the mix to be set according to the local authority survey, prescribing the proportion of social/affordable homes and the types of property.
Many adjectives can be used to describe the House Builders Federation, but subtle is not one that springs spontaneously to mind. It didn’t quite use the term “Stalinist” publicly, but that is certainly what it felt about the proposal to increase the prescriptive powers of local authorities. More local authority interference would mean developments would become uneconomic which would mean fewer houses.
The reaction was entirely predictable but the HBF is, nonetheless, touching an exposed nerve. The government is so committed to Kate Barker’s arithmetic that the threat to fail to meet her numbers is a serious potential liability. Prescott has just seen his pre-Labour Party Conference idea to build homes for £60,000 on publicly owned sites, from which the land value has been stripped out, dismissed by the RICS on the grounds of dodgy maths.
Prescott also received a conference bashing over his refusal to fund councils to bring their own stock up to the decent homes standard rather than to use the route of transfer, arm’s-length management organisations or PFI. He is supposed to be mulling over this “fourth way” for housing investment, although his earlier refusals to budge have been so categorical that any shift in position would mean a sizeable portion of humble pie.
On one element of the PPG consultation the ODPM will back down. It included the totally dotty suggestion that the policy of permitting the building of affordable homes outside village development envelopes on land donated or acquired for below market prices should be discontinued. In many parts of the country the only affordable homes built are thanks to this “exceptions” policy. It is reckoned that some 10,000 homes have been built under this scheme over 10 years or so, the main agent being the Rural Development Trust. The logic of the consultation was that local councils, equipped with section 106 powers and the tariff system, could designate village land for development. The trouble is that land cannot be designated for affordable houses and once land was brought within the development envelope every land agent with an ounce of wit would advise the owner to hang out for market priced houses.
Faced with universal opposition it looks certain that PPG3 will continue the exceptions policy, a decision made even more likely by the rumours that the government is getting cold feet over the tariff proposals in any case. Planning guidance – that really is politics in the raw.
David Curry is MP for Skipton and Ripon