Planning Minister faces questions on Local Plans, brownfield development, and zero-carbon housing
Sept 23rd 2015
Planning Minister Brandon Lewis was quizzed by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee this month over the planning proposals set out in the Treasury’s “productivity plan” which was launched in July.
Titled Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, the plan set out an agenda for the lifetime of the current government “to reverse the UK’s long-term productivity problem and secure rising living standards and a better quality of life for our citizens.” The fifteen-point plan set out plans for long-term investment (covering business, skills, infrastructure and science) and a dynamic economy (covering planning and employment, financial services, competitive markets and international trade, and regional devolution).
The Treasury summarised the planning proposals as: “Planning freedoms; more houses to buy, including introducing a new zonal system to give automatic permission on suitable brownfield sites; taking tougher action to ensure that local authorities are making land available for housing; and working with the Mayor of London to bring forward proposals to remove the need for planning permission for upwards extensions for a limited number of storeys up to the height of the adjoining building.” (See the GOV.UK website for a full summary of Fixing the Foundations.)
The CLG Committee met with the Planning Minister Brandon Lewis as soon as the House returned to Parliament on the 7th September. The Minister was quizzed on a number of topics, including local plans, measures to promote brownfield development, the sale of council housing, the inclusion of housing elements in major infrastructure projects, the ending of the zero-carbon new housing commitment, and the sale of surplus public sector land. A full record of the meeting is available as a PDF from the Parliament website.
The Minister was asked what action the Government would take if local authorities did not have a local plan in place by the specified deadline of 2017. He said that 82% of local authorities had now published a local plan and 60% of local authorities had adopted their local plans, and he was optimistic that the remaining 18% would have a local plan by the deadline. He said the Government had no plans to make it a statutory duty for local authorities to have a local plan, but what measures it might take should the deadline be missed had yet to be decided.
Under new planning proposals, local authorities will be expected to keep a register of brownfield sites in their area. On granting automatic planning permission to build on such sites, the Minister was asked at what stage would issues such as flood risk assessments and environmental impact assessments be considered. The Minister said the detailed planning application would still look at those issues, as well as the question of design. He explained that granting planning consent in principle for brownfield sites was designed to give certainty to developers in relation to their finance, and would help small and medium-sized builders in particular. The Government’s aim, he said, “was to get the brownfield land that we already have and know about into the category of having 90% of it with planning permission before the end of this Parliament, and speeding up that process.”
The Minister was asked for more details of a £1 billion fund to help brownfield development, which had been mentioned on a previous meeting of the Committee. He was unable to give a date for further details but said “this is one of the things we are working through with the local authorities and partners at the moment and will form part of what we do with the brownfield land registry in the Housing Bill as well.” He offered the further clarification that the aim of the fund is to help make brownfield land more viable and available and therefore would help with contaminated land. The fund would be spread over several years and will be coming from the money the Government raises by selling off high-value council houses. Further details would emerge in the Housing Bill, which it expects to publish in October.
On measures that might bring about a faster delivery of new housing, the Minister said a focus on small sites and encouraging more small and medium-sized companies into building would accelerate the pace of development:
“I am personally particularly keen on making sure we do everything we can to encourage more small and medium-sized companies – not just sites – into building, because there has been something like a 75% drop-off in the number of small buildings. To put that in context, at its peak, something like 15,000 homes a year were built on small sites; it is now just under 3,000. Planning permissions themselves are going up; they hit just over 261,000, which is great. The system is delivering planning permissions. We want to make sure they are in as efficient and effective a time as possible, because one of the barriers to entry can be the cost and bureaucracy of the planning system, particularly for those small builders.”
He said that communities are much more accepting and positive about small-scale development. “This is one of the real challenges for large-scale development,” he said. He continued:
“I have a good example in my own constituency, where developers are developing out what will eventually be about 850 homes, but it is with one developer, which means that will take them the best part of 15 years. If that was broken up and had lots more smaller sites, it would be developed a lot more quickly, which would help our housing supply and help the local community, so I think those smaller sites are very, very important. Making sure the local authorities have that focus, are very clear about the importance of small sites and are giving good quality service to small developers is quite an important message to send out there as well.”
The Minister was asked about the ending of the zero-carbon new housing commitment. The new rules were due to be implemented in 2016. He was told that many businesses have invested heavily in the expectation that the new rules would be implemented and would now see their investment as a waste. The Minister’s response was that “going further now with zero-carbon homes would have added costs of something like £3,600 per unit to an average semi-detached house, and we just want to make sure that the industry has some breathing space.”
He also said that ending the zero-carbon commitment did not mean the Government was off-track for meeting the European Building Performance Directive by 2020. “We have to do a report every five years,” he said, “and our next report is due in 2017. We look for standards for buildings to be cost-optimal; that is why we keep them under review, and, if there is a change at that point, we will be expected, as a member state, to take appropriate action, but I am confident at the moment that the standards we have are strong.”
Some local authorities had started looking at Code Level 5 and Code Level 6, he said, which would have added £25,000 to £30,000 to the cost of a home. “We simply take the view that, at a time when we are trying to get more homes built and make them as affordable as possible, when the standards are there and building regulations give us the standards we want to see – with a review coming, which we will do for 2017 – it is not logical for us to be increasing the cost of building in this country.”
Public Sector Land
The Government has set a target for building 150,000 new houses on surplus public sector land. The Minister was asked whether the target was realistic. He agreed that the target was ambitious, and went on to explain how the target could be met and how the different departments of the Government fitted in with the plans. He also clarified that the target is not to actually build the 150,000 homes, but to release land on which 150,000 homes can be built.
Planning Minister Brandon Lewis made a second appearance before the CLG Committee on the 15th September, together with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clark. They faced questions on long-term issues facing the Department, such as the refugee crisis and its impact on local government. A number of other topics were also discussed. The ministers were asked for a progress report on the plans to revitalise town centres, questioned about permitted development rights and the impact on office space in London, and asked whether the Government’s plans to build starter homes for first-time buyers signalled a change of policy from building affordable homes to rent. On the latter point, Secretary of State Greg Clark said that the country needed to build more homes and that both starter homes and homes to rent were necessary. For further information on the meeting, see this PDF from the Parliament website.
Photo: Big Ben by Carlesmari via Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.