Posted by: Adam Roake | August 9, 2010

NEW HOUSING POLICY 1 – COMMUNITY RIGHT TO BUILD

The new team at CLG seem to have slowed down a bit over the last few weeks but two pronouncements, both from Grant Shapps, are worth noting here. There was a third housing-related idea from David Cameron, which also caught my eye, proposing that council tenants should no longer have security of tenure beyond a fixed term, but I have nothing to add beyond Tim Williams’ blog post, which elegantly sets out the shortcomings of this approach.

So firstly this post deals with Mr Shapps’ big policy idea, the “Community Right to Build“. I say idea because at the moment it is really no more than that and in a truly humble way and even though several CLG officers have spent the last three months working on it, they are now asking communities to tell them “… how to get it right” and make the idea work as a policy. Basically the idea is that in small communities, where someone has the balls to organise 90% of the population to agree, a piece of land can be developed for housing or indeed anything that community wishes to build without the need for formal planning permission. There will be (remember, it’s not a policy yet) some other undefined “minimum criteria” to be met and you won’t be able to expand the community by more than 10%. So in return for jumping through the hoop of ensuring you have the backing of 90% of the entire community (another term yet to be defined) you will be able to avoid the hoop of applying for planning permission, where you only need 51% of the elected representatives of the community on your side.

I know this is a pet project of Mr Shapps but its drawbacks seem legion and it benefits limited. Firstly, is it really sensible to expect an overwhelming majority of any community to agree on something like housing provision? However it is done, there will be a few who will benefit (e.g. those who will get to live in the new homes, the landowner etc) considerably more than others (the immediate neighbours, whose view will be lost etc), so that it will require quite some considerable leap of philanthropy to deliver “overwhelming community support” for a proposal. To obtain support, promoters will surely have to produce drawings and other evidence illustrating that no demonstrable harm to neighbouring amenities will result, at pretty much the same level of detail as a planning permission. Who will decide what is and what isn’t harmful in this respect? The community will need certainty that the scheme will be built in accordance with those plans and will presumably need similar powers to take enforcement action in case of breach that LPAs currently have. How will that all work? And the only benefit is that the promoters will not have to obtain planning permission. It might seem an awful lot easier to make the planning application and be done with it; at least the rules are well understood, tried and tested!

But to cap it all, how many new homes is this idea likely to produce? It will be difficult enough to persuade 90% of a rural community with perhaps 200 voters that new housing is appropriate, so this idea is unlikely to work in an urban community, where the limits of “community” are unclear and the sheer numbers of voters will make 90% approval impossible. CLG themselves expect each scheme will yield no more than 50 new homes – on that basis and assuming we still need 240,000 new homes built every year (no one has suggested otherwise), we will need at least 5,000 (and probably nearer 10,000) small rural communities every year to take advantage of this new right.  It would be astonishing if even 1% of this number of communities exercise their proposed right.

Is it really sensible to allocate increasingly scarce CLG resources to an idea which has so little benefit? It’s actually not difficult to get planning permission for a decent proposal, the only tangible benefit on offer, and even if the planning system was preventing the sort of community action Mr Shapps wants to promote, the number of homes likely to result through this scheme is negligible in relation to the number we need to deliver.

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Responses

  1. I seem to recall that the government were suggesting that it would be the local authoritie’s ‘job’ to organise the community referrendum, reclaiming the cost from those promoting the scheme. However, if this is just a bunch of people who somehow manage to convince 80% of their community that a house buidl project is a really good idea, who do you send the bill to? Fred Smith the local community activist? The landowner? The developer who eventually takes on the job? The parish council? I’m confused dot com!

    • All in all, wouldn’t you rather make a planning application, knowing that the majority (maybe even if it’s only 60%) of the local community think it’s a jolly good idea and your ward councillors agree? It would seem to make life easier!

  2. Surely you’re over-estimating the power of elected Members, Adam. In rural areas I’m sure many (if not most) members would already be instinctively be in favour of small-scale development in villages, as an alternative to large-scale condensed ‘sustainable communities’ (most ‘normal’ people are, in my experience) but the policies against which Members and Officers are required to judge an application are generally against this. If Members were to vote with their instincts rather than policy, their decision would be open to legal challenge by the applicant. That said, if the Government really believes small-scale development in villages is desirable (a moot point, in my opinion) it would probably be more appropriate to support it through policy rather than look to undermine the planning system in this way. If it’s broke, fix it!

    • Thanks for the comment Matt. I don’t think I am over-estimating the power of elected members. It is they who are responsible for producing the primary development plan policies under the current system and the Coalition seem intent on giving them even greater responsibility for plan making in the future. The policies against which Members judge applications are policies they have approved and which they can amend or even set aside if the planning merits of the case warrant (although as Roger has pointed out twelfth comment here, too often they don’t realise they approved these same policies and have the authority to change them if they want).

      The reality is that if local elected members believe small-scale development in villages is desirable, they can write an appropriate policy into their LDF and hey presto! In fact most Councils already allow small scale infill development within settlement boundaries and certainly all the exemplars that Shapps has given seem to fall into that category.

    • With all due respect to any expereince you may have of elected members attitude to local development, you appear to be under-estimating the parochial nature of members, especially those in rural areas. My experience is, that where development of any scale is proposed in another ward, especially where it is in a town, other members tend to be at best ambivilent. When it comes to their own ward, I have also noticed a marked tendency to support open market housing where it is a good ol’ boy, but be very anti where it is social housing. The is especially the case where that socila housing is cheek by jowl with those in established and in their view, upmarket dwellings. This is witnessed by the inevitable list of objections being headed by ‘will devalue the existing property values’.
      It would appear that all these crys of ‘you’re killing off my village because you won’t allow any houses to be built’ and ‘there’s nowhere for our young people to live’, only apply when it is open market housing on land owned by somebody who has the right connections in the village. I have had affordable housing needs assessments sent to every parish council in our district on a regular basis, but in many cases, everytime an affordable housing development on a rural exceptions site comes in, the response from the community is negative.

      • Thanks as ever Roger for the perceptive comment.

        I’m sure you’re right that local members reflect the level of nimbyism prevalent in the communities they represent! In those circumstances will the proposed “Right to Build” make any difference at all. Presumably the majority of local people who voted for the nimby local member will share his/her views and will not support a community project to build.

  3. This is a most interesting discussion. We should acknowledge that good community-led development (i.e through Community Based Organisations, Development Trusts, etc.) are characterised by a unifying and coherent development vision within communities and strong local leadership.

    Granted, these circumstances may not exist in all communities. However, given the existence of a local development mandate and vehicle, surely the role of planning would be to assist in the reasonable articulation of the community initiative. Leading ‘by the hand’ and not ‘by the nose’.

    If it has something to do with land rights it is political. Planning positioned behind established community structures and its leadership could be most constructive, in such cases.

    • Thanks Ian for your comment. I fully agree that planning as an activity ought to support local community – it should be about balancing individual rights and those of the wider society. It seems to me that Mr Shapps proposal that community groups can avoid engaging with planning is dangerous and also ultimately pointless. It is dangerous because his scheme offers no protection for the rights of individuals and it is pointless because a referendum requiring a 90% approval is clearly far more onerous than simply engaging with the existing reasonably effective planning system. Although I don’t have first hand experience of Community Land Trusts or similar organisations, I do know a number of practitioners at the coal face and my understanding is that the planning system is not usually a problem. The difficulties are almost always related to establishing the two key ingredients you have identified, strong leadership and articulating the coherent development vision. I would agree that mobilising the planning system behind those two aims would be far more helpful than simply allowing community groups to “ignore” planning.

  4. Iain, I don’t wish to be rude, but I certainly wouldn’t wish to step in front of a local community meeting and say ‘are characterised by a unifying and coherent development vision within communities and strong local leadership.’

    I do however, accept what you are saying as fundermentally true. Yes, local leadership, involved very early on, showing no bias and demonstrating a sound understanding of both sides to the argument has a much better chance of carrying the day.
    Unfortunately, this often demands time and effort on the part of all parties and whilst the spirit might be willing (at least sometimes) the flesh is often weak. Somehow we need to get the meassage across to those seeking to develop that their first port of call is the community not their last and then reluctantly. Nor must it be in a piecemeal or exclusive manner.
    Too often the first any of those outside of the process know of a development is when the notice appears on the nearest lamp post immediately generating mistrust and possibly cynicism. Even where the PC is aware it is often the case the rest of the community is not.
    If this idea is to create anything positive, somebody needs to help councils (at both levels) understand how to manage the process in a straightforward and most importantly cost effective way and I don’t means the SCI process!


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