Cllr Philip Atkins is the County Councils Network Conservative vice-chairman and the Leader of Staffordshire County Council.
Planning policy: a complex, multi-layered subject that is unlikely to be a popular topic of conversation down at pub. But it is something that will go a long way to ensure the success – or otherwise – of the government’s agenda to solve the housing crisis.
You cannot ask someone, particularly young people, to believe in capitalism if they can’t afford to own their own home.
There is clear evidence of an affordability crisis that stretches the length and breadth of the country; from Cornwall to Cumbria; with a recent survey for the County Councils Network revealing that nine in ten county leaders perceive their affordable housing need as either ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’.
House prices in England’s counties continue to accelerate skyward, rising at treble the rate of even London last year. However it would be unfair to place the entire blame on the current government – this is an issue that successive governments of all colours have struggled to grapple with.
To this government’s credit, they have put housing front, left, and centre of their domestic agenda. The commitment is welcome: an aspiration to build 300,000 homes per year, billions set aside to unlock development, proposals to end land-banking, and reforms to the planning system itself. We have a new Housing Secretary, and I know he will be raring to get stuck into his brief.
The Conservatives are the party of home-ownership and aspiration. But this government needs to be bolder if it is to make that dream a reality for thousands of people.
Whilst reforms laid out in the recent National Planning Policy Framework encourage new thinking and closer collaboration between councils, mechanisms such as the Statement of Common Ground do not go far enough.
As many versed in local government will be aware, in ‘two-tier’ county areas, planning functions and infrastructure responsibilities are split between district councils (responsible for the former) and county councils (responsible for the latter). Both of these functions are, by virtue of being delivered by two different stands of council, fragmented. We believe they should be closer aligned, with closer collaboration between differing sets of councils. In plenty of places, like Staffordshire, this is already happening. In others, this alignment isn’t as substantive.
A note of caution: this should not be read as county councils wanting to take on planning responsibilities. Districts are a vital cog in the development machine. The aforementioned Statement of Common Ground could usher closer collaboration forward, but unless county councils have a formal substantial role as signatories then it will be a blunt instrument.
We also need to think bigger; and we need to think more ambitiously. Strategic planning (ie planning over a large area with jointly developed infrastructure proposals) was finally abolished under the Coalition after being scaled back under Labour, but there is definite merit to thinking about planning over a larger geography – with all councils in a local area coming together to outline the housing and the infrastructure necessary.
Importantly, this government is beginning to think this way.
The Oxfordshire ‘housing deal’ involves the county council and five district councils coming together to draw up a joint plan for the whole county on housing and supporting infrastructure. The proposals are as comprehensive as they are ambitious: 100,000 homes by 2031, and £215m of government money for infrastructure to support this development, (not including local pots of infrastructure cash) and £5m for affordable housing.
The benefits of strategic planning, and closer alignment of planning and infrastructure are twofold: with closer collaboration between all local councils decision-making is sped up, the delivery of homes is accelerated, and it helps unlock vital infrastructure to go alongside these properties – new roads, schools, doctors’ surgeries and leisure facilities. In an ideal world, housing follows infrastructure, rather than the other way round. In essence, we build communities; not just properties.
This also has a political benefit: if new developments come pre-packaged with the necessary infrastructure to mitigate extra pressure on public services then they are less likely to run into local opposition.
Two new reports launched at a housing conference from the County Councils Network this week contain a series of recommendations to make the system work better for prospective homeowners, developers, and councils.
The first, from planning expert Catriona Riddell Associates, outlines compelling reasons for the re-introduction of strategic planning.
The second, from the Town and Country Planning Association, calls for a stronger role for counties in the planning system, and for county councils and county unitary authorities that are innovating and taking matters into their own hands by setting up development companies or public-private joint development ventures. The report calls for extra resources to expand their entrepreneurship.
Planning and infrastructure are the elusive final two pieces of a jigsaw. If we piece them closer together, our communities will reap the benefits.
Alongside better paid and more productive jobs, young people will be able to afford to own their own home and, of course, believe in capitalism.