Rico Wojtulewicz is Head of Housing and Planning Policy at the National Federation of Builders.

Previous Conservative Governments have struggled to implement planning policies which helped small and medium sized builders (SME) win more work, or even compete for it; yet industry may finally see planning reforms which deliver the opportunities they deserve.

While the Government has worked diligently on balancing retention of existing planning strategy with imperative reforms, some are trying to derail their efforts with misrepresentation and in some cases, lies. This is not going unnoticed and, with SMEs growing impatient at the quality of debate, many will not forgive those ignoring the seriousness of their challenge.

During the last decade, SMEs have worked diligently with government on strategies to tinker with planning. Yet successful tinkering has been outweighed by failure because despite clear policy objectives, discretion and interpretation have become enshrined in how Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) believe the system should operate.

This is because the current planning system is a whole host of discretionary hoops to navigate, such as site allocations in local plans (if there is one), windfall policy for non-allocated homes, policies underpinning planning strategy, negotiated development levies, individually chargeable conditions to sign off before you can start work or even complete, statutory consultees who take an age to confirm due diligence, and committees which can stifle policy compliant development for political reasons.

There is little certainly in the above processes and local policy can change suddenly – such as when nitrate or phosphate neutrality becomes a concern and a moratorium on housebuilding is enacted, despite housebuilding not being the majority polluter.

Some of the tinkering has included:

  • Deemed discharge of planning conditions.
  • 20 per cent higher planning fees if the extra cost is reinvested in planning departments.
  • The Housing Delivery Test (HDT), which encourages councils to have a more robust five year land supply (5YLS), rather than simply allocating ‘numbers’.
  • Fixed Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), as a replacement for negotiable Section 106.
  • Local plans to have a minimum 10 per cent of sites being small and medium sized (non binding and initially proposed at 20 per cent).
  • Neighbourhood Planning.
  • Diversification of supply through a Self-Build Register.
  • Publishing CIL and Section 106 contributions and strategies to spend it

The result has been –

  • Planning now taking taking an average of 1.4 years on sites of 50 homes and 2.1 years on sites of 100.
  • Large sites dominating the 5YLS, resulting in almost a third of councils not meeting minimum supply and failing the HDT.
  • Section 106 and CIL being charged together, with some councils not having CIL at all.
  • Sixty per cent of reviewed Neighbourhood Plans having no housing policy or allocations.
  • A complete failure of the Self Build Register, including some councils intentionally putting access blocks in place.

According to the governments last major tinkering, ‘Fixing the broken market’, SMEs (between 101-1000 homes) deliver 25 per cent of homes in England and small builders (1-100 homes), just 12 perc ent. During the 1980’s, smaller builders used to deliver 40 per cent of homes.

Industry has proposed several solutions to improve SME market share and planning certainty, such as small sites registers, a medium sized site definition in planning to focus minds on smaller strategic developments, planning powers for HomesEngland, greater use of Local Development Orders (LDOs), a planning Ofsted and changes to affordable housing to include selfbuild, as well as permitting shared equity homes to be delivered by non-registered providers.

None of the above recommendations have materialised and, because tinkering has been so ineffective, SMEs wholly back the Government’s planning reform proposals, and believe they aren’t just needed but necessary.

Why the planning reforms make sense

Growth, Renewal and Protection zones, or ‘areas’ are effectively LDO’s with locally set design codes. Each has their own strategic gain – for example, Renewal areas will ensure communities are built out, while Growth zones are planned.

The proposed ‘areas’ would also benefit from a medium-sized site definition of up to 50 homes, which has already been floated by the Government in the NPPF.

With ‘zones’, landowners will know that areas are being assessed for development, rather than in the current allocation process, which sees individual sites, often without planning, assessed as deliverable within five years, when they are not.

Councils can use their powers to allocate these areas, and instil a level of competition among landowners. This can be accompanied by locally shaped design codes’ nd land assembly for specific requirements, such as social housing.

Councils who are failing to meet minimum demand in the HDT can seek assistance from HomesEngland, who can arrange land in established ‘Growth’ areas and, in combination with LPAs, permit projects using local Design Codes.

The combination of areas and design codes’, among other reforms, will create greater planning certainly and efficient planning resource allocation.

Fixed planning gain through an infrastructure levy will ensure landowners understand their contribution requirements, rather than leaving developers to negotiate with councils on the actual project cost.

Infrastructure planning is proposed as beingdelivered within the plan period, and this will unlock certainty for developers, local people and the council. As will proposals to ensure LPAs actually have Local Plans, delivered in a timely fashion.

Local Plans and better placemaking, particularly in ‘Growth’ areas where infrastructure does not yet exist, will benefit from the proposed 10 year development need strategy.

Long-awaited digitisation will create a simpler and more accountable approach to planning applications and local planning, as well as ensure more than one per cent of people engage in Local Plans.

It will also be a catalyst for improved ‘Housing Needs Assessments’, so councils know what homes are needed; for example, how many older people would like to live independently, or with some level of support.

A very welcome component of the proposals were policies not being highly influenced by London needs, as has been the case in previous reforms.

It would be helpful if MPs in the capital were focusing on London-based reforms, such as powers for Mayors to access unspent planning contributions.

Planning for the future

Through growth strategies which can be applied to all regions, Planning for the Future literally plans for England’s future. For SMEs, who are more likely to build in rural locations and on complex brownfield sites, this is much needed.

And it should be for the Government too.

The ‘levelling up’ agenda needs to enable SMEs because they make up 99 per cent of UK businesses.  Nearly a fifth operate in construction, and they are the nations predominant rural employers. In construction, they also train seven in 10 apprentices and make up 90 per cent of the construction training capacity. SME builders are also the main partner for selfbuild, housing associations, councils and CLTs.

When it comes to net zero, unless we increase SME capacity and ultimately, their pipeline of work so they can retain workers and learners, we will never retrofit our 28 million homes quickly enough, or build the homes we need. We saw this capacity challenge in the recent Green Homes Grant, as there were not enough businesses who could do the works.

The Government will soon place their planning reforms in front of the house, and it needs to be known that SMEs support them. The House of Commons and media must therefore place party politics and careers to one side, and work with the Government to improve and approve them.

‘Planning for the Future’ gives England a chance to build construction capacity, plan for growth locally, placemake, bring back competition in the housing market and diversify supply. Why would anybody on either side of the House oppose that?