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A rebalancing act

We must confront the need for planning structures and incentives that reinforce sustainable and socially just outcomes rather than potentially undermining them, argues Kate Henderson.

The coalition government is proposing significant changes to planning and housing policy. These changes are complex and fast moving and have major implications for how we provide for all types of housing, and particularly housing for those on limited incomes.

The localism bill sets out government’s plans to revolutionise the planning process by ‘taking power away from officials and putting it into the hands of those who know most about their neighbourhood – local people themselves’. The bill also introduces a new neighbourhood planning framework, changes to the local development framework process, the abolition of regional strategies, and the introduction of a new ‘duty to co-operate’.

Alongside the bill the government has introduced a wider package of reforms – including the introduction of the new homes bonus (NHB), designed to incentivise housing growth, changes to housing benefit, and a new National Planning Policy Framework, which will set the key national policy direction for planning.

The Town and Country Planning Association has launched the first report to consider the government’s housing and planning reforms together, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In doing so it raises two major potential social consequences from the reforms as currently set out.

Firstly, the report concludes that the long-term patterns of spatial inequalities in England are likely to be reinforced by a combination of the end of regional planning and policy and an incentive scheme for housing which rewards high-market-demand areas. This may have long-term implications for the distribution of England’s population. However, the report acknowledges the extent of this impact is hard to gauge without further study.

Secondly, there will be shorter-term impacts on a significant number of low-income households which may intensify social segregation.

Consequently, the report makes a number of recommendations to help the government to align its policy priorities for increasing housing provision, rebalancing the economy and increasing growth within the overall goal of achieving sustainable development. These are briefly outlined below:

Housing
It recommends that local authorities consider both local housing needs and wider patterns of housing demand and that there must be a mechanism for assessing whether the sum of local decisions matches up to the national picture of housing need.

Strengthening the role of strategic planning
The ‘duty to cooperate’ in the localism bill must ensure that local authorities gather effective evidence and cooperate over the most sustainable housing allocations. The paper also recommends that the National Planning Policy Framework – which will set out the nation’s economic, social and environmental priorities – provides an opportunity to set out expectations on strategic cooperation for housing.

Smartening housing incentives
In order to change people’s attitudes to development there must be genuine local benefit from development, secured by ensuring that a proportion of the NHB goes directly towards infrastructure provision in the locality. The NHB ought to be evolved to better support local aspirations for community-led regeneration.

Aligning the planning and incentives regime
To deliver high quality sustainable places, local authorities should align the NHB with good forward planning to get the right homes in the right places. The NHB should also be seen in the context of other financial instruments such as the community infrastructure levy, to get the maximum added value to communities by pooling funds.

Rebuilding and repairing communities
Additional funding and support mechanisms must be identified if the NHB redistributes resources away from areas that need help to regenerate and meet social housing needs. local enterprise partnerships and local authorities applying to the Regional Growth Fund should consider planning, housing, transport and infrastructure as well as business and growth.

Rebalancing England
The report makes a series of recommendations about considering the long-term economic implications of spatial distribution activity in England and the need for a national spatial policy to ensure the most efficient use of resources and promote housing provision.

A final caveat is that the report is written in a fast moving political and policy environment. As a result of the unprecedented scale of change in all aspects of how we plan for, fund and deliver housing, there will be a need for continuing analysis of the combined impact of the reforms on those in housing need.

  • Kate Henderson is chief executive of planning think tank the Town and Country Planning Association.

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