Observer column: 26 February 2016
Working To Plan
Planning departments are often criticised. That's true in every council, particularly in the south east, where there's so much pressure to build more homes, in a region where population density is twice the national average. But councils have limited powers to prevent, or even control, new development. Increasingly, it's the developers that have the upper hand.
In Hastings, the government has set the council an obligatory target to identify land for 3,200 new homes. This land is shown in the Local Plan. But that's not easy in Hastings, where the population density is seven times the south east average.
The council has done all it can to protect open spaces from development - around 40% of the borough is protected, and Hastings unusually managed to change land formerly earmarked for housing into protected open space in its Local Plan. But that means those 3,200 homes have to be fitted into the rest of the borough, where there are few spaces left. There are no greenfield development sites in Hastings - all development has to be on previously developed land, inevitably close to existing homes.
By any objective standards, development control in Hastings works well. Planning applications are processed within national target times, the percentage of applications approved is around the national average, and when planning refusals are appealed, the percentage the council wins is better than average. Reforms to the way the council deals with applications have taken place over the last year, there's a new manager with experience of other councils, and following a favourable external review, another is planned later in the year.
But the real problem with the planning system is that it appears to be under local control when it isn't. The council's Local Plan, the policies in it and the land identified for housing, employment and open space, all have to be approved by a government inspector. And planning law says that if you own land, you normally have a right to build on it. Unless the land is protected, the council can turn down a planning application on grounds of size, design, room size, and so on, but can't refuse development altogether. Or if they do, their decision can be appealed - nationally, planning inspectors are upholding an increasingly high proportion of planning appeals, leaving councils with huge legal bills. And it's might get even harder to restrict development - the government's new Housing and Planning Bill will let developers build without even applying for permission, in some circumstances.
So the current system isn't working - leaving it all to market forces and restricting local powers means the wrong homes are built in the wrong places, and people who need them can't afford them. Those that can afford to buy their own home increasingly want bigger homes, and are more likely to live alone than they used to. By contrast, those who are less well off are hit by the bedroom tax and forced into somewhere smaller.
We need a new approach to house building, where councils are given meaningful planning powers, so genuinely affordable homes get built, where people want them. The current system, where developers ignore local objections to build homes for the better off, while homelessness increases and housing waiting lists grow, cannot continue. We need a major re-think on what kind of homes we build, how they're paid for, and where we put them.