A new Planning Bill - why it matters

The announcement of a new Planning Bill in the Queen’s Speech hasn’t grabbed many, if any, headlines – and to be fair it was never going to. Whilst planning may not be on the 6 o’clock news, it matters to us and, hopefully, this new Bill will be a further step towards building the homes we need.

No matter what Shelter does – whether it’s helping people facing bad housing or homelessness or campaigning to improve conditions – the problem of housing supply underpins it all.

As a country, we simply do not build enough homes – and when we do they are often expensive and small. Over time, this means rising house prices, an increasing number of renters, more struggling to pay for their housing costs and, in some cases, homelessness.

A major factor holding back house building is simply the way the planning system works; at its very heart there are fundamental problems that prioritises profits over people. In the current system, competition when buying land is fierce, favouring the big developers. The initial cost of acquiring plots of land to build on then has serious knock on effects at all subsequent stages.

Developers who’ve paid over the odds for land often then sit on it, waiting to build at the point they can maximise their returns. Fitting lots of homes on a site and building as economically as possible also helps to recoup the cost of the land, leading to smaller and poorer quality homes.

But lots can be done to ensure the system delivers more of the homes communities want, in good time and to a good standard. The new Bill will be an opportunity to just that.

At the moment, who owns what land and where is at best unclear and at worst mystifying. Not knowing these basic things makes it difficult for local authorities and communities to plan and make informed decisions about what housing should be developed in their area. With more transparency it will be easier for those in charge of local plans to see who’s sitting on plots of land and prioritise getting the homes built.

Of course, even with more transparency, housebuilding takes time but there is an opportunity to speed things up. There is a need to make sure local communities are able to easily amend their local plans and have a say in development in their areas. Getting land to those developers ready to build in good time and at a fair market price is also important. As is removing any snags that are either holding up the process, or are being used to undermine affordable housing, such as secret viability assessments.

Combining practical tweaks to the planning process with a longer term vision for building in the UK would be an important shift. The proposal to give a statuary footing to the National Infrastructure Commission will hopefully give housing the long term approach it needs. Successive governments have kicked this can down the road – largely because it’s complicated, takes too long, and because the next government might end up getting the credit for it. But having an independent body to hold the government’s feet to the fire on long term planning, including house building, should help overcome the short termism that’s blighted house building for decades.

We really hope that this Bill lays the foundations [forgive the pun] for an expansion of house building far beyond anything we’ve seen in recent times. The government has set itself the target of delivering a million homes by 2020. That is no mean feat and one that will need some serious commitments if they’re to even come close.