President's Blog late Summer 2018

12 September 2018

As anyone who has read these President’s Blogs over the last few years will know, they are meant to be out on a monthly basis which means that as we are now in September I am late with this one.  My excuse, when the ‘Blog Delivery Test’ is measured, is that it has been so I could get my thoughts together on the new NPPF which we’ve all, I’m sure, been absorbing over the summer (and I have also had a holiday to try to recharge my batteries which feels increasingly necessary in local government so I hope you have all managed to get a break in some form too).

So to the NPPF, I think MHCLG deserve credit for getting the Framework out after 29,000 responses and that it remains a succinct document given it is the basis with which the nation will plan and shape its towns, cities, villages and countryside.  The reaction from the sector and wider has been notably mixed – but probably inevitable for a National planning document, albeit one with a strong housing focus.  What feels more consistent though is a sense of being underwhelmed – it really doesn’t feel like the ‘call to arms’ that is needed to solve the nation’s housing crisis of growing housing waiting lists, rising homelessness, , the costs of buying and renting in many places, and the harm this is doing to the economy and most importantly people’s life chances.  It doesn’t feel like an ambitious ‘vision’ for how we fairly plan our nation.

Given the influence that the Treasury seems to have now on most government policy making, there remain new methodologies, tests and penalties invented at a national level to be applied at a complex and politically sensitive local level.  And developed with a market focussed ideology which will add fuel  to already overheated local housing markets  and, in those places that really do need to grow to support regeneration and their local economies, it will be no surprise if they chose less ambitious numbers as local political choices play out.  Together with recent funding and public investment decisions this imbalance will be emphasised.

The question remains ‘Where is the potential for housing growth, infrastructure investment, and wider development to be purposefully directed to rebalance the national economy?’  Answering this would require coordination and alignment across government departments, with the NPPF at the heart of how we plan and direct development and investment across the nation. At the moment this feels rather disconnected.  As the LGA has demonstrated, planning is not to blame for delays in housing but councils and local communities will be, and feel, unfairly punished if delivery falls short.  

The major flaw for me in all this is that across the country in Council chambers, in homes, on the doorstep, and in the national and local media, hearts and minds are not won yet on the need for more homes.  So much energy is wasted as tensions still play out between communities and local politicians and planners and developers on the need for new homes leaving little capacity to ensure that they form part of wider plans to make those places great.  I don’t feel confident that the NPPF will resolve this without further major continuous effort, led by government, to make the case for the scale of new homes needed, the critical role that planning at the local level must play and the harm caused to everyone if we don’t achieve this.  This isn’t something MHCLG or the NPPF can do on its own.  

As Martin Read in The Planner very astutely observed, there is no ‘killer app’ in the revised NPPF, which, whilst I’m sure is a frustration to Ministers, is no surprise to anyone immersed in our complex, often political, and underfunded planning system.  

Planners don’t actually build anything but Councils are trying to.  And if there is one action that has any resemblance to a ‘killer app’ it is a mass national council house building programme.  Whether ideology will mean this remains a missed opportunity I wouldn’t want to predict, but without it I sense the harm to the nation will be felt for decades.

If we accept that the main purpose of the NPPF today is to provide impetus to build more homes then for the housing crisis to have a chance of being solved the nation needs a ten year plan (a good rule of thumb for achieving anything important) with support from across the political parties and across all levels of government.  The NPPF doesn’t get there yet.  I’ll be encouraging government, where opportunities arise, and  the recently formed Labour Planning Commission, to adopt this scale of ambition – and hope that as government returns from the summer recess it is geared up to win the nation’s hearts and minds to support the new homes of all types needed everywhere.

Paul Seddon  

President 2018/19