LETTER: Planning safeguards have worked well for years

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Proposals announced this week by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles MP to allow planning applications to be decided by unelected government inspectors, bypassing local councils, and to consult on the need for more planning projects to be decided by central government rather than local councils, are unnecessary, will not provide answers to the low number of new home starts and a gathering future housing crisis, but merely undermine confidence in local democracy and government.

These proposals do far more than try to stimulate house building and abolish the need for planning consent to build a conservatory. The government propose to give powers to developers to bypass local councils and go direct to unelected inspectors where local council’s planning departments are deemed to be ‘under performing’. The proposals also give the right to developers to appeal directly to inspectors to remove or reduce requirements to build social and affordable homes for young singles, families and the elderly.

The coalition government is trying to stimulate the housing market, but it is stalled by the current economic situation stifling demand, not by local councils. Much-needed development is being held up because buyers can’t buy and developers can’t sell. The problem is one of availability of investment capital and mortgages, it is a banking not a planning system problem. The lack of economic confidence among the public is reducing the number of house buyers in the market.

Local authorities are playing their full part and should not be blamed for the number of low housing starts, granting 87% of all applications. Councils have made available 400,000 housing approvals in England – 1,607 in the Ribble Valley. Of these 200,000 have not started. There are sufficient planning approvals, if no more applications are granted, to carry construction to 2016 at the present rate. The problem does not lie with regulatory system administered by local councils, but with the bankers.

To take away the right of a planning authority representing the local community to shape and direct important local projects, whether housing or industrial, will create a democratic deficit, lack of accountability and alienation with the democratic process. Mr Pickles wants to speed up the planning process, but this change will only slow it down as applications are mired in the courts with the inevitable challenges that will come from disgruntled citizens and dissatisfied local authorities. Coalition Government opponents will see this as an end to “localism”, with central government, not local councils, increasingly controlling grant of planning consent from Whitehall.

If these proposals are accepted we must have a definition of “under performing” which does not penalise those good councils who listen and adequately consider local people’s views about planning consents, then take time to see if all appropriate conditions are in place before grant or refusal. Taking proper time is not a measure of under performing.

Developers and builders do not want to build affordable and social housing and will seek to remove these requirements in planning applications. This will mean for authorities like the Ribble Valley, not building retirement bungalows and sheltered accommodation for the increasing elderly population, as well as lack of homes for families on low incomes and young singles who are leaving the area in large numbers.

Due to the last Labour government’s policy, many local authorities do not have housing departments to build new council homes and therefore look to property developers to meet their local needs. Developers are obviously interested in making profits, local authorities must look at the wider picture and build for need not greed. Removing affordable housing requirements will not make it easier for developers to sell houses. It will merely create a long-term housing crisis. The solution lies in giving local councils greater powers to borrow funds and build social and affordable housing to meet community need, and measures to create greater availability of mortgages and housing investment finance. Rather than extending the length of planning time for developers to start building as the government propose, they should be shortened to remove consent from landowners who are land banking. If building does not commence within two years of the grant then the consent should be lost .

To avoid planning consents languishing, applications should not be allowed to be made by investment companies acting for a landowner who merely wishes to increase the value of the land and has no intention of putting bricks in the ground, but is looking for a builder to whom to sell with the planning rights. The actual builder should be involved from the start of the planning procedure.

It is time for Mr Pickles, our Lancashire MPs and Parliament generally to think again before these proposals become Law. Listen to the public, and councils, rather than developers. Look for alternative answers and think housing need, community, job creation, heritage and protection of the green belt before removing safeguards that have been in place and served the public for 64 years.

COUN. KEN KIND,

Ribble Valley borough councillor,

former Lancashire MP