Don Foster MP writes… Report back on planning changes

Terraced housingI thought it was about time that I report back on the work I’ve been doing on planning since we debated it at Conference in September last year.

I’m pleased to be able to say that we’ve made some real progress. Particularly on the Section 106 ‘holiday’ announcement made in the September 6 growth and housing announcement, I’ve been able to deliver everything my local government colleagues asked:

Firstly, where a developer wants to renegotiate the affordable housing element of a Section 106 agreement to unblock a development, we wanted to make sure that there’s an objective test in place to check whether it’s necessary.

Section 106 agreements have been a key vehicle for providing affordable housing over the past decade, so it follows that agreements should only be renegotiated for solid and independently assessed reasons. We also wanted to be sure that the decision is transparent, and based entirely on publicly available information rather than hidden behind the wall of ‘commercial in confidence’. I’m pleased to be able to report that all of this has been agreed and is going to happen.

We also wanted the opportunity, where a site is deemed unviable and the Section 106 requirement is negotiated down, for a local authority to be able to put in a bid to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) against the £300m allocated for new affordable housing, or the £10bn loan guarantee scheme aimed at supporting house building, to enable the site to go ahead as originally planned. This is of course in line with key Lib Dem objectives: it not only ensures that affordable homes are not jettisoned as developers bid to unblock stalled schemes; it also means that developments can go ahead quickly, but with a good mix of housing – something which we Lib Dems particularly cherish. Section 106 agreements have meant that the bulk of social, subsidised housing, is no longer built in separate, segregated estates exclusively for the poorest and on the cheapest sites. Instead it has been integrated into mixed-income communities of tenants, shared owners and owners. This is something worth fighting to continue and again, I’m glad that we have now agreed that this is what will happen.

Of course, it’s also worth mentioning as often as we can that that £300m capital funding was also a key Lib Dem win, as it was something Nick Clegg fought hard for in the negotiations around the growth and housing announcement. The extra cash will deliver 15,000 more affordable homes across the UK, more than making up for any potential loss through the Section 106 change, so there will be more, not fewer affordable homes as a result.

Thirdly, overage. I can honestly say that this was a word I hadn’t come across before becoming a minister, but my local government colleagues patiently talked me through it before putting me in to bat for it. This is the mechanism whereby we can guard against developers getting an unjustified windfall gain where, for example, the market turns and significant profits are made on a site that was initially judged to be unprofitable enough for the Section 106 agreement to be waived. It’s basically a way for the local authority to claw back a portion of the sales proceeds to compensate them for the affordable housing which wasn’t built. It seems only fair that if developers benefit when prices have fallen, that they share their extra profits if, in fact, prices are a lot better than predicted and I was happy to fight for and secure this ask.

The final point I wanted to update you on is “land banking”. Many of us are far too familiar with sites where planning consent has been given, somebody has come along a few months later and dug a couple of holes, and that’s considered a “material operation”, satisfying the condition that development has started. Unfortunately, in many cases, particularly in the current climate, nothing then happens for years and years. This is an area where progress has been slower, although both sides of the Coalition agree that digging a few holes in the ground achieves nothing – what we want to see is homes being built. We all agree that this needs to be sorted out, but at the moment we’re trying to work out the best way of doing it – comments and suggestions more than welcome!

If we were in Government by ourselves, we would of course have done things differently right from the start (as I’m sure would the Conservatives if they had a majority). As a Liberal Democrat minister, I continue to believe that democratically elected local councils and the people they serve are the best judges of what development is appropriate in their local area, and that people who already live in an area should have some say in what is built around them. I also believe that our urgent need for more homes mustn’t be a green light for bad planning. It’s about finding the balance, and I hope that you will continue to help me try and get that balance right.

Don Foster is MP for Bath and Liberal Democrat Minister for Communities and Local Government.

* Don Foster is MP for Bath, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and Coalition Deputy Chief Whip.

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  • Don, I fear that local authorities don’t share your urgency over the need for new homes.

    Since the targets from the regional strategies have been scrapped, local authorities have dropped their housing targets by 280,000 homes. The biggest reductions have been in the South West (108,000) and the South East (57,000), which is particularly worrying as it’s the South that has the most desperate housing shortages.

  • George Turner 12th Feb '13 - 4:19pm

    As the person who moved the Vauxhall amendment at conference about the changes to section 106 this is hugely welcome news. Don should be congratulated in the work he has put in to make sure that the proposed changes are not a developers charter to rip off local communities. It is also fantastic for our local party to see our proposals, based on real experience on the ground of developers trying to wrong foot councils, being implemented by the government. This simply could not happen in other parties and demonstrates the importance of conference and our party’s internal democracy. Great work Don!

  • Richard Harris 12th Feb '13 - 4:30pm

    Don, while we are on the subject of planning, I’ve not heard anything about the planned lifting of planning regulations for home extensions in a while. Please tell me that particular idea has been dropped.

  • Helen Dudden 12th Feb '13 - 10:05pm

    Don, here in Bath you know how dire the situation has become on housing. Some of the social housing is far from what it should be. OK, the idea is to use some of the Georgian Stock for the private sector, but there is over 11,000 waiting for homes. Some of the developments are a mere drop in the ocean.

    Private renting is so expensive, we are in a catch 22 situation. There is reluctance to get on with things, I think projects like the Duchy of Cornwall should be given the chance.
    Even now, we have complaints about proposed building in Peasedown and Saltford.

    I fear for the situation in April with the restrictions coming into place. You know how I feel very strongly on social housing, I write a lot on the subject ,and feel for those without a home.

  • Does the provision of student accommodation count as “affordable housing”? If not, why not?

  • Dominic Curran 13th Feb '13 - 10:51am

    Don, please, please, please stop calling housing which is let at 80% of market rents ‘affordable housing’. It is a particularly unwelcome bit of Orwellian language introduced by Grant Shapps which doesn’t have to be carried on by you. While in some parts of the country 80% of market rent is affordable, in areas where there is the most pressing housing crisis, southern England and London especially, suggesting that £1000 a month (80% of the average London rent of £1272) is ‘affordable’ is a sick joke, especially when our MPs are voting with the Conservatives to restrict housing benefit, restrict council tax benefit, and impose the ‘bedroom tax’.

    Replacing genuinely affordable housing which has been lost through s106 deals with expensive social housing funded by the HCA isn’t a like for like replacement, and it does not behove you to adopt the same sloppy sleight of hand as the Tories in inferring as much.

  • Helen Dudden 13th Feb '13 - 11:43am

    I agree, the situation on housing is serious. I know someone who lives in the city, they pay £130 a week for social housing, and this is a small two bed flat in the center above a shop and in the city center. Only storage heating, no insulation bar the roof, and the windows are cold and draughty.

    I have asked that we have a meeting on the subject of homes for the city, I regard this subject as a subject, that should be given the same level of interest as single sex marriage. We speak about human rights, and the right to a home. Private renting is not a home, the social sector should produce just that.

    As with students, there is simply not enough homes in the first place, I hope that the city will soon produce enough accommodation for those who need to stay on the university campus.

    Don is the MP for this city, I ask that we consider the situation with respect.

  • It’s really good to have a minister reporting back on matters raised by our party conference, thus acknowledging that party conference motions matter supremely.
    Well done on what has been achieved and I agree with the point about local people having a say in what development takes place in their area, so long as people are not allowed to be simply opposed to development. Recently in the ward I represent, we found that developers still have a great deal of power and influence; in this case mainly because once they had prepared their proposed application ( i.e. even before formally applying) they were only willing to tweek it and not consider alternatives that would have satisfied local people’s comments.
    I too must ask that the government do not abandon the present rules about extensions to homes; I sat with our officers in drafting a response to the consultation on this and we were all completely agreed that the present rules are necessary to ensure no harm occurs to neighbours or a neighbourhood. Quality of development must be part of what we do if we are to win over people’s support for more development.
    Cllr. Nigel Jones

  • Helen Dudden 14th Feb '13 - 9:04am

    In Bath that is the case, lots of objections to new developments. That has included the Dyson Academy, housing is not the only loser.

    We have to resolve housing problems this is not done by simply saying no, other solutions should, and must be found.

  • Richard Harris 14th Feb '13 - 12:45pm

    Perhaps I missed something, but the idea of a planning holiday for domestic extensions up to 8m hasn’t been mentioned in Don’s post, but surely has been mentioned by part y members as an issue (as indicated by Nigel Jones above). yet Don says he has been “been able to deliver everything my local government colleagues asked”. Can anyone indicate whether this utterly mad idea is still on the table?

  • Dominic Curran 15th Feb '13 - 2:20pm

    @ Richard

    I work in local government and can confirm that the idea is still on the table. It would be an interesting sign of power relations inside the DCLG if Don can convince Nick Boles to drop it. I daresay he won’t, as he wasn’t able to convince him to drop the equally mad idea of getting rid of planning permission to change from office to residential use.

  • Dominic Curran 15th Feb '13 - 3:04pm

    I doubt that Don will read this now but for what its worth his suggestion on last Friday’s BBc news that households sue theor local council for putting them into BnB accommodation for over six weeks is not only unhelpful but suggests a detachment from reality that is truly terrifying.

    Don is voting for a range of benefit cuts that are driving up homelessness, forcing movement of poor families around the countyr, and entrenching poverty. At the same time, cuts to local government are reducing councils’ abaility to respond to the outcome of all these benefit cuts and the seizing up of the housing market is reducing the supply of private rented sector accommodation.

    On the one hand Don is pushing all of this with his loyal pro-Coalition votes, on the other hand he is telling councils not to put people in BnB accommodation (as if they would if they had any choice). It’s a little like smacking someone in the nose and then telling them off for bleeding.

    Come on Don – you’re a decent guy. Stop coming out with DCLG Tory tripe and be a bit more understanding please!

  • @Dominic Curran
    ” suggesting that £1000 a month (80% of the average London rent of £1272) is ‘affordable’ is a sick joke”

    If it isn’t affordable then how do people afford it? Rents are determined by how much people can afford to pay. If rents were genuinely unaffordable then there would be lots of people living on the street. Is this the case? Is homelessness in London rising rapidly?

  • Helen Dudden 15th Feb '13 - 5:19pm

    I live in Bath, and the housing situation is serious as I have written. To sue anyone, is not a good idea I am not sure if there is legal aid to cover it.

    A little bit sad about Don’s comments, anyone who does not have a home is without one of the most basic things in life.

    I would say if Don read this, people are suffering, the comments you have made, make you seem hard and heartless. Politics is not meant to be like that.

  • Richard Harris 15th Feb '13 - 7:39pm

    Thanks for the feedback. If there’s an example that demonstrates how our modern political system is producing badly thought out policies this has got to be it.

  • Helen Dudden 17th Feb '13 - 10:12am

    For Dominic Curran, we have over 11,000 on the waiting list, Dons remarks are far from reality.

    Should we sue the Lib Dem Councillors for the non strategy? that should be at least in place soon. In Bath it was the Councillors that blocked the housing strategy. Don, knows that six is weeks is not even close to what will happen. I hope that knock on his office door here in Bath, to get his help to do this. Legal aid is harder to get these days.

    Housing is not a political subject, and in Bath I feel we that all parties should work together. I suggested a meeting to resolve the issues, there is some movement, but housing trusts do have to move around those in accommodation that is not suitable, they are often the losers.

  • Dominic Curran 18th Feb '13 - 11:03pm

    @ Steve
    (sigh) If one man can afford to buy a £10 million diamond, that doesn’t mean it’s ‘affordable’ in the commonly understood sense of the term. Just because a flat can be rented to someone for £1000 a week, doesn’t mean that it’s affordable to most people. ‘Affordable’ housing is specifically aimed at poorer people by definition (that is, the definition formerly in PPG 3 and now in the NPPF) yet poorer people tend not to earn average earnings – the sort of earnings that could pay ‘market’ rents. That why we have social housing. But when social housing starts costing 80% of market rents, it starts to not be actually affordable to people. Hence the deceit.

    Oh and yes, homeslessness is rising rapidly in London.

    Southwark Council, one of only 33, has a housing waiting list of 20,000. Many inner London boroughs have similar size lists. We share Bath’s problem!

  • Helen Dudden 20th Feb '13 - 12:09am

    I know I live here, a lot of the accommodation needs updating,. In a city this size, 11,000 plus is quite a few, with the cost of renting very high, it is a sought after area to live. It is not affordable to live in the private sector, you would need a very good salary.

    Do you agree with the proposals to move people further out of London into a cheaper area? It may be the same difference, but that does not make it acceptable. Where is all this Lib Dem building?

    We are dealing in human misery. Just number crunching.

  • Helen Dudden 20th Feb '13 - 12:13am

    Just because you have a waiting list that is too long, it does not make it acceptable. I would say not good enough, try harder.

    Excuses, excuses.

  • Dominic Curran 20th Feb '13 - 8:50am

    @ Helen – I quite agree, more must be done. I don’t think anyone thinks that Londons combined waiting list of 366,000 households is acceptable. I do hope your comments weren’t aimed at me – if so you’re having a pop at quite the wrong target.

  • Tony Skottowe 21st Feb '13 - 3:51pm

    We need to encourage councils to restart building their own homes again as social housing. The Con trick of 80% of market rent perpetrated by my MP Grant Shapps is a disgrace, especially for councils which are still having large chunks of their housing rental appropriated by the Treasury every year.
    It would be good to hear our ministers extolling the virtues of properly run council housing.

  • Just to reassure you that I do read the comments on my articles, and do take them on board. Thanks to those who have commented here. Don

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