First, do no harm – An assessment of the Housing and Planning White Paper

Anthony Mason gives an initial assessment of the white paper on housing and planning in England

First impressions are not always very reliable.  When Sajid Javid replaced Greg Clark as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government following the post-vote governmental putsch last year (sorry, change of Prime Minister following the referendum), local government figures were very wary.  Clark had, and still has, a reputation for understanding local government and can connect the local to the national in discussions around the cabinet table in a way that few of his colleagues are able to. Javid, however, was an unknown quantity – said to feel that the DCLG role was a demotion and giving every indication that he was unexcited by the move.

Yet, for those of us specifically interested in housing policy, Clark – alongside his spiky and confrontational housing minister, Brandon Lewis, presided over some rotten housing policies, as I suggested in this place last year.  Indeed, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 will, I suspect, go down in legislative history as the Dangerous Dogs Act of housing policy in England.  Gratifyingly, a number of the craziest measures enabled by that Act have proved so difficult to implement that the “new” government has simply shunted them into a siding and (we hope) left them there to rot.

And now comes the first comprehensive white paper on housing policy in England for almost a generation. Bearing the less than poetic title-as-ambition of Fixing our broken housing market.  Javid and his refreshingly rounded housing minister Gavin Barwell, set out in 104 pages and many supporting papers their ambitions to do just that.  To their great credit, Javid and Barwell have spent many weeks on careful consultation with local government, sector interests, and Number 10 before getting this far; delaying the publication of the white paper somewhat while doing so.  They have even persuaded the PM to pen a lengthy introduction to the paper – presumably in the hope of corralling rural Conservative NIMBYs into line.

The white paper sets out many proposals and poses 38 carefully framed policy questions for response (by 2nd May 2017, if you’d like to contribute).  But in quick summary, it:

  • Acknowledges that England needs around 250,000 new homes each year going forward. This was expressed as “between 225,000 and 275,000 homes” – and is up from the oft-quoted 200,000 previously accepted (but never consistently realised)
  • Proposes that each local authority will have to draw up and regularly review an “honest assessment” of local housing need – methodology to follow.
  • Says that developers could be forced to build within two years of planning consent, or see that consent lapse. At the moment, permission usually lapses after three years.  The paper also proposes new compulsory purchase powers for councils where sites lie undeveloped – details to follow.
  • Suggests an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities, with £7.1bn of (already announced) funding. It drops the “old” government’s fixation with starter homes in favour of a more balanced approach.
  • Encourages building rates at higher density – including of higher buildings – to make best use of land (and to avoid having to give a view on releasing green belt).
  • Dodges the question of future housing association and council rent levels after George Osborne’s compulsory rent reductions “We will provide clarity over future rent levels. In return, we expect them to build significantly more affordable homes over the current parliament.” Is what ministers promise.
  • Says that smaller building firms will be given assistance to expand, including support for off-site construction (where components are fabricated off-site and factory-assembled). It also encourages “build to let” where private companies build large-volume rental flats for tenants.
  • Continues a focus on leaseholds, proposing what it calls “an end to leasehold abuse” where home buyers are locked into leases with spiralling ground rents.

Most of us acknowledge the general need for new homes while protesting loudly if those homes are to be built near to us – and for years, housing policy in England has tried not to upset voters and yet deliver new homes.  And the white paper has had to throw titbits in all directions to keep sector interests at bay.  Local authorities are both excoriated for planning failures and mildly encouraged to build new homes.  Those who worship at the altar of home ownership will be pleased that there is a threat to close a loophole that has allowed councils building homes through wholly-owned companies to avoid the right to buy.  Those who see renting as the most realistic way forward will be pleased that much of the white paper acknowledges this reality and makes gentle proposals for longer tenancies.  Big developers are both criticised for not building out sites as well as encouraged by some anti-planner language.

But ministers have failed to resolve some longstanding conundrums – and a couple of new ones – in their paper:

  • Successive governments have tried to combine bottom-up and top-down policies on housing which appear to conflict in their efforts to encourage and coerce. For example, communities and parishes have been given more control over developments and yet principal councils are still required to provide new homes.  Housing associations should develop more and yet have no control over the rents they can charge for these new homes.
  • Government has long had an intellectual tendency to support developers over planners – even though planning consents have been running ahead of homes built for some time. This white paper at last begins to recognise that not all is well, with our developers while avoiding the obvious response: councils’ potential contribution to building at scale.
  • There is a cherished belief that brownfield sites can provide the majority of our new homes, but these sites no longer match need. Not surprisingly, they are disproportionately in cities, but not all housing need is city-based.  The white paper avoids the question of building on the green belt, even though, in our own city, we’ve faced a highly charged debate about this topic.
  • A further concern is around labour and skills. We’ve long worried that not enough UK youngsters express any desire to work in the building industry.  This is now compounded by fears of the actual or apparent impact of Brexit on the non-UK workforce.

The fundamental question that the paper avoids is whether any combination of our present arrangements for building can ever deliver the amount of housing we need; as the answer to that question may be too hot to handle.  It’s old evidence now, but the Calcutt review of the housebuilding industry commissioned a decade ago set out a straightforward graphic showing who has built what in the UK in the years since the Second World War (see figure one on page 10).

untitledThis evidence was summarised in a beautifully simple graphic (above) by the University of Sheffield School of Architecture.  It evidences that the three decade long gap in our housing provision is simply because we’ve stopped building council houses.  The answer to the fundamental question would seem to be to let councils (and housing associations) build again at some scale in order to supplement the relatively fixed-but-declining contribution of private developers.

The title to this post is a common misquotation of the Hippocratic Oath.  It suggests that a first duty for medics is not to do harm “Primum non nocere” – and the new white paper seems to pass that test, at least.  If a second duty is “then to do good” – then I’m not yet convinced that the paper will achieve that in any significant way.

Anthony Mason



Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team.



Local democracy at the sharp end: diary from a Parish Council

Ian Briggs

It starts in the autumn of 2013. The Secretary of State knocks back the latest submission of the Core Strategy from the District Council – more homes needed please. Suddenly, the Parish Council becomes inundated with requests for meetings from developers – the story here being that this rural village has the postcode where houses change hands on the market the fastest for miles around, and for the highest possible price.

By November 2013, eight potential housing developments are highlighted and the community becomes ‘punch drunk’ with consultations for housing developments. Plans are submitted to the District Council but mysteriously they do not appear on the website.

Early January 2014, the Parish Council calls a community meeting to discuss development, the fact that HS2 Ltd are now proposing permanent road closures, and the Environmenet Agency is looking at proposals for an advanced form of ‘fracking’ – underground coal gasification for the area.

It is hardly surprising that those local residents present at the meeting are up in arms and demanding answers. Council Council member is present at meeting but rather quiet and makes sharp exit at the close. No District Ward councillor present and no apologies sent.

The following morning, the members of the Parish Council are given sight of resignation letter from District Councillor.

Week two, January 2014. District Council meets to agree new proposed core strategy. Shock – areas within the Parish Council highlighted to absorb thousands of houses – sets out case that it is at the periphery of the District so should be little trouble – wonder why ward councillor resigns?

Still no sign on the District Council website of plans submitted by developers in December 2013. Then, find they have put them on the website but believe they relate to a totally different parish – oops!

Letter sent to the Leader of the District Council requesting urgent meeting – no acknowledgment, no reply after ten working days. Leader of Council is in London for extended period according to Council staff. Wonder what on earth he is up to and who he is talking to?

All of the above is a trust story. But the important issue here is that this is set against a backdrop of ‘localism’ – if the intention is to give greater powers to local communities then we need to look closely at the decision-making mechanisms that we have to work with. There are questions arising as to how we are failing to integrate decision-making across different levels of local democracy.

A fundamental  tenant of any democracy is being clear and open as to where decisions are made. If all this sounds as though it is an attack on the District Council in question, it is not meant to be so – the Council is in the same position as most others. It has made deep and significant cuts to its operations and is now faced with making decisions that are expensive in terms of time and associated managerial costs.

In amongst all of this are the public. They are open to persuasion from a local media that is keen to jump upon any news story that could sound as though the Council is failing, and given that event well educated and sensible members of the public are poorly informed of the mechanisms of local democratic decision-making, it is no wonder that they turn to the most available and accessible form of local representation – the Parish Council.

Next diary entries to start soon…..


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

Planning and the new (new) localism – what chance of success?

Nancy Holman

Planning in a time of austerity is never easy – budgets are cut, needs are great and regulation can be seen as stifling growth.  In England we are in just such a position and in the midst of a reformulation of planning that is on the one hand meant to deliver growth and on the other designed to empower communities. Most of these reforms are being couched in the language of localism with community participation at the forefront of policy.

However, these reforms raise a series of questions that have yet to be answered: Who will get involved in local planning? Will localism foster increased NIMBYism? And most importantly, can the localism agenda actually engender action toward policy implementation? My article, co-authored with Yvonne Rydin, examines these dilemmas through the lens of social capital and offers key insights into this latest governmental foray into local social relations.

Who will get involved?

The Localism Act provides communities with an opportunity to come together and formulate their own neighbourhood plans thereby shaping their locale.  Key to this is engaging people in sufficient, meaningful and constructive participation. Social capital suggests that this can be kindled when like-minded communities come together over locally salient issues thereby creating networks of mutual trust and reciprocity.  However, this scenario is not without problems as in order for it to work communities must believe that the benefits of participation are not offset by the opportunity costs of participating. In addition, the strong ties of bonding social capital that emerge from participative exercises can in turn foster more insular and exclusionary localities outweighing any strategic benefits to greater community involvement.

Will localism foster NIMBYism?

Even if the localism agenda fosters communities burgeoning with social capital and a zeal for participation, a real fear, from the government’s perspective, is that these communities will be those best able to resist growth, which runs counter to the Coalition’s aspiration for localist planning.  Countless studies, from the location of mobile homes in post-Katrina New Orleans to LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses) in Japan, have shown that strong social capital is associated with heightened abilities to avoid unwanted development.  Whilst the government has put in place a number of measures like the New Homes Bonus to incentivise local communities to grow the jury is still out on how well this will work.

Will the agenda actually engender policy action?

As the old adage goes, “Almost anyone can write a plan, the difficult part is putting into action”. Critically, there is nothing in the new system of Neighbourhood Plans that makes them more proactive and action oriented in terms of bringing land and development forward to achieve plan outcomes. Here, social capital tells us that, if communities wish to see their plans implemented they must situate themselves in networks that extend beyond local bonding ties into a bracing matrix tailored to the needs of the development activity so that they may access additional resources and investments.  This means that there is scope to ‘shape’ networks to deliver more effective planning.

So, what might be the outcomes of government reform?  As it stands, the rhetoric of localism is in danger of delivering only failed promises and thwarted desires for local communities.  However, planners could regain a key role under the new agenda by focussing on how they could actively build the networks of specific forms of social capital needed to achieve participation, frame localist planning in broader terms by injecting much needed planning skills into the neighbourhood planning exercise, and deliver development that meets community needs by considering the necessary resources and engaging with those who have the power to deliver such change.

A full account of this research is available in my recent article with Yvonne Rydin: ‘What can social capital tell us about planning under localism?Local Government Studies. 39 (1), 79-88.


Nancy Holman is the Director of Planning Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her work deals primarily with issues of governance and local planning including sustainable development, heritage conservation and community participation. She has often used social network analysis to explore the complex relationships in the multi-level, multi-actor partnerships present in modern governing arrangements.

Fracking: the latest challenge in the Tory heartlands

Martin  Stott

The hot days of July finally saw the debates around the implications of ‘fracking’ of unconventional hydro-carbons in the UK reach out and grab the attention of the national media. As Tory grandee Lord Howell called for the process to be focussed on the ‘desolate North’ (he corrected the initial impression that he was referring to the North East by saying that he really meant the North West) and  Energy Minister Michael Fallon was reported in the Mail on Sunday as warning that fracking was likely to face fierce resistance from the middle classes in Conservative heartlands, as if to prove his point dozens of protesters were arrested at an exploratory drilling site near the village of Balcombe in West Sussex.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking – the process of drilling and then injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to  fracture shale rocks to release natural gas, has caused a revolution in energy policy in the USA where gas prices have dropped dramatically as gas from fracking particularly in North Dakota, and more controversially Pennsylvania, has come on stream. Coal has suddenly seemed a dirty and expensive option and as a consequence carbon emissions from the world’s biggest economy have dropped significantly.

Can the trick be repeated in the UK? The Coalition Government is betting the farm –  quite a  few farms actually – that it can. Chancellor George Osborne announced in this year’s Budget that fracking companies would receive tax allowances for developing gas fields and would be able to offset expenditure on exploration against tax for ten years.The next tax avoidance scandal perhaps. Best known and a pioneer in the field is Cuadrilla (referred to by some opponents as ‘Godzilla’) whose explorations in Lancashire have amongst other things led to a couple of minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011. But there are quite a few other companies across the country as the official estimate for UK reserves is 37 trillion cubic metres of shale gas in the north of England and geologists have yet to quantify reserves in the south.

But it is Balcombe in rural West Sussex which is becoming the test bed for what this means for energy experts, planners, campaigners and politicians. Campaign group Don’t Frack with the Fylde certainly raised the issues and those earthquakes, 1.5 and 2.3 in magnitude respectively, shook confidence in the safety of the technology (let’s face it: who notices in North Dakota where the  nearest house is 60 miles away?) but the opposition in southern England is having a greater impact on politicians and opinion formers. The Mail on Sunday’s  report of Sevenoaks MP Michael Fallon’s private briefing on fracking reported him as saying of potential well-heeled protesters ‘We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive.’ He admitted that exploratory drilling was likely to spread the length and breadth of southern England saying ‘The second area [after the North West] being studied is the Weald. It’s from Dorset all the way along through Hampshire, Sussex… all the way a bit into Surrey and even into my own county of Kent.’

This focus on the lusher parts of the South East which has started at Balcombe is going to be a real concern for Conservative strategists. The ‘Noting Hill set’ has repeatedly been accused of ignoring its rural base as proposals ranging from the sell-off of forests, to wind farm policies, changes in planning laws, opposition to which has been championed by the Daily Telegraph, and the HS2 rail route through the Chilterns have all been seen as a slap in the face for this rural base, many of whom have gravitated towards UKIP. But the Greens too have a presence in the South East, with their charismatic MP Caroline Lucas representing a Sussex seat, an MEP for the region and their only council, Brighton and Hove, only a few miles away.

Meanwhile up in Whitehall, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been ruminating on what to do about the planning and land use implications of promoting the fracking revolution and on 19 July it spoke,  issuing guidance  to local planning authorities. The guidance stresses that fracking could be a vital source of energy, saying ‘Mineral extraction is essential to local and national economies… minerals planning authorities should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction including to the economy when determining planning applications.’ It goes on to explicitly exclude any attempts by planning authorities to trade off fracking with renewable developments saying, ‘Mineral planning authorities should not consider  demand for or consider alternatives to oil and gas resources when  determining planning applications.’ Because of the scale and strategic nature of minerals planning applications these have remained a planning function of county councils, still Tory controlled in southern England.

It  remains to be seen if DCLG will allow a level of discretion in determining these applications by county planning authorities which could well limit or even stop fracking in its tracks in the south, or whether  as would be possible using potential secondary legislation  under the Growth and Infrastructure Act, it could take applications for  fracking for shale gas  out of the hands of county councils and instead have them decided by the Secretary of State as  part of the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. On the one hand it could bow to Tory pressure in the shires and allow all the developments to happen ‘up north’ by default as counties refuse most if not all applications. On the other, it may decide to take the risk, strip counties of their power and pull shale gas development permissions back into Whitehall. Only time, and a bit of local politics in the home counties, will tell.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government. He is National Policy Adviser on minerals planning for the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Returning to the Back Benches

Councillor David Smith

After eleven years as leader of Lichfield District Council it was with some feelings of uncertainty that I embarked on my role as a back bencher.  As Leader I had reluctantly been obliged to introduce the system of cabinet with overview and scrutiny panels and I still hold the view that this system moves members from community activists to being disenfranchised observers.

It is therefore interesting to see that as part of the Localism Act councils are now starting changes to new forms of delivery that, far from going back to the old slow and cumbersome committee system, are developing new approaches based on cabinet committees.

I understand that Kent County Council are amongst the trail blazers out of the large authorities but I am told talking to the leader of Tandridge District Council, which was not required to change to the cabinet system, that they have themselves developed a highly successful Leader and committee system that I would commend, certainly to districts.

It may be said that idle hands are a source for trouble but with the massive talent that we have amongst our councillors they are surely wasted in overviewing the decisions of others. It can also be said that councillors are probably closest to the ground roots of our communities and in their new changed role from community representative to community leader they can now respond to that challenge.

The Localism Act has essentially changed the way we do business.  Councils like to be told what to do by national Government so that it gives them something to push against.  By removing these constraints members can look again at what drove them to become councillors and how they wish to develop their changed role. Developing the LDF in many councils is going to present a major challenge that will push the back bench leadership role to its limits. The balance between the “needs analysis” of what a council will need to deliver and the “not in my back yard” situation will cause significant stresses.

All councillors must also come to terms with the need to actively participate in the planning system, no one will be able to say  “I don’t do planning.”  The need for all members to fully understand and be involved in early planning discussions on major applications is new territory for both members and  officers and in some cases opens the door of the planning department to what has been seen in the past as a forbidden area.

Indeed in some councils (not Lichfield) I was amazed to discover that planning officers were barred from speaking to members about applications.  I am sure the Localism Act will develop a new openness that will bring about a refreshing change to many areas within our councils.

Since giving up my role as Leader I have completely refreshed the relationship I have with my electorate.    My rolling case load of around eight has not changed but I now am able to spend more time in the local community.

The Localism Act gave me the opportunity to work with residents to prepare a 10 year strategy for the village I represent and on the advice of Greg Clark we submitted it for Government funding.  No one was more surprised than me to find we have been granted £20,000 to progress the plan.

Back in June of last year we developed a wish list for our community that developed into ten challenges and from this a group of 17 residents came together to develop the plan.

In November we submitted our plan to CLG as a front runner and also took it to our second village meeting.  I don’t know whether it’s just village communities or if we are something special, but each of our public meetings have packed the village hall with over 100 residents and with a total of 1,200 electorate we consider that there is a mandate for us to follow.

Amongst the nationwide applications for funding I am not sure that many came from community led groups, but I would commend any member to look at what they can achieve by a strategy that involves the entire community.  Surprisingly, for a village that sits in a vulnerable Green Belt location where no new development is proposed, the plan recognises the need to address the requirement for affordable homes and some sheltered accommodation.  Transport, highways, a new tree lined Jubilee Walk, a low carbon plan and a wish to find sites for 1,200 trees are all part of the challenges.

So my advice to members is to look at your new role, role up your sleeves and get stuck in.  It’s great fun and very rewarding.

Cllr David Smith is the former Leader of Lichfield District Council and plays an active and influential role in Local Government policy making and implementation at a national level.  David is the Chairman of the Local Government Research Partnership and has sat on the Local Government Association Environment and Housing Board.  In addition, he has joined the practitioner board of INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham.