The Levelling Up & Regeneration Act is finally law after a protracted period of parliamentary gestation, but will it actually deliver for housing? Tim Clark reports
It took four years to get onto the statute books, saw a flurry of last-minute amendments and concessions, haggles and agreements, but the keynote legislation of the current government – the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill – has finally become law.
Within the pages of the new law are a cavalcade of changes to the planning system, local plans, and local neighbourhood rights, but what will the new laws do for housing, and could they cause more problems than they solve?
Many industry experts remain unconvinced that the new Act will genuinely speed up housing delivery.
Sam Stafford, planning director at the Home Builders Federation says there needs to be an “urgent” focus on addressing the challenges that threaten housing supply.
“If government is serious about meeting its housing targets, it must also reverse proposals to weaken local authorities’ housing responsibilities – which have seen 60 councils withdraw or pause their local plans – and get on with publishing the revised National Planning Policy Framework,” he says, citing falling consents and nutrient neutrality as two examples.
When it comes to Local Plans the new law is certainly mixed.
There are aims to speed up the delivery of such plans to “unlock” development and provide clarity for house builders in the various planning authority areas across the country.
Change is certainly needed. At present, many local plans have been stuck, with only three in 10 (35%) local planning authorities having adopted a local plan in the past five years. The lack of coherent plans across such large areas of England means that many communities live in uncertainty.
“It is difficult to not support the government’s intention that plans should be simpler to understand and use, with the process of production being shorter,” says David Churchill, partner at Carter Jonas.
“However, whether the new approach will be enough to deliver a clear vision for future growth is doubtful as it does not seek to tackle the main impediments to plan adoption – local politics and community resistance.”
Local planning teams are now, under the new Act, able to refuse to determine planning applications on the basis of the developer previously not implementing permissions in its area, or building them out unreasonably slowly. This is a measure to speed up delivery, and halt the often painstakingly slow delivery of homes.
Another change is the removal of the “duty to co-operate” between local authorities, who often look to form a common approach to housing plans, or at least discuss large developments close to the border of their region.
Colin Brown, partner and head of planning and development at Carter Jonas says that the change could have an impact in the future.
“Although it was entirely expected, the removal of the ‘duty to co-operate’ is a concern,” he says, “and while voluntary spatial development strategies are being encouraged, it is unclear what this may mean where a local plan is intent on not meeting identified development needs.
“Funding for local planning departments remains a real issue, so the increase in application fees by more than one-third may assist, but the feeling persists that a lot more needs to be done to deliver plans and development management services for wider public benefit.”
When it comes to local community engagement, the Act now allows areas to conduct “street votes”, which mean that, as long as the votes pass, residents will be able to bring forward proposals to redevelop their properties in line with their design preferences.
The powers were included in the new Act after an amendment was tabled by Michael Gove late last year.
Other changes are more practical in nature.
Tim Foreman, managing director of land and new homes at Leaders Romans Group (LRG) says that some moves, such as the delay in implementing second staircases, is a welcome move. The change coincided with the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill passing through Parliament.
“Government is being reasonable in giving the 30 month transition period to allow schemes with planning permission or under construction not to be affected, while also providing enough notice for developers moving forward with new applications,” he says.
“My concern is clarity, and I dearly hope that the new legislation is explained clearly and comprehensively so that mortgage providers, surveyors and legal institutions are fully aware of the new rules: We don’t want a repeat of the cladding policies issues, which led to considerable confusion and people were needlessly stuck in their apartment, unable to sell and move on with their lives.”
More clarity is needed on how the new Act will be implemented, with some major pieces of guidance, regulation and secondary legislation now awaiting publication – not least the response to a consultation on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The consultation itself gained over 20,000 responses.
Nicola Gooch, partner at Irwin Mitchell says that the real work has only just begun.
“Whilst the Bill getting Royal Assent is a big achievement, there is a still a lot of work left to do … bringing the provisions in [the Levelling Up & Regeneration Act] into effect will require a huge raft of further consultations, detailed technical work and secondary legislation,” she says.
That secondary legislation includes the full response to the NPPF consultation, which is expected to be lengthy.
Another major area where the new Act will have an impact is the High Street – with a raft of measures to allow failing retail centres to be brought back into life.
How housing and the high street interact remains to be seen, however the new approach may allow council’s and other bodies to take a wider approach to mixing former retail with some new housing, increasing densification, and providing a more vibrant town centre economy at the same time as tackling the housing supply issue.
One dilemma at the heart of the current planning impasse is the issue of balancing housing development with the voice of local people. Labelled as “nimby’s”by many, local opposition to schemes has grown in the past decade, with many campaigners now astutely aware of the laws, and how to bring successful judicial reviews against councils and planning teams. How the new local plan rules fit with this aspect of the planning system remains to be seen.
Levy me this
Another area where the new Act has sought to change the existing balance is the replacement of the Section 106 obligations with a new Infrastructure Levy. There have been concerns, voiced by the National Housing Federation (NHF) that the new levy could reduce the amount of affordable housing that is built
“The NHF has been clear in our conversations with the government that the delivery of onsite affordable housing must be protected under any proposed plans and changes to legislation,” says Marie Chadwick, policy leader at the NHF.
Four amendments to the Act were tabled by the government in July this year, which addressed these concerns. Those included ensuring the new levy delivered an equivalent amount of affordable housing as the Section 106 system, and also that such levels are “maintained or exceeded”.
Local authorities are also able to now require developers to pay a proportion of any new levy contributions as onsite affordable housing. Council’s can also revert to the old system if the new levy “fails to deliver its aims” in terms of delivering social or affordable housing.
Ministers are also required to publish a report on the impact the new levy has had on affordable housing.
The changes haven’t gone unnoticed.
“The notion that benefits to the public purse may become a material planning consideration in land allocation decisions is pretty radical,” Carter Jonas’ Brown adds. “It will give rise to concerns that planning permissions are essentially being bought by those willing to accept the lowest price for their land. This may not prove to be easily reconcilable with the drive to achieve sustainable development.”
How much these measures protect housing investment remains to be seen, however the NHF is upbeat on the changes that were secured in the Bill.
“We’re grateful for the positive and constructive engagement we’ve had with the government on the changes that the Levelling Up & Regeneration Act brings with it, and in addition we’ve also worked to engage the Labour Party front bench team,” Chadwick adds.
“Their commitment to scrapping the Infrastructure Levy and reforming existing arrangements has enabled us to talk about what could be done to strengthen affordable housing delivery.”
The Levelling Up & Regeneration Act has the ingredients to transform many aspects of the housing sector. How far and how quickly, is a question of the small print.
Image credit: Pormezz/Shutterstock
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