I was at PIPA last weekend – the RTPI “Politicians in Planning” network. It was my third or fourth annual conference, and as usual it was great fun. We usually try to run a couple of sessions – this year we covered the 5-year land supply issue and whether (and how) the role of councillors has been changing.
I learnt some while ago that preparing for these sessions has got to be approached with a certain amount of latitude, as it is impossible to bundle up 30 or 40 councillors from across the land and expect any sort of agenda or timetable to run as expected.
If I’m honest, some of what you hear is depressing. There is a lack of trust, and several councillors will try to pick my brains to see whether they’ve been lied to by their officers. But there is also a willingness to ask the really tough questions. There were two this year that I thought were worth drawing out a little – you’ll notice that neither of them has got anything to do with the sessions we ran.
When will government abolish the RSS ?
This question came up at several points. Councillors are unable to make progress with their local plan because the government has failed to do what it said it would do and abolish the RSS. The difference between locally derived numbers and old RSS “targets” is irreconcilable and the cause of delay.
But this is to see life too simply. The RSS is not a set of rules and targets that either exists or doesn’t. It’s evidence-based policy. Even when the RSS is “gone”, the evidence on which it was based will still exist and people can still call on it to challenge (or support) the local planning process.
My take on this is that people have imbued the RSS with a binary kind of power. When the secretary of state switches them off we’ll have localism. Not true. If you want to do something different to the RSS then fine – but you’ll need to marshall your reasons for doing so and there may not be as much difference as you think between battling the aged RSS and the ex-RSS.
You may think you’re managing your risks by waiting for the RSS to leave the stage. In fact you’re exposing yourself to new risks by delaying your plan and you’ll end up having the same arguments anyway.
What can councils do about land banking ?
The question described a situation where the majority of land in a district had planning permissions already. The developers were not building because they were not certain that people were able to buy and also (crucially) the longer things went on the more certain they were that the “ask” from planning was going to reduce. In short, the less that they built the more over the barrel the council became. Given this, what could the council do ?
The role of the council in encouraging competition in the market is something we’ve never really had much of a view on. But perhaps we should. If the government is taking the low level of starts as evidence of a broken planning system, then it makes sense that councils become more interventionist or lose much of the value of planning.
So, the short answer is to have a plan ‘B’. The only way to avoid being held to ransom in this way is to have an alternative way of delivering the homes you need. Traditionally this would have been via a joint venture – the council and a big player enter into a JV and issue a compulsory purchase order. This has to be done with a certain amount of care, and a careful case made as to why this is in the broader public interest. But it forces the issue – developers will need to take a view on whether they want to convert the land they hold to cash.
My own version of the plan ‘B’ would be slightly lazier. Take the plot, sub-divide it into little plots and give it to self-builders. Establish some design codes (no taller than X, no less than code Y on sustainable homes) and put Kevin McCloud in front of it. I suspect you might even make money on it.
Anyway. PIPA – get your councillors to go along.