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Growth - but not at any cost

Growth - but not at any cost

As responsibilities go, inheriting the task of solving the housing crisis must surely be one that weighs heavily. So, as the Government’s consultation on reforms to its planning rulebook draws to a close, it will be interesting to see how new Secretary of State, James Brokenshire MP, responds to the challenge.

But before he gets his feet comfortably under the table at the Ministry, we encourage reflection by the Secretary of State that the task at hand is bigger than is often presented. Because reforming the planning system must be about much more than ‘just’ housing.

The planning system does not simply exist to facilitate economic growth and new housing. It is about managing land in the public interest – socially and environmentally, as well as economically. The negative reaction from many people to the way building is currently driven suggests that this point is being overlooked.

At its very heart, the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) must be a facilitator of sustainable growth – creating thriving communities and places across the country in a way that respects and supports our natural world. It is not only about ensuring that a very large number of houses are built.

The current trajectory of planning policy is symptomatic of a wider problematic approach to growth that fails to deliver sustainable development – and sustainable growth – for either people or the environment.

Supporting the right kind of growth

The Government at times seems to regard planning as a restriction on growth and housing delivery that requires further deregulation and a more complete reliance on market forces. This approach suggests that focusing investment and setting high housing targets in areas that are already booming is the only sensible way forward.

In fact, the reverse is true. If used properly, planning policy can make a positive contribution to meeting the needs of business in a sustainable way, and improving quality of life for all.

Creating balanced outcomes across the country, reducing regional inequality

For all the talk of revitalising the economy in the north and midlands, the south and south-east remain the favoured children of current housing and industrial policy.

The housing targets that will be implemented if current proposals are enacted will see a reduction in the number of homes required in many of the very areas that are underperforming economically and crying out for investment. It is no secret that many of these areas include large amounts of underused brownfield and infrastructure – and even homes - that could be transformed, with the right investment. If the Government regards housing as an engine for growth, how does this tally?

Meanwhile, in the south and south-east high housing targets will further inflate demand in areas with already overheated housing markets, and fuel ever more vigorous opposition to unwanted development from local communities.

The NPPF as it stands risks further entrenching a north-south divide, leaving some communities feeling understandably under pressure while others feel forgotten about altogether. Were the NPPF to encompass a well-considered spatial strategy, it could go some way to helping to rebalance the economy – which is vital to England’s long-term stability.

Complementing other areas of Government policy

Late last year the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released a White Paper on the country’s industrial strategy, half a year after a similar exercise was undertaken on housing policy in another Government department. If housing is needed to accommodate the workforce of a revitalised local economy, and economic growth is needed to provide jobs that will draw communities to live there, it seems counterintuitive not to treat the two policy areas as more connected.

Driving growth is not the responsibility of one Government department, and James Brokenshire would do well to call in support from his ministerial peers, if only to take the weight of responsibility from his brief. Co-operation with the Department for Transport could help to promote the integration of new housing and existing infrastructure, while collaboration with DEFRA is essential to ensure that environmental considerations are a central pillar of future development rather than a token afterthought. Delivering these aspirations requires a clear vision for the future economic and spatial growth of the country.


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Planning for people

Reforming the planning system must be about much more than ‘just’ housing.

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