England & Wales Economy and regeneration, Housing and planning

Viewpoint: The Housing Bill and the importance of small beer


There is much in the new Housing Bill that will garner a lot of attention and heated discussion. Andrew Dixon, Policy Advisor at the Federation of Master Builders, looks past the headline grabbing measures at what is proposed for planning.

The Housing and Planning Bill received its second reading yesterday and the attention surrounding it is testimony to the rising political importance of housing. And this is a very political bill, once which encapsulates the Conservative Government’s approach to housing policy – a heavy emphasis on promoting low cost home ownership, an enabling approach to the private rented sector, and what could be described, according to alternative points of view, as either a reforming or a confrontational approach to the social rented sector.

There are some potentially seismic policies contained within the Bill – Right to Buy and Starter Homes prime amongst them – and these will understandably drive the political debates, controversies and column inches which will surround the passage of the Bill. However, as these battles rage, I want to be a little contrarian and focus on one of the more minor, ‘small beer’ aspects to the Bill – the measures to streamline planning processes. Though, as ever, the devil will be in the detail (or as Governments call it ‘secondary legislation’), taken together these reforms should amount to significant streamlining and rationalising of important elements of the planning application process.

I want to focus particularly on the new ‘permission in principle’ status which the Bill will introduce. This will be a new type of consent intended to provide certainty that the ‘principle’ of development on a given site has been established. This might once have been the function of outline permission, but over the years outline has become a far more complex process, one which goes well beyond that which is necessary just to establish the principle of development.

There is also a strong case for not overloading a simple ‘permission in principle’ decision with the weight of numerous conditions by forcing it down a reserved matters route. Hence, the rationale behind the new ‘permission in principle’ consent, to be followed by a new ‘technical details’ consent, the two together grating full planning permission. It is expected that this new route will be open to all minor (less than 10 unit) housing developments.

So, small beer, you might say. But for those building on this scale, this is a very significant. The FMB represents over 8,000 small and medium-sized construction companies, including a large number of small house builders. These type of firms have suffered a long term decline in output and numbers that accelerated over the course of the economic downturn. As the FMB’s 2015 House Builders’ Survey shows they continue to face a number of real barriers to growth. Among these, there is little doubt that the complexity of the development control process, as it has to be navigated by even the smallest new development, does act as real a barrier to smaller firms bringing forward applications.

Local planning tends to have an overwhelming focus on larger strategic sites, so policies and certainty around bringing forward these small scale sites tends to be unhelpfully hazy. Add to this that information requirements for any given application have tended to expand exponentially over time, which in addition to lengthy pre-application discussions are often required to achieve even an outline permission, and the process quickly becomes prohibitive for many.

For some years the FMB have been calling for a return to a ‘redline’ application route to outline for these smaller sites, whereby the principle of development can be established at least upfront cost, allowing investment (and potentially early draw down of funding from lenders) in the detailed application stage to proceed once greater certainty is in place. This permission in principle comes very close to meeting this objective.

And that is not just small beer, because the cumulative potential of these small sites to deliver new housing, typically in locations which are more sustainable and more favoured by local communities, is enormous. Added to this should be the obvious benefits to local economies and the wider construction industry of a revitalised local house building sector.

The permission in principle status will also be applied to all sites on the new Brownfield Register assessed as suitable for housing, and all sites allocated for housing in local and neighbourhood plans. As inclusion of these documents is surely admission of ‘permission in principle’ anything else might seem less than rational. And contrary to some misconceptions, this is not about granting ‘automatic planning permission’. While the technical details consent and how precisely it works will be the subject of further consultation, there is no reason to suppose this will be, or need be, any less rigorous in examining the details of proposed schemes than current routes to consent are. Though it will garner no headlines to say so, this is not so much deregulation, as rationalisation. It should be applauded as such.