County councils have a vital part to play in solving the housing crisis too

19 Mar 18

The government’s planning framework overhaul does not go quite far enough in fostering better co-operation between counties and districts in their respective strategic planning roles, says the County Councils Network’s Peter French. 

Earlier this month the government publish its revised National Planning Policy Framework to much fanfare within the local government sector.

The review is hugely important for the County Councils Network’s member authorities, despite two thirds of them not actually being bona-fide planning authorities.

This is because housing and infrastructure are intrinsically linked; there is a housing affordability crisis in counties, while projected infrastructure funding is nowhere near enough to successfully mitigate projected housebuilding numbers.

In essence, CCN member councils have long argued for a closer alignment of these two functions, and for planning on a more strategic, countywide scale, with districts and counties working together to plan for the right homes in the right places, backed with the right infrastructure.

With the abolition of regional spatial strategies back in 2011, there has been no strategic or spatial element to the planning system.

Our member councils feel that the duty to cooperate has failed to deliver the joint working that it was supposed to, and we now need to ensure that co-operation does happen across local government in planning and infrastructure.

As upper-tier authorities, county councils are responsible for a raft of statutory functions to make their areas attractive places to live and work; building and maintaining the highway network, providing vital social care services, and driving economic growth and private investment.

In the context of sustainable growth, and in particular building sustainable communities, the role and duties of county councils should not be overlooked.

In the context of sustainable growth, and in particular building sustainable communities, the role and duties of county councils should not be overlooked.

That’s why earlier this month, the CCN partnered with five other national organisations to call on the government to strengthen the Statement of Common Ground, a mechanism designed to get districts and counties working together to agree on planning and infrastructure.

This ‘coalition’ argued that the new SOCG offers a real opportunity to ensure that housing delivery is matched with adequate infrastructure provision in order to foster job creation and growth.

The SOCG could provide that opportunity to embed joint working in the planning system, but the new draft NPPF arguably does not go far enough in mandating this.

By strengthening the SOCG to mandate both sets of councils to work together, and over a whole county instead of over smaller district council boundaries could not only provide a greater scope for building homes in the right places, but it could identify the required infrastructure at the earliest opportunity, to ensure there is a strategy in place to collect developer contributions and to encourage investment for infrastructure in tandem with new development.

Nonetheless, there are things our member councils will no doubt welcome in the updated version of the NPPF.

The nod to strategic planning is extremely promising, though questions remain around where strategic responsibilities will sit, and how these will interact with local and neighbourhood plans.

Whilst a strategic layer to local plans will help to shape the development of areas, this should not be at the detriment of the more detailed policies around subjects like health, design and place making that are so important.

The new approach to development viability and developer contributions is also good news for county areas.

The housing crisis plays itself out in differing ways and, in counties, affordability is a key issue.

Last month, CCN highlighted the pressures faced by county residents as average house prices in county areas now stands at £262,390; some £100,000 more than in the cities. House prices in county areas are now on average nine times annual earnings and as high as 12 times in southern counties.

New viability rules will go some way to reduce complexity, whilst increasing certainty that affordable housing will be delivered, but a step change in delivery is required if we are to deliver the number of homes needed.

Whilst CCN argues for strategic approach to planning for new homes, it is the successful delivery of infrastructure that will unlock sites for development, overcome local fears over the impact on their public services, and support new communities.

That is why CCN would like to see the government go further with some of the proposed changes to the way funds can be collected to deliver infrastructure.

All of our members face infrastructure funding gaps – with one of CCN’s member councils having recently identified a £4.4bn funding gap over the next two decades.

Our member councils would therefore like to see counties given the same powers as the government is proposing to give to mayoral combined authorities allowing them to set Strategic Infrastructure Tariffs in order to fund strategic infrastructure projects.

Going forward, CCN will work with its member authorities to make the case for strategic planning, and the network will work with national partners to make the argument for closer alignment of planning and infrastructure.

To deliver the right homes in the right places, near to jobs and supported by quality infrastructure, it is clear that counties’ role as an essential part of the system should be duly recognised.

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