At 4.10pm on Wednesday 11th May, less than 24 hours before the end of this session of Parliament, the House of Lords finally gave way to the Commons in the battle over this Bill. And the following day, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 was born. As Lord Kerslake, one of the main protagonists in the enduring ping pong between the two Houses put it: ‘any contest between this House and the other place will be an unequal one. That is as it should be: it is elected and we are not.’
Ping pong? The process by which the two Houses of Parliament come to agree on the wording of a Bill, as amendments fly backwards and forwards for approval or rejection. In this case, the Housing & Planning Bill has proven to be one of the most contentious of the Parliamentary session, with 13 amendments and defeats inflicted on the Government in the House of Lords. As Brandon Lewis MP, Housing & Planning Minister, noted when he initiated the ping pong: ‘Today we will discuss rather more than the five or six amendments we traditionally see come from the other House.’
As the deadline loomed, MPs became more outspoken (Stewart Jackson described their Lordships as ‘unelected, unaccountable panjandrums’). They invoked financial privilege on matters of public taxes and spending and demanded that manifesto commitments be allowed through. Smelling defeat, and perhaps choosing their battles wisely, Lords began to back down until, through a combination of lost votes and dwindling support, the chief protagonists withdrew – in the nick of time.
So what were the key sticking points to cause this Parliamentary angst? For developers, the arguments coalesced around four key areas of policy:
- Starter Homes
- Right to Buy for Housing Association tenants
- Neighbourhood Plan Right of Appeal
- Carbon compliance standards and SuDS for new homes
Given their flagship status, Brandon Lewis MP has been emphatic that 200,000 starter homes will be delivered by 2020 and that nothing should stand in their way. For that reason, he has insisted on retaining the power to direct local authorities to require a certain percentage of starter homes. The Lords had sought first to give local authorities complete freedom to decide whether starter homes should play any part in their local affordable housing mix following a study of local housing need; they then came back with a watered down version that would have enabled councils to meet part or all of the starter homes requirement through alternative forms of affordable home ownership. Both proposals were eventually defeated.
Despite opposition MPs pointing out that identifying local housing need was quite rightly a detailed and complicated business, Brandon Lewis MP countered that: ‘we cannot and should not have to wait for 336 different planning authorities to undertake local need and viability assessments before action on starter homes can be taken…We make no apologies for creating a new product and for turbocharging [it].’
Staying on the topic, the Lords had also proposed that the 20% starter homes discount be subject to a 20 year taper, with the amount repayable dropping by 5% each year. While Ministers have signed up to the principle of a taper, 20 years was seen as far too long, especially when the average first-time buyer spends just under seven years in their home. The proposal was overturned and the taper will now be defined in regulations, with the likelihood that if any discount has to be returned, it will be to a body such as the HCA to fund more affordable homes.
Right to Buy
Right to Buy remains a muddle. All attempts to allow local authorities to keep sufficient proceeds from the sale of [as yet undefined] ‘higher value’ council house sales in order to build the required ‘one for one’ replacement were rejected. As was the plan for the calculation of the payments required from local authorities to be the subject of a vote in the House. This has led to suspicion that the whole project remains to be properly costed, with the likelihood that the funds will just about cover the buyer discounts, but not replacement homes. Baroness Williams (for the Government) admitted as much when she explained that: ‘the amendment would prevent the government from fulfilling their manifesto commitment because it would significantly reduce the funding available for the voluntary right to buy.’ She went on: ‘additional homes should not be funded simply through retained payments from the sale of vacant high value housing. There should be opportunities for local authorities to contribute their land, assets or funding…’
We await the Government’s response to the Public Accounts Committee on this point. However, Shelter has estimated 23,500 council properties will need to be sold each year to deliver the level of receipts needed.
Neighbourhood Plan Right of Appeal
The proposed neighbourhood plan right of appeal, which would have empowered parish councils and neighbourhood forums to appeal against planning decisions that contradicted made or emerging Neighbourhood Plans was similarly rejected. The debate in the House of Commons was, however, more balanced this time as Conservative MPs lined up to castigate developers for opportunism and to call on the Government to keep the proposal in the Bill. While Nick Herbert MP (Con, Arundel & South Downs) railed against developers who ‘come along, game the system, bang in a speculative planning application in the hope they will get it through, arguing that there is some reason why it should be allowed despite a neighbourhood plan’, the Government has introduced its own plans to require officers’ reports in future to describe exactly how an application accords or conflicts with a Neighbourhood Plan.
Their Lordships’ final stand was on a new carbon compliance standard for new homes as well as a requirement for SuDS. These were swept aside as increasing burdens on housebuilders, as unworkable and slowing the pace at which homes could be delivered. Or as the Minister put it: ‘The more red tape there is and the more spanners there are in the system, the more the system grinds to a creaking halt, and we end up in the mess we are trying to fix.’
However, there will now be a statutory duty on Government to undertake a review of energy standards’ for new homes. It will seek evidence on the costs of energy measured and the benefits in fuel bill and carbon savings. They key will be cost-effectiveness both for developers and homeowners.
More on the way?
Ministers might well have thought that they deserved a rest after all that. We understand, however, that there is a strong likelihood of another planning bill in the Queen’s Speech. The focus this time could be on garden villages. Watch this space.