The government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is short on detail, light on solutions, and laden with risk, experts from across the housing sector warned MPs at a meeting of the Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities Committee this week.
During the hour-long session, the committee heard from experts from a number of bodies in the housing sector:
- Andrew Wood, spatial planning lead, Campaign to Protect Rural England
- Kate Henderson, chief executive, National Housing Federation
- Ian Fletcher, director of policy, British Property Federation
Levelling Up Bill contains a stark lack of detail
The verdict was damning on the current planning system, which is failing to deliver the housing targets needed to provide the 4.2 million people in need of social housing. While elements of the new Levelling Up Bill may help, the verdict across the board was that the scant lack of detail within the bill harmed its ability to make a true impact.
One of the most common criticisms of the Levelling Up Bill was its lack of detail. While many of the proposals in the legislation are encouraging, the lack of detail in it, which the government will supply in ‘secondary legislation’ (drafted by ministers after an act’s passage) means that the bill is short on information.
Fletcher described the housing sector “stabbing in the dark” in response to the bill’s lack of clarity, and the long legacy of years of opacity as to what levelling up really meant.
A key example of this uncertainty is the infrastructure levy introduced in the bill for smaller developments. This levy, which replaces the community infrastructure levy (CIL), will raise revenue from developers based on the land’s value, according to rates set by local authorities. This money will be reinvested into communities, to provide schools, hospitals, and roads, making the new development sustainable to the existing community.
Currently the CIL also provides the funds for half of all affordable housing, and does it in a way that ensures mixed communities, where people from all walks of life are brought together. Changing this provision without any transparency, with no guarantee for mixed neighbourhoods, could strip away some of the best elements of CIL.
What’s more, there is no guarantee that the new infrastructure levy will deliver affordable homes. Henderson emphasised that any housing targets need to reflect objective need for affordable homes, rather than what the system currently delivers.
In fact, this element could harm the aims to address regional inequalities. Since the infrastructure levy is based on value, councils in the South with inflated property markets could gain substantially more revenue from this than those in the North. What’s more, while Michael Gove had assured Henderson that sites with 100% affordable homes would be exempt from the infrastructure levy, no such guarantee has been given since his departure.
Creeping centralisation of levelling up
One further harmful element in the bill are the powers that are put in the hands of central government. Wood in particular pointed to the powers that will be given to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, to set “specific environmental outcomes” against which plans might be assessed. These powers will also allow the minister to amend or repeal existing environmental assessment legislation.
Meanwhile, Wood noted that “the bill is as good as silent on the climate emergency”.
An additional element is the rebalancing of power towards the government. Elements such as new national development management policies, general precepts for good planning such as protection of heritage sites, will now be determined centrally, giving the government of the day a great deal of power to set standards for developers.
Once again, the lack of clarity brings further problems. Henderson pointed as an example to the new spatial development strategies, which groups of councils could agree to meet local housing needs at a more strategic level, allocating across local authority borders based on need.
While good in theory, these strategies risk ignoring local people, and in the process only raising barriers to development: “planning is a democratic process nationally, locally, and at a neighbourhood level. We need clarity if we’re going to have consent and trust from local communities.”
Underlying problems not examined
Fundamentally, while the bill does a lot to tilt the planning system away from its bias against development, it does little to examine the root causes of our broken housing system.
Henderson pointed to a drastic lack of skills and capacity, while Fletcher highlighted the lack of resources in local planning departments. Ultimately 12 years of austerity has left the state unable to cope with the new demands put on it to level up the housing sector.
Henderson also shone a light on the ability of the green agenda to deliver on regional rebalancing: “Levelling up and regeneration is also about the journey to net zero.” Pointing to the impact of the government’s social housing decarbonisation pilot funding, she spoke compellingly of reduced energy bills and jobs created by the retrofitting process.
Fixing the housing market needs to be as much about regenerating existing stock, as building new properties. Fletcher used the example of Westminster Council, where new land is unsurprisingly difficult to come by. Decisions like retrofitting existing buildings could meet housing demand without diminishing the limited open space in the central London borough.
Ultimately, there were far more substantial solutions to the challenges of levelling up in the committee room on a sweltering Monday afternoon than in the whole of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. Committee chair Clive Betts described the legislation as “a planning bill with a bit of levelling up wrap-around”. Unfortunately, far more than planning reform will be needed to deliver on the stark demands of levelling up.
We need your help! The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs. If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette 🙏