As the workforce of Great Britain returns this week, its thoughts are likely to focus mainly on recovering from festive excesses and preparing for the year ahead. For those involved with planning policy, they may also be seeking to understand how one of the first political acts of the year will influence the future of both housing development and localism. The Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) for the East of England last week became the first of these regional housing target blocs to be abolished, following an announcement and lying down of an order by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles in December 2012.
The abolition of regional planning strategies was one of the Conservatives main pledges in the run up to the 2010 General Election, and legislation was brought about by July of that year to give Mr Pickles discretionary power to scrap the targets, described by the party as top-down impositions of new build requirements “which fostered resentment” and led to undesirable outcomes. However, a legal challenge from CALA Homes arguing that the granting of such powers was unwarranted and would damage existing house building efforts was supported by High Court judges. They ruled that the strategies could not be abolished until further consultation had been conducted into the impact of the decision. In particular, Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) were ruled to be required for each regional area.
The Eastern RSS becomes the first to be formally abolished, following the submission of all required consultation and research. From the 3rd January onward, the setting of housing targets and consideration of matters such as site allocations will fall entirely to the relevant local authorities, with the National Planning Policy Framework and Localism agenda intended to act as guides for the creation of suitable Local Plans by councils. The delay in abolishing the RSS nationally has already had an impact on the development of these Local Plans, as until revoked they continue to act as statutory guidelines and the documents being created by both community groups and councils must comply with their expectations. This leaves authorities facing the dilemma of, for example, increasing housing targets in order to comply with the existing expectations or risk facing legal challenges.
The Department for Communities and Local Government asserts that the RSS have led to the ‘lowest levels of peacetime house building since the 1920s’ and that planning is best managed when it is locally led. Their abolition sits alongside other Coalition policies and proposals aimed at cutting red tape around planning, such as reducing affordable housing requirements in new developments and increasing the size of extensions allowed without seeking planning permission. However, the right-wing think tank The Policy Exchange has suggested that the RSS abolitions will not lead to any significant increase in building and most local authorities, freed of previous targets, are proposing noticeably lower figures. In the South West, for example, the number of new houses proposed is down 108,380, an 18% drop.
The findings serve to highlight an important problem with the Coalition focus on Localism, namely that championing the strengthening of local politics can be self-defeating when local issues and community groups act against national aspirations. The Localism agenda has been described by some critics as the “NIMBY Charter” for just this reason. Much has been made by the government of its efforts to cut back on factors that are slowing or deterring new house building, so targets set by councils previously under the Eastern RSS are likely to be closely monitored. The Yorkshire and Humber RSS has also had all required assessments carried out and the South East region is understood to be in a similarly state of near-completion, suggesting both may also be revoked in the coming year. The number of new homes being built by 2015 is likely to play a large role when the government seeks to present its case for re-election. It will be then that the successes or failures of the attempted shift from national to local political focus, in the planning area but also on topics such as service provision and performance, will be evaluated.