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Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation calls for council housing not capitalism

Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation has taken the Government to task over its proposals to streamline the planning process.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has issued a White Paper to consult on its vision of a simpler system which it says will "bring a new focus to design and sustainability" and "improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed".

The federation's president John Rhodes has made a detailed response to the document, using past planning in Bishop's Stortford to reinforce his points.

John Rhodes, president of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation. (42524272)
John Rhodes, president of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation. (42524272)

The aim of the White Paper is to ensure 300,000 new homes a year can be built – one million over the life of the present Parliament. At present, construction rates fall well short of this, although the increase in the housing stock of over 241,000 in 2019 is the highest one-year total for some time.

Mr Rhodes said: "The White Paper asserts that the current planning system is an obstacle to achieving these aims and that is why it proposes to reform it. However, the assertion is not supported by any evidence, and such evidence as is available tends to suggest that the obstacles to delivery lay elsewhere."

According to the Local Government Association, nearly 90% of all planning applications receive approval. Since 2009-10, planning permission has been granted for 2,564,600 residential units, but only 1,530,680 (59.7%) have been completed.

Newland Avenue, Stortford Fields,, Bishop's Stortford. Bovis Homes Sales unit. .Pic Vikki Lince. (42524277)
Newland Avenue, Stortford Fields,, Bishop's Stortford. Bovis Homes Sales unit. .Pic Vikki Lince. (42524277)

Mr Rhodes said: "So we have to look elsewhere than the planning system to explain the shortfall in delivery of units against planning permissions which have been granted, a deficit that was rising even before the Covid-19 pandemic brought construction activity to a halt."

He cited the current developments of Stortford Fields and St Michael's Hurst, and backed former West Dorset Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin's independent review, which concluded that the fundamental driver of build-out rates once permission is granted was the 'absorption rate' – the rate at which homes can be sold without undermining the local market.

Mr Rhodes said: "Our experience in Bishop's Stortford bears this out. A major development site north of the town was granted planning permission for about 2,500 dwellings in 2015.

"At the time it was estimated that it would take 10 years to build out the whole development, an unimpressive completion rate of only 250 dwellings per year. An adjacent site, owned by the main developer consortium involved, finally received planning permission for 247 dwellings in 2017. There is no sign of work starting on that site yet."

St Michael's Hurst. (42524289)
St Michael's Hurst. (42524289)

Mr Rhodes said the answer lay outside the private sector and the Government's proposed planning reforms would not help.

"It should be remembered that completions of 300,000 or more dwellings per annum have not been achieved on a sustained basis since the 1960s.

"At that time, nearly half the total was provided by local authorities and housing associations building social housing in response to perceived need, rather than responding to market signals about where house prices are highest.

St Michael's Hurst. (42524292)
St Michael's Hurst. (42524292)

"Providing the powers and funding for local authorities and housing associations to do so again could help to achieve the Government's stated aims of raising the level of completions, building dwellings where they are most needed and creating a supply of housing which is genuinely affordable."

Again he backed up his argument using Bishop's Stortford: "The Government's current definition of affordability – 80% of market housing values – is an oxymoron. The current cost of housing is not connected to or determined by the earnings of the occupants or would-be occupants.

"There are serious market distortions and failures which are inhibiting the supply of more housing and which should be addressed, but the current planning system does not appear to be one of them."

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