Government curbs council's powers to block new homes

Stevenage Council leader Sharon Taylor OBE

Stevenage council leader Sharon Taylor OBE said government's intervention in the borough's planning could lead to 'appalling' quality housing. - Credit: Stevenage Council / Getty Images

The government has restricted Stevenage Council’s planning powers, making it harder for councillors to block new housing developments.

Residents and politicians warned that the change could invite developers to build “appalling quality” housing and huge tower blocks.

Westminster imposed the change to punish Stevenage for failing to build enough new houses.

But the council said government had delayed house-building in Stevenage by holding up its Local Plan.

Why has this happened?

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has clipped the wings of 52 councils which did not deliver at least 75 per cent of their three-year house-building targets.

Between 2017/18 and 2019/20, the government says 1,094 new homes should have been built in Stevenage.

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But only 702 were delivered – 64 per cent of its target.

As a “consequence”, Stevenage must now consider planning applications under a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

The change means councillors must give more weight to national housing needs than local considerations.

The MHCLG said the council “should approve applications for housing unless there are clear reasons not to”.

What are the consequences?

Labour council leader Sharon Taylor OBE compared the intervention to another government planning policy, “permitted development”, which came into force in 2015.

It entitled developers to turn office blocks into flats without council permission.

“We have seen some horrendous examples of that,” said Cllr Taylor. "You end up with appalling quality housing. Not all developers do that. But at its worst, that is what it can mean.

“If you put too much presumption in favour of the developer, it does allow unscrupulous ones to kick the doors down.”

John Spiers from Friends of the Forster Country

John Spiers, who has campaigned against several major developments, said he 'worried' that unpopular plans previously rejected by the council could be reprised. - Credit: Friends of the Forster Country

John Spiers, who has campaigned against several major planning applications, said he “worried” that the change could revive plans which were previously rejected.

Last year, councillors blocked plans to demolish the Icon building in Lytton Way and erect seven tower blocks, saying it would be “incongruous” and “harmful to the character and appearance of the area”.

Under the new rules, such local concerns might not be sufficient to say no.

Who is to blame?

Conservative MP Stephen McPartland blamed the council, saying it approved planning applications which were “unviable”.

“A classic example is the latest council plan for over 1,000 flats in the town centre, with no affordable homes, which the council’s own officers stated is economically unviable,” he said.

“Councillors have expressed concern in planning committee meetings that they keep granting permission for thousands of homes with none of them being built. It is all talk and no action.”

Stevenage MP Stephen McPartland, whose actions were indirectly responsible for the development being

Conservative MP Stephen McPartland claimed Stevenage Council had a history of approving 'unviable' housing developments which failed to materialise. - Credit: Archant

But Stevenage Council said the three-year snapshot used by the government did not tell the full story.

In the first two years of the “Housing Delivery Test”, it said, Stevenage “exceeded all targets” - but surplus building in prior years was not considered.

Between 2018/19 and 2019/20, it still delivered more than 85 per cent.

It said its score had been dragged down by a significant under-delivery three years ago, in 2017/18.

The council said its low delivery that year – 78 dwellings, compared to a target of 366 – was down to a “reduced level of applications”, while the government held Stevenage’s Local Plan in limbo.

“The Local Plan was placed under a holding direction for 18 months, which significantly delayed its adoption,” a spokesperson said.

“It would be understandable that developers delayed submitting planning applications until the new Local Plan had been adopted.”

A developer’s charter?

Cllr Taylor called the government’s rules “a developer’s charter”. 

She said punishing councils for slow house-building “provides a perverse incentive for people to land bank, because it gives them an open door to more planning applications going through.”

Her comments echoed a 2019 report by the Royal Town Planning Institute.

It said that if developers gain planning permission and fail to build, the local authority has its powers curbed, in turn making it easier for developers to gain approval for projects which might previously have been blocked.

“This rewards the developer for failing to develop,” it said.

"We have no intention of holding up house-building,” said Cllr Taylor. “We know the need for housing.”