Explained: Government's plan to shake up rules on new homes

Communities Secretary Michael Gove giving his keynote address during the Conservative Party Conferen

Housing secretary Michael Gove is pursuing a range of reforms to Britain's planning system - Credit: PA

Britain’s housing crisis is one of the most pressing issues facing the country, as demand for new homes vastly outstrips supply. 

In some parts of Norfolk, the average home can be seven, nine, or 11 times as high as the average local annual wage

Young people can be especially hard hit, as money spent on spiralling rents slows them down from affording a deposit and a place on the housing ladder. 

Decisions about new developments are made by district, borough and city councils - but they operate within a set of rules laid down by the government. 

Housing secretary Michael Gove is looking to change those rules through his Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, published on Wednesday (May 11) featuring a raft of changes. 

Digger near homes

The government is planning to overhaul the rules which dictate where and how new homes can be built - Credit: Chris Bishop

The way in which affordable homes are built, what environmental protections are put in place, and how much say local people are given on whether and how new developments should go ahead, will all be reworked under the changes. 

Will more affordable homes be built?

One of the biggest proposed changes will see the scrapping of the current system used to ensure a certain level of affordable housing is built - in favour of providing councils with a new funding stream to build their own. 

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At the moment, developers usually have to enter into deals with councils known as ‘section 106’ agreements, which enshrine a requirement for a certain number of the homes built in any given development to be affordable. 

Under the new bill, that system would be scrapped in favour of developers instead paying a new locally set, non-negotiable levy. The funds, collected by the councils, would be used to fund not just affordable housing, but infrastructure too, such as schools, GPs and new roads.

Richard Blunt, West Norfolk Borough Council’s cabinet member for development, warned however that such a system could cause affordable homes to be segregated away from market-value homes. 

“If you’re not careful, you can finish up with getting ‘x amount of money’ to the housing associations, to build affordable homes, but that can lead to ‘affordable settlements’,” said Mr Blunt, who added that a mix of house types was preferable. 

Sarah Suggitt, Breckland Council’s executive member for planning, said: “I think the devil is still going to be in the detail, and we just haven’t seen the detail.

Sarah Suggitt, Breckland Council's cabinet member for contracts

Sarah Suggitt, Breckland Council's executive member for planning - Credit: Gary Donnison Photography 2021

“Any homes don’t come without their challenges of the roads, the GPs, the dental practices, and how all these things are going to play their part in it [the eventual development]. 

“Once we’ve got some more of the details out, there will need to be more local conversations.”

How much say will local people be given?

Mr Gove has said that he wants local residents to be involved at an earlier stage with shaping how their community develops, not just at the final stage, when a developer gets to the point of seeking planning permission. 

To that end, communities are to be given the power to draw up ‘design codes’, specifying what materials and styles should be used on developments in their local areas. 

‘Street votes’ are also proposed to be used to enable a majority of a street’s residents to approve or reject smaller scale developments, like home extensions.

West Norfolk’s Mr Blunt said he was “slightly concerned” by the idea, and questioned how it could be administered. 

Richard Blunt, West Norfolk council's cabinet member for development Picture: Chris Bishop

Richard Blunt, West Norfolk Borough Council's cabinet member for development - Credit: Chris Bishop

“It’s a bit of a rock and a hard place, this one,” he said. 

“I’m sad to say this, but a lot of people don’t want development in their area.

“You don’t get very many responses to a planning application supporting it, you get more against it. 

“If we take a vote on [developments of] this [kind], a similar sort of thing would happen.”

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph last week, Mr Gove also suggested there would be a new emphasis on his power, as housing secretary, to ‘call in’ proposed developments, if residents believe that local planning policies have not been followed by their council.

Thousands have signed a petition or sent letters of objection to the Parkway development citing loss

Recreational land in King's Lynn is set to be used for the Parkway development of 226 homes - Credit: Chris Bishop

A recent example of that power almost being exercised in Norfolk was seen in March, when officials in Mr Gove’s department asked for the controversial 226-home Parkway development in King’s Lynn to not be given formal permission until the department had considered whether to ‘call it in’. They ultimately decided not to intervene

These sound different to earlier plans. What changed?

Changes to the planning system are a fraught issue for the government. 

Some Conservative MPs believe that fears over development contributed to their party’s poor performance at the local elections last week, and in their loss of the Chesham and Amersham parliamentary by-election last year. 

Earlier shake-ups to the planning system, proposed by former housing secretary Robert Jenrick, would have seen the country divided up into zones, with councils classifying their land as either "protected", for "renewal", or for "growth". The aim of those plans was to help meet the government's target of 300,000 new homes per year.

Housing minister Robert Jenrick announced more funding for councils to house homeless people during

Conservative MP Robert Jenrick, who served as housing secretary from July 2019 until September 2021 - Credit: PA

But those ideas failed to win enough support within the party, causing Mr Gove to pursue a new approach, focused around housing being "beautiful" and "democratic".

In a Wednesday interview, Mr Gove downplayed the importance of national housing targets, but Boris Johnson's spokesman later said the government remained "committed" to them.

What about the current delays in our region caused by the 'nutrient neutrality' issue?

In much of Norfolk, the discussion around changing the planning system is currently an academic, rather than practical one.

That is because proposed developments in Norwich and its surrounding countryside are currently frozen, and cannot receive planning permission - due to new rules introduced to keep the Broads and the River Wensum ‘nutrient neutral’. 

The permissions will remain unlawful until Norfolk’s councils can put in place measures to mitigate the impact of new homes on river pollution. 

Blue Green Algae on the Broads in Norfolk

Natural England says nutrient neutrality is necessary to prevent algal blooms on the Broads. - Credit: Mike Page

And although Mr Gove’s new bill commits to “introducing a new approach to environmental assessment in our planning system”, a spokesman for his department confirmed that this new approach would have no bearing on the ‘nutrient neutrality’ requirements.