Two big pieces of legislation made progress today - the Planning Bill was published, and the Housing & Regeneration Bill started its journey through the House of Commons. Both have some real plus points, but there are some risks with each as well. Here's a quick rundown...
1. Housing Bill: This should bring in a more joined-up and strategic approach to housing. Until now, funding streams have been too fragmented, housing hasn't been linked up enough with the wider economic growth agenda, and infrastructure has been too much of an afterthought.
The new Homes & Communities Agency is getting all the headlines - it aims to combine housing and regeneration more effectively than English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation ever did, and should aim to facilitate better housing delivery by councils and private developers. Sheffield chief exec, Bob Kerslake, has been seen as the frontrunner for heading up the new Agency - but there's been no announcement yet.
I see three possible risks in implementing the Bill:
(a) The Agency's remit will be very wide, and its efforts will necessarily be focused on priority areas like eco towns and new Growth Points. Other, lower-profile, areas might not get the same level of attention.
(b) There could be tensions between a top-down approach and the need to ensure that local players have enough freedom to deliver their own housing offer. The Bill gives more local freedoms (e.g. councils can retain rents from the council housing they build), but the new Agency will be very powerful (e.g. with CPO powers).
(c) The Agency doesn't go live until April 2009. Before then, existing players will need to keep up the momentum of house-building. The risk is that things slow down while the new Agency is set up.
2. Planning Bill: This should streamline and speed up the planning system, and support housing growth. And the new Planning Charge should provide greater certainty on infrastructure investment. But there are some risks here, too:
(a) The Infrastructure Planning Commission aims to speed up delivery over strategic sites - but it could end up cutting across individual local authorities, so relations there will need to be handled carefully.
(b) Too many local councils still face below-par planning skills and capacity. And the Growth Areas still face an infrastructure funding gap of around £300m. These issues will need to be addressed, if the step-change in housing delivery is to be realised.
(c) The new Planning Charge is better than the original Planning Gain Supplement proposal - but it's not totally clear yet how it will work on brownfield land.
The All-Party Urban Development Group is looking at these issues in its latest inquiry on Housing. Next Monday 3 December, the Group will hear from a range of housing experts on delivery issues like the new Agency, and how new funding streams and delivery tools might work.