Homebuilding threatened by anaemic planning departments, Lords warned

Homebuilding risks being undermined by a lack of capacity to analyse environmental regulations in planning authorities, an influential group of peers has been told.

Evidence to the House of Lords Built Environment Committee, which has launched an inquiry into the impact of environmental regulations on development, suggested that one of the biggest challenges with the supply of new homes was planning departments’ struggle to meet the demands placed upon them.

“You can have great laws on the books but if there’s no one in local authorities to enforce them you’ve got a problem,” said Liz Fisher, professor of environmental law at the University of Oxford.

“If you’re going to require a developer to put in an environmental impact assessment, or you’re requiring them to think about other issues, you need expertise on the other end.”

The committee’s inquiry comes after trade body the Home Builders Federation warned that the supply of new housing was likely to fall to 120,000 per year in the next decade due to new environmental regulations.

Last year the government officially scrapped its target of 300,000 homes to be built every year. The UK saw 230,000 homes created in 2022, with 210,000 of these being new builds, government data shows.

According to the homebuilding industry, while delays are mostly significantly caused by problems in planning departments, there are also problems with legislative uncertainty.

Developers find it challenging to grasp which legislative provisions apply to a particular project when they have to consider not only the Environment Act, but also the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and regulations left over from the UK’s membership of the EU, which may or may not be retained.

“Trying to get a full 360 [degree view] of that is going to be very difficult,” Fisher told the committee.

“If you go back to the evidence from industry, what they’re saying is not that [they] don’t want environmental laws; they want a level playing field, they want a clear regulatory regime which is legible, and I think that’s fair.”

As well as the uncertainty and potential instability created by the current legislative framework, poor-quality drafting, particularly of guidance, is also an issue, Fisher added.

“The quality of drafting, if I had to put it bluntly, is often like a 2:2 student’s essay – there are some good ideas in there, it’s just that the execution ran out of time,” she said.

“The courts do play a role in stabilising what the law is and making clear what is possible, but they can only work with the material they have.”

Daniel Smyth, director and head of environment at Savills, told the peers that resourcing was a “huge problem” for statutory bodies such as Natural England, as well as local authorities.

“The biggest problem facing developers is obtaining good feedback through the process from the statutory bodies who have no incentive to respond, and from planning authorities as well,” he said.

Developers struggle to secure “good, meaningful interaction” with relevant bodies and with planning departments, which tend to “sit behind the regulations”, he added.

“When you multiply that all up by lots of regulatory bodies, it becomes very difficult,” he said.

Authorities also tend to take a precautionary approach to environmental impact assessments, leading to a “disproportionate” document “assessing lots of insignificant effects rather than the likely significant effects it’s supposed to concentrate on”, said Smyth.

The committee, chaired by Conservative peer Lord Daniel Moylan, is accepting evidence for its enquiry until 31 March.

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