News: Battle for the greenbelt begins

Mon, 12 Nov 07

The Government faces plenty of opposition against its new housing strategy...

The Queen's Speech is always an eagerly awaited occasion, partly for its pomp and ceremony, but mainly, of course, for the interest it draws to the government's legislative programme.

As a guide to priorities, the programme announced this week clearly indicates that the government is keen to push through its house building strategy, a move which will impact on the property investment sector. Having set a target of building three million homes by 2020, Gordon Brown will be aware that failing to make a good start on this mission will mean the blame for any failure to hit the mark being placed on his government, even if it leaves office before that date.

Therefore, the two bills most relevant to the future of the housing market each feature the creation of a powerful new body charged with delivering building land where otherwise this might not be the case. In the housing and regeneration bill, the Homes and Communities Agency will be established, a body which will have procurement powers to ensure surplus public land is allocated for house building. In addition, it will also enforce the environmental building standards which the government has also made a key priority.

Time to start delivering

A second bill, the planning reform bill, will set up an independent body as per the recommendations of last year's Barker report which will be able to make swift decisions on major planning applications. This will not just apply to housing; other projects such as roads, airports and windfarms could come under its remit. But put together with the other bill, it may amount to a plan to ensure greenbelt building can supplement the brownfield construction that the Homes and Communities Agency will seek to bring about.

Responses have naturally been varied. Adam Sampson, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, told the BBC the Housing and Regenaration Bill was "welcome", but added: "It's now up to other bodies like local authorities, developers, planners and housing associations to start delivering on the ground."

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, meanwhile, expressed other concerns, specifically that the issue of creating communities and developing local economies might be sidelined. Noting that "communities are more than houses and flats", public policy officer Luke Herbert said: "The Government must ensure that the new agency retains a role as an effective urban regeneration body and does not simply become a green field housing developer."

The battle begins

However, it is the planning reform bill which will face the greatest opposition, with the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) stating that it had already met 24 Labour MPs to express opposition to the plans. CPRE campaign director Ben Stafford told the Times the new bill "looks like a developers' charter," adding: "They [the government] should scrap plans that will reduce the public's say on major developments and be damaging to the environment."

With the National Trust also declaring its aim to battle for the greenbelt, the government may face plenty of opposition both inside and outside Westminster over its plans. Whatever their intentions, those taking a long-term view of the property industry may not take it for granted that these new plans will succeed.

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