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Gove is right to give Homes England planning powers

Homes England are an undervalued and underused asset to fix the housing crisis, increase productivity and build better places. In this opinion piece, Rico Wojtulewicz, Head of Housing and Planning Policy for the NFB and HBA, looks at why Michael Gove’s recent announcement to give Homes England planning powers is a shrewd move.

Homes England, the non-departmental public body responsible for funding new affordable housing in England, has always had the potential for placemaking, but no government has given them the necessary powers. However, in his housing speech on 24 July 2023, Michael Gove became the first secretary of state to accept that Homes England’s role should be expanded, as he intimated that he would give them masterplanning and planning approval powers to deliver the Cambridge vision. 
Since 2015, the House Builders Association (HBA), the housing arm of the National Federation of Builders (NFB), has been advocating for Homes England, (formerly the Homes and Communities Agency or HCA), to be granted these planning powers because localism has had a somewhat complex relationship with spatial planning, too often resulting in a scaled-back housing and employment ambition. It is reassuring to see that our recommendations and reasoning have finally been noted. 

Mr. Gove has clearly recognised this in Cambridge and considers central intervention as the best chance to enable the cities ‘science superpower’ credentials. A ‘call for evidence’ on Homes England’s effectiveness, purpose, and collaborative qualities has also been released, which closes on September 15, 2023.

Additionally, the ‘Investment Zones Policy Prospectus’, has identified five key employment sectors to be delivered in eight potential devolved regions. 

All these developments are beginning to feel like spatial planning through the backdoor.

Alongside the proposed National Development Management Policies (NDMP) in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (LURB), there appears to be several mechanisms that can deliver a model more closely aligned with the European planning outcomes that Mr Gove reveres. 

This should excite the broader planning community, Mayors, employers and county councils, because since regions have required localism buy in from numerous local authorities, it has been impossible to recreate and sustain the successes of the automotive industry in the West Midlands, textiles in Greater Manchester, engineering, shipbuilding and steel in Yorkshire and the North East, or ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent.

With the South East being a hub for renewable innovation, the South West growing its reputation for battery innovation, free ports unlocking coastal communities, and other regions modernising their outlook, it is time for the Cambridge model to be considered as a starting point for economic growth and placemaking opportunities for all. 

Evidently, there will be bumps in the road, already seen by the watering down of the Ox-Cam Arc – a transport, housing and placemaking project between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. However, this should not deter a push for desperately needed planning reforms. 

As an example, in our LURB National Planning Policy Framework consultation response, the HBA proposed Sectoral Development Management Plans (SDMP) and Devolved Development Management Plans (DDMP). The NFB believes this will ensure greater flexibility to enable strategic agglomeration of growth opportunities. 

There is, of course, one elephant in the room – land use. However, with Homes England’s ability to purchase and arrange land, we hope that the Government will expand their remit either to regions where growth is opposed by the party politics of localism, where new towns or developing ambitions need a strategic push, or in areas where housing affordability and under-supply is hindering growth. 

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