Origins and Development of Policy

The contemporary policy enabling the use of planning powers to secure the provision of affordable housing in England can be dated fairly precisely to 1991, although this was prefigured by some specific concessions relating to rural housing announced in 1989. Before that the British Government had generally taken the view that the planning system was about land use and should not be used to engage in ‘social engineering’. Its role was to allocate land for housing as a general category of land use, not to prescribe the tenure, price or occupancy of that housing. This view was challenged by bottom-up initiatives from some local authorities, particularly in pressured rural areas, during the 1980s. Indeed it may be argued that this is an interesting example of ‘bottom-up’ policy formulation, responding to pressure and innovation from local authorities in the situation described earlier.

Circular 7/91 in England allowed local authorities to set targets for affordable housing within local plans and to enter planning agreements on individual developments which required a proportion of the housing to be ‘affordable’ (within what would otherwise be private market developments). Underpinning this was the recognition that ‘a community’s need for affordable housing was a material consideration in planning decisions’. The legislative basis for this lay in Section 106 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, which renewed the former ‘Section 52’ power to enter legally binding planning agreements, and Section 12(1) of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 which also allowed unilateral undertakings by developers. Subsequent Planning Policy Guidance (DOE 1992) linked this power to the role of local plans in addressing the need for housing, including affordable housing, at settlement level, so underlining the treatment of this as a ‘material consideration’ (Monk 2010). Subsequent circulars had mixed effects in terms of first reining back the applicability through raising thresholds of applicability in terms of the size of sites, then subsequently (from C.6/98) strongly endorsing the policy, for example, by underlining that a local authority could refuse planning permission on the grounds of no or insufficient affordable housing provision.

The early development and application of this policy strand are reviewed in Barlow and Chambers (1992) and Barlow et al. (1994). The first phase, for most of the 1990s, was characterised by uncertainty about the legitimacy and legality of the mechanism, gradual cautious adoption by some local authorities and a disappointing scale of outputs achieved. The second phase of the policy, from 1998 to 2007, was marked by general policy acceptance, near-universal take up by local authorities, in terms of policies and targets, and a rapid quantitative expansion in output, to the point where a majority of affordable housing provision in England was being achieved through or with the assistance of s.106 planning agreements. The third phase, from 2008 to the time of writing, is characterised by the adverse effects of a prolonged financial crisis and recession, especially affecting housing development, changes of government and successful lobbying by elements of the industry to secure watering down of and exemptions to the policy. Nevertheless, the policy and practice remain embedded at the local level.

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