Britain’s biggest housebuilders privately lobbied cabinet ministers to secure a significant relaxation of the planning system, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.
The chiefs of housing firms, including Barratt, Bovis and Redrow, insisted that ministers introduced a planning policy that would mean the default answer to applications would be “yes” – a presumption that would hugely boost their business prospects.
Ministers included the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” as a key plank of the draft national planning policy framework (NPPF), which is due to come into force next spring.
In June 2010, as the policy was being drawn up, the Home Builders Federation (HBF) demanded the presumption, using a strongly worded private letter that was circulated to Chancellor George Osborne, the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, the business secretary, Vince Cable, and the ministers for housing and planning, Grant Shapps and Greg Clark. The federation’s representatives said the clause “must be introduced immediately”, and that it was among the “absolutely essential requirements” of new planning policy.
The builders stressed that their communication was a “private letter to you and your ministerial colleagues and key government officials, which we are not planning to release to the press”.
Housebuilders are poised to win permission to build thousands of homes on greenfield sites due to the policy.
The government says the reforms will drive economic growth and increase housing supply, which last year slumped to just 102,720 homes built when targets were more than double that.
Conservationists claim the clause represents a green light for development at almost any cost. They fear it will lead to sprawl over the countryside because “sustainable” relates to economic and social development as well as to the environment.
The demand came as part of sustained lobbying that involved letters, briefing papers, meetings with ministers, and working groups of housing executives and senior civil servants. The campaign was revealed in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
According to one letter, the planning minister explicitly asked the industry group to say what it “would like to see in the decentralisation and localism bill, and to contribute ideas on other aspects of planning change”.
The HBF said the organisation had always been “open in our call for the presumption, and were most certainly not its architects”.
He added: “In the letter we requested that a presumption in favour of sustainable development be introduced immediately. This presumption was not our own suggestion but rather what was promised in a Conservative party green paper in February 2010.”
The government has already faced criticism over the perception that its planning policy has been being too strongly influenced by builders. Three of the four people appointed to an advisory panel on the NPPF had links to house construction.
The Department for Communities denied the policy was influenced by housebuilders. “The intention to introduce a presumption in favour of sustainable development has been a stated policy of the Conservative party since the publication of open source planning in February 2010. It featured in the Conservative party’s manifesto, and was explicitly stated in the coalition agreement.”
The Commons’ environmental audit committee last month questioned housebuilders about their lobbying of ministers. John Slaughter, director of external affairs at HBF, gave evidence, with Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, which represents big developers.
Joan Walley MP, chair of the committee, asked whether the NPPF was “in line with the proposals that you have been putting forward to ministers”. Peace said nobody “in the development industry mentioned the presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
Peace added: “That came from government and from ministers. We were not involved in the drafting of the NPPF at all and we did not really talk about the principles it would enshrine. It was quite an interesting surprise when it emerged in its first draft.”
Slaughter said he would agree with that, adding “obviously we do have meetings with ministers, it is a normal part of what any trade body would do”.
Letters to ministers seen by the Guardian show how, after a meeting in July this year, with Steve Morgan, chairman of Redrow, in which the house builder complained about the “abuse” of judicial review laws used by opponents of developments, Eric Pickles wrote: “I am glad to hear that you will be working closely with my officials to follow up the issues we discussed.”
Neil Sinden, policy director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which is calling for the government to rethink the planning reforms, said: “The evidence suggests that some in government have allowed themselves to get too close to the development lobby, which has enabled [the industry] to exert disproportionate influence.
“It’s no surprise housebuilders have been pushing the presumption in favour of sustainable development so strongly. It allows them to threaten local authorities with costly appeals if their applications are not approved.”
Naomi Luhde-Thompson, Friends of the Earth planning policy adviser, said: “Housebuilders have been having a private debate with government and we think that is unfair. The draft NPPF is full of things that have been lobbied for privately but nothing that has been tested in public debate.”
She said the presumption for sustainable development would give housebuilders a mechanism to override local authorities attempts at strategic development as “there was nothing in the NPPF that says building on greenfield sites is unsustainable”.
Property developers have consistently complained about land supply and strict planning controls they claim block new building. But a recent study estimates the UK’s leading house builders have a sufficient land bank to build nearly 620,000 homes, with almost 50% boasting having planning consent of some kind.
A housing association lobby group told parliament private developers are “in essence restricting supply by the control they exert through these land holdings”. They said ministers are wrong to believe the industry will only press ahead when weaker planning laws are in effect and more profitable ventures on greenfield sites get the go-ahead.
Most of the pressure from builders is in the south-east and towns with quick train links to London.
West London and the M4-M3 corridor is a particular target, with many councils under pressure from builders on one side and residents who fear a wave of upmarket homes spilling on to green belt land.
The social housing group said private developers would start building only when a tax was applied to their land banks. It said: “While they suffer no cash loss from holding onto their land bank, there is no incentive to push these out into circulation” it said.”