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New communities secretary must work quickly to tackle housing crisis, expert warns

The new communities secretary Greg Clark will need to "hit the ground running" if the UK's Conservative government is to avoid losing ground in tackling the country's housing crisis, a planning expert has warned.19 May 2015

Clark, the member of parliament (MP) for Tunbridge Wells, was appointed by prime minister David Cameron last week following the Conservative Party's general election victory on 7 May. He was minister for planning policy and decentralisation when the coalition government introduced the Localism Act and the National Planning Policy Framework and was involved in the introduction of the City Deals initiative, through which city regions have begun to agree the devolution of powers from central government.

Planning expert Marcus Bate of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "Greg Clark will need to hit the ground running. A cautious bedding-in period is a luxury which cannot be afforded in the current economic climate and with the housing crisis only set to get worse."

"Supply-side stimuli such as the Housing Zone and Garden City programmes need careful management at this critical early stage of implementation," said Bate. "Human resourcing should be another top priority, particularly at PINS where the backlog of unregistered appeals and late scheduling of inquiries has and will frustrate the delivery of housing, contrary to manifesto promises."

Clark's appointment was welcomed by representatives of the planning profession and the construction industry as well as by some local authorities. Melanie Leech, chief executive of real estate investors' trade body the British Property Federation said: "Greg Clark has done excellent work on cities in the past, and we look forward to working with him and the team". Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) said Clark had "sound experience" and that the TCPA was "looking forward to working with [him] on delivering a new generation of garden cities".

Clark's appointment was also welcomed by Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, who said: "we have worked with [Clark] in Manchester, Greater Manchester and within the core cities on the devolution agenda and had a very constructive working relationship." Phil Williams, vice-president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) also said the RTPI had "enjoyed a good working relationship with [Clark]" in his previous role as planning minister.

"Clark has some politically contentious decisions to make in the next year," added Marcus Bate of Pinsent Masons. "Controversial office-to-residential permitted development rights will lapse if not renewed or extended by the end of May 2016, while the vacant building credit policy will continue to choke the supply of affordable housing until it is cancelled. Perhaps most problematically, Clark will come under increasing pressure to use his call-in powers to approve schemes for much-needed new housing - including in rural areas with new Tory MPs - at the same time as he promotes greater devolution of planning powers."

Cameron also confirmed last week that Brandon Lewis would remain in place as planning and housing minister, a position he has held since July 2014. Following his initial appointment, Lewis oversaw the coalition government's technical consultation on planning and the subsequent introduction of a series of measures aimed at streamlining and speeding up the planning process. Lewis's ministerial tenure has also seen government support for the development of brownfield land, with the introduction of housing zones and funding towards the preparation of local development orders.

Chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders Brian Berry welcomed the confirmation that Lewis would continue in his role, describing Lewis as "an excellent and effective minister". However, certain of the planning changes introduced by Lewis have proven controversial, particularly with local planning authorities, many of which resisted the introduction of the vacant building credit and a change of policy to exempt small sites from certain section 106 obligations late last year.

Industry representatives had less to say about the appointment of MP for Rayleigh and Wickford Mark Francois as minister of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Francois will have responsibility for Portsmouth and coastal communities. He was minister for the armed forces under the coalition government and his planning experience includes acting as vice-chairman to Basildon District Council's housing committee from 1992 to 1995. Last year Francois formally objected to developer Countryside Properties' proposed 500-home development to the west of Rayleigh in Essex.