Planning Barometer 2019: Natural Partners – But Poles Apart

By Perry Miller

With Brexit continuing to dominate the headlines, it is easy to forget that other urgent and ongoing issues – which arguably have a far greater impact on people’s daily lives – continue unchecked. And certainly, when it comes to the ongoing housing crisis, local politicians are far from ready to join in a chorus of ‘things can only get better’.

Each year, Newgate tests the temperature of local councillor sentiment. Our annual Planning Barometer, conducted by Newgate Research, polls planning committee members across England on a range of housing-related concerns: we repeat a number of questions each year to gauge shifts in opinion on the bigger themes while others are thrown in to see reaction to topical issues. A total of 344 councillors participated in our survey between 18th February and 10th March 2019.

Perhaps most depressing, as much for housebuilders as for those yearning for the stability of a good home, is that councillors are as pessimistic this year as they were last:  62% believe the UK’s housing crisis is getting worse. This is 1% up on last year and includes some illuminating regional data, with 81% of councillors in the North East and 73% in London signed up to this point of view. When asked to rank the scale of that crisis, opinion was split – although 35% considered it to be high and a further 34% ranked it medium.

Piecing responses to different questions together, this sense of crisis seems to be driven by a perceived lack of affordability: not only did members rank (as they did last year) the provision of affordable homes as their top priority for 2019 but both social rent and affordable rent were the tenures seen as most lacking in terms of housing supply. And the most popular way to resolve this in any given local authority area is, quite simply, to provide more affordable homes and build more homes generally.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, with the private sector having taken on the role of affordable housing provider in recent years, it is housebuilders who attract blame for the state in which we find ourselves. When asked about the biggest challenge to delivery, in every region – apart from London where a lack of suitable sites topped the poll – the leading response (supported by 65% of respondents compared to 51% last year) was slow build-out rates by developers. And more than three in four agreed that the viability assessment system is used by developers to avoid their planning obligations.

The issue is not, in my opinion, the issuing of planning permission, it is in persuading developers to start developing…

This is a real challenge for the housebuilding sector – and possibly betrays a broader lack of understanding within town halls of the context in which housebuilding takes place. Everyone wants a speedy start on-site, not least the developer who, in most cases, will have made a significant investment in time and money but is juggling pre-commencement conditions and a myriad of other pressing concerns. But faced with long housing waiting lists and a punishing Housing Delivery Test, councillors are under pressure. Fully 61% of respondents hold developers most responsible for delivering homes against the target in the Local Plan, with council officers coming in a far second with a score of 15%.

It is totally unrealistic that local planning authorities are expected to be responsible for delivery rate on housing sites, when they are not in control of build-out rates. The Government should have put the delivery test at the foot of developers not LPAs.’

Strength of community opposition to new homes is also seen as a growing challenge to delivery. Last year, this was considered an issue by just 18% of councillors; this year that has increased to 41%. It does mirror other recent polls, including a London First commissioned YouGov survey earlier this year which revealed that just 50% of Londoners now back new homes in their local area – a sharp drop in a city that has always been a cheerleader for the sector.

Most residents accept that we need more houses for local people, however most do not want them built in their areas – NIMBY rules!

Encouraging then that, when asked to rank the most influential factors on Committee members when determining an application, residents’ comments were a distant third, behind the officers’ report and the Local Plan. Trailing a very poor fourth was…any briefing material provided by the applicant.

However, that does not mean that councillors’ default position is to support their officers. 40% said that they had voted against the recommendation between 3-5 times in the past 12 months. Neighbouring amenity and design were key factors, although affordable provision, unsurprisingly, scored highly in London. Securing an officer’s recommendation to approve is, therefore, hardly a guarantee of success.

Clearly frustrated by slow delivery and a lack of affordability, a growing number of local authorities are taking it upon themselves to boost delivery. Up from 51% last year, 63% of respondents said that their local authority had taken a positive decision to deliver new homes itself, a figure that rises to 84% in London and 80% in the East of England. The chosen delivery vehicle differs, with wholly-owned housing companies, partnerships and HRA direct delivery all proving to be popular routes.

Green Belt reviews are a perennial topic of discussion for anyone involved in development. Just as last year, 43% of respondents said they would be prepared to support a review of their authority’s Green Belt if it meant that a sufficient supply of land for housing could be achieved. Indeed, preservation of the Green Belt received very little support overall from members as a priority for 2019. Before anyone breaks out the champagne, however, that needs to be tempered by councillors’ perception that just 15% of their local residents would be similarly minded. With their eye on the next election, don’t expect to see councillors progressing reviews with any enthusiasm.

When it comes to delivering sustainable communities, councils and developers ought to be the perfect partners: an innate understanding of the needs of the local community combined with the financial expertise and project management of the private sector. And the rise of the joint venture partnership, delivering great projects across the country, would bear this out.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that government has, through ongoing policy development, set these two parties head to head in the planning system.