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How can we fix the planning system and build the homes the country needs?

Planning Communications and Consultation

With the general election campaign now underway, the housing crisis will be firmly on the agenda, as the main parties offer up solutions to address the acute shortage of housing – and especially affordable homes – across the country.

So, it was timely that last week SEC Newgate launched the latest edition of its National Planning Barometer at UKREiiF, in Leeds. In its fourth year, the research provides unprecedented insight into how the planning system operates in practice and lays bare the dire state of the housing market.

This year we surveyed 416 planning committee members across England and Wales, with supplementary interviews undertaken with 21 planning and development specialists. The findings are stark. But as well as revealing the complexities and challenges faced by the planning system, they also identify opportunities for driving change and easing pressure.

The headline finding is that an already severe housing crisis is only getting worse. Two thirds of councillors rate the degree of the housing crisis in their local area as severe, marking a significant increase from 2023, when just over half of respondents perceived there to be a severe housing crisis. Moreover, three-quarters of councillors say this severe crisis has worsened over the past 12 months, both nationally and in their local area, while just 1% of councillors think the housing crisis is easing.

However, despite these concerns, the findings indicate a growing disconnect between councillors’ perceptions of how to best deliver new housing, against the reality of their own decision-making. For whilst a large majority of councillors say they believe their local planning department has high expertise (85%), a similar amount (80%) admits to voting against their planning officer recommendations in the last 12 months, with 46% voting against three or more times.

Councillors sitting on planning committees rate increasing the provision of affordable housing as their top priority —with 30% putting it as their top priority and 70% rating it among their top five priorities, well ahead of any other issue. Yet delivering on housing targets is a much lower priority, with less than one in ten councillors (7%) saying they are primarily focused on delivering housing targets, and 55% supporting the government’s shift away from mandatory housing targets.

The survey also finds an overwhelming majority of councillors are not in favour of government proposals to publish league tables of local authorities’ planning performance, with 81% saying these would have no influence over their decision-making. Just 4% said the publication of league tables would encourage more approval of schemes at committee. Other key findings include:

  • By far, affordable rent and social rent are perceived by councillors to be the most needed type of housing in local authorities, with both cited by eight in ten respondents, while sheltered accommodation is also cited as a key priority by 43%.
  • Lower on the list of housing needs are private rentals and open market housing. These were felt to be needed by just under a quarter of councillors; however, open market housing is deemed to be a more urgent need according to councillors from London (59%, vs 22% across all regions).
  • Claims of lack of viability by developers, as well as lack of funding for affordable housing, are viewed as the key obstacles to the delivery of affordable housing.
  • Slow build out by developers, community opposition, and a lack of suitable sites are seen as lesser, but still critical, challenges to wider housing delivery.
  • Half of councillors surveyed in the study point to increasing workload and resourcing issues as being key barriers to determining plannings applications.


Taken together, the survey sends out a stark warning that we are in the eye of a perfect storm and at risk of total housing failure without significant interventions. But what is also clear is that the planning system alone is not to blame. That it is broken is not in dispute, but there are a range of multi-faceted issues preventing the delivery of the homes the country needs. Public policy, government funding, market provision, community interest, and discretionary decision-making at planning committees are all at play in the response to the social and economic need for homes.

What this means in practice is the varying actions and agendas of multiple actors make the issue of housing delivery a highly complex one to grapple with - there is no silver bullet to resolving the housing crisis. Instead, we need interventions across a range of areas and significant change from all those working to deliver the homes the country needs.

In particular, both the councillors surveyed and the stakeholders interviewed expressed a need for positive change to drive greater efficiency and collaboration in the planning system, calling for:

  • Greater consistency on national planning policy with a return on delivery of housing targets.
  • Better preparation of Local Plans that respond to local housing needs in a strategic and timely fashion.
  • Tackling the housing crisis by identifying and delivering different types of housing to meet local needs.
  • Recognition that planning department resourcing is a key contributor to the housing crisis, and that more funding is crucial to solving this.
  • Broader recognition of the market factors impacting housebuilding.
  • Earlier and more transparent communication across the planning system, especially between developers, planning departments, and councillors.
  • Increase and innovate public engagement in local plan-making and specific development proposals.
  • Ongoing training for planning committee members on current planning policy and processes.
  • Highlighting the material impact of application refusals, and of out-of-date Local Plans.
  • Better use of industry best-practice, including design guidelines, to support application development.

The golden thread in all of this is the need for better communication between parties, and greater trust and responsibility. The planning system is far too adversarial in its approach. Community consultation works so much better when residents are properly informed, while developers could bring the community on the journey earlier in the process, seeking genuine input into their evolving designs and listening to what residents actually want.

Clearly, councillors do have a difficult job, with one eye on the housing numbers and another on sentiment. Understandably, that can lead to caution around engaging applicants. But it would be beneficial for councillors and developers to have better communication through the process, alongside planning officers. These sorts of interventions are unlikely to feature in the cut and thrust of the election campaign. But we must make progress on them if we are to fix the housing crisis.