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Standard methods or unrealistic expectations – 12 weeks of Planning (episode 3)

21 August 2020

By Beth Park Account Director at Newington Communications

Each week during the 12 week consultation, the Newington team will be analysing an aspect of the proposals in the ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals. 

Read our latest analysis below to understand how the proposed planning changes will affect your future projects.

Our analysis of the Planning White Paper this week focuses on the proposal to introduce a standard method for establishing housing requirement figures, which ensures enough land is released in the areas where affordability is worst. The idea is that, by factoring in affordability, the size of existing settlements, land constraints, and opportunities for brownfield development, the most “appropriate” areas for housing delivery would be identified and housing targets met. The Government will also make the calculation, whilst taking away local authorities’ discretion to reduce their target to reflect environmental and land constraints locally.

The basis for this proposal is that, according to the Government, one of the primary drivers of delays to Local Plans is the failure of local authorities to establish the number of homes needed. The Government predicts the new system (the ‘New Standard Method’) would result in an annual housing need figure of 337,000, as compared to 187,000 homes currently provided for in adopted Local Plans. For individual councils, this means the government estimates that 141 councils (excluding London boroughs) will see their housing targets increase by at least than 25%. (It doesn’t take a lawyer to understand the significance of that bolded qualifier).

And whilst this might sound good for prospective developers, there is unquestionably going to be significant challenges along the way. One of the most obvious consequences is that development could become overwhelmingly concentrated in certain areas. According to an analysis by Lichfields, London is set to see the largest increase in housing targets, going from 56,000 homes a year under the existing method to 93,000 homes a year under the new one. This is explained by the new method’s focus on affordability and removal of the cap implemented in the existing method.

“Densification” in these areas appears to be the Government’s solution – but whilst densification can certainly have positive impacts, such as towards the regeneration of town centres, where exactly are these London boroughs going to squeeze the numbers in? With significant releases from the Green Belt being out of favour, the answer in many cases will inevitably be increased heights and more dominant designs. How exactly this is reconciled with the Government’s other emphasis – building beautiful – will no doubt fall to architects, planners and local authorities, as well as the developers so often labelled ‘greedy’.

Moreover, whilst Labour-dominated London boroughs kicking up a fuss will be no skin off the Government’s noses, the standard calculation is also likely to see an increase in housing numbers for the Conservative-dominated South East. This has already drawn criticism from local authority figures from within the Government’s own Party, such as the Leader of Wokingham Council, John Halsall, who branded the new calculation method “perverse and bizarre” after finding it could result in their housing targets doubling to 1,635 homes per year.

And I can certainly see why. On a purely political level, despite being a Government imposed initiative, such a vast increase in targets could only serve to accelerate the demise of Conservative administrations in rural areas, where patience is already wearing thin with Councils over housing delivery. The current targets have already seen Conservatives fall in heartlands such as Guildford and South Oxfordshire, where Independents and anti-development groups have gained, and others could well be on the chopping block soon.

The final and most significant question is whether changing housing targets in this way will actually lead to significantly more houses being built. Crucially, the Government has not set out what the penalty will be if these housing figures are not met, and with some targets seeming completely unrealistic (for context, London has never delivered more than 40,000 homes in a year since the millennium), it’s probably a question that the Government should answer. Secondly, according to the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), 90% of planning applications are currently approved but there are up to 1million unbuilt permissions.

So, whilst the targets introduced by the new system may provide more opportunities for developers to apply and get approval for these new homes, questions about why homes are not actually built, built, built could well remain unanswered.

You can catch up with previous weeks here:

Week 1 - Phil Briscoe reviews the Planning White Paper
Week 2 - Paddy Kent considers the changes to Local Plans