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What does latest statement from Housing Secretary mean for planning and housing delivery?

Comment piece by Rob Crolla, Preston Baker's Head of Planning

Originally posted: 8th November, 2022

'Now looking much more on a bottom up approach whereby actual targets and delivery will be controlled'

Newly re-appointed Housing Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed the Government still intends to meet its manifesto pledge of building 300,000 homes a year in England following uncertainty over the target given his predecessor’s pledge to abolish “top down” housing numbers. This reaffirms the pledge made in the 2019 election-winning Conservative manifesto.

By Rob Crolla, Preston Baker's Head of Planning

Local housing targets

However, Mr Gove, implied he was intending to reform and review the system for forming local housing targets, although some form of central formula for calculating local housing numbers would remain. So, on the face of it the overall target will remain – but what will actually happen on the ground is yet to be established – as ever the devil is in the detail.

Early indications from Mr. Gove suggest that:

  • Top down standard methodologies, currently seen to be imposed on local planning authorities will be abolished; and
  • These will be replaced by a more nuanced and locally informed and controlled housing target.

This is where the increased politicisation and populism of the delivery of new housing starts to kick in. Previously, housing targets were calculated at national, regional and sub-regional level to the point at which local targets were devised and agreed across Structure Plan areas, and allocated to District areas as appropriate. This is what the town planning profession evolved into. A system of directing and controlling development in the national interest.

Targets and delivery controlled

We are now looking much more on a bottom up approach whereby actual targets and delivery will be controlled, where development would only be allowed with local consent.

Mr. Gove said: “We critically need to make sure that we have local communities consenting to development, and that means that homes need to be more beautiful, it means that we need infrastructure alongside them. But it critically also means that we need to make sure that the environment is protected as well.”

Housing delivery going forward

So, what does this mean for the housing delivery going forward?

In the short term not much – as it will take some time for any changes to calculation and allocation processes to come through in legislation.

In the medium to longer term if the changes proposed come to fruition there are clear implications:

  • Housing targets and ultimately delivery will be suppressed in areas strongly opposed to further development - ironically, it is exactly these areas where housing need is most acute;
  • The ever more vocal and active “anti-development” lobby will have more influence over what happens, where and when;
  • Processes for the delivery of new housing will become ever more elongated and involved as local referenda are required to ascertain the level of support or opposition for local plan targets, allocations and ultimately planning applications. This is diametrically opposed to the current position where planning strategy, site identification and consents are determined based on professional analysis and evidence – not on subjective and knee jerk views;
  • This will lead to a “voting” system – for and against – where the biggest number of votes wins the day. There would be no requirement to ensure that any opposition is based on sound and material planning considerations – effectively planning by local referendum;
  • By implication Mr. Gove suggests that if development is to come forward it is for the development industry to make sure it is beautiful, protective of the environment and is supported by appropriate infrastructure. Does this mean that even if in the opinion of the development industry and the local planning authority a scheme meets these tests, the local community could still veto development through referendum?
  • If there is a requirement to hold a referendum in relation to each and every plan, allocation or application the planning system will require even more resource and investment to be able to function efficiently – it is struggling as it is.

Popularity contest?

Ultimately, these proposals appear to be an attempt by Government to assuage the ground swell of Conservative voters within the Tory heartland who oppose development both in terms of scale and location by offering a local veto. How this plays out in those areas of the country with different political persuasions will be interesting. Will this result in housing development being shunted northwards to areas where communities are less resistant / vocal / organised? Or is anti-development sentiment uniform across England?

Is the planning system turning into a popularity contest where professional judgement and rational debate and deliberation count for nothing and he who shouts loudest wins the day? Perhaps…..

Winston Churchill approved of national referenda for “the redress of great inequalities” – surely there can be no argument that the delivery of new housing is an issue to be considered primarily at national, not local scale and that great inequality does exist in the housing market. The proposals as they stand will not redress this imbalance as delivery will be less new housing and in the wrong places.

Rob Crolla Right