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There are many who think Theresa May has her back against the wall. This week she literally did.
Delivering yet another major speech on housing (there have been three in the last five months), this time in front of a rather bizarre backdrop of fake bricks, the prime minister outlined a series of changes to the national planning policy framework (NPPF).
Like a coiled spring boxed up by Brexit and certain members of her own party, Ms May unleashed herself against developers who “game the system”, “rogue landlords”, and councils.
Among the most eye-catching proposals, for councils anyway, in the revised NPPF is the proposed introduction, from this November, of a housing delivery test which will measure net additional dwellings against the homes required. This test, using Office for National Statistics and local authority data, was mooted in the housing white paper and will result in a presumption in favour of sustainable development applying “automatically” to all planning applications if the number of homes being built in an area falls below 25% of its annual target this November, below 45% by November 2019, and below 75% the following year.
In short, those failing to meet these targets will be left open to speculative development.
If that is not enough cause for concern then Sajid Javid added to the tough talk as the housing and communities secretary warned the government will be “breathing down” the neck of local authorities to make sure they deliver the number of homes their areas need.
Such mood music is “unhelpful and misguided”, according to Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con). The former bricklayer added “it is completely wrong” to blame councils for a lack of housing being built generally when nine in 10 planning applications are approved, almost three-quarters (73%) of planning refusals are upheld on appeal, and more than 423,000 homes with planning permission are still waiting to be built.
It is largely thanks to government-imposed housing revenue account restrictions that councils are unable to build homes on the scale the country needs – so punishing them for slow build out rates is particularly harsh.
What’s worse, it does not take a huge imagination to foresee a situation whereby developers and landowners hold back and wait for the automatic presumption in favour of sustainable development to kick in – cherry-picked greenfield sites are, after all, much more appealing to build on than complex brownfield ones.
Reforms to viability tests, which developers are increasingly using to get out of delivering affordable housing quotas, are to be welcomed but the definition of what constitutes affordable housing is not. This has now been broadened out to relate to 80% of market rent and price levels, a figure unaffordable for many.
Then there is the issue of the green belt. Ms May is adamant that “the answer to our housing crisis does not lie in tearing up the green belt”. Ironically the revised changes to the NPPF might have the opposite effect.
Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society, told LGC: “Politicians are giving the spin of tightening it up but they have set out the circumstances in which it can be reviewed, which is helpful.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine great swathes of open land being swallowed up anytime soon.
Taken together, there is little hope in the planning sector that the changes to the NPPF will dramatically increase the number of homes built each year. In fact, in an effort to do that the government has, like an upward extension, built on the original document from 2012 and added an extra layer of 11 pages.
The vast majority of the changes makes planners’ jobs more complex and difficult which, as Mr Kiely told LGC, “can’t speed up the process” of building an increasing number of homes each year.
It would appear some botched DIY has not only been carried out Ms May’s stage background but on the NPPF too. Far from fixing the housing crisis, it could make it worse.
David Paine, acting news editor