Town planners are used to change.
Following the introduction of the plan-led system in 1991, we have seen multiple iterations of national policy and successive rounds of new legislation.
Now the housing white paper heralds further reform, aimed at boosting housing supply and fixing what communities secretary Sajid Javid described as a broken market. As usual, it was the planning proposals that grabbed the headlines, notably on setting local housing targets and holding councils to account for delivery.
Much is promised, but should we be confident that these proposals will be successful in boosting supply to secure the 225,000 to 275,000 homes the government says we need each year? I think there are five grounds for being optimistic.
First, there will be a statutory obligation on councils to produce a local plan, and then keep it up-to-date. For the first time, we can expect a plan-led system that actually has plans. Currently, less than 40% of councils have an up-to-date plan and some (most famously, City of York Council) have never had one. Local plans set the strategy for development, and in high pressure green belt areas they are essential if land is to be released for new homes.
Second, a standardised methodology for assessing housing need will cut through much delay. Currently, half of all local plans have to revisit their strategies mid-way through the process because their evidence on need is found wanting. Arriving at a housing number more quickly will help councils and developers focus their efforts on the genuine planning choices over where homes should go instead of getting bogged down in endless debates over alternative methodologies.
Third, a more consistent approach to measuring five year housing land supply – coupled with the new delivery test and requirement for developers to provide better information on delivery of permissions – will encourage a more proactive approach to managing the supply of land, as recommended by the Elphicke-House Report.
Fourth, the government is promising more resources for stretched planning teams: a 20% increase in planning application fees from July 2017, to be supplemented with a yet-to-be-consulted on further 20% for councils “who are delivering the homes their communities need”. Not enough, no doubt, but a welcome boost.
Finally, we are starting from a relatively promising position. Notwithstanding the myriad of systemic failures flagged by the white paper, net housing additions were 189,650 last year – close to the government’s target rate for this parliament.
Incremental reforms to smooth some rough edges off the planning system – along with other white paper proposals – should avoid hiatus and improve the environment for delivering housing. That gives us reason to be hopeful.
Matthew Spry is a senior director of planning and development consultancy Lichfields, and advised the Department for Communities & Local Government’s Local Plans Expert Group.
Five reasons to be hopeful over housing white paper proposals