Last week, the Deputy Mayor of London pointed out that the recent onslaught of planning reform announcements will "cause confusion and uncertainty in the sector just at the time when we need certainty". He has a point.  Particularly given  'mixed' messages coming out of MHCLG over housing need this week. 

Careful the things you say, Planners will listen*...

As most of you will be aware, the Government is currently consulting on two different sets of reforms to the standard methodology for calculating housing need. 

The first consultation proposes amendments to the current version of the standard methodology, including:

  • adjusting the baseline for assessment so it reflects the higher of 0.5% of current housing stock or the projected annual household growth over a ten year period;
  • introducing a two stage adjustment for affordability, using the workplace-based median house price to median earnings ratio; and
  • removing the 40% cap on increases in local need levels.

The second consultation (otherwise known as Planning for the Future)  proposes the introduction of a  standardised, centrally set, binding housing target (or requirement); which Councils would be under a duty to meet in their new-style local plans.

Do you hear the people sing?

These proposals have caused consternation amongst Conservative MPs, as they would dramatically increase the housing need figures in traditionally conservative heartlands; whilst still reducing the levels of housing need in some parts of the North of England.

The proposals are also giving  councils pause for thought, with some (such as Maidstone) reconsidering their timetables for bringing forward their local plans because of the impact of the proposals. This is completely understandable. After all, there are needs, there are standards, there are shouldn'ts and shoulds, and they all need to be planned for and consulted on.

When you walk through a storm, Keep your chin up high...

In an attempt to calm this unease, the Housing Minister, Christopher Pincher has written a a lengthy piece on the Conservative Home website  entitled "The housing growth numbers that you’ve seen aren’t set in stone".

The article starts off with explaining how the current approach to calculating housing need works, correctly stating that "the standard method is only the first step in the current local plan process – the numbers generated for an area’s housing need will not necessarily be the same as their ultimate targets".

At present, the formula produces a 'policy-off' figure for housing need, which is then reduced through the local plan process by looking at the constraints faced by that local council (such as green-belt constraints) to produce a 'policy-on' figure that becomes the final target for that authority. 

But I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion....

However, the Housing Minister then goes on to say:

"It was a Conservative government that got rid of top-down regional planning targets, and introduced a-locally led system, which takes account of local need and local constraints. Localism requires local decision-making – and our system puts councillors at the forefront of those decisions.

Our longer term planning reforms, set out in the Planning for the Future paper, are an opportunity for us to embrace a planning system which puts councillors and communities in the driving seat of designing their neighbourhoods and puts creating beautiful places that communities can be proud of at its heart."

These two paragraphs are somewhat... confusing...  

Nothing's quite so clear now. Feel you've lost your way?

Whilst it was a Conservative government that abolished top down targets and introduced Localism to the planning system; the White Paper has been widely considered** to do an almost complete 180 degree U-turn on both of these principles. 

The paper proposes:

  • that local councils should no longer set their own development management policies. Instead, the national planning policy framework (set by central government) would become the default planning policy framework across England. 
  • that binding housing targets for each authority be set nationally,  in a way that "would factor in land constraints" from the outset. Under this system, the figure given to local councils would no longer be a 'policy off' figure, but would instead be 'policy on'; and 
  • a greatly reduced role for planning committees in determining planning applications, stating the we should move towards "the delegation of detailed planning decisions to planning officers where the principle of development has been established, as detailed matters for consideration should be principally a matter for professional planning judgment"

Keep young and beautiful. It's your duty to be beautiful

The reference to creating a "planning system which puts councillors and communities in the driving seat of designing their neighbourhoods "  seems very carefully chosen (if somewhat misleading).  

The ability for local communities to control the design of their neighbourhoods, through pattern books and design codes, set either through the local or neighbourhood plans, are a feature of the new system.  The ability  for Councils to set their own housing need figures and development policies, however, are not. 

The housing growth numbers that we’ve seen may not be set in stone; but the ones that we have not seen will be. If MHCLG thinks that Local Authority Planning Departments are not going to notice the distinction then they may be in for a surprise. 

After all....

"Careful the things you say
Planners will listen
Careful the things you do
Planners will see
And learn"

... and respond to the consultations. 

*Yes, it is another theme post. Points given to anyone who can name the musical and the song. 

**not least by this firm