The pre-Christmas consultation on reforms to national planning policy will lead councils to plan for fewer homes - and contributes to the sense that the government has all but given up on helping those not yet on the housing ladder, writes Joey Gardiner 

Former Labour leader Michael Foot’s 1983 election manifesto was memorably described by Gerald Kaufman MP as the longest suicide note in history – despite being a relatively lightweight 39 pages. The current government’s consultation on reform of national planning policy, published in the dying days of 2022, is nearly three times as long. But one could argue the thrust of its 97 pages are no less harmful to the Conservative Party’s long term electoral interests than Foot’s policy programme was to Labour’s.

How so? Because this consultation, on a re-write of the so-called National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), appears to represent this administration’s decision to finally give up on the idea of building enough homes so that those currently not on the housing ladder can hope they ever will be. It’s the latest piece of evidence that we have a government which - despite its continued propounding of a 300,000 homes-a-year housebuilding target it now knows it won’t meet - is actually making residential development harder, not easier.

Backbench deal

There is a lot within the consultation’s 97 pages, including some limited good news for developers, mainly around National Development Management Policies, and some proposed new policy wording which will make it easier for councils to plan for more homes than specified in the central “standard method” if they want to. Other parts contain reforms designed to support measures in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

joey gardiner proper size

Joey Gardiner is Housing Today contributing editor

But there can be no escaping the fact the consultation is dominated by measures to appease rural “Blue Wall” constituencies (see box), designed to allow councils in these areas to plan for fewer homes.

These changes have come in following Michael Gove’s deal last month with backbench Tory rebels led by Theresa Villiers, who had threatened to scupper the Levelling-Up Bill unless he abolished local housing targets. The essence of the compromise is this: the housing targets remain (in the form of the “standard method” calculation of housing need), but the new policy removes much of the ability of the planning inspectorate (or developers) to hold anyone to them.

The key measures that will be most worrying to developers and applicants are that, when making plans, councils will not have to undertake green belt reviews to meet housing need. They are also allowed to not meet the identified housing need in their area if this would mean “building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area” (can you imagine the fun the lawyers are going to have with that phrase?).

>> See also: Warning of ‘complete collapse’ in local plan-making after Gove reform announcement

In addition, the five-year land supply test is to be abolished for plans that are in date – which will have an immediate impact on planning appeal decisions as soon as the draft is adopted. Meanwhile, the functioning of the housing delivery test – which sanctions authorities that fail to deliver enough homes – is to be seriously watered down.

If 300,000 homes-a-year was ever a realistic ambition, it is off the table now.

Spokespeople representing the HBF, planning consultants and even the Planning Officers Society are united in the view that combined, these measures – if adopted – will pretty inevitably lead to a big drop in planning for new homes. If 300,000 homes-a-year was ever a realistic ambition, it is off the table now.

In addition, the fear is that the transitional offer to local authorities contained in the consultation will mean that many will immediately pause or put existing draft plans under review in order to take advantage of the new rules – prompting a short term “collapse” in plan-making, with evidence from Horsham, Teignbridge, Stockport and Mole Valley of this happening already.

And if you think it is not political, you only have to look at the policies directed at cities – which are overwhelmingly run by Labour and Lib Dem administrations – and compare that with the wider new policies which will of course apply in the (largely Conservative) shires. Where most authorities are being given the ability to take advantage of various opt-outs allowing them not to meet the identified housing need, Gove has made clear that cities will still have to meet the arbitrary 35% uplift imposed upon them in 2021 – and furthermore these will be effectively barred from exporting any of those housing numbers to neighbouring authorities.


Housing secretary Michael Gove said urban authorities had been imposing their housing on rural communities

Gove told MPs his decision will “stop them [cities] offloading their responsibilities to provide new housing onto neighbouring green fields by ending the so-called ‘duty to co-operate’ which has made it easier for urban authorities to impose their housing on suburban and rural communities”. A cynic would say this equates to Labour-run cities having to build ever more homes – while Conservative-run districts get let-off.

Problem child

These changes come amid widespread industry concern over the current direction of the Department for  Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), as led by Gove, which seems to see the development industry as a problem child, rather than a potential partner in solving one of the country’s thorniest social challenges. This approach has been evidenced in recent months by Gove’s continuing refusal to meet with the sector, his punitive approach to the cladding challenge – with a £3bn levy now promised on top of a £2bn cladding pledge and the £2.5bn residential property developer tax – and his reference to housebuilders as a “cartel”.

It is also visible again here in this consultation, in the section on increasing build-out rates. Here there are three proposals, only one of which – that requiring developers to explain how they plan to increase the diversity of tenures on their site to increase the local market absorption rate – seems to have learnt anything at all from the study the government itself commissioned on this very subject from Oliver Letwin in 2017.

The other two – publicly shaming developers when they “fail to build out according to their commitments”, and amending the NPPF so that commitments on build-out rates can be a “material consideration in planning applications” – are of a piece with the idea that developers are inherently bad actors, doing what they can to take advantage of communities.


The fear is that all these planning measures, compounded by the resourcing crisis in local authority planning departments, the severe economic downturn, the end of Help to Buy 

and the costs imposed by the unhelpful government response mentioned above will contribute to a severe drop off in housing supply. The Office of Budget Responsibility has estimated that ompletions will drop by 25% from current levels by 2025/26 as house prices fall 9.2% peak-to-trough during the forecast economic downturn. Economists reckon, as a rule of thumb, that every 100,000 homes built is worth about 1% to national GDP – meaning this could have a big impact.

Increasingly there are Conservative voices noticing this move for what it is: a betrayal of the young, failing to tackle one of the biggest barriers to their achieving economic security – the housing crisis. Ryan Shorthouse, head of Conservative thinktank BrightBlue, recently said the government had “failed millennials” by leaving them with “punishing housing and childcare costs – combined with stagnant wages” on announcing he was stepping down as CEO of the organisation. In addition to these planning changes, the demise of Help to Buy means there is now no major government support scheme for first-time buyers for the first time in over a decade.

Increasingly there are Conservative voices noticing this move for what it is: a betrayal of the young

Former housing secretary Sajid Javid said prior to Gove’s deal that acquiescing to rebel demands would be a “colossal failure of leadership” that would put “meaningful housing policy into reverse”, while the co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto which adopted the 300,000 homes-a-year target, Centre for Policy Studies director Robert Colvile, described  attempts to scrap housing targets as “selfish and wicked”. Neither intervention stopped him.

Javid and Colvile realised the huge risks of this change of approach for a party that had at a national level essentially been pro-housebuilding since the publication of the NPPF in 2012. The pro-developer 2020 planning reforms failed because they risked a significant abandonment of democratic control to developer interests. Now the backlash to this catastrophically miscalculated over-reach is seeing the pendulum swinging violently in the other direction.

Anti development

Simon Clarke MP, the short-lived housing secretary in Liz Truss’ turbulent administration, recently set out the political stakes for the government. He said: “Building the homes people need goes to the heart of whose side the Conservatives are on and what our party stands for. […] We either build homes or lose elections. It’s as simple as that.”

Welwyn Hatfield green field green belt

Green belt land in Welwyn Hatfield, north of London

A fascinating recent analysis in the Financial Times suggests Clarke is correct. Data compiled by journalist John Burn-Murdoch suggests that not only are millennials not voting Conservative (no surprise there), but they also aren’t turning Tory as they age in the same way that other generations – mostly notably baby boomers – previously have.

We appear to have a seemingly anti-development administration intent on avoiding parliamentary embarrassment at the hands of backbench MPs, instead of helping the younger voters it will increasingly need

Burn-Murdoch’s analysis makes clear that any route back to political acceptability among this generation must include a genuine offer that makes decent housing properly affordable.

Instead we appear to have an anti-development administration intent on avoiding parliamentary embarrassment at the hands of backbench MPs, instead of helping the younger voters that it will increasingly need. And all the while continuing to block the one measure that all agree could most help the system – additional funding for local authority planning departments.


At-a-glance: anti-development measures in the government’s NPPF reform consultation paper

  • New planning guidance is to be issued setting out local characteristics which may justify the use of an alternative method of assessing housing need than the standard method
  • The need to avoid development that would be uncharacteristically dense for the area can outweigh the requirement to meet local housing need
  • Authorities will not need to review their green belts purely for the purpose of meeting housing need under the new rules
  • Councils will be able to take past over-delivery of housing into account when assessing housing need and take that off their total housing target
  • The test of “soundness” for local plans is to be made easier to pass
  • The duty to co-operate between authorities, which aims to ensure that neighbouring councils pick up housing numbers which are undeliverable in one area, is to be scrapped and replaced with an as-yet-unformulated “alignment policy”.
  • Some authorities with emerging local plans will benefit from a reduced housing land supply requirement if they decide to review their plans in the light of the new rules
  • Authorities with an up-to-date local plan will no longer need to demonstrate a deliverable five-year housing land supply
  • Evidence of having delivered sufficient deliverable planning permissions would be enough to save councils from sanctions under the Housing Delivery Test
  • Past “irresponsible planning behaviour” by applicants could in future be taken into account when applications are being determined
  • Delivery timetables will become a material consideration in planning applications
  • Authorities will be encouraged to use planning conditions to require clear details of a scheme’s design and materials 

None of this is to suggest that this NPPF consultation will be cited by pollsters or voters on doorsteps come the election when the nation next makes up its mind – the publication of the consultation on December 22 was met with barely a whimper in a national press preoccupied with weather, strikes and health service chaos.

Most voters will never care about the detail of five-year land supplies and housing delivery tests, and no doubt the NPPF consultation will not prove memorable in the way that Foot’s manifesto was. But growing evidence suggests the apparent decision to give up on tackling the housing needs and aspirations of the young is unlikely to pass unnoticed at the ballot box. 

Joey Gardiner is contributing editor at Building