How has government responded to the white paper and consultation on assessing housing need and how effective do its proposals look?

The year 2015 saw the government promise to deliver one million new homes by the end of 2020, and a further 500,000 by the end of 2022. February’s housing white paper proposed several planning reforms, then last month the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published its long-awaited consultation on a new standardised approach to assessing housing need.

The proposals – now out for consultation until November – at first glance appear sensible. Aiming to demystify a process long viewed as something of a “dark art”, the changes aim to make the assessment of housing need simpler and more transparent, and local authorities more accountable for their decisions. Subject to the outcome of this consultation and responses to the housing white paper, the government intends to publish a draft of the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in early 2018.

Calculating housing need

The current process for calculating targets is overcomplicated and inconsistent. The DCLG is therefore proposing a standard method for calculating housing need based on a demographic baseline, adjusted to take account of market signals such as housing affordability.

The current system often gives rise to costly and time-consuming disputes, and the new, standardised approach should at least minimise this

If applied universally with immediate effect, this calculation would lead to a total UK housing need of just over 266,000 homes, including 72,000 in London alone. To keep targets realistic and deliverable, a 40% cap on increases has also been proposed – applying differently depending on the stage of development of each authority’s local plan.

Viability Assessments

The use of viability assessments in planning permission negotiations is currently very complex. The consultation proposes clearer guidelines from councils on affordable housing contributions, making clear in the updated NPPF that where policy requirements have been tested for viability, this should not usually need to be tested again at the planning application stage.

Where viability assessments are still necessary, the government aims to make the approach more open and easily understood and is also looking to improve how section 106 information is communicated. Local authorities could be required to set out how they will monitor, report on and publicise funding secured through section 106 agreements, and how it is spent.

Statement of common ground

February’s housing white paper proposed a plan for more effective joint working between local authorities through a statement of common ground, setting out how they intend to work together to meet housing needs that cut across boundaries.

Benefits and challenges

Undoubtedly, the current system often gives rise to costly and time-consuming disputes, and the new, standardised approach should at least minimise this. The change should also give communities more control over where homes are built, providing certainty and transparency for everyone.

But there will be challenges. While the proposed 40% cap on increases is sensible, there is certainly an argument for raising the cap for historically underperforming local authorities.

However, this brings us to one of the main challenges of putting the new approach into practice – although standardisation is a sensible aim, so much of making good recommendations for local housing provision depends on local circumstances. While the proposed approach allows for some flexibility, the real challenge will be finding a balance between consistent application and realism.

As ever, it will only be through its implementation that any strengths and shortcomings will be fully revealed – no matter how sensible policy may look on paper.

Karen Cooksley is head of planning and Alex Woolcott is a solicitor at Winckworth Sherwood