The new national planning policy document will still lead to fewer homes being built, even if some of the most egregious proposals around density and green belt have been watered down, says Joey Gardiner

Over Christmas Michael Gove continued his efforts to rebrand himself – despite much contrary evidence – as a pro-housebuilding government minister, talking to The Times about potential help on the way for first-time buyers. This version of the housing secretary – Gove 2.0, if you like – was also in full operation when he launched the new version of the government’s core national planning policy document, the NPPF, in the week before the festive season began.

Joey Gardiner comment pic 3

Joey Gardiner, contributing editor, Building

Gove has in his time branded the housebuilding industry a cartel, threatened to put firms out of business, cut first-time buyer support and presided over a collapse in local authority planning performance. However he claimed at the  event at the RIBA HQ on 19 December that he was a “Yimby”, “ardent for new development” and was looking to clamp down on local authorities “that have persistently under-performed in dealing with planning” to ensure homes were built.

This is still a set of changes that makes it harder, not easier, to get homes built

The new NPPF itself – vital for setting the parameters under which councils can take decisions and draw up their local plans – does not earn Gove the right to call himself a housebuilding champion, however. While there is undoubtedly a rowing back on some of the most damaging ideas floated a year ago in the original consultation (made, you may remember, in the wake of the deal between Gove and rebel Tory MPs who were threatening to bring in a law banning local housing targets), this is still a set of changes that makes it harder, not easier, to get homes built.

Delivery impact

It is hardly surprising that the housing industry is underwhelmed by the latest text. Most of the changes proposed in the December 2022 NPPF consultation have ultimately made their way in to the final version – including many of those that developers had warned would impact upon the delivery of homes.

So, from now, local authorities with “in-date” plans will no longer need to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land, and those that do need to demonstrate a five-year supply won’t have to add additional “buffers” to it, and will be able to factor in historic over-supply into their calculations – thereby reducing the amount of land they have to allocate. Housebuilders have used arguments over five-year land supplies as a crucial tool to unlocking prized development sites.

>> See also: Key takeaways from Gove’s big planning speech

>> See also: Gove planning reforms would be ditched on day one of a Labour government

In addition, neighbourhood plans have been given more protection from speculative development, and the government’s standard method for calculating housing need has been explicitly made an “advisory starting point” for generating local housing numbers in policy – as opposed to being a local housing target itself.

It would not be fair to say, however, that Gove did not listen at all to the objections of the development sector. When the original proposals were released, the HBF described them as a “capitulation” to anti-development lobbying by backbench Tory MPs that would presage a “total collapse” in plan-making. Consultant Lichfields estimated that the impact of the changes, combined with the nutrient neutrality issues, could see housing delivery drop by 77,000 homes a year.

The final version includes limited changes compared to the consultation draft. They mark small but substantive shifts in some of the specific areas that the industry was most concerned about.

So, where Gove had previously proposed in effect a “local character” get-out clause for councils in the heart of the NPPF, effectively allowing local plans not to meet housing targets if doing so would mean building “at densities significantly out of character with the existing area”, he has dropped this paragraph entirely. This is replaced with a new, much vaguer section later on, simply stating that “significant uplifts in the average density of residential development may be inappropriate”.

Green belt shift

The original version had been seen by developers to sound the virtual death knell for any densifying regeneration or redevelopment scheme in a suburban area, and was in direct contradiction to other parts of the NPPF which call for the densification of existing built-up areas. That has rightly been ditched. The new wording, in contrast, is only really something councils will be able to take account of where they have a design code in place, and seems much less likely to trouble developers.

Likewise, Gove has completely dropped plans to allow councils to factor in past over-delivery to the calculation of future housing numbers.


Housing secretary Michal Gove said he was ‘ardent for new development’

Most closely pored over by the lawyers is likely to be the change in proposed wording around the green belt. The new NPPF, like the consultation, still makes clear that local authorities are not required to review green belt boundaries while making a local plan, making it harder for councils to contemplate. However, in a departure from the original proposal, the new text does not link this issue to housing supply.

Where originally it had said that “green belt boundaries are not required to be reviewed and altered if this would be the only means of meeting the objectively assessed need for housing over the plan period”, now it simply says “there is no requirement for green belt boundaries to be reviewed or changed when plans are being prepared or updated”. It then goes on to remind councils it is nevertheless possible to review green belt boundaries “where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified”.

This change is subtle, but potentially significant: the previous wording, linking the green belt and housing need, could have made it all but impossible for councils to justify any green belt allocation on housing grounds – and potentially leave any such allocation subject to challenge. And, while the new wording appears on the face of it to offer the same reassurance to anti-development campaigners, the government’s consultation response makes pretty clear that it is actually really a re-wording or “clarification” of the previous policy situation, not a departure from it.

Green belt allocations from local plans will likely remain – as under the previous system – very much the exception, and are probably harder to achieve with the new wording

There was never any “requirement” for councils to undertake a green belt review under the previous NPPF, and exceptional circumstances were always necessary to justify one.

The upshot, therefore, is that green belt allocations from local plans will likely remain – as under the previous system – very much the exception, and are probably harder to achieve with the new wording. But they do not – as was the fear from the consultation – appear to have been ruled out altogether.

Stockholm syndrome

These few changes together enable Gove to make the argument – as he did at the RIBA last month – that, combined with a rigid policy of enforcement to ensure that councils get local plans in place, the government is supporting a positive planning system that will deliver homes. And that it has not entirely ditched targets (though he did not mention 300,000 homes a year in his speech).

But the changes need to be put in context. Firstly, we should not have been starting from here: the consultation draft of the NPPF was a potentially catastrophic step backwards for housing supply, proposing to remove in one go nearly all the main levers to promote more homes being built, blocking brownfield and green belt alike.

That Gove has rowed back on some of these measures should not be a cause for celebration, but more a cause for the sector to curse the unnecessary pain it has gone through in the past year as more and more local authorities have pulled housing plans on the basis of the direction of travel signalled in December 2022.

Thanking Michael Gove for it, as some seem tempted to do, therefore looks from this perspective like a form of Stockholm Syndrome

Furthermore, in comparison to the previous version of the NPPF, the changes brought in last month remain by and large anti-development – hardly an early Christmas present. While it may not be as bad as feared, planning barrister Zack Simons, of Landmark Chambers, said plainly that “this NPPF will obviously (and intentionally) lead to many, many fewer homes being built”, due primarily to the changes around five-year housing land supply.

Thanking Michael Gove for it, as some seem tempted to do, therefore looks from this perspective like a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Planning approvals are currently falling sharply as local authorities approve fewer homes and deal with fewer applications, while continuing resource pressures mean councils are struggling to recruit experienced staff and get on top of the constant whirl of government policy.

We currently have a housing industry that, despite slightly more rosier market signals in recent weeks, is in a very difficult position, with a big drop in output expected in 2024. Its leaders, people like Redrow founder Steve Morgan and Weston founder Bob Weston, feel the government has stopped listening, removing Help to Buy at just the point when mortgage rates rose and first-time buyers most needed it.

After 14 years of Conservative government, and three years in his current role, Gove will need to do more than just say that he is pro-housing if he is really to convince the sector that he actually is.

Joey Gardiner is contributing editor on Building