Matilda Battersby talks to industry players about the local aspect of the housing secretary’s long term strategy, and what it might mean.

local plans

Last month the housing secretary Michael Gove outlined his “long-term housing strategy”, which included another consultation on local planning reforms. 

Many of the headline policies in the plan were actually re-announcements, however Gove did reveal new details about his proposal to make local planning “simpler, shorter and more visual, to show communities more clearly what is planned so that they can engage more effectively”.

The idea is to “help speed up new developments, put power in the hands of local communities to build their own homes, and unlock planning decisions”.

He also pledged a new fund of £24m to scale up local planning capacity, and an additional £13.5m for a new “super-squad” of experts to support large-scale development projects.

The intention behind this will surely be welcomed by many. After all, housebuilders frequently cite planning delays as a factor in explaining a drop-off in delivery.  

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, warned in his March report that housebuilding could fall from 240,000 to 120,000 units per year if constraints on supply are not tackled.

So we asked industry players if Gove’s local plan proposals will help to resolve the situation.

Shorter and simpler 

The government intends to introduce a three-part gateway system for inspectors to check local plans in a bid to speed up the system.

Last month the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published a consultation on introducing three “gateway” assessments – around the beginning, middle and end of the process for preparing a plan, with the final assessment taking place just before the examination.

The idea is to reduce the time spent examining plans by consulting as they are compiled, with a proposed timeframe of two and a half years to prepare and adopt a local plan.

Crucially, it proposes that planning authorities have a single local plan document, instead of splitting it across multiple documents.

It said the government will introduce “national development management policies” to prevent duplication of national policies in local plans. 

Planning authorities would have to undertake two public consultations in the 30-month time period.

Is Gove’s local plan workable?

Gove’s announcement follows a previous consultation on the reform of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which effectively watered down local council house building targets. 

The government is yet to respond to the first consultation on the NPPF and 59 local authorities have so far withdrawn their housing plans amid the uncertainty.

Meanwhile, the government has not yet resolved the nutrient neutrality issue which is believed to be holding back the construction of 140,000 UK homes. 

December’s NPPF reforms suggest Gove wants to keep Conservative backbenchers happy while still being seen to commit to building 300,000 homes a year. However some industry players believe he is just running the clock down until the next general election.

“It’s just talk. It’s cheap tinkering at the margins rather than addressing the fundamental issue, which is that the system itself is wrong,” says Martin Valentine, managing director of housebuilder Positive Homes. 

”Rather than actually do anything to release the backlog in the short term, politicians have largely given up taking the big issues that affect our country seriously. They hope that most people aren’t paying attention so they can kick the can down the road.”

Steve Turner, executive director of the House Builders Federation, broadly agrees. “Part of the frustration we have with Gove’s [local plan] announcement is it doesn’t do anything to tackle what we’ve been highlighting as the main constraints on supply,” he says.

“There’s no certainty – and that in itself will undoubtedly lead to more local authorities withdrawing their housing plans and further uncertainty across the country in terms of housing delivery.” 

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Housing secretary Michael Gove

He adds: “There are some longer term announcements in there that are positive. I think we can all agree things should be simpler and that homes should be well designed. It’s good to look longer term, but we’ve got a housing supply crisis right now.  

“Housing supply is dropping because of the economy and because of nutrient neutrality and because of proposed planning changes. 

“Gove said nothing about how he was going to help builders’ ability to build on the supply side. They’ve not responded to the consultation [about NPPF reforms] that was supposed to come out last month, but which now won’t come out until the autumn.  

“Yet another consultation means there’s even less certainty, and that in itself will undoubtedly lead to more local authorities withdrawing their housing plans and further uncertainty across the country in terms of housing delivery.” 

Is Gove putting his money where his mouth is?

The local plan includes a £24m pot of central government money and a £13.5m fund for a “super squad” to help push the bigger applications through.

Rachael Williamson, head of policy and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Housing, welcomes this investment but worries it is “unlikely to have a meaningful impact on housing supply given the scale of the challenge”. 

She says: “The UK’s planning system is over-burdened and under-resourced and the stop-start planning reform that we’ve seen over the past few years hasn’t helped. An investment in resources and skills is needed and welcome but the changes coming through the levelling up bill will create more work for planning departments.”   

In February, the government proposed that planning fees would go up by 35% for major applications and 25% for all other applications, with additional fees to fast track planning.

Turner says: “Builders agreed in principle months ago that they would pay more to speed up planning applications by increasing capacity [within planning departments].

“That was announced [by Gove in July], but the money’s not ringfenced. So of course the danger is that you’ll pay more for applications but the money won’t be spent on increasing capacity within local planning departments.”

“If developers are paying higher fees for planning applications, we’ve got to ensure that money is spent on improving the process by employing more planners.” 

Is it all about better design?

A key aspect of the new local plan concerns making plans “more visual.” The consultation documents suggest this means utilising digital tools to make sure “plans are presented as interactive maps rather than static documents to show how an area could develop and change over time”.

While that sounds sensible, anyone who has been following Gove’s work as housing secretary will know he has sensitivities around the “visual,” having called in local plans on design grounds, such as the Tunbridge Wells Berkeley scheme

Turner says: “Gove has used design as the justification for his call-ins. Design is a very complicated question. Everybody accepts or agrees that the design needs to be right, and that’s part of the discussion that builders have with local planning departments who all have requirements in terms of design.

“But I don’t think anybody thinks that the Tunbridge Wells decision was anything other than a political decision when local planners had agreed it.  

“Getting a planning application agreed in Tunbridge Wells is not easy and Berkeley had done that. And yet Gove called it in. The design reasoning is spurious at least. Everyone agrees we’ve got to have well designed homes.” 

The crux of the local plan proposals seems to be about getting earlier consultation and feedback from communities based on improved visualisation of proposed developments. But, according to Valentine, this has the potential to add another layer to an already unwieldy system.

“[Gove’s suggestion] is to get more people involved in the consultation early on,” he says. ”I get the logic of that, but it’s still not addressing the fundamental point, which is that we’re fairly unique in this country in having a two-tier system; we have to apply for the right to apply in the future to build something and then apply again with the details. 

“No wonder smaller developers can’t get anywhere because you’ve got no chance of being able to navigate through all of that. It takes years and years and you need very deep pockets. So adding more consultation time at such an early stage is just fundamentally wrong.”

What else should the government be doing? 

“I think [the local plan] system was broken by the government in 2011 when [then communities secretary] Eric Pickles abolished regional strategies,” says Mike Kiely, chair of the Planning Officers Society.

“In order to work out how much you need to build, you need to do it properly. And we don’t do it properly. We use old data for our standard methodology. And we’ve got other things that break that standard methodology, producing numbers for an area without accounting for greenbelt and other constraints.

“Those sort of constraints are not factored in at a local level.”

He adds: “What they’ve done recently with proposed changes to the NPPF makes it even easier for councils who want to avoid their responsibility to provide sufficient housing to do just that.” 

The CIH’s Williamson says: “The long-term plan was a step in the right direction but it was missing targets to ensure accountability and transparency, such as targets to address overcrowding, affordability and homelessness. 

Berkeley Kent 3

The housing secretary made headlines in April after refusing permission for Berkeley Homes’ 165-home development in an area of outstanding natural beauty in Kent despite a planning inspector recommending it be given a green light.

“There were some positive references to social rent, but no new funding to help deliver it.”  

The HBF thinks Gove needs to entirely rethink proposals to change the NPPF — which would remove the need for local authorities to publish five-year housing plans, and emphasie the need for area-specific “design codes” — pointing to research it commissioned by Lichfields which shows that the reforms could result in a drop of 77,000 homes a year.

“The NPPF, since its introduction, has helped facilitate a doubling in supply. And that’s because of the checks and balances and the responsibility put on the different parties within housing delivery, including local authorities,” says Turner. 

“So, if you weaken it, it’s not going to be able to deliver. The NPPF can work – and it was working. It needs tweaking and improving as anything does as it progresses. Before Gove’s announcements in December it was basically working.”

Kiely also points out that housing targets are based on out-of-date data. They don’t take into account regional differences and don’t empower local authorities to act in a way which reflects the specific needs and challenges in their areas. 

“We need to use proper empirical up-to-date data to work out the demographics,” he says. “We need to properly analyse migration within the country and properly identify hidden households, such as adult children still living at home.

“This should be done at a regional level. It cannot be done locally. So, at a regional level, you can work out how many people will need to be housed over the next 20 to 30 years in the South-east.”

He adds: “The 300,000 homes per year target is a political number. It’s not empirically based. 

“I think the number we probably need is around about 250,000 a year, give or take. But the problem with that is the housebuilders only ever built around 150,000 a year. 

“Housebuilders aren’t going to build or release any more houses than they feel they can sell because they’re protecting their prices. It’s just business.” 

Valentine thinks watertight design codes – which can be consulted on and decided for each local authority with specific needs and demographics accounted for – could remove the first planning consultation phase, unclog the planning backlog and open the industry up to small and medium-size developers.

“Small developers built a quarter of new homes in the late 1980s. Now it’s one in 12,” he says. “People always say, ‘Oh that’s terrible’ without asking, ‘Why has this happened?’ Nine times out of 10 it’s as simple as the availability of land and getting mired in the planning system. 

“If we had well thought-out, locally consulted upon design codes, with homes that comply and are net zero effectively given a free pass at the local plan, it would speed things up.”

A Fair Deal for Housing campaign 

A fair deal 3x2

Housing Today believes the government should not back away from its manifesto pledge of building 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the decade. We badly need more homes and a lack of supply is a major factor in creating problems of affordability for both buyers and renters.

Over the next few months, Housing Today will be exploring potential solutions to help us ramp up housebuilding to 300,000. These are likely to include different ways of working, funding asks of government and policy ideas that could boost housebuilding.

We want to hear from you: what do you think can make a difference at a policy level?

What can the industry do better?

We believe that, with the right commitments from ministers and the industry, it is possible to build more homes and help the government to meet its objectives to “build beautiful”, improve quality and safety, boost home ownership and level up the UK.

Click here to find out more about the campaign

To contribute ideas to our A Fair Deal for Housing Ideas Zone database, click here.

A Fair Deal for Housing is part of the Building the Future Commission