Revised guidance produced with an eye to 2015 election, rather than maximising growth


February 2014 will probably be looked back on as one of the wettest in living memory. Fittingly it was also the month in which Government watered down its latest planning guidance with a series of subtle measures that suggest they are become more concerned with votes than growth.

The Coalition’s announcement of Planning Courts and the first birthday of CIL took the headlines but it was behind the scenes that the most interesting activity took place. As I write, the new Planning Policy Guidance has just appeared on-line at

It’s perhaps no surprise that Nick Boles’ Statement to the House introducing the Guidance began by emphasising the environmental and protection issues that are currently closest to MPs’ hearts: flood risk and protecting the Green Belts. 

Flood risk might be the most topical issue but the guidance essentially restates a longstanding policy approach. While Boles promised “robust guidance on flood risk” this is hardly a surprise because it’s a statement that’s been repeated after every flood event since the guidance first appeared two decades ago.

Some of the clearer messages in the Beta draft have been watered down and will become grounds for more argument, with delays or reductions in the delivery of development

Boles’ statement on the Green Belt again repeated something Ministers have made clear over the past year: that a shortfall in housing supply doesn’t on its own trump Green Belt when dealing with planning applications.  Green Belt councils might see this as an invitation to leave their Green Belts alone at the Local Plan stage, which won’t go down well with neighbouring authorities who are asked to accommodate their overspill housing needs. The ensuing row could potentially halt a Local Plan in its tracks and there is only one sure-fire way to stop it going that far – by reviewing the Green Belt boundaries.  (There is also a risk that councils slow down their Local Plan production to avoid the difficult issue of Green Belt review, feeling reassured that the Minister won’t release sites on appeal, no matter how big the shortfall in housing land supply.)

The really interesting stuff for those of us who follow planning closely comes in the detail. Large parts of the new Guidance are identical to the Beta version that was made available last August. But there are changes – some quite subtle but others that appear to make concessions to those concerned about the pressures for development on greenfield sites.

This is unfortunate because some of the clearer messages in the Beta draft have been watered down and will become grounds for more argument, with delays or reductions in the delivery of development.

A case in point is the guidance on the housing/jobs relationship. The Beta version advised that where the proposed housing levels would result in a labour force supply that is less than the projected job growth, this will result in unsustainable commuting patterns and that, in these circumstances, plan makers will need to consider increasing their housing numbers. 

The final version is more equivocal: the shortfall in housing and workforce could result in unsustainable commuting. Instead of being required to plan for more homes, plan makers now need only to consider how the location of new housing or infrastructure development could help address commuting problems. 

Now, there can be no doubt that in some cases and at a local level, well located housing and new infrastructure might help address the problem of commuting.  But an adequate workforce can only be secured if there is an adequate, overall supply of housing – if not in one district, then in those surrounding areas that are within a sustainable travel distance. Without it, areas with buoyant economies will experience worsening traffic congestion and labour shortages - hampering growth, driving up recruitment costs and adding pressures in the housing market that would ultimately worsen the affordability of homes.    

Taken at face value, these aspects of the Planning Policy Guidance may play well in the run-in to the next General Election but they are unlikely to help solve the housing crisis and could pose risks to economic growth.

Ian Tant is a senior partner at Barton Willmore