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National Planning Policy Fudge

“Of course I support the building of more homes, but they have to be the right homes in the right places…”

If that has been written once to emolliate a nakedly cynical objection to a planning application or a draft local plan allocation it has been written a thousand times.

The need for the ‘right homes in the right places’ alas now finds itself at the heart of the Government’s attitude towards planning for housing, featuring as it does in the first line of the ‘Planning for housing’ chapter of the consultation on proposed changes to the NPPF.

The NPPF has since first published in 2012 referred to a commitment to ‘significantly boost the supply of housing’, but the current proposal introduces into the very first paragraph a need for 'sufficient' housing. The change in tone between the first version and the proposed version could scarcely be more marked. From softening land supply and delivery test provisions, taking in additional policy protection for agricultural land, additional weight for neighbourhood plans even if they do not allocate sites for housing, and then to explicitly indicating the types of local characteristics that will justify a deviation from the standard method, the unstated intention that runs through the consultation document is that the provision of sufficient housing will be more than enough.

This is hardly surprising given the intended audience for the consultation, which is the eighty or so Conservative backbenchers reportedly in a ‘Planning Concern’ WhatsApp group for whom the ‘right place’ to build homes is anywhere apart from their constituencies and who needed to be appeased in order for the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill to progress.

The nub of the Tory rebels’ purported grievance is the ‘Stalinist, top-down targets’, as the standard method was described by Liz Truss during the summer, but grumblings of discontent can be traced back to at least March when Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani opened a House of Commons debate on "planning permission and housing need" for Wealden. Indeed the chickens that have come home to roost were arguably let loose when Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2021 was interpreted by The Telegraph as a pledge that houses would not be built on green fields.

It is worth recalling in relation to the standard method how it was introduced in the 2017 ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market’ White Paper:

“… at the moment, some local authorities can duck potentially difficult decisions, because they are free to come up with their own methodology for calculating ‘objectively assessed need’. So, we are going to consult on a new standard methodology for calculating ‘objectively assessed need’, and encourage councils to plan on this basis.”

It is also worth recalling that the 2020 ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper proposed replacing the current construct, which is and has only ever been a starting point for the calculation of housing need, with a centrally-set, binding requirement.

The relative decline in the Government’s control over it’s backbenchers can be traced from the boldness of that proposal to the Government itself now ducking the decision about what to do about the standard method by waiting until 2024 to review the implications of 2021 census data.

Susie Dent’s ‘Word of the Day’ on Twitter as this piece was being written was ‘sparple’, a 14th century term apparently used to deflect attention from one thing by making a big deal of something else entirely. Deflecting attention, again, towards ‘build out rates’ is some modern day sparpling.  

The standard method is manifestly not fit for purpose (based as it is on ever-more outdated data) and if there was a genuine commitment to building 300,000 new homes the focus of this consultation would be on either making it so (given the case for a standard method is as strong as it was in 2017) or reverting swiftly back to local objective assessments of need. The focus of this consultation is instead though on how local authorities can plan for less than whatever a target is, regardless of how that target is constructed. The standard method limps on then, like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, held together by sticking plaster and an arbitrary ‘urban uplift’ that most of the cities subject to it either cannot or will not accommodate.

In requiring that this uplift be met, “so far as possible”, by the cities concerned the consultation document states that it will be important to “capitalise on opportunities to further densify in these already-developed urban areas”, which definitely should not be at densities that would be significantly out-of-character with the existing area and definitely should include (presumably an awful lot of) mansard roof extensions (the inclusion of which is testament to the lobbying skills of ‘gentle density proponents.

Three changes are proposed relating to matters that may need to be considered when assessing whether a plan can meet housing need.

The first is the point about density and the need for growth to recognise a place’s distinctive character and to deliver attractive environments that have local support, which sounds like succour for those who would preserve their constituencies in aspic.

The second is the Green Belt, which many rational, pragmatic planners had been seeking some tweaks in relation to. The NPPF presently states that, before concluding that exceptional circumstances exist to justify changes to Green Belt boundaries, the local authority should have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development (which includes brownfield maximisation, optimising density, and sharing need with neighbours).

It was to be hoped that the paragraph in question could be amended to confirm unequivocally that exceptional circumstances very much do exist if a local authority has gone through that process in order to help those that do want to grasp that nettle.

It was also to be hoped that an additional paragraph might be added stating that, when the thresholds for demonstrating exceptional circumstances have been met, land around new or proposed public transport nodes can represent the most sustainable locations for new development.

Instead of rational pragmatism though it is to be emphasised 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. Relative to the size of the actual problem, which is that Green Belt (together with housing numbers and cross-boundary issues) is the principle reason for poor local plan coverage, and the size of the perceived problem (12% of England is Green Belt today compared to 5.5% in 1979), this de facto moratorium on Green Belt allocations, no matter how sustainable a site is and how insignificant it might be in landscape terms, seems somewhat disproportionate.

The third way of manipulating a housing requirement downwards will be to take past ‘over-delivery’ into account, such that if permissions that have been granted exceed the provision made in the existing plan, that surplus may be deducted from what needs to be provided in the new plan because, in this brave new world, heaven-forbid any ambitions that go beyond ‘sufficient’.

All of that is dispiriting enough, but it becomes even more so when considering, when requirements are inevitably manipulated downwards, where these homes go because this need will not just vanish into the ether. Well it probably will actually because as well as lowering the soundness bar that local plans need to get over by removing the ‘justified’ test (heaven also forbid that those distant bureaucrats at the Inspectorate ask about reasonable alternatives and proportionate evidence), the ‘positively prepared’ test will no longer make reference to agreements with other authorities to meet unmet need. A nebulous ‘policy alignment test’ and voluntary Spatial Development Strategies will not do the heavy lifting that the Duty to Cooperate does, which itself was never going to be a satisfactory replacement for statutory strategic planning.

The consultation document states quite rightly that every local authority should have a simple, clear local plan in place to plan for housing delivery in a sustainable way for years to come and whilst the proposed changes do make the prospect of full local plan-coverage more likely, if plans propose only a politically-palatable housing requirement that does not contribute towards meeting a wider housing market area’s needs in full, then that is only pyrrhic local plan coverage.

Plan-making, by dint of Green Belt, housing numbers and cross-boundary issues, is difficult, but rather than grapple with those difficulties the proposed approach calls to mind that of the great H.J. Simpson who tells Bart one day, the latter having just given up on guitar lessons, that if something is hard to do then it is not worth doing.

The consultation document also states quite rightly that planning for housing is not just about numbers, but the numbers and the mechanisms for dealing with the needs of entire market area, are the foundations on which sound plans have to be built. The proposals in the consultation are regressive on those terms, which means that the next NPPF will be planning for less housing. The Planning Concern Group might have been placated, but this should be a concern for everybody else.

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