This extended post outlines the main proposals of the PWP before explaining why they were mainly stillborn, mainly because it had unrealistic aims not matched by demonstrable capacity or commitment to implement them – identified as a foundational weakness of modern UK politics, tending to become ever more entrenched.
It goes to explain how that weakness meant that when the NIMBY elephant in the room reared its head, the government not only backtracked but reversed policy direction, using some case examples to illustrate practice and issues at the local level and its interaction with national policy, and the resulting implications.
The concluding section looks towards 2025 beyond the next election to the prospects for housing and planning reform, suggesting that a 300,000 national target is over optimistic, a banner for political show, rather than a feasible, if challenging, policy objective, and that a more realistic 250,000 rising to 275,000 target that underpinned and correlated with supporting planning reform and increased land value capture and first order economic objectives might well offer faster and more effective progress, but only if seriously sought and supported by the necessary overarching central government policy priority, clarity, and certainty, which is a prerequisite for any progress.
1 Antecedents and summary of the PWP
Early in 2020, two Policy Exchange (PE) reports, Rethinking the planning-system for the 21st-century and the more eclectic topic-based Planning Anew were published that emphasized the negative part that the planning system – especially across high housing demand areas – plays in reducing new housing supply, in pushing up prices, and in redistributing income and wealth from renters to homeowners.
The system’s discretionary, cumbersome, over-detailed, extended, and uncertain characteristics, including its use of mechanistic “largely unpredictable’ future projections of economic and housing need over a 15 year or more period inherently subject to uncertainty, required “‘wholesale change” allowing it to be freed from the continuing legacy of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, itself established to further a “command and control” economy.
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission Living with Beauty, also published a report, which offered two central conclusions.
In its eloquent own words, these were, first, “We do not see beauty as a cost, to be negotiated away once planning permission has been obtained. It is the benchmark that all new developments should meet. It includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home. So understood beauty should be an essential condition for the grant of planning permission”.
Then, second, “good quality housing development costs more to deliver. Whilst data is limited in this regard, anecdotal evidence across the projects studied suggests that the cost premium might range between 10% and 22%. Our analysis showed that this could be offset by the value premium, concluding that following a quality agenda is a viable choice. The choice to adopt a higher quality route need not preclude cheaper housing. Both may be equally profitable and both may sit comfortably alongside each other offering choice to consumers at different price point.”
All three reports influenced the August 2020 Planning for the Future White Paper (PWP), which then prime minister, Boris Johnson, in his usual customary hyperbolic style, described, in its forward, as “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War” to “tear down” the existing crumbling, cumbersome, and complex planning system.
The PWP then proceeded to set out its stall in more somber terms. It diagnosed the system’s core problem its reliance on a discretionary rather than a rules-based Local Plan process. Most planning consents – contrary to general European practice – were made on a case-by-case basis rather than by reference to clear set rules, causing up a third of consents to be subsequently overturned on appeal.
Another fundamental failing was it “simply does not lead to enough homes being built, especially in those places where the need for new homes is the highest”, pointing out that adopted Local Plans provided for 187,000 homes per year across England – far short of the government’s ambition of 300,000 new homes annually.
Such structural under supply made housing increasingly expensive, compared to European peers, such Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, where “you can get twice as much housing space for your money compared to the UK”.
Consultation and participatory arrangements often crowded out or ignored the voices of the young and others, which, as they were the very people that depended upon new developments meeting their needs to proceed expeditiously, exacerbated entrenched inequalities.
The PWPs proposed cornerstone reform in response was a shift to a rules-based tri-zonal system of development control, comprising:
- Growth areas suitable for substantial development; outline approval for development would be automatically granted if it was in conformity with the forms and types of development specified in the applicable Local Plan;
- Renewal areas suitable for some development, such as gentle densification; and,
- Protected areas where – as the name suggested – development would be restricted.
Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) in future were to complete the plan-making process within a newly required time limit of 30 months.
General development management policies would also be set nationally, obviating the time and resource costs involved in assembling a long list of local development “policies” of varying specificity.
Local Plans under this new regime would instead concentrate on site- and area-specific requirements and on local design codes. A core set of “visual and map-based” digitally based local requirements for development would be limited to “setting out site- or area-specific parameters and opportunities”.
Concerning housing delivery, a new nationally determined, binding housing requirement would be set for LPAs to deliver through their Local Plans, focused on areas where affordability pressure is highest, consistent with the government’s “aspirations of creating a housing market that is capable of delivering 300,000 homes annually”.
The PWP also signaled future measures to speed up build up delivery rates across large sites, to provide better information to local communities, to promote competition amongst developers, to assist SMEs and new entrants to the sector, as well as to improve the data held on contractual arrangements used to control land.
Another strong focus was on ‘beauty’, broadly defined as good design rooted in a local ‘sense of place’, reflecting a reaction against burgeoning ‘cereal box or ‘identikit’ drearily designed developments that had become almost a ubiquitous feature of the periphery landscape of ‘middle England’ market towns, amid deteriorating quality and space standards.
Highlighting the need to deliver more of the infrastructure existing and new communities require by capturing a greater share of the uplift in land value that comes with development, the PWP also announced an intention to replace the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and the current system of planning obligations with a new nationally set, value-based flat rate charge: the Infrastructure Levy.
This would “raise more revenue than under the current system of developer contributions, and deliver at least as much – if not more – on-site affordable housing as at present” and “enable us to sweep away months of negotiation of Section 106 agreements and the need to consider site viability”, and will be considered separately in a succeeding dedicated post.
In general, the PWP was a curious and interesting mix of high-level free market, social democratic and communitarian principles, partly reflecting, perhaps, the divergent drivers of a post-fiscal austerity Boris Johnson government that needed Janus-like to accommodate both its disparate new “Red Wall’ and its traditional ‘middle England’ sources of electoral support.
It is difficult to dispute that the nine key criticisms the PWP made of the existing planning system possessed at least some validity nor that much of its vision was appealing, when less than 40% of English LPAs in early 2023 possessed an up-to-date Local Plan, spurring developers to make speculative applications or to make appeals against permission refusal, or when the long gestation period involved in their production can cause them to be already out-of-date when finally adopted.
Features not inconsistent with the PWP’s conclusion that the existing planning system was generally not fit for purpose; or, indeed, at its worst, when measured against its purported objectives, self-defeating.
2 Why the PWP was stillborn
The PWP was, itself, self-defeating, however.
Its ‘big bang’ upending of the system that it seemed to inherit from the Policy Exchange in preference to a more ‘make do and mend’ incremental approach was always going to be at the mercy of both national and local public government commitment and/or capacity.
But any grounds for optimism that local LPAs, following years of under-resourcing, could cope with introducing such a new system in the timescales set was whimsical or flimsy, at best.
Even more crucially, the lack of an accompanying national robust evidence-based, funding and policy framework to the PWP indicated unrealistic aims not matched by demonstrable capacity or commitment to implement them.
A not unusual feature of modern UK government and politics, it must be said – a foundational weakness tending to become ever more entrenched.
That weakness was soon to be exposed, with the PWP likely to prove a prime case example.
Unless overcome, such foundational weakness will almost certainly render ineffective any successor attempts at reform in the face of the political and institutional challenges and conflicting objectives that any future reform would have to both balance and surmount.
Trampled by the NIMBY elephant in the room or a flawed method or both
The PWP failed to adequately address the political reality (partly picked up in its own diagnosis) that low turnout in local elections combined with the disproportionate tendency for older homeowners – as well as with their growing share of the general population – to participate in them, is a systemic barrier against development proceeding at a level anywhere close or consistent with the achievement of the government’s overarching 300,000 annual new supply target.
On the ground, local councillors generally face greater pressure from often vocal and well organized existing and established resident groups to refuse permissions to build local extensions to settlements and/or high-density urban developments, under the banner of protecting the ‘character’ of their area and/or avoid adding to local infrastructural shortfalls, than they do to step up local housebuilding.
Such new development could or should in the future help local young people needing access to affordable accommodation or in-migrants that are seeking to work in growing sectors of the economy, such as IT and biotechnology – often located in high values areas, including the Oxford and Cambridge Arc.
But as the future benefits of such developments are dispersed and delayed, their potential future beneficiaries are, unsurprisingly, far less likely coalescence into a local organized grouping and/or to participate in development specific consultations than are existing residents agitating against proposed specific local developments in real time, the disbenefits of which are concentrated within their communities.
To suppose that better designed proposed developments, even with higher proportions of affordable housing, will necessarily placate such local opposition was always going to be optimistic: established residents enjoying a high-quality local environment often oppose new development because it threatens the ‘character’ of their area, spoiling their views and their peace and quiet.
This is even when such proposed developments will lie beyond their neighbourhoods or are close to transport modes (in the case of existing high density urban areas) or are on greenfield sites on the periphery of their home settlement boundary.
Relatively affluent residents seldom welcome new social housing or other developments that might mitigate against house price appreciation or impact upon school catchment areas: self-interest rather than altruism tends to prevail.
That NIMBY elephant in the room was always going to translate into local political reluctance or refusal to designate the proposed growth or even renewal areas.
When it reared its head at Westminster to protest the prospect of increased centrally set local housing targets, much of the integrated vision of the PWP began to fall apart at unseemly speed, even before it was translated into legislation.
Concurrent with a wider consultation on the PWP, proposed changes to the local needs assessment algorithm or formula or the standard method for assessing local housing need (standard method)), “to make assessing the minimum number of homes needed in an area easier, cheaper and more transparent”, were also, in August 2020, put out to consultation.
The standard method was first implemented in the 2018 iteration of National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to produce the objectively assessed housing need (OAN) figure for each LPA, providing a starting point for its housing provision policies and its setting of local housing requirements.
The underlying formula starts with the projected average annual household growth over a consecutive ten-year period starting with the current year, using Office of National Statistics (ONS) 2014-based household projection base data.
This annual growth figure (baseline figure) is then adjusted according to the local ‘affordability ratio’ based on the latest ONS data on local authority median affordability ratios (local median house price divided by gross annual workplace earnings).
If the median house price is more than four times the average earnings of someone who works in the area, the average household growth baseline figure is revised upwards according to an adjustment factor.
Any resulting increase is subject to a 40per cent cap above the average annual housing requirement figure set out in the existing policies when adopted within the last five years and for LPAs with strategic plans more than five years old, 40per cent of whichever was higher of the projected baseline household growth figure, or the most recent number taken from the LPAs spatial development strategy.
The proposed revisions to that 2019 standard model, which included the complete elimination of the cap, were designed to ensure “that the new standard method delivers a number nationally that is consistent with the commitment to plan for the delivery of 300,000 new homes a year, a focus on achieving a more appropriate distribution of homes, and on targeting more homes into areas where there are affordability challenges”.
It was envisaged that they would then become part of the future process for setting any binding housing requirement, to be determined separately.
Using currently available data, the revisions generated a national housing need of 337,000 (in England): a figure, which, the consultation advised, would constitute the “starting point for planning and not the final housing requirement”, with the surplus reflecting that not all homes planned for are built, as well as to allow for a land buffer to compensate for the drop-off rate between permissions and completions.
The consultation went on to recognise that the revised method at a local authority level would affect individual authorities differently, with 141 authorities (excluding London boroughs) facing an increased requirement of a quarter or more over and their current plans or existing standard method numbers.
Many of these authorities were located across Conservative southern heartlands, while the revised method generally generated lower housing numbers in city authorities in the Midlands and North, often Labour controlled.
Regardless of whether the revised figures constituted a ‘target’ or a ‘minimum’ or something else (for the record, the consultation made it quite clear that “the standard method identifies the minimum number of homes that a local authority should plan for in an area”), that LPA performance and progress towards reaching such higher figures could be taken into account as material planning consideration by the Planning Inspectorate (PI) when determining developer appeals against consent refusals, soon induced intense opposition to the change within the ranks of Conservative MP’s and council figures, especially those representing ‘Middle England’ metropolitan suburban and shire county constituencies.
In the autumn of 2020, a 8 October Commons debate on a successful motion calling for the government to delay any planned implementation of the changes to the standard method for assessing local housing need, articulated many of the concerns and issues raised.
Theresa May, speaking as the MP for Maidenhead, advised that her borough’s housing target would increase by 21%, so strengthening the implication that its green belt would need to be built on.
She went on to add that despite her neighbouring Council, Wokingham Borough Council, delivering new homes over and above its target during the previous three years, under the revised method, its current annual target of 789 homes would double to over 1,635 homes.
Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering, also advised the chamber that North Northamptonshire’s target would increase from 1,837 a year to 3,009 a year, when “since 2011 on average we have only managed to build 1,640 a year and at the very height of the market the maximum that was achieved was 2,100, the target is completely unrealistic and undeliverable”.
MPs of all parties cautioned against ‘over development’ across London and south-east or in the words of one “making Kent a patio”, at the risk of undermining the Levelling-Up agenda.
Many suggested that instead of relying on unattainable ‘top-down targets’ that failed to take account of local circumstances and preferences, forcing developers sitting on planning permissions to build out quicker and/or providing more affordable housing would prove more effective in increasing supply.
Jeremy Hunt, the MP for South-West Surrey, and the current chancellor, for example, after expressing concern about the threat to his constituency that a 20% higher housing target posed to ‘its beautiful countryside’, pointed out that the average income in his constituency was £39,000 when the average house price was £447,000, requiring a first time purchaser to have a £60,000 income to afford an entry-level house, way out of the reach of a nurse, a police officer or a teacher.
He concluded that the proposed revised method would make that problem worse, not better, as “ simply increasing the housing targets does not help them, because the price of new stock is set by the price of existing stock, and all that happens is land banking, which is why in my constituency currently, only 28% of all the housing permissions granted are actually being built out”, while emphasising the need to ‘carry people’ in favour of local development.
Later that month, John Halsall, Conservative leader of Wokingham Borough Council graphically complained in an interview with Planning magazine that if the revised method goes ahead, “we’re really utterly stuffed. Not in a million years could we get a five-year supply. We’re just an open goal for any developer to score in ….I doubt there’d be a Tory council left in the South East afterwards. The government is well aware of the extent of the opposition now.”
Indeed, it was. A U-turn soon followed.
In its response to the consultation published in December 2020, the government announced, barely over three months after its proposed revisions went out to consultation that the standard method would be retained.
This was, however, attached with a big cavil: a 35 per cent uplift would be applied to the cap generated by the standard method to Greater London and to LPAs covering 19 most populated cities and urban centres in England: Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Leicester, Coventry, Bradford, Nottingham, Kingston upon Hull, Newcastle upon Tyne, Stoke-on-Trent, Southampton, Plymouth, Derby, Reading, Wolverhampton, and Brighton and Hove.
In an accompanying ministerial statement, then Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities (the Housing Secretary) Robert Jenrick, said the government had “heard clearly” that the building of homes should not be at the expense of “precious green spaces” and that instead it would be done better in urban areas.
This was despite evidence showing that there was and is not enough brownfield land to meet housing needs in any region, especially so in London and across other areas where demand and need is strongest.
It had taken less than four months, therefore, for the PWP’s radical ambition to wilt into political expediency.
The May 2021 Queens Speech, nevertheless, did, still go on to promise “laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward”.
The concurrent wider consultation on the PWP had induced 44,000 responses, mainly negative, focused on concerns on its lack of detail on how the zonal system would work or how necessary associated infrastructural works would be funded, including that it would become a ‘developer’s charter’ that would increase the market value of land located in designated growth areas at the expense of affordable housing levels and of local community accountability.
In that vein, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee in June 2021 published a report that noting the lack of detail or supporting evidence provided in the PWP recommended the government should reconsider its proposal to move to a zonal-based system with different planning rules applying depending upon zone.
It also disagreed with shifting public engagement from individual planning applications to the Local Plan stage, insofar that “far more people engage with individual planning proposals”, expressing concern and that proposed change risked reducing public involvement in the planning process.
That same month, the Conservative loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election concentrated government minds even further on the real political downside risk of pressing ahead with planning reforms designed to help secure a higher housebuilding target as, inter alia, a means of expanding the numbers of new homeowners expected to imbue Conservative values in tune with their new tenure status.
Instead, it was perceived that pressing ahead with planning reforms could induce a loss of seats to the Liberal Democrats and/or encourage Labour and the Liberal Democrats to cooperate to make inroads into the ‘Blue Wall’ of supposedly safe Conservative seats, many of which were around London and other high value areas.
Given that watershed political moment, there was little surprise, therefore, when the new Housing secretary, Michael Gove, briefed MPs in March 2022 that in place of a standalone Planning Bill designed to replace and transform the existing post-1947 planning, a slimmed-down version of the PWP would be delivered as part of the Levelling Up legislation that he would pilot through the Commons during 2022.
The subsequent Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) omitted the PWP’s flagship proposed shift to zonal planning and a system shift to rules-based rather than discretionary planning decision-making.
It did include, however, some significant PWP proposals, namely, requiring LPAs to start work on new Plans at the latest five years after adoption of their previous Plan, and then to adopt their new Plan within 30 months; and the production of centrally defined National Development Management policies that would have precedence in the case of any conflict with Local Plan policies.
Then that autumn, in November 2022, a large number of Conservative MPs signed an amendment to LURB, put forward by Chipping Barnet Conservative MP Theresa Villiers, supported by Bob Seely MP for the Isle of Wight (who had initiated the 8 October debate two years previously) to make “centrally set” housebuilding targets “advisory and not mandatory” that “should not be taken into account when determining planning applications”.
Villiers, a longstanding advocate of not building high rise blocks on suburban sites and of protecting Green Belt and other greenfield sites, earlier that year was instrumental in getting the Transport Secretary to block on a legal technicality an application, by Transport of London (TfL) to build 351 flats, of which 40% by habitable room would have been affordable, on a car park TfL owned adjacent to Cockfosters Underground Station, given outline or ‘in principle’ approval by Enfield Council (ref: 21/025/FI/FUL).
The Labour controlled Enfield Council and the Greater London Assembly (GLA) concluded that the scheme, even though it involved tall buildings not in an area designated by the existing Plan for them, would result in ‘less than substantial harm’ to the setting of the Grade II listed Cockfosters Underground Station and to the adjacent Grade II registered Trent Park and Trent Park Conservation Areas, while its public benefits in terms of public realm improvements and the provision of affordable housing outweighed identified harms.
Villiers campaigned against the development because it would involve building four blocks from five to 14 stories in height, “out of scale and character with the surrounding area”, and result in an associated reduction of ‘park and ride’ car parking spaces from 336 to less than 50, replicating concerns she also had about a similar application for High Barnet Underground station, this time in her constituency.
Although the development offered, by unit, 39per cent low-cost rent – 11per cent London Affordable Rent (social rent) and 27per cent London Living Rent – with the remaining 61% to be let at between 60 and 70per open market rents, this was less than the Mayor of London 50per cent affordable housing target on public land despite public grant input. Some objectors doubted that overall the majority of development would be affordable to local keyworkers.
Villiers and other signatories to the Commons motion emphasized that they were not ‘against new housebuilding’, only that it should not be imposed in excessive density on inappropriate sites in such a way that would change the character of a local area and/or threaten Green Belt or other green open space land.
In a December 2022 Ministerial Statement the Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, to all intents and purposes, accepted or caved into that position.
Under the Community Control heading, he stated:
“I will retain a method for calculating local housing need figures, but consult on changes. I do believe that the plan-making process for housing has to start with a number. This number should, however, be an advisory starting point, a guide that is not mandatory. It will be up to local authorities, working with their communities, to determine how many homes can actually be built, taking into account what should be protected in each area – be that our precious Green Belt or national parks, the character or an area, or heritage assets. It will also be up to them to increase the proportion of affordable housing if they wish”.
My changes will instruct the Planning Inspectorate that they should no longer override sensible local decision making, which is sensitive to and reflects local constraints and concerns. Overall this amounts to a rebalancing of the relationship between local councils and the Planning Inspectorate, and will give local communities a greater say in what is built in their neighbourhood”.
The accompanying changes to the NPPF included:
- weakening the presumption towards sustainable development “where meeting (housing) need in full would mean building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area”;
- removing the requirement for LPAs to review local Green Belts, “even if meeting local housing need would be impossible without such a review”;
- ending the obligation on LPAs to maintain a rolling five-year supply of land for housing where their Local Plans are up-to-date, and, in all cases, the requirement for the maintenance of up to an additional 20% buffer over and above that level;
- The presumption in favour of sustainable development operative where delivery falls below 75% of a local planning authority’s housing requirement over the previous three years will be ‘switched off’ by an additional ‘permissions-based’ test where sufficient permissions have been granted for homes more than 115% of the authority’s housing requirement over the applicable Housing Delivery Test monitoring period.
- Where authorities are well-advanced in producing a new plan, transitional arrangements over two years would allow them to show a rolling four year instead of a five-year supply of land consistent with the delivery of local housing requirements;
- LPAs can take account of past over delivery of housing when setting or reviewing local housing targets;
- increase community protections afforded by a neighbourhood plan against developer appeals – the relevant amendment to the NPPF, in effect, lifts the para 14 presumption in favour of development within an area where a neighbourhood plan (NP) has been adopted for five years or less, regardless of its LPA’s wider land supply and housing delivery position, as long as the NP also contains policies and allocations to meet its identified housing requirement;
The proposed NPPF confirmed that the broader ambition of the PWP had been sacrificed on the altar of Nimbyism.
The government had even regressed from the position that had prevailed prior to the publication of the PWP, undermining the operation of the existing standard method, which, as it had itself highlighted, resulted in figures that even if they had been achieved in total would still undershoot its overarching annual 300,000 new supply target.
According to assessments undertaken by Lichfields and Savills, the proposed revisions to the NPPF will reduce future housebuilding levels to around half of the that target, to c155,000 or lower (not taking account of the impacts of any prolonged housing market downturn).
Mechanisms of central government compulsion over LPA’s reluctant or even recalcitrant to plan for and facilitate increased local housing supply accordingly were watered-down and then reversed in face of local Nimbyism, in apparent fear of its perceived central and local electoral significance.
A sizeable minority of Conservative MP’s, including Simon Clark, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities from September to October 2022 during the brief Truss administration and MP for Middlesbrough, lobbied against the changes, making the point that they would lead to less housebuilding retarding future the prospects for economic growth and the interests of the young and others needing new development for their economic and social future.
Liz Truss, however, despite railing against the ‘anti-growth’ coalition during the Conservative leadership contest that preceded her elevation to the premiership, had promised to dismantle ‘Stalinist top-down’ centrally set housing targets, in the process rather neatly encapsulating the conflict between prioritising higher growth and housebuilding and assuaging the populist NIMBY concerns especially pronounced within party and conservative voting electorates, between ‘blue’ and ‘red’ wall current and future sources of any Conservative parliamentary majority, and between retaining the vote of elderly owners and winning the future support of the aspiring young and middle-aged cohorts, many of which have been and face being priced out of home ownership.
Short-term political tactical considerations in the event overrode any semblance of strategy, although by the same token, the proposed revisions to the standard measure were themselves badly scoped and thought-out and politically cack-handed in implementation insofar they clearly not underpinned by careful modelling of the results and consideration of or preparation for their immediate political impact that they would foreseeably generate.
That tactical failure itself was related to the fundamental foundational weakness of the PWP as a strategic political project provided with unrealistic aims not matched by demonstrable capacity or commitment to implement them.
3 Nimbyism and planning policy and practice at the coalface
Another unintended but significant consequence of the PWP – again opposite to its declared intention – was that many LPAs delayed producing or updating their Local Plans. Although this was ostensibly to wait until the shape of the new system became clearer, for some LPAs the associated uncertainty provided a convenient reason or excuse not to zone or identify more land for housing: something they didn’t really want to do in any case.
Take Wealden District Council (WDC) in East Sussex, a largely rural district. More than half of its land space is designated within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (HWAONB) along with other important Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Local Nature Reserves and Ancient Woodland, which constrains future development.
Yet it is also an area of high housing need and worsening housing affordability: the 2021 median Wealden house price was 13.76 times median local earnings, higher than then southeast regional average (10.74) and across England and Wales (8.92).
Its elderly over-65 population in 2019 accounted for 26 per cent of the overall population, compared to 19.5per cent regionally and 18.4per cent nationally with the total number of people aged 65 and over is projected to increase by 56per cent over 20-year 2019-2039 period.
WDC paused its Local Plan consultation in 2022 citing the policy uncertainty surrounding the PWP. It then further delayed the process to respond to the December 2022 consultation on the proposed revisions to the NPPF and other planning issues connected to the Levelling-Up agenda discussed in the previous section discussed.
That response (WDC response) noted that while its current Local Plan, Provision of Homes and Jobs 2006-2027, adopted in February 2013, anticipated the delivery of 9,440 dwellings between 2006-2027 or 450 dwellings per annum (dpa), its objectively assessed housing need (OAN) figure when assessed under the standard method introduced in 2018 subsequently rose to 1,212 dpa (or 24,240 new homes in total over a 20-year period)
It argued that this large disparity between the adopted housing requirement and current local housing needs was too large for WDC to close in the absence of a new Plan provided with new sites.
In that light, the WDC response went on to largely endorse the government’s changes to the NPPF and LURB Bill, but with significant cavils.
Most notably, it asked the government to go further and remove altogether the five-year deliverable housing land supply (5YHLS) measure that since 2018 has been calibrated to the standard housing need measure, for LPAs (including those without an up-to-date local plan, such as WDC).
This was because the application of both the 5YHLS and the Housing Delivery Test (HDT) measurement “has and will continue to create confusion for the wider public, particularly where local planning authorities ‘pass’ one measurement, but ‘fails’ the other”.
Instead, the HDT, coupled with the proposed ‘additional permissions-based’ test included in the revised NPPF that would ‘switch off’ the application of the presumption in favour of sustainable development where an authority can demonstrate sufficient permissions to meet its housing requirement, should be used as the primary metric.
This would “support a plan-led system, by preventing LPAs who are granting sufficient permissions for new homes from being exposed to speculative housing development”.
The Council’s consultation response also contained much relevant commentary on emerging planning policy.
It advised that very few of our neighbourhood planning groups preparing neighbourhood plans in Wealden District are looking to allocate housing sites, perhaps, in part because of a perceived negative reaction from parishioners at the referendum stage if they did, but also because of the amount of work involved in assessing and allocating sites for only two years of protection from further speculative housing development, and, accordingly, it agreed with the proposal to extend that period to five years.
WDC does not include any Green Belt land, and its response expressed concern the proposed change in the review of Green Belt boundaries would result in LPA’s submitting local plans with potentially significantly lower housing numbers that could consequently result in their neighbours facing additional pressures to meet an increased amount of unmet housing need, even though many of which already face significant challenges in meeting their own identified housing need for other reasons (such as national landscape and ecological constraints).
Highlighting that that considerable areas around cities in the north are surrounded by Green Belt (Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Leeds, for example) the response questioned whether development supporting the policy programme set out in the Government’s Levelling-Up agenda can be realised given that there may be limited opportunity for the required 35per uplift in their housing need figures of the 20 most populous urban areas, which was supported as making “the optimal use of brownfield land, in sustainable locations, to meet national housing need”, to be realised.
In that light, the response went on to note Wealden District is overlapped by five housing market areas, including the urban areas of Eastbourne and Royal Tunbridge Wells, which abut Wealden District to the south and north respectively, and that whilst neither of these neighbouring local planning authorities feature in the top 20 most populated cities and urban areas, WDC District faces similar issues in the respect of potential unmet housing need from its neighbouring urban authorities.
A need for further ‘guidance’ was recorded on how it can develop its ‘alignment policy’ (replacing the Duty to Co-operate that will be repealed when LURB is enacted) with its neighbours.
WDC as of 1st April 2022 had almost 7,700 (net) dwellings either provided with detailed planning permission, outline planning permission, or with a resolution to approve planning permission.
Although the response recognised that some of the larger sites cannot be completed within a five-year period, it argued that all new sites for housing should be commenced within a short period of time upon the granting of a detailed planning permission and the discharge of pre-commencement conditions. WDC had sought shorter time limit conditions (rather than the traditional 3-year period) for the commencement of those schemes to incentivise those developers to build out quickly.
The first appeal involved 200 homes on land west of Station Road in Hailsham (planning reference WD/2020/2509/MAO), and the second, a mixed use development comprising 700 new homes, a new school and community facilities at Mornings Mill Farm, Eastbourne Road, Lower Willingdon (planning reference WD/2021/0174/MEA).
Hailsham, a market town of 23,000 residents, is the largest Wealden urban settlement, while the Mornings Mill Farm site is located between Polegate (largely a commuter and local transport hub settlement, itself located between Hailsham and Eastbourne) and Lower Willingdon, essentially now an outer suburb of Eastbourne, but lying within WDC.
In both cases planning committee members went against planning officers’ advice, invoking ‘saved’ 1998 LP policies that were out-of-date and highways and environmental objections that the respective inspectors later confirmed were baseless, causing them to award costs against WDC of £440,000 due to the unnecessary delays occasioned as to what they defined as WDC’s unreasonable behaviour.
Because WDC could only demonstrate a 5YHLS of 3.66 years, because its Local Plan was out of date, and because of the scale of its unmet housing need, the planning inspectors granted outline planning permission, even though the two applications in question involved greenfield sites beyond – at least in part (the majority of the Morning Mill Farm site lies inside – the indicative “strategic development areas (SDAs)” set out in the council’s 2013 Core Strategy Local Plan (CLSP), which recognised that the 1998 development boundaries set in the existing adopted Local Plan would have to be breached to deliver necessary growth that the CSLP assessed is required to 2027, while the out-of-date 1998 Plan was based development required up until 2004.
Both outline approvals require 35per cent affordable housing. It was, in one of the schemes, capped at that level at the instigation of the council, to allow CIL contributions towards local infrastructural enhancements to be generated by 65% rather than a lower level of market housing.
These two cases clearly show a preference for the then Council to restrict development in locations that, according to the relevant inspectors, were ‘in principle’ suitable and sustainable and which were needed given WDC’s wider housing supply requirements.
An application for 300 new homes on the settlement edge of Hailsham at Old Marshfoot Farm (ref: WD/2017/0458MAO) had secured outline planning permission in 2018 against some strong local resident opposition. Local councillors had subsequently expressed regret about their decision in face of continuing resident opposition and were advised by officers that they could not revisit it. That memory may have played a part in the subsequent planning history of the above two cases.
Prior to the May 2023 local council elections, WDC had indicated an intention to publish its new Plan for consultation in late summer/early autumn 2023 to include new proposed site allocations and development management policies.
That revised timetable was itself made subject, however, to the highly qualified rider “to the actual timing of the NPPF updates and extent of the final changes and so remains uncertain”. As the Council, following those elections, then passed from Conservative control to no overall control, added uncertainty and probable further and extended delay can be expected.
Windsor and Maidenhead
Windsor & Maidenhead Borough Council adopted its Local Plan (2013-33) in 2022, nine years after its inception, and four years from when it was first submitted for Examination to the Planning Inspectorate. Its predecessor had been adopted in 2009.
This 2013-33 Plan set a 712dpa/ 14,240 dwelling requirement over the twenty-year plan period and made associated provision for some “moderate Green Belt release” to allow that full Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) figure for housing and identified employment needs to be met.
The Planning Inspectorate Examination report, in that light, had noted: “Essentially, the scale and type of housing and employment needed in the Borough cannot be met on non-Green Belt sites. Whilst the need for such development is not unique to Windsor & Maidenhead, the socio-economic effects of not providing it, taken together with the inability to accommodate it elsewhere, do amount to the exceptional circumstances necessary at the strategic level to justify altering the established Green Belt boundaries through the Local Plan, (para 101)”.
However, in February 2023, barely a year after the Council adopted its new Plan, its leader wrote to the Department of Levelling Up, Communities and Housing (DLUHC) to request flexibility in meeting the total OAN figure the remaining plan period, insofar that the Council was “paying the price” for adopting its new Plan in February 2002 abiding by government instructions at the time, when otherwise it would have “paused the examination process, like other local authorities have done, until greater clarity was given”.
Indeed, following Gove’s December 2022 ministerial statement, during a period covering less than four months, another 26 LPAs paused their Plan preparation. All except a handful specifically cited the continuing uncertainty on future local housing numbers they will be required to deliver and the associated impact on their five-year land supply and utilization of brownfield and/or greenfield land positions.
Figure One shows that by the end of March 2023, over 55 LPAs had delayed or stayed the progression of their Local Plan because of PWP policy uncertainty. They were mainly concentrated in high value/cost areas around London and adjacent counties most in need of additional affordable housing.
Balancing beautiful design and conservation with needed development
Whilst he was undermining the practical and realistic progression of the government’s purported overarching annual 300,000 new supply objective/target, Michael Gove in his capacity as Housing Secretary had continued to uphold the canon of beauty and good design, telling the Centre of Policy Studies at a November 2022 seminar: “We will see the wide adoption of design codes. We will use all the powers we have to make sure that developments which are not aesthetically of high quality don’t go ahead”.
The former co-chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was had already been appointed to head up the creation of a new government design body, the Office of Place, with a remit to roll out and evaluate the National Model Design Code (NMDC) – a toolkit to enable every council and community to create their own local design requirements and codes in accordance with the PWP’s vision.
Changes incorporated into the updated July 2021 iteration of the national planning policy framework (NPPF) and its proposed December 2022 successor underscore that LPAs should ensure that new developments support “beauty and placemaking”, primarily through the preparation and use of local design codes in line with the emerging National Model Design Code.
The Wealden consultation response had complained that the proposed December 2022 NPPF emphasised the importance of beauty, but that the suggested means of assessment (the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code) did not provide a means to do that.
‘Beauty’ is subject to subjectivity and can vary with the beholder, and perceptions can change over time. That said, the definition and importance accorded to good design defined in relation to spatial context and circumstance clearly constitutes an important albeit contestable dimension of sustainability, as demonstrated in a recent case, involving SofS decision discretion.
In April 2023 the SofS decided (taken on his behalf by the relevant Minister, Rachel Mclean) to refuse planning permission for the Turnden, Hartley Road, Cranbrook (Turnden) development.
The application involved the construction of 165 new dwellings (ref. 20/00815/FULL) within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Beauty (HWANOB).
The application had previously been approved by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWB) and, following a public inquiry convened after the SofS called-in the scheme for decision, the appointed planning inspector had recommended full planning permission approval be granted.
This was because additional to the provision of 40per cent affordable housing (34 rented and 34 shared ownership), the scheme offered a “package of exceptional benefits”, including a biodiversity net gain of 21 per cent, landscape, and recreational enhancements, which, overall, “added up” to the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that under the NPPF is required to justify a development in an AONB.
The existing Local Plan of TWB was adopted in 2009 and it has been unable to demonstrate a 5YHLS for over six years. The proposed replacement Local Plan 2020-2038 (the eLP) is currently subject to Examination.
The entire Turnden site, which includes the Phase One 36 dwelling Turnden Farmstead (reference 18/02571) development separately approved and now close to completion, was allocated under draft policy AL/CRS4 for residential development and significant green infrastructure as part of the eLP.
Permission was granted February 2020 for the construction of up to 180 dwellings on the land at Brick Kiln Farm immediately north (LPA Reference 16/502860). This will subsequently extend the settlement boundary of Cranbrook up to the boundary of the application site. In addition to this, the approval of
Over the 2020-2038 eLP plan period, TWB’s housing requirement is 12,204 (678 dwellings per annum), more than double the previous 300 per annum figure.
The annual affordable housing component of that is 391 compared to delivery of an average c82.
Based on its current policy affordable housing threshold of 35per cent, TWB would require annual net total supply to increase to c1000 dwellings.
The inspector confirmed that as TWB cannot currently show a five-year housing land supply, paragraph 11(d) of the NPPF indicated that planning permission for Turnden should be granted unless: (i) the application of policies in the Framework that protect areas or assets of particular importance (in this case the HWANOB) provides a clear reason for refusing it; or (ii) any adverse impacts of it being granted permission significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against policies in the NPPF taken as a whole.
He concluded “that it is not an overstatement to say that it is rare for a scheme to deliver such a package of exceptional benefits, on a site located adjacent to a second tier settlement, delivering much needed housing, including affordable housing above the rate required by the development plan, in a highly constrained area, and which delivers landscape enhancements with limited associated harm, as well as biodiversity enhancements, while developing only a small proportion of the overall site and in doing so provides a strong long term settlement edge. …. (para838) given the limited extent of harm including to the HWAONB, in the context of the area’s particular housing needs and constraints alongside the wider substantial benefits that would be delivered, exceptional circumstances exist to justify the proposed development and it would be in the public interest. In the current circumstances, therefore, the combined adverse impacts would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in the Framework taken as a whole”.
His recommendation, however, was overturned by the SoS, mainly because the scheme design was not accessed as of a high standard reached through thoughtful regard to its setting and layout, rather “being of a generic suburban nature which does not reproduce the constituent elements of local settlements”, leading to a conclusion that its design rather than being a benefit of the scheme, as suggested by the inspector, was a neutral factor.
Overall, although the combined weight of the benefits was “substantial” they failed to constitute “a package of exceptional benefits”, while the borough’s current five-year land supply shortfall was “slight”.
The applicant, Berkeley Homes, in the wake of that refusal announced its intention to seek judicial review of the SofS decision that then was self-voided in May 2023 due to an inaccurate five-year land supply figure which was cited in the SofS’s Decision letter. Future developments are accordingly awaited.
The case examples illustrate some key realities that impinge on the planning coalface.
- Translating a national aspirational 300,000 new home target to a minimum local figure through the operation of a mechanistic formula subject to contestable assumptions was always likely to lead to local opposition.
- Insofar that the above target cannot be met by concentrating development and densification on brownfield sites within England’s twenty most populous urban areas, the achievement of such a national target will inevitably require densification of urban and suburban areas of a nature that can be perceived as ‘character-changing’ – resisted even within those areas, as at Cockfosters – as well as the extension of settlement boundaries onto previous countryside and greenfield sites, invariably involving some change in rural character and views, occasionally, including some release of Green Belt land.
- Some element of central compulsion is and will continue to be required to increase housing supply at the local level, as left to themselves LPAs – exposed to well organized and vocal opposition to new developments from ‘insider’ residents often for reasons that often are understandable and defendable according to their own perspective and interests –will tend to bow to such pressures, especially outside the urban concentrations, which could even be described as local democracy or community accountability at work.
- A problem with existing mechanisms of central compulsion, including the use of the Planning Inspectorate to overturn local planning refusals following developer appeals, is that some speculative relatively low density ‘executive box’ or otherwise inappropriate developments are approved, weakening incentives for future developers to select the most sustainable sites and provide dwellings in location and composition of the most local benefit. In many ways, the worst of all worlds occurs where the planning process is elongated by delay and obfuscation at a local level resulting in increased scheme costs and the ultimate realisation of less local benefit, such as this .
- The relationship between new speculative market developments – the primary provider of new housing – and the meeting of local housing needs is often tenuous and weak. The phase one Turnden Farm scheme in Cranbrook, for instance, only offered c32% affordable housing, comprising completely shared ownership (SO) dwellings – contrary to the local affordable housing policy that required 75% social rent. These units, as a minimum, will require a £99,000 market share to be purchased along with monthly rental and service charge outgoings of at least £632 in a location that will rely largely upon car use (it is a close to a mile from the nearest shops and will be served by limited public transport). The Registered Providers (RPs) consulted by TWB considered that it was not a suitable location for affordable housing and declined the council’s invitation to make an offer for the proposed shared ownership properties.
- The policy uncertainty engendered by the PWP process and then the December 2020 NPPF revisions during the lead up to the May 2023 local council elections, which will continue to the expected forthcoming 2024 general election and then most probably with a new government initiating and no doubt embarking a further round of fresh reforms and associated consultations, led to LPAs demonstrably delaying the progression of new Local Plans provided with an up-to-date locally determined 5YHLS, hoping that the NPPF revisions, if further tweaked, could release them from the presumption of sustainable development applying regardless of their 5YHLS position. An effective Local Plan-based system presupposes that they are prepared, consulted, examined, and maintained within or very much closer to the timescales set in the PWP and then LURB: an outcome that most LPAs are not geared up to achieve, or as shown, many are even desirous of insofar that it requires them to identify more local sites for development to meet higher housing need figures.
- Greenfield former agricultural sites should offer the most potential land value capture for public benefit, but the case examples offer some evidence that District Council LPAs could be less sharp and systematic in their attempts to maximise affordable housing contributions from developers than they need or should be. The achievement of 35per cent affordable housing, where it is composed mainly of accommodation of intermediate housing that is still locally unaffordable could be improved upon, or at least be more tightly defined. That said, it is very difficult for individual LPAs to buck the existing speculative housing model, which itself needs to change for sustainable higher levels of affordable new housing supply to be achieved, an issue that will be subject to dedicated consideration in a later extended post.
4 Future Prospects
The May 2023 election results led to the loss of over 1,000 Conservative councillors with the largest losses occurring across the South-east. There nearly all district councils, as shown in this BBC graphic, ended up under no overall control, but with the Medway and Thanet towns and Brighton and Hove shifting to Labour, and Eastbourne to the Liberal Democrats, while in Surrey Heath, Michael Gove’s local council also came under Liberal Democrat control.
If his backtracking on the PWP and standard method was designed to bolster Conservative local electoral performance, the effort was not successful, and could have proved counterproductive insofar as it highlighted fluctuating government policy.
Evidence suggests that expressed electoral support for new housebuilding and NIMBYism is quite evenly split. The Centre for Policy Studies recently pointed to polls showing support for local housebuilding and for lower and more stable house prices. But such polls are predicated at the general abstract, rather than the more focused local decision-making individual application level.
Similar such polls also indicate that most people believe that public expenditure on public infrastructure and services should increase; that result does not necessarily translate into electoral support for taxes perceived to directly impact on future household budgets.
It seems likely given some shift to support to local resident group candidates that local concerns over development played a part in the dislodging of incumbent Conservatives in places like Wealden, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Tunbridge Wells.
Although the Conservatives lost control of South Gloucestershire Council to no overall control following a strong showing by both the Labour and Liberal Democrats, where it was reported Labour’s messages of providing more homes ‘resonated’ more strongly than did the Conservative’s recent move away from a pro-housebuilding stance, but that seems empirically to be an exception to the general tendency that local electorates increasingly dominated by older age and higher income groups proved antipathetic to councils perceived pliant to new developments considered detrimental to their local living environment, whether that was true or not given the applicable planning context, as was demonstrated again at the case example councils mentioned above.
In the wake of the May results, Sir Keir Starmer put Labour in the vanguard of the ‘builders’ against the ‘blockers’, promising that Labour would reverse the proposed changes to the December NPPF connected with lower local housing targets, it would be more flexible on Green Belt land release and that it would ensure more “high quality, genuinely affordable housing’ through planning reform and by giving local councils more powers to compulsorily purchase land for housing at lower cost.
Meanwhile, Ed Davey, claimed for the Liberal Democrats the mantle of record council house builders and that his party’s approach was “community not developer-led”, unlike the “the Tories who get 25 per cent of their money from developers”. Their preferred national housing target is 380,000 – patently a meaningless throw-away without demonstrable policy and capacity backing.
All the main party leaders strive rhetorically to reconcile such claims of community accountability with the increased housebuilding that is needed economically and socially, without explaining how they would overcome local resistance to building by consent rather than by more refined methods of central compulsion.
Given that Labour is committed to ‘ironclad’ fiscal responsibility and the wider need for increased financial support for the NHS on top of its borrowing for Green-related investments, it is difficult to discern the prospects for significant increases in public investment on affordable housing, unless housing was subsumed within its wider stated economic mission.
More likely, if elected, it would encourage and preside over more self-financed council housebuilding, as well as put greater emphasis on increasing the proportion of affordable housing requirements taken by social rent.
The problems it would face other than its self-imposed fiscal restraint, include the limited number of Labour Councils elected outside London, the north-west, and some other urban centres with their own housing stocks, and the fact that social housing and its allocation processes largely does not cater or appeal to ‘aspirational strivers’ priced out of market housing.
The economy certainly requires more and better social transport and housing infrastructure to foster further agglomeration of high skill and value-added activities in areas, such as the Oxford and Cambridge Arc.
Labour has indicated that it will rekindle that project. Again, however, it has not spelt out how it would other than relying upon local initiative, the sources of which are not apparent.
High interest rates, and construction costs, as well as wider economic uncertainty is likely to mean new private housebuilding activity will continue to flatline over the short-to medium term. Given that and above considerations, a 300,000 national target appears over optimistic, a banner for political show, rather than a feasible, if challenging, policy objective, seriously sought and supported by the necessary overarching central government policy clarity and certainty.
A more realistic 250,000 rising to 275,000 target that underpinned and correlated with supporting planning reform and increased land value capture might well offer faster and more effective progress.
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