‘We face the biggest housing crisis in a generation’
So opens the Lyons Housing Review. Across England fewer than half the houses needed each year are being built. But this is not just a recent phenomenon. From an historic high in the mid to late 1960s, we are now witnessing the lowest level of new housing completions at any point since the end of World War II.
The publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in March 2012 was intended to form part of the Government’s growth agenda, simplifying the planning process and facilitating the delivery of new, and more, homes. Indeed, it emphasises the need to ‘significantly boost housing supply’.
Two years on from this the House of Commons Select Committee has been debating the impact of the NPPF, which has included discussion around the impact of policy changes on housing. Issues such as local plan coverage, the greenfield brownfield debate and housing need have been raised.
To help inform this debate, Parsons Brinckerhoff was commissioned to undertake independent research into the impact of the NPPF on housing land supply and, in particular, focus on plan preparation and decision making. Whilst national guidance enshrines the principle of the plan-led system in making sure the right development happens in the right place, few Local Plans are up-to-date:
- Since publication of the NPPF, Local Plans are now taking longer to prepare than they were before.
- Many Local Plans are failing at the examination stage and requiring modifications or are being withdrawn.
- Housing policies are the primary reason for Local Plans being delayed.
- In some instances the Plans are not identifying sufficient land to accommodate the need for new homes, or are under estimating what the need for new homes is.
- Elsewhere, Local Plans are failing because neighbouring authorities are not working together to plan for housing needs (the ‘duty to cooperate’).
The duty to cooperate is a key concern. Because this is not a duty to agree, some local plans are being submitted for examination where a stalemate between parties has been reached, where housing targets and the necessary allocation of land and distribution of this are not being agreed. To help address cross boundary issues we suggested that some locations would benefit from initiatives to stimulate productive discussions that not only meet the duty to co-operate but also facilitate agreements. We recommended that:
- Local planning authorities should come together to prepare joint plans covering strategic elements, such as housing figures, where housing markets cross administrative boundaries.
- Where this is not practicable, a committee of representatives from relevant authorities should sign a memorandum of understanding for agreeing the approach to establishing housing need and land identification.
- As an alternative, some form of independent mediation could be provided to resolve differences and help address cross boundary issues in a sustainable manner, potentially through the Planning Inspectorate (PINS)
The duty is a key topic and one that Councils are grappling with. The Senior Planning Inspector addressed the issue whilst presenting at the recent Planning for Housing conference. It seems clear that for the duty to be successful ‘a larger-than-local’ overview is needed. But, in the absence of a regional planning structure, and without Government making any commitments to this, it leaves a gaping hole and, as he said, means ‘someone has to take the lead’. The question of course is who. As we enter the debate about devolution this perhaps becomes even more important. How can we work together better to deliver growth and change?
The RTPI has argued that there is currently no positive mechanism to bring about effective strategic planning – only a negative mechanism to prevent non-strategic planning. It has suggested that the LEPs, City and Growth deals could be utilised as a means to address strategic matters, coordinate and deliver the benefits from properly planned infrastructure, housing and economic growth.
But before we get to this and as a result of the delay in local plan production, many more planning applications are now being determined at appeal. Our research drew on all 309 planning appeals in England determined since March 2012 for residential proposals on greenfield sites. The research found:
- More than 70% of the appeals have been allowed.
- In nearly 90% of cases, the local authority was unable to demonstrate that it had identified sufficient land for new housing over a rolling five year period.
- In many instances, historically low rates of housing development is placing pressure on Council’s to bring forward more land now to meet unmet demand.
Much debate at appeal focuses on the five year supply of land for housing, and terms such as ‘persistent under delivery’ are being defined though precedent at appeal. Our research recommends that clarification is provided both around this and the application of a five or 20 per cent buffer to the five year supply. This appears to be causing confusion. It is not a requirement to deliver five or 20 per cent more houses, but rather introduces flexibility within the supply of sites. We also suggest that there should be a more transparent approach to maintaining and preparing calculations of the five year supply of land for housing. This should include clear assumptions on build out rates, the time lag between permission being granted and development started.
There is, though, a growing pool of cases where matters beyond housing numbers alone have been considered reason to dismiss the appeal. These include environmental and infrastructure carrying capacity, the role of and impact on the greenbelt, and the quality of design. These are all matters that contribute to the wider definition of sustainable development. This should be plan-led rather than determined on a site-by-site basis at appeal.
The NPPF reinforces the plan-led system, but the slow rate of local plan adoption, and confusion around housing need and supply figures, is leaving authorities open to challenge. We are seeing more planning by appeal and the withdrawal or delay of local plans.
So what can we do? The recent Wolfson prize, the reinvention of the Garden Cities for the twenty-first century, and promotion of Local Development Orders to facilitate brownfield land are all measures intended to help boost the rate of new house building. These all imply a more proactive approach to planning. We suggest that local plan making should be prioritised and should embrace a positive role towards housing. This includes better cross-boundary working and a move back towards strategic planning where it is most needed. While shorter five-year targets provide a good method for tackling immediate need, there should be flexibility for local authorities to actively pursue large scale, sustainable developments that may have longer lead in periods. The pressure to meet short term targets should not undermine wider objectives for sustainable development and good placemaking. At the heart of all of this is making sure we get the right development, and the right amount of development, in the right place.
Jon Herbert and Cora Barrett
Jon is the spatial planning lead within the PlaceMaking team at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Cora is a senior planner in the PlaceMaking team.
 The Lyons Housing Review, October 2014, Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need
 Parsons Brinckerhoff for the CPRE, August 2014, Housing Supply Research: The impact of the NPPF’s housing land supply requirements on housing supply and the countryside
 Source: RTPI, September 2014, Strategic Planning: Beyond “Cooperation”