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Planners must monitor more local trends to anticipate housing need

Cath Ranson

English councils may be underestimating housing need by up to 30 per cent in local plans because they are forced to use faulty government data instead of custom-fit analysis.

The Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) household projection figures were published in April 2013 and form the basis of councils' continuing local plans. 
But it is likely that the DCLG figures, based on 2011 census results, became rapidly outdated and so poorly reflect likely household need in some cases, according to the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research. 
The 2011 census showed that the average household size did not fall as expected between censuses, but stayed constant. It is likely that increased international migration, the economic downturn and the effects of a long period of poor housing affordability could be to blame for the discrepancy. 
Neil McDonald and Peter Williams, authors of the study Planning for Housing in England, said producing projections at a time when established trends have changed significantly is challenging.
“Those using the projections should be aware of their inevitable limitations and use them appropriately. The key issue is whether the trends that have been projected forward in the latest projections are likely to continue unchanged. Authorities need to consider their own specific situation carefully in 
the light of what the latest projections suggest for their area.” 
The RTPI commissioned the report and fears that some local authorities may consult only the government household projections when submitting a local plan to the Planning Inspectorate, as it may be impractical to produce a comparative “robust local evidence base”. 
Government data must be a starting point, said Cath Ranson, RTPI president (pictured), and “not an end point when calculating how much housing they need to plan for in their area”.
Planners must be helped to use the freely available population and household projections, which are refreshed every two years, more intelligently and confidently, the study recommended.
The Office for National Statistics and DCLG already produce projections for variant scenarios at a national level to give users some indication of, for example, the impact that increased international migration might have on the number of households. But something similar could be produced at the local authority level through an interactive tool that would enable planners to gauge the range of uncertainty they need to allow for.
The government could also help by publishing the past and projected data for the drivers of change such as births, deaths and migration flows. Presenting simple tables and charts showing what has changed in each local authority for the past 10 years and what is projected to happen in the future would enable users to see what is driving the projections for their area and decide how realistic they are. 
Top tips for planners:
(1) Compare the latest projections with the 2008 projections;
(2) Consider whether the trends in headship rates (number of people perceived as head of each household) are a prudent basis for planning;
(3) Extend the projections beyond 2021 to the end of the plan period, and consider the impact of alternative scenarios that reflect a range of different assumptions;
(4) Estimate what the range of potential outcomes is; 
(5) Produce plans that are flexible enough to accommodate the range of potential outcomes; and 
(6) Monitor what happens and be ready to adjust the plan.