Log in | Register

Planning for the future: The houses, where will they go?

Unless we radically rethink how we assess housing need, the government’s appetite to ‘build, build, build’ won’t tackle England’s housing crisis, says Professor Alex Lord

Ebenezer Howard’s seminal text on planning, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), famously summarised the core challenge facing the emergent activity of the day in the form of a simple question: “The people, where will they go?” 

Now, over 120 years later, we must paraphrase Howard if we are to accurately reflect the central question preoccupying most planning departments in local government. The human-centred nature of planning has been overtaken by a focus on accommodating not ‘the people’ but a target number of new dwellings.  

Today, central government’s prescribed method for calculating this housing need figure is presented as objective and incontestable except under the most exceptional circumstances. But its credibility is sorely damaged as it is in a more-or-less constant state of revision. If Howard was writing today, he would surely conclude that the core question facing planning is: “The houses, where will they go?”

How did we get in this about-face situation?

The history of housing need assessments is one familiar to most planners. In just the last decade we have seen locally-commissioned (most local authorities no longer had the capacity to do the work themselves by 2010) studies, known as Strategic Housing Market Assessments, come and go. Their replacement with a centrally mandated ‘Standard Method’ ran into trouble when the use of demographic forecasts using Office for National Statistics data based from 2016 resulted in dramatic reductions to ‘objectively assessed need’ compared to the use of 2014 as a base year. 

The proposed replacement of the Standard Method with a new version, announced alongside the Planning for the Future white paper in August 2020, lasted only a couple of months. The prospect of significantly higher housing numbers, particularly for London and the South East, prompted grave concerns on the government’s backbenches. Critique by various Conservative MPs, including former prime minister Theresa May, saw the proposal ditched just before Christmas 2020 with the promise of a new version in the new year that would ‘favour’ the North of England.

"Contrary to the belief of some in Westminster, the North of England also has high value housing markets, green space and NIMBYISM"

At the time of writing we still don’t know what the next new Standard Method will look like and how it will square the circle of being purportedly objective whilst simultaneously starting from the principle that those markets that have previously been found to be in greatest need will be required to now show a lower level of requirement.

Contrary to the belief of some in Westminster, the North of England also has high value housing markets, green space and NIMBYISM. It is also the part of the country that supplied the 80 majority at the 2019 General Election that the government currently enjoys and is home to more backbench Conservative MPs than at any time since the 1980s. In short, re-distributing housing need to the North from the South might not be quite as politically easy as it once was.

More to the point – is it the right thing to do? Where is housing need genuinely greatest? Why have methods that have been employed in the past not worked? Where should the housing go?

What should the housing need calculation do?

The answer to these questions lies not so much in what the Standard Method does, as what it does not do. The Standard Method is, remarkably, silent on a number of features that any genuine objective measure of housing need would have to consider.

For example, it says nothing about the quality of the existing housing stock. But how can we make judgements about the level of housing need if we don’t think at all about the quality and suitability of our existing housing?

"The Standard Method also provides no guidance on the type or tenure of new housing required – it simply arrives at a coarse target of new dwellings of unspecified nature"

The Standard Method also provides no guidance on the type or tenure of new housing required – it simply arrives at a coarse target of new dwellings of unspecified nature. This does nothing to provide planners or the market with the clarity they require to make decisions. 

The benefits of a centrally prescribed method are that it provides a clear, well-defined approach that is applied evenly to each local authority. Indeed, without this national framework it is unlikely that each local authority acting independently would result in the scale of development – the oft-quoted 300,000 new dwellings per year – that the country is believed to require. However, it is clear that the Standard Method alone has not been sufficient to adequately govern the delivery of new housing. 

As government mulls over what a replacement to the Standard Method should look like, it will be important to think carefully about what counts (and how strongly) as evidence in determining housing need – particularly as the invocation to ‘build, build, build’ is likely to be heard with increasing frequency as a core component of the post-Covid-19 recovery strategy.

Professor Alexander Lord is Lever Chair in Planning at the University of Liverpool

Image | Shutterstock


  • What do you do when your consultation is hacked? When zealous campaigners find ways to use technology to undermine the process? Participatr’s Paul Erskine-Fox considers the current situation after a particularly newsworthy attempt to digitally manipulate results

  • Dame Sarah Storey is a successful athlete and active travel commissioner for Sheffield city region. Ahead of her appearance at The Planner Live North on 12 May, she told Simon Wicks why active travel infrastructure makes cities more prosperous and inclusive

  • Whether you call it rewilding, ecosystem or habitat restoration, the process of reinstating Britain’s land and seascapes to their natural state is a growing trend. Here are five of the best rewilding projects

Email Newsletter Sign Up