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15/02/2019

What can be done to ensure England's planning system is fit for purpose?

Words:
Spanner

We need a 'radical re-think' of the standard method for calculating housing need – and more besides, if we're to create a fit-for-purpose planning system, argues Matthew Good

The recently-published National Audit Office (NAO) report highlights some well-known deficiencies in the current planning system which have led to delays in delivering much needed homes. What can be done to ensure the system is fit for purpose to deliver the government’s 300,000 new homes target by the mid-2020s? 

Appropriate funding and resource is needed. Whilst planning permissions have increased, 56 per cent of authorities do not have an up-to-date local plan. Given the system is ‘plan-led’ this is unacceptable. It provides little certainty and promotes speculative development.

Between 2006-2016 resources for local planning teams declined by 15 per cent. It is therefore unsurprising that local authorities are struggling. But increasing resource cannot be about asking developers to pay yet more, albeit they may be willing for a better service. It is about authorities working together and pooling resources, particularly on issues such as local plans and infrastructure provision. Fees and funding also need ‘ring-fencing’ to planning rather than being used to bolster other equally cash-strapped and worthy council services. 

"There needs to be a radical re-think of the standard method for calculating housing need which has created some bizarre results"

There needs to be a radical re-think of the standard method for calculating housing need which has created some bizarre results. Ironically, from a practitioner's perspective it was introduced at the time the old system was beginning to settle down. The new method is inconsistent with the 300,000-target, delivering only around 213,000 new homes. To achieve the additional 87,000 homes would require authorities to place politics to one side and deliver far more than their minimum requirement.

Failings with the standard method were inevitable given it is focused upon just two criteria: household projections and affordability. The household projections are not an assessment of need but a projection of past trends. Given the track record, a reliance upon past trends was unlikely to be the answer.

Likewise, the affordability element, whilst an indicator of demand, is distorted by regional price differences and has no regard to other factors such as affordable housing need or concealed households. In considering changes the government should initially ensure its method aligns with its target. Other indicators, including population growth, economic potential and affordable housing need, should also be considered.

"Constant change brings uncertainty and the raft of recent changes to the system, many well intentioned, need time to settle"

Finally, stability is required. The introduction of the ‘old NPPF’ had a dramatic effect upon housing supply with permitted dwellings showing year-on-year increases. This did not happen overnight. Constant change brings uncertainty and the raft of recent changes to the system, many well intentioned, need time to settle. Further changes, such as those to the standard method, should only be made where there are clear failings. This will give the industry time to catch its breath and focus resources appropriately.

Matthew Good is director, planning, at WYG

Photo | iStock

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