Out for the Count

House building is feeling the full brunt of the government's decision to scrap regional planning strategies and the period of uncertainty it has ushered in for the numbers game.

New Homes: local authorities cutting building targets amid spatial strategy uncertainty
New Homes: local authorities cutting building targets amid spatial strategy uncertainty

Some describe it as a hiatus. Others admit to widespread confusion and uncertainty. To some, it signals a welcome end to targets, whereas others fear the consequences for the economy and society.

So what has happened since communities secretary Eric Pickles consigned regional strategies and associated home building guidelines to the dustbin?

The secretary of state has made no secret of his dislike for regional housing targets, branding them "a terrible, expensive, time-consuming way to impose house building". He acknowledges that the country has a housing shortage, but declares that it is now time "to concentrate on building homes rather than dreaming up numbers".

The coalition agreement, he told parliament, makes a clear commitment to providing local authorities with real incentives to build homes. "Because we are committed to housing growth, introducing these incentives will be a priority." Meanwhile, his ministerial team has redesignated gardens as greenfield sites and scrapped the density directive.

More than three months on, many across the planning, housing and development sectors wish Pickles would get a move on. Their source of grievance is not so much the widely trailed decision to scrap regional spatial strategies (RSSs) but the failure to put any alternative in place.

According to research for the National Housing Federation (NHF) conducted by Tetlow King Planning, the impact has been calamitous. Ministers may have pledged to build more homes than the previous administration, but the NHF figures suggest that the equivalent of 1,300 planned homes have been scrapped every day since the May general election.

The research reveals that the decision to allow councils to ignore regional targets has already resulted directly or indirectly in plans for around 160,000 homes being dropped.

An even bigger bombshell is in prospect. "Looking forward to the next 12 months, we would expect at least 280,000 to 300,000 fewer homes being planned for," say the consultants. This figure, they explain, is based on the large number of authorities still expected to reduce their housing targets.

With building levels already the lowest since 1923, 4.5 million people on waiting lists and 2.5 million living in overcrowded conditions, the NHF warns that a further slump in the planned number of new homes would be disastrous for the nation.

There is already anecdotal evidence that councils are shelving work on local plans and using the rushed changes to the system to turn down applications for homes that might previously have been approved.

Government stands by delivery pledge

Since the planning changes were announced before the summer break, almost 70 councils have halted progress on development plans, reduced previously planned housing numbers or delayed planning inquiries at appeal.

NHF chief executive David Orr believes that ministers have blundered in summarily dismantling the previous planning system without setting up effective mechanisms to take its place.

"The government has said that its housing policy should be judged by whether or not it delivers more homes than the last administration. As things stand, the new approach must be judged harshly," he concludes. "This slew of changes has sent out a signal to local authorities that building new homes is a nice-to-have, not a necessity."

The NHF's research largely focuses on the southern regions outside London. Last week the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) investigated the situation in the Midlands and the north. While these areas might not be witnessing the dramatic cuts predicted in the south, the sense of uncertainty is palpable.

The response rate to its questionnaire was highest in the East Midlands, at 85 per cent, but interim findings for the West Midlands, Yorkshire and Humber, North East and North West show similar trends.

The BSHF research (Planning, 15 October, p2). uncovers significant uncertainty over what the eventual housing target will be. At issue is how the target is identified for a given area, as well as the process and timescale for setting it. The foundation found that many authorities are struggling to decide how to respond to the abolition of RSSs and to understand the nature and scope of their new responsibilities.

Conservative spokespeople have suggested that in the time between the abolition of regional planning and the introduction of reforms, councils should look to their "option 1" figures - the number of homes they believe would be necessary to meet local needs in the period up to 2026. However, the BSHF highlights the problem that these figures are not clearly defined.

There is widespread debate over whether the figures that should be used are those produced by the local authority's own technical work or those included in the first draft of the relevant RSS. One planner told the researchers that in some cases the figures agreed by councils and presented to the regional assembly were higher than those that appeared in the draft RSS, "which in the end represented politics and consensus".

The BSHF found that some local authorities do not believe that they even have option 1 figures, casting further doubt on their effectiveness as an implicit default target. In due course, the Planning Inspectorate will test any housing targets proposed by councils.

Until then, another can of worms is opening up as developers are expected to work with untested targets, posing an obvious threat to supply.

The foundation also notes that smaller authorities simply lack the capacity to produce plans or targets with anything like the robustness of RSSs. The timetable for review is another cause for concern, especially as planning departments are receiving a financial hammering with the demise of the housing and planning delivery grant.

Others point to the government's axing of the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit (NHPAU), the Whitehall group that researched housing markets and offered guidance on the implications for strategic planning. The BSHF says removing this valuable source of information at a time of wholesale change in the planning system not only casts serious doubts over local authority provision but removes a key check on the impact of the policy changes.

Data push to reduce target uncertainty

The NHPAU's demise coincides with the scrapping of regional leaders' board, which built up a comprehensive database of strategic targets through the RSS. In short, nobody is compiling data on a national and regional level. Yet the government rightly recognises the importance of housing growth to meet the needs of communities, remarks BSHF head of programme Jim Vine.

"We urge ministers to act to reduce the current uncertainty by requiring local authorities to publicly register their house building targets or timetable for revision," says Vine.

"We recommend that the target from the RSS be made the explicit default in every area that has not formally adopted an alternative figure. This would not prevent authorities from setting their own targets, but it would minimise the potential for a harmful policy void until an alternative is set at the local level."

Amid the chaos, house builders are also demanding more detail on the policies behind ministers' promises. The Home Builders Federation says a pro-development planning system, coupled with the new homes bonus community incentive, has been promised since before the election but further announcements "have been painfully slow in appearing".

Five months after Pickles abolished regional strategies, the date for consultation on the bonus has yet to be announced. "A firm timetable for implementation of the new policies would give industry and communities the necessary clarity and help end the current house building hiatus," says HBF executive chairman Stewart Baseley.

Orr warns that serious social consequences are in prospect. "Ministers need to grasp the nettle and put in place a new planning system that helps us deliver the homes we so desperately need," he says. "As the housing crisis intensifies, it is critical that the government stretches every sinew to help safeguard the provision of housing, including affordable homes."

Housing target status East Midlands Other regions*
Councils keeping RSS target 38% 48%
Undecided 32% 30%
Intending to adopt new target 21% 13%
Using RSS pending new figure 9% 5%
*Interim findings for West Midlands, Yorkshire and Humber, North East
and North West
Source: Building and Social Housing Foundation

Housing plan reductions
Milton Keynes: 13,360 homes
Luton and Central Bedfordshire: 10,650
Horsham District Council: 6,888
Exeter City Council: 3,000
Bristol City Council: 9,560
Torbay Council: 5,000
Cotswold District Council: 900
North Somerset Council: 10,750
North Hertfordshire and Stevenage: 9,200
Source: National Housing federation

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