Merseyside council leader slams Brokenshire over housing need confusion

A Merseyside council has claimed that the publication of updated household projections has seen their housing requirement drop by almost a quarter and made it 'difficult, if not impossible' to produce a legally robust local plan .

Concerns: St Helens Council leader Derek Long
Concerns: St Helens Council leader Derek Long

Last night, St Helens councillors voted unanimously in favour of a motion proposed by leader Derek Long for a letter to be sent to communities secretary James Brokenshire calling for clarity over the government's method of assessing housing need.

It is the second authority to raise concerns about the new household projections published last week by the government's Office for National Statistics (ONS), after Wirral Council said it wanted to revise its local plan in light of them.

The 2016-based projections predict the creation of 159,000 additional households across England each year, a drop of 24 per cent compared with the 210,000 per year projected with the 2014-based figures published in July 2016.

In Labour-run St Helens, the government’s standard method for assessing housing need had, prior to the publication of the new statistics, produced an annual housing target of 504 units.

The council’s letter to Brokenshire, seen by Planning, advises that the council was expecting to meet a higher figure to accommodate economic growth. However, the letter states, calculations based on the updated household projections reduce that figure to 383 - a drop of 24 per cent.

In the letter, Long says that uncertainty over housing targets makes it "difficult, if not impossible" to create a plan robust enough to withstand a legal challenge.

"The government has set a target to build 300,000 new homes a year. Yet, last week the government published vastly lower minimum local housing growth figures across the country, completely at odds with that target," he says. 

"At the same time, your department has indicated that these figures are also likely to be subject to change before they can be used with any certainty in a local plan."

He adds: "To reduce the adverse impact on both our residents and our businesses, we urgently need to know what those revised figures will be and when they will be released to us."

Long warns that ongoing uncertainty would cause the local plan to be delayed. "It is now unclear what the methodology is on which we will be tested downstream," he writes. "Hence, we may need to delay the process to a point where clarity is provided."

He urges the government, "if it is serious in asking local areas to deliver local plans to the rules government set out, to urgently clarify its position on housing numbers to allow us to get on with the task".

In an email to Planning, Long said the government "has adopted a Grand Old Duke of York approach to housing numbers which disrupts planning processes and affects residents’ lives and business investment".

An MHCLG spokesperson said: "We need more homes in the right places and we are reforming the planning system to ensure this occurs. We will consult on adjustments to the way housing need is calculated so it is consistent with delivering 300,000 new homes per year by the mid-2020s."

Earlier this week, Wirral Council, one of three local authorities to have been threatened with central government intervention over lack of local plan progress, said it would be reviewing its plans for green belt release in light of the revised household projections. 

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