What Christmas deadline for standard method consultation means for applicants and authorities

Comments by the housing minister on the timing of revisions to the government's standard method of assessing housing need means that confusion surrounding the new policy's introduction is likely to continue, say practitioners.

Numbers game: the downward revisions to projections of new household formation have created problems for local authorities’ plan-making
Numbers game: the downward revisions to projections of new household formation have created problems for local authorities’ plan-making

Last month saw steep downward revisions to official projections of new household formation upon which the standard method is partly based, slashing the calculated housing need in many authorities. The government has committed to revising the standard method to bring it back in line with its target of planning for 300,000 homes a year. Housing minister Kit Malthouse, in an interview with Planning, said the government is only likely to consult on these revision at the end of the year, and maybe not even until the new year.

As well as further delay, this admission casts doubt on whether the government will be able to have a revised formula in place in time for the deadline – 24 January 2019 – beyond which plans submitted for examination have to use the standard method, raising serious questions over how local authorities should approach their plan-making efforts.

The 2016-based household formation numbers cut projections by 24 per cent compared to the previous 2014-based figures. According to consultancy Bidwells, this results in the calculation of need under the standard method falling by more than 50 per cent in 17 authorities, and by more than a third in over 70. The National Planning Policy Framework makes clear that the standard method should be relied upon in plan-making to identify housing need for a "minimum number of homes". Meanwhile, the government’s Planning Practice Guidance states that any standard method calculation may be relied upon for a period of two years from the time a plan is submitted for examination.

At least initially, therefore, local plans could be submitted on the basis of these much lower numbers, potentially giving authorities a get-out clause where large allocations are unpopular. Matthew Spry, senior director at consultants Lichfields, said: "If an authority submits based on the existing standard method as it exists at the time of submission, that number is fixed for two years so inspectors couldn’t impose a change."

There will be pressure to do this. Rebecca Pullinger, planning campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "In some areas, where there is a significant threat to designated land, there could be a case for reducing housing targets."

However, not everyone is completely certain that inspectors will accept a low number on this basis, and in any event, an authority would almost certainly have to review the plan after two years. Andrew Lowe, senior planner at consultants Turley, said: "If an authority is using this to halve its housing requirement, you’d hope an inspector would listen to the background music. There’d be a significant risk for any authority taking that approach and they’d be on shaky ground."

St Albans City and District Council is one authority caught in the crossfire by all this. It is targeting submission of its new standard methodcompliant plan for examination in March 2019. Mary Maynard, the councils’ portfolio holder for planning, said it is continuing for now on the basis of the higher need predicted under the previous household projections, even though it means providing two thirds of the 913 homes per annum on green belt.

However, with the new household projections reducing the need calculation by almost a third, Maynard said the council would consider reducing housing numbers in the plan at the last minute if the government hadn’t finalised its revisions. "We’ve added sites sequentially and we can take out the most sensitive sites if needed. We’d take a view at that moment," she said.

However, only a handful of local authorities are likely to be able to publish a plan in this interim period. Simon Macklen, director of development economics at Barton Willmore, said: "The concern is not so much that authorities will exploit this loophole, but the bigger issue of uncertainty and delay. Greater Manchester is the best example of that."

Both St Helens Council and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority have indicated that they are pausing plan progress because of uncertainty. Spry said: "It is currently impossible for authorities to know what their minimum housing need figure is going to be at the point at which they will submit plans for examination. It’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall." Land promotion by developers is also, he said, in "limbo". Macklen said investment was being delayed, while Turley’s Lowe described Malthouse’s timeframe as "surprising" and "really unhelpful".

Some believe this worrying is overdone. Richard Crawley, programme manager at the Planning Advisory Service, said: "I think this collective freakout is a bit much. The world hasn’t really changed at right angles – this is just a set of issues as a new standard finds its feet." Likewise, Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers Society, said: "For most authorities, there are unlikely to be massive differences between the new method when finally published, compared to the previous version, so there is no reason to down tools."

What the fuss certainly does seem to be doing, however, is undermining the assumed status of the standard method number itself in plan-making. Crawley said: "This uncertainty has actually served a purpose in reminding everyone that we can’t just passively accept numbers falling out of the method, and roll them into documents." Riddell added: "The government has created a rod for its own back by implying that this standard method should be used as the local plan target. The figures are only the starting point – plan-making needs to be based on strategy, not numbers."

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