In annex 1 of July's revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the government made a clear promise to publish the inaugural housing delivery first test results in November. It also said any penalties against authorities would apply immediately. However, November came and went with no results published. Almost three weeks later, local authority and private sector planners alike are still eagerly awaiting their emergence.
The delivery test applies penalties to local planning authorities where the number of new homes created over a three-year period falls below their housing requirements at certain thresholds. The worst performers face the NPPF's presumption in favour of sustainable development. The aim is to ensure that council policies result in homes actually being built, as well as planned for.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) declined to say when the test results will now be published, but did confirm they "will be published shortly, and will take effect straight away". However, the sheer complexity of how the test is calculated means pulling together accurate results for more than 320 local planning authorities is no small task. In addition, the immediate effect it will have on decision-making by authorities and inspectors means any errors could be significant.
Richard Crawley, programme manager at the Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service, said: "I've never really expected MHCLG to be able to publish 100 per cent accurate data in one go – there are just so many factors in play. But I don't detect any lack of purpose or change of heart in any of this – the housing delivery test is going to happen."
Martin Curtis, associate director at public affairs consultancy Curtin & Co, said: "The implications of the delivery test are potentially significant. The government will be incredibly wary of getting it wrong."
Hence, Planning understands that MHCLG officials are discussing the draft test results with at least some councils to iron out issues prior to publication. One industry source said: "I’ve been told by officials that certain authorities are trying to sneak extra numbers in, and others are challenging the draft figure. The department just wants to get it right, and they’ve underestimated the amount of maths and agreement it requires." A departmental source said the ministry had requested information "directly" from authorities and liaised with them further "to ensure results are accurate".
According to calculations by consultancy Savills, the test results are likely to mean that around 50 local authorities will suddenly have to find an additional 20 per cent buffer on their housing land supply. For some, this may mean they fall short of their five-year land supply target, making them subject to the NPPF's presumption penalty. Roger Hepher, director of consultancy hgh Consulting, said lobbying by affected councils was likely because of the significance of the results. "I’m conscious from various conversations with heads of planning that they are taking the HDT very seriously," he said.
Another factor that may be holding up publication is the need to finalise the short-term change to the government's new standard method for assessing housing need, on which the MHCLG started consulting in October. The delivery test will start to use the standard method in its housing requirement calculations from next year onwards, using household projections instead for this year's results. However, Paul McColgan, associate director at consultancy GL Hearn, said the ministry may want to focus on resolving any uncertainty in that area first. But, given that consultation on changing the method only closed earlier this month, commentators said resolution is not expected until January. "I’m almost certain the delivery test results will not come out until after Christmas – it’ll be January or February," McColgan said.
There is also the possibility that the results' release is being delayed by ructions over Brexit, as Planning understands on good authority that ministers will view the test results prior to publication. "I'm afraid that the test results are losing out to far bigger constitutional matters," said Crawley.
The implications of the delay are significant for both developers and authorities. "We’ve got clients sat on land not allocated waiting for the opportunity to develop," Curtis said. "Some of them are button-ready with applications waiting to go. If councils aren’t delivering, it’s quite right that they get the chance to."
It likewise creates huge uncertainty for authorities, with about 150 councils likely to see a requirement for a 20 per cent housing supply buffer either added or removed under the results according to Savills' research. Crawley said many have already calculated delivery test models and are trying to progress with addressing any likely penalties, such as developing action plans addressing the causes of under-delivery where required. But McColgan said the hiatus was having significant effects elsewhere. "We’ve got a couple of authorities who’ve asked us to hold off on producing strategic housing market assessments for them until there’s more clarity. That means delays to the plan-making process."