National Audit Office report on the planning system: sector reaction

The latest reaction from key sector groups to the public spending watchdog's report on England's planning system, which was published on Friday.

Planning probe: the National Audit Office headquarters in London. Pic: Tagishsimon
Planning probe: the National Audit Office headquarters in London. Pic: Tagishsimon

The National Audit Office (NAO) report warned that the planning system "is not working well" and the government must "take this much more seriously" in order to meet its own target of building 300,000 homes per year from the mid-2020s. Groups from across the planning and built environment sector have been giving their reactions. 

Ian Tant, Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) president, said: "The RTPI has long campaigned for the government to adequately resource local authority planning teams to deliver local plans and help deliver its targets for quality homes and infrastructure. 

"The report by the NAO found that core funding for planning functions in local authorities has fallen by a whopping 37.9 per cent in the past seven years. The fact that spending has only dropped by 15 per cent is a testament to the planners themselves who have raised significantly more direct income to help plug the gap. There is a huge resourcing issue.

"We support the NAO findings that the government needs to continue to work closely with industry bodies to identify skills gaps in local authorities. However, filling those gaps will require resources."

Victoria Hills, RTPI chief executive, said: "We welcome the NAO’s findings that to create new homes and places for people to live, infrastructure such as transport, healthcare, schools and utilities must be in place. This will require government departments to align their investment strategies with local authorities’ infrastructure plans." 

Peter Geraghty, chair of the housing, planning and regeneration board at local authority body ADEPT (Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport), said: "ADEPT fully supports the government’s aspiration to deliver housing. Only around 183,000 new homes were added in 2016/17 despite local authorities approving more than 321,000. However, it is not just about numbers. As contributors to the NAO research, we very much welcome the focus on ensuring that planning departments are properly resourced. The capacity and skills shortage in the planning profession has to be urgently addressed if government is to achieve its aims.

"For ADEPT, the planning and delivery of infrastructure (including utilities) is too fragmented. There is a burden placed on local authorities to provide evidence on viability and deliverability issues with no similar expectation on other agencies, utility companies or developers. We welcome the report’s findings that developments need to fairly and proportionately contribute to infrastructure. Housing delivery should be about enabling the provision of high quality sustainable communities with the necessary infrastructure in place that provide for growth  – including transport, digital, water and energy - and protect and enhance both historic and natural environments.  

"Fundamentally, the best way to achieve this is to take a strategic approach to planning and infrastructure that gets the balance right between social, economic and environmental objectives, to create vibrant well-designed places for all. In short, to provide places that people want to live in, work and visit."

Martin Tett, the Local Government Association’s housing spokesman, said: "Planning is not a barrier to housebuilding. Council planning departments are doing an incredible job with extremely limited resources, approving nine out of ten applications, with the majority processed quickly.

"Councils are committed to ensuring homes are built where they are needed, are affordable, of high-quality and supported by adequate infrastructure and services, but it is vital that they have an oversight of local developments.

"We remain clear that the government’s housing needs formula does not take into account the complexity and unique needs of local housing markets, which vary significantly from place to place, and imposes unfair and undeliverable targets on communities. This risks leading to a housebuilding free-for-all which will bypass the needs of local communities and could damage public trust in the planning system.

"By lifting the housing borrowing cap, the government has accepted our argument that councils must play a leading role in solving our national housing shortage. With hundreds of thousands of homes in England with planning permission but yet to be built, it also needs to give councils powers to make sure developers build out approved homes in a timely fashion, and use the Spending Review to adequately fund planning departments and allow them to set planning fees locally so they can cover the cost of processing applications."

Ian Fletcher, director of real estate policy at lobby body the British Property Federation, said: "The findings from today’s Planning For New Homes report by the National Audit Office must be taken seriously by politicians. We have seen positive changes to national planning policy over the past year, but progress cannot be made without more resource at a local level. Planning has seen some of the most severe reductions in spending in recent local government cuts. If we want the quality homes and well-designed places the public needs, then this year’s Spending Review needs to deliver real increases in funding for local government and planning. Against the backdrop of Brexit, it is also more important than ever that government invests in growth at home."

Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) president Ben Derbyshire said: "Today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO) echoes the RIBA’s serious concerns about our planning system and calls on the government to change tack in order to address the housing crisis. The NAO’s report spells out just how lucrative government policy has been for large housebuilders and how costly it has been for communities due to a lack of investment in infrastructure. While we have seen some positive moves over the past year, including the decision to lift the borrowing cap for local authorities and the move towards greater transparency around viability assessments, we desperately need a radical new approach. The government must recognise the urgency for greater investment in the planning system and the vital link between housing and infrastructure in creating thriving communities where people want to live."

Matt Thomson, head of planning at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "To deliver the right types and number of homes that communities need, in the places where they are needed, it is essential that our planning system delivers. But for too long, our countryside, local councils and their communities have been let down by a failing system that prioritises delivering abstract housing targets over building homes that the people who need them can afford to live in.

"With more than half of all councils struggling to provide an up-to-date local plan, this report echoes CPRE’s analysis. Local plans are crucial if we are to get the right housing built with the support of local communities, but the current planning system embeds the principle that if developers fail to deliver, the local plan is declared invalid."

Michael Knott, planning director at consultancy Barton Willmore, said: "The report provides a useful ‘health check’ on the planning system’s role in delivering new homes. The shortfalls identified by the report - which are endemic - will not come as a huge surprise to those involved in planning or the development industry.

"But what it doesn’t do is prescribe any remedies. MHCLG needs to carefully consider the NAO’s diagnosis and provide a meaningful response, not on national policy, but on how the system operates.

"The NAO suggests greater funding for planning departments and the Planning Inspectorate to speed up decisions and effective plan making.  However a large obstacle to achieving government ambitions would still remain and should be addressed - that is securing stronger political leadership at local levels."

Katherine Evans, partner and head of planning at law firm TLT, said: "The NAO report won’t come as a tremendous shock to those in the planning sphere. Clearly, myriad issues exist when it comes to both being in a position to deliver housing stock commitments and ensure that appropriate infrastructure is able to be funded and delivered.

"The blame for the current state of affairs cannot simply be laid at the feet of developers. The stark reality is that resourcing for local authority planning departments has been slashed, with significant declines in funding between 2010 and 2017. Such funding declines clearly come at a cost in terms of outcomes, which has been laid bare by today’s report.

"The UK planning system on the whole remains extraordinarily – and, many would say, unnecessarily – complex, with complicated means of exactly how infrastructure needs to be funded and delivered. In many cases, these requirements change from region to region, making the hurdles to infrastructure funding and delivery all the higher. Successful funding requires navigating a complicated labyrinth where the system is slow and, on the whole, not joined up at all. Further potential delays within government departments or local authorities themselves certainly don’t help move these things through swiftly.

"At the same time, while the government has looked at ways of speeding up housing delivery through permitted development rights, an expansion to which is under consultation, these policies can have a knock-on effect in terms of infrastructure delivery and local authority funding as a result of loss of planning application fees.

"Some efforts have been made to unlock resources, including the government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund, particularly for local authorities with the biggest supportability problems. But clearly there is more which needs to be done to ensure we are not just delivering housing, but also the infrastructure that connects communities and facilitates jobs. A good place to start could be finally implementing the recommendations from the Community Infrastructure Levy review of October 2016, instead of relying on just tinkering around the edges, to move things forward."

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