Five things you need to know about National Audit Office's planning probe

Last week, public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) published a highly critical report into the government's handling of the planning system, concluding that it was "clear the system is not working well". Here are four key findings from the report, plus details on what happens next.

National Audit Office: watchdog’s report has criticised the government’s handling of the planning system
National Audit Office: watchdog’s report has criticised the government’s handling of the planning system

1. Both the government’s overall housing target and its new standard method of assessing housing need have problems. The NAO says the 300,000-home annual target was announced "with no detailed calculations supporting it" and would demand a 69 per cent rise on the average number of homes built since 2005/06. It says the standard method has "weaknesses" and is not clearly consistent with the target. The high housing numbers generated in southern authorities would be hard to deliver, it says, while the reduction envisaged in other regions could "hamper local authorities’ plans … to stimulate economic growth". Cristina Howick, director of planning policy at consultancy PBA, said: "This shows the government needs to review the total number and the formula – they’re not fit for purpose."

2. Council planning departments and the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) are constrained by a lack of financial and staff resources. The NAO report finds local authority spending on planning functions has fallen by 15 per cent since 2010/11, with total staff numbers reduced between 2006 and 2017 by a similar amount. Despite this, the government fails to understand the extent of local authority skills shortages, the report says. Meanwhile, the study says that PINS saw a 13 per cent drop in staff between 2010 and 2018. It says the inspectorate’s "approach to staffing needs to improve", while its overall performance is "unacceptable". Peter Geraghty, chair of the planning board at senior officer body ADEPT, said: "This shows we’ve gradually allowed the system to decline in terms of trained and qualified planners. If we want a world-class service, we need to resource it."

3. The delayed housing delivery test aims to hold authorities to account for housebuilding numbers they can’t control. The NAO reports that half of authorities are set to fail the soon-tobe- introduced delivery test by 2020, many of which would face the most severe penalty, the National Planning Policy Framework’s presumption in favour of sustainable development. Howick said: "The 50 per cent failing is a big finding. If half of candidates fail an exam then there’s a problem with the exam. It doesn’t make sense to punish authorities for things not under their control."

4. The system for funding infrastructure doesn’t work, with developers able to sidestep obligations. The report says the system for getting developer contributions "is not working effectively" and applicants are able to manipulate the system to pay less than agreed. While the average contribution per home stayed at around £19,000 between 2011/12 and 2016/17, house prices rose by 31 per cent in the same period and developer margins nearly doubled.

5. The government is not obliged to respond formally to the NAO’s recommendations. Housing minister Kit Malthouse said he recognised the challenges identified, but that 222,000 homes were delivered in 2017-18, the second-highest level in three decades. The government need not respond formally, unless the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) follows up the findings with its own inquiry; a PAC spokesman said no decision had yet been taken. Commentators have criticised the report’s recommendations, but said the NAO is not supposed to question government policy objectives, just their implementation. Matt Thomson, policy director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, added: "The clear message is we’re not getting the outcomes we should expect – but the recommendations are weak."

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