Councils' strategies for housing provision are under greater scrutiny than ever, by Richard Garlick

With its revisions to planning policy and guidance for England published last month, the government is in some ways easing pressure on planning authorities in high housing growth areas to provide for more homes, and in other ways increasing it.

Some commentators argue that the revised guidance gives authorities more leeway to avoid using the new standard method of assessing housing need, which generally pushes up figures in high demand areas, in their plan-making. Like the previous version of the guidance, the updated document says an alternative approach to calculating need that produces a lower number can only be used "in exceptional circumstances". But it has dropped the clause in last year’s edition which said that using an alternative approach that generates a lower number "should in principle be considered to be unsound". Some consultants think that this will make authorities more likely to try to plead "exceptional circumstances", although others disagree.

Local councillors who want to rein back more growth-focussed colleagues will also take note of another guidance change, which says that planned housing numbers that exceed the level suggested by the standard method need to be justified by "funded" growth strategies that are "likely to be deliverable".

Equally, the revised guidance will in some ways make it easier for councils to show that their housing sites are "deliverable’, and therefore valid contributors to their supply of housing land. Addressing previous confusion, it stipulates that sites for fewer than ten homes with outline permission, and all sites with full permission, "are in principle considered to be deliverable".

But other aspects of the guidance and policy revisions put authorities’ strategies for housing provision under greater scrutiny than ever. Councils may benefit from being able to include more small sites in their land supply as a result of the guidance, but it also puts them under more pressure to demonstrate that their large sites are deliverable. Some experts say that this could make it harder for authorities to rely on sites in emerging plans, but without permission, as part of their land supplies.

More broadly, the new guidance makes it harder for councils in high demand housing areas to show that they have a big enough supply of housing sites to justify refusing applications that do not comply with their plans. It does this by stipulating that the higher, 2014-based, household projections should always be used when calculating a council’s land supply for decision-making purposes, rather than the lower 2016-based figures.

According to consultancy Barton Willmore, the standard method suggests a need for 266,000 homes a year in England when based on the 2014-based data, 25 per cent more than if calculated using the 2016 figures. Previously, guidance had suggested that the 2016-based figures be used to calculate housing supply, and this had helped councils to ward off speculative applications by demonstrating robust housing land supply at appeals.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //

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