The public needs to see that the standard method is free from political tinkering, by Richard Garlick

Plenty of planning authorities will be finding the figures generated by the government's standard method for assessing housing need uncomfortably large.

But, to our knowledge, there is only one that is asking its residents whether the method’s numbers are too high. This is the approach taken by Wokingham Borough Council. At the moment the standard method produces an annual housing need figure for the borough of 804, roughly 20 per cent higher than the number in its 2010 local plan.

This, the council says, is leading to unplanned development winning approval at appeal. Hence it is asking residents if they "support the government’s imposed housing numbers".

Commentators that we have spoken to about the case do not rate the council’s chances of success highly. And it does seem absurd for a local authority to argue that a supposedly objective figure for housing need should be adjusted if it does not have popular local support. The standard method is intended to help ensure that each part of the country as far as possible meets its own housing need. Ministers could not very well allow areas to vote to free themselves from that obligation.

But the government is on shaky ground, because of the impossible-to-justify ministerial tinkering with the standard method that has taken place since it was introduced a year ago. When the method first took effect, it showed an annual housing need figure for England of about 269,000 homes a year, not far short of the 300,000 annual delivery target that the government has set for the "mid 2020s". But the publication last autumn of the latest 2016- based iteration of the Office for National Statistics household projections threw a spanner in the works. Factored into the standard method, they showed an annual need figure for England of 224,000 homes, way below the ministerial delivery target.

The government’s response, confirmed in February, was to adjust its guidance to make clear that authorities should ignore the latest household projections, and carry on using the 2014-based figures instead. Its justification for doing this was simply that the figures based on the new data fell so far below its 300,000 target. But there is a "lack of detailed rationale" for this target, according to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

Given all this, the surprise is not so much that a council is trying to mobilise public opinion against the method, but that more haven’t tried to do so. If the public is to trust the planning system on matters as contentious as housing need, they will need to be confident that government assessment methods are robust and immune from short-term political interference. If the standard method, potentially a very useful planning tool, is to endure, it needs to be applied in the same way over the long-term, rather than chopped and changed to produce results that fit with government targets.

The next print edition of Planning will appear on August 23. Daily email bulletins will continue over the summer. Weekly email editions will be published on 19 July, 26 July, 2 August, 9 August and 16 August.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //richard.garlick@haymarket.com


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