Nine things you need to know about the Planning for Housing conference

Planning's annual Planning for Housing conference took place in central London this week. Here are nine things you need to know about the event.

1. A Surrey council's review of its five-year-old core strategy, which concluded that an update of the document was not needed, should be given "no weight" in the planning process, a leading QC has claimed.

In 2017, the government made it a legal requirement that authorities review their plans every five years. Earlier this year, Reigate and Banstead Borough Council reviewed its core strategy, which dates from July 2014 and includes an annual housing requirement for 460 homes. Its review concluded in July that the strategy did not need updating, even though the government's standard method produced an annual housing need figure of 644 homes.

Speaking at the conference, planning barrister Chris Young QC, of No5 Barristers' Chambers, said the council’s decision to "self-certify" was "absolutely ludicrous". The ability of councils to decide against updating their plans within the existing rules, said Young, "can never have been what was intended" by the government and called for a change to the policy. He added: "In the meantime, if I was at appeal, or I had an application, I would say that the review should be given no weight." Full story here.

2. The government's new national model design code will need to be "selective" in the advice it offers given the variety of development across the country, a consultant who helped create the government's recently-published National Design Guide has advised.

Jane Dann, director of consultancy Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, was speaking in a session on design. Tibbalds, along with government advisor the Design Council, was commissioned by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to draw up the National Design Guide, which was published in October. The guide says the MHCLG will publish a new national model design code for consultation in early 2020, "setting out detailed standards for key elements of successful design".

Dann said: "There's obviously quite a significant challenge because [the code] needs to be able to deal with a lot of very different situations, from a very small village in Cornwall to the centre of a major city like London. I struggle to think how it could encapsulate the whole spectrum of character and variety and scale of development across the whole country. It can't deal with everything so it will need to be selective." Full story here.

3. The number of English councils not publishing an up-to-date five-year housing land supply assessment shot up from four per cent in 2016 to 18 per cent in 2019, research by consultancy WSP | Indigo has found.

At the conference, Simon Neate, executive director, and Ben Frodsham, associate director, set out the firm's study examining local authorities' housing land supply position documents. The research, which looked at all 340 English local planning authorities, found that 18 per cent of councils have no up-to-date land supply positions - up from four per cent when similar research was carried out in 2016.

Neate said the firm believed the reason for the drop was that more local authorities "lack confidence in their calculations following the changes introduced by the latest version of the NPPF and, probably more significantly, some are afraid that publishing an assessment showing they don’t have five years’ supply will encourage developers to make applications on the basis that the presumption in favour of sustainable development will then apply". Full story here.

4. The London mayor will back boroughs seeking contributions to affordable housing from schemes of less than ten homes, as long as they do it the right way, a senior City Hall official said.

The 2018 revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) reiterated earlier guidance from 2014 that local planning authorities should not require affordable housing to be delivered on sites of ten homes or less – unless in exceptional circumstances. Greater London Authority strategic planning manager (viability) John Wacher told the conference that the mayor would be "supportive" of authorities seeking contributions from schemes of fewer than ten homes, as long as they were justified through the local plan. Full story here.

5. The 'strict' national policy test on deliverability is making it hard for councils to allocate brownfield sites in local plans forcing them to propose developing green belt land instead, according to a newly-elected Surrey residents' association councillor.

John Rigg, deputy lead for sustainable transport, transformation, regeneration and economic development at Guildford Borough Council and a member of the Residents for Guildford and Villages party, was speaking at a session on how newly-elected resident-led political parties are intending to approach planning for housing. Rigg was one of 15 independent councillors elected to the authority in May's local elections, which resulted in the Conservatives losing control. Just before the election, the council adopted a controversial local plan, which allocates three major green belt site allocations for a total of 5,200 homes. 

Rigg said: "If a council chooses to develop green belt sites, they have to close off and dismiss as many brownfield sites as they can. The council was saying 'No, these sites are not deliverable.' To a degree, when you read the National Planniong Policy Framework definition of what are deliverable sites, they were probably right. It's such a severe test. It meant all the brownfield sites in Guildford were dismissed." Full story here.

6. Council housebuilding on its own is unlikely to boost homes delivery to the levels needed, a planning consultant claimed.

Matthew Spry, a senior director at consultancy Lichfields, was speaking at a session on closing the gap between housing allocations, permissions and completions. He said that council housebuilding, though helpful, would not in itself deliver a step change in boosting delivery. A number of authorities, including Birmingham City Council and the London Borough of Croydon, have set up their own companies or created programmes to build affordable homes.

But Spry pointed out that the number of homes being built, even by large authorities, was always likely to be limited in scale. Referring to Birmingham Council, whose planning chief claimed at an earlier session it had built about 3,000 units over 10 years, he said: "[It's] by no means an insignificant number but in terms of Birmingham's housing challenge it's still quite modest in scale. These measures on their own won't sweep up housing delivery." Full story here.

7. Modern construction methods are allowing Birmingham City Council to deliver homes on small sites that would otherwise remain undeveloped, according to the authority's planning chief.

The council's assistant director (planning) Richard Cowell told delegates that the city was increasingly having to look to small sites to help meet its housebuilding objectives. "We are running out of land," he said. "We have got to think more creatively about how to use that land". The city has a lot of backland plots and infill sites where issues such as impact on neighbours make traditional construction methods non-viable, he added. However, modular homes can be put up on such sites without encountering the same problems, he said. The city council aims to build 1000 social homes on 300 small sites over the next decade, he added. Full story here.

8. Providing secondment opportunities for staff and investing in graduate schemes are key ways to help ease council planning team recruitment problems, the conference was told.

In a session on resourcing and recruitment, Alex Bushell, development management manager at the London Borough of Camden, said the council had faced "acute" recruitment problems, like many other councils, particularly in trying to recruit officers to principal and senior levels. The council had responded by providing a range of secondment opportunities and allowing officers to take on their own cases if they had the capacity to deal with them and providing them with the necessary support. The scheme was able to "grow planners by giving them opportunities to handle big schemes, and prepare them through a whole range of measures", Bushell said. Full story here.

9. Small builders are happy to support increased planning application fees to help boost local authority teams, the chief of a lobby group has said.

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), which represents small- and medium-sized building firms, said the planning system was one of the key issues facing FMB members. "Planning continues to be an issue, and the cost and delay in the planning process in particular," he said. "There are real concerns about the under-resourcing of planning departments, and it is so bad that our members are very supportive of increased planning fees provided money is ring-fenced for planning departments." However, only three per cent of FMB members said they saw a positive impact arising from the last increase in planning application fees, Berry added.

He also warned that housing delivery will be "compromised" post-Brexit if a proposed change to the government's immigration policy goes ahead, as it would prevent skilled construction workers earning less than £30,000 a year from getting work permits. Full story here.

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