Ministers are failing to make an evidence-based case for their promised planning changes, by Richard Garlick

Central to the government’s approach to keeping the public on board with measures to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic has been its claim that its actions are invariably guided by scientific advice.

Whether that claim is justified is a matter of debate, but ministers are right to think that popular support would soon ebb away if voters thought their policies were dictated by political calculation rather than evidence of effectiveness.

Planning policy, like public health policy, requires public trust if it is to be effective. The planning system will not be able to deliver the development that is needed if people think it is irrational. Yet government planning policymakers seem increasingly cavalier about their evidence base.

At the end of last month, the Prime Minister cited “the newt-counting delays in our system” as the reason why the UK was slower than its European counterparts in building homes.

Yet the 2018 government-commissioned study into the rate at which planning permissions for homes are built out, led by Sir Oliver Letwin, did not mention newts. Indeed, it didn’t mention any environmental protection measures as obstacles to prompt building.

Two other news stories in the past month reinforce the sense that the government is wilfully ignoring evidence in its planning policy-making.

Firstly, housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced significant extensions to permitted development rights, promised to be in place by the end of July. To do this before publishing the government’s review of the quality of homes produced so far by office-to-residential permitted development rights seems perverse.

The review may already have had some influence on policy, given this month’s change to the rules to prevent windowless permitted development flats. But even so, to extend measures widely criticised for creating poor quality housing without revealing the research is puzzling, generating suspicion that the findings would not support the extension.

Similarly, the government’s refusal so far to adjust its method of assessing housing need to take account of falling household projections is undermining the credibility of local plan-making.

The latest projections, published in July, put the annual average increase in households over the next 25 years in England at around 150,000. That compares with the 2014-based projections, which ministers insist that councils continue to use to assess need, which suggested an annual increase of 214,000 households.

Ministers unashamedly say the old data should be used because it fits better with the arbitrary government target that 300,000 new homes a year should be built in England by the mid 2020s. Once again, the evidence is being ignored.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //

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