Rules change in numbers game

Planners must be able to act quickly and decisively to secure affordable and sustainable homes against a background of shifting projections and targets, writes Andrew Thomson.

Ministers have challenged the planning system to deliver two million new homes by 2016 and a further one million by 2020. Housing is at the heart of the government's agenda and planning is seen as the key to achieving sustainable development.

But the question is whether the planning system can deliver these two objectives within the current legislative framework and the timescales proposed. If these statistics are broken down in more detail, local planning authorities will be required to deliver a quarter of a million new homes each year between 2008 and 2020.

House building in the UK is currently running at about 165,000 homes each year. To reach the target of 250,000 will require a 52 per cent increase in the building rate. A report published last month by the government's National Housing and Planning Advice Unit indicates that this number should be increased to 270,000 new homes each year, or 3.25 million by 2020, in order to tackle the forecasted shortfall in affordability (Planning, 2 November, p4).

To meet this increase means a 64 per cent hike in annual building rates. Can the planning system deliver such numbers in the next 20 years? There are separate but related questions over the ability of the construction industry to build this number of homes and the affordability gap. But for planners, the main issue is whether the targets can be achieved through the planning system.

The government's view is that local authorities are not working hard enough to find land for developers and that "outdated regional housing targets" will be no excuse for local authorities not to build homes. The housing green paper presents a range of carrots and sticks, including grants to reward local authorities that identify land for development, threats to overturn local authorities' planning decisions and more use of public sector land for development.

Government concerned over land banking

The second target of the government's reforms is house builders who sit on land rather than build on it. Developers will be required to commence building or risk losing planning permission. Yet house builders claim that 97 per cent of sites with consent are under construction within three months. Just to make the situation more complicated, the government is demanding more sustainability and affordability while rejecting any fundamental reform of green belt policy.

In order to take on this challenging agenda, planning authorities across the country will need to respond in a positive and proactive manner. In the North West, a draft regional spatial strategy (RSS) was published in January last year and the report of the public examination panel was formally published this spring (Planning, 11 May, p2). The secretary of state's response to the report is expected this month.

The majority of local planning authorities in the region are in the process of preparing local development frameworks. Their housing policies will be based on figures set out in the RSS that were discussed and debated prior to publication of the green paper. It has already taken two years to produce the draft RSS for the North West. Throughout that process, as with most other regional plans, the most contentious issue has been housing numbers.

Site delivery monitoring crucial to supply

The government has now moved the goalposts and the planning system must respond. PPS3 helps the system where it refers to delivering a flexible and responsive supply of land for housing that is available and suitable and for development that can be realistically achieved. It will be important for local planning authorities to monitor the delivery of sites carefully if these latest targets are to be met.

As planners, we need to deliver more land and to do so we urgently need to revisit the planning policy framework within which we all operate. Is more guidance required from government or can we rely on the regional planning bodies to act quickly and decisively to deliver this new agenda? Each year of delay will increase the pressure on an already creaking system for delivery of these significant housing numbers.

We also require politicians at national and local levels to embrace this agenda and be prepared to counter the nimbyism that at times can dominate the decision-making process. We will still need to consult, but if the planning system is to respond effectively and deliver higher housing numbers then the current process will require some streamlining. But there is still concern that the current planning system is not equipped to respond to the government's challenge and is not fit for purpose.

Indeed, there is considerable concern in the profession that there are insufficient staff in place or coming through training with the skills needed to deliver on this agenda. If we are to have a role, then we must be prepared to act more quickly and decisively, to work with all the stakeholders in the development process and to produce homes that are both affordable and sustainable to meet future needs.

Andrew Thomson is director of development consulting at DTZ's Manchester office. The views in this article are his own. Developing a Target Range for the Supply of New Homes across England is available at

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