An inspector calls
England’s reformed planning system hands councils power over development, so how will the government ensure enough homes are being built? Nick Duxbury investigates.
England’s brief infatuation with planning policy appears to be over. Last week planning hysteria reached fever pitch as the government published its eagerly anticipated national planning policy framework.
Given the unprecedented uproar its first draft sparked last July, a nuclear reaction had seemed inevitable. Environmental campaigners including the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which had branded the first draft a developers’ charter, were poised to savage the new document on the grounds that a contentious ‘presumption towards sustainable development’ would remain.
Headlines about ‘planning fears’ dominated the front pages of newspapers in anticipation of the unapologetically pro-growth planning guidance causing the English countryside to be ravaged by new homes.
And then… nothing. Against all the odds, the revised version of the NPPF was widely welcomed. Environmental groups claimed a victory after the new document tightened the definition of sustainable development and encouraged building on brownfield land ahead of green field sites.
Although the presumption - a development bias - remains in the document, a clause providing developers with a default ‘yes’ to schemes if councils do not have local plans in place was dropped. For most of the media, within a day, the affair seemed all but forgotten.
For councils, though, this is just the start of a long-term relationship. And while planning minister Greg Clark insists the NPPF will lead to more housing, many authorities and housing experts are reluctant to agree just yet.
Roger Humber, advisor to the House Builders’ Association, says: ‘It’s a lawyer’s paradise. An awful lot of developers won’t bother to bring schemes forward unless they can be certain an authority will work with them.’
Under the microscope
So, how will the new planning system ensure enough of the right kind of housing is built? And, now development is at the mercy of individual councils, how will the government ensure authorities are meeting local housing need?
It seems the future of housing in England could depend on the effectiveness of one body: the Planning Inspectorate. This is no small task. In 2010/11 in England 131,060 homes were started despite government figures showing that at least 230,000 households are forming each year - supply is not meeting demand.
The inspectorate, an agency of the Communities and Local Government department, will be calling on councils to ensure they are meeting housing need in their local plans, which dictate the level of development in an area over a period of time. While it is up to councils to set their own housing targets, it is the inspectorate that will judge whether or not the evidence presented in the form of a strategic housing market assessment - which identifies the scale, mix and tenure of housing an area needs - should be accepted.
The problem is, around 60 per cent of councils do not yet have up to date local plans in place - and they have just a year to comply, meaning both councils and the Planning Inspectorate are going to be very busy.
The inspectorate is adding 20 to 30 inspectors to its current 236, and it looks like councils should probably also increase their staff.
Mike Holmes, president of the Planning Officers’ Society, warns the NPPF will put a strain on councils. ‘It is our view that the implementation or transition period should be over two years - but the government has decided it will be 12 months,’ he says. If councils do not have a plan they will find it harder to prevent unwanted development. ‘It is a big stick to beat local authorities with,’ says Mr Holmes.
There are fears this stick might not be big enough to ensure councils properly assess and meet housing need. While there are encouraging nudges in the NPPF, such as the requirement for councils that have consistently under-built to identify a five-year land supply plus 20 per cent, a number of experts including Stuart Robinson, head of planning at consultancy CB Richard Ellis, believe councils will fail to meet their duty to co-operate with each other in order to meet housing need. York Council had its core strategy rejected by the Planning Inspectorate on these grounds just last month.
Mr Clark maintains that councils will realise their duty to meet housing need in exchange for their new powers. But not everyone has so much faith. One leader of a council in the south of England, who does not wish to be identified, says he faces a difficult decision in balancing the opposition to development from most of his electorate with the city’s housing need and may well have his local plan rejected, meaning it would have to go back to the drawing board.
‘Some councils will definitely use this as an excuse to do absolutely nothing,’ he warns.
It is up to the inspectorate to thoroughly interrogate councils and ensure this is not an option.
Q&A: Greg Clark on the national planning policy framework
Do you expect the national planning policy framework to lead to more or fewer homes being built?
‘We expect it will lead to more homes being built. All these reforms will unlock some of the unreasonable barriers to sustainable development.’
Is the Planning Inspectorate a robust enough check to ensure councils meet housing need?
‘This is about local councils - not the inspectorate …we have transferred power to councils, but with that power comes responsibility. They have to make a rigorous assessment of their housing need in the future, including affordable housing.’
But surely the inspectorate is the only body ensuring councils that don’t want to build homes for political reasons do build them?
‘I haven’t met a council in the country that doesn’t want to have the plan so they can determine their own future.’
Are you confident that councils will make this assessment accurately?
‘It is subject to independent examination. It has to be evidence-based and demonstrate why it is appropriate.’