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Only a locally-led planning system can fix the housing crisis

Algorithms and formulas can never be a substitute for community knowledge

By James Jamieson  

Image: Pixabay

This article was produced in association with Local Government Association

Councillor James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, will be speaking on a Prospect webinar on Monday 5th October. To register to watch and submit a question, please visit the Prospect events page or click here


While the Government is rightly focused on fighting coronavirus, keeping infections down and rebooting the economy, we have seen a number of announcements in recent weeks around how we tackle the other national crisis we face – our housing shortage.

The headline announcement of the summer was the launch of the Planning for the Future White Paper, which outlined major reforms to overhaul the planning system.

While we have concerns with some of the proposals, it is important to recognise that the White Paper has a number of positive aspirations which councils share, such as building high-quality homes that are zero-carbon ready, a move to a digital planning system, and aiming to ensure the planning process engages local communities at an earlier stage.

We agree that the planning system doesn’t always work in the best interests of our communities and we want to work closely with the Government to see that it is improved and strengthened.

However, there are serious concerns that the current proposals for a zoning system could strip local communities of any power, influence and ability to shape the areas they live in, leaving us with what is tantamount to a “developers charter”.

Now I am sure that this is not what the Government wants or intends.

This is why I will be using the upcoming ‘Build, build, build’ Prospect Magazine debate at the Conservative Party Conference to call on the Government to fully engage with local government on reforming the planning system, if it wants to deliver real improvements for our communities.

As ever the devil will be in the detail, and we will want to make sure we avoid unintended consequences and the risk of giving developers the freedom to ride roughshod over local areas. We want to work with the Government to see a strengthened locally-led planning system, with public participation at its heart.

We are clear that overhauling planning alone will not deliver the Government’s target of 300,000 homes a year. With nine in 10 planning applications approved by councils, and more than a million homes given planning permission in the last decade but not yet built, there is a need to ensure that land owners and developers who receive planning permission or allocations in a Local Plan deliver on their commitments and get on and build out homes, and are disincentivised from gaming the system.

Parallel to this, the Government has proposed a new, updated formula setting out how many homes need to be built in local areas.

It is unfortunate that this consultation has come out at the same time, causing considerable confusion and angst among councils and residents. While we recognise that this algorithm is just a starting point for establishing a target and under the current system the Local Plan process can take into account other factors, it does result in many unachievable and sometimes perverse outcomes.

As it stands, the algorithm results in stark variation in homes built across the country, that goes against the levelling-up agenda.

The formula proposes substantially higher numbers in London and the south, but fewer in large parts of the North. It also has substantial increases in many areas which are unrealistic and other areas delivering disproportionally high growth rates. The formula also disproportionally increases numbers in rural areas.

Some of the most rural places in England will see a requirement for a 59 per cent increase in homes compared with those required to be built under the current algorithm, compared to a 20 per cent increase in major urban areas.

It is also in conflict with the proposals of the White Paper, which suggests a focus on urban areas, brownfield land, levelling up and that constraints such as the greenbelt and flood plains should be taken into account.

The fear for many councils is that some developers and their legal support will use these new numbers to mount more hostile applications, something I am sure was not the intention but for those councils at the sharp end, this is all too often the experience in reality. The LGA’s view is that algorithms and formulas can never be a substitute for local knowledge and decision-making by councils and communities who know their areas best.

We know we need to do things differently to tackle our housing crisis, but my message to government is work with us so we can help you to get this right.

We need to build the right homes in the right places that enable everyone to have a home that they can afford and with the security of tenure. Not only does this mean enabling a mix of tenures, allowing more people to get on the housing ownership ladder through Right to Buy, First Homes, shared ownership and other schemes, but also more homes that people can afford to rent, whether delivered through the private sector or through councils and housing associations. It also means having the right homes for people, not driven by developer profits but by local need.

The forthcoming Spending Review is an opportunity to fix our chronic housing shortage, and to give councils the tools, powers and flexibilities to plan for and build the quality homes and beautiful places our communities need.

This should include devolving Right to Buy so councils retain 100 per cent of their receipts to reinvest in new homes, and can set discounts locally.

As we continue to fight coronavirus and rebuild the economy, now is the time to let local government take charge and make housing central to the national recovery.


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