Responses to the planning reform consultation
Tory housing policy 2020 Tory housing policy 2023
We’re told this country has a housing crisis: we don’t have enough homes. That may come as news for people in Shinfield and Arborfield, as they look at rows of houses stretching almost to the horizon in streets that were once countryside. But there’s the national picture to consider, and next year is general election year. A lot of votes will be riding on the housing crisis, so Westminster politicians will no doubt promise to solve it.
Labour’s solution will be ‘Build, build, build’. (I'm quoting a call from a Labour MP, taken up by local Labour parties around country.) Well, at least that’s clear enough.
How will the Tories be trying to get our votes? Back in 2020, Boris Johnson was also saying ‘Build, build, build’ (see above). Now, though, their answer isn’t so clear. The government carried out a consultation on its planning reforms, and they’re sitting tight till then. It ended over three months ago, but it’s anybody’s guess how long ministers will take to mull over the responses they’ve obtained, much less what definite plans will be announced. The housing minister, Rachel McLean, was questioned by a parliamentary committee in April, but refused to provide any kind of timeline.
In the meantime, let's look at the responses to the consultation that various institutions have published. Many councils, including Wokingham’s, have put their responses online. The ones I've seen have been very much in favour of the suggested reforms. They tend to like government proposals to relax requirements on councils known as the '5-year land supply' and the '5% buffer', measures the government introduced in 2017 so as to keep delivered housing numbers high. Some councils also felt it right that where they had over-supplied housing numbers in the past, that should be taken into account in calculating the next local plan figures. That is WBC’s view.
The Local Government association (LGA) also says it welcomes removing the requirement for councils to maintain a rolling 5-year housing supply where their plan is up to date, as well as the Government’s ‘commitment’ that housing targets will be ‘a starting point' offering 'flexibility to take account of local circumstances’. That sounds sensible enough.
But the views of local councils are only part of the responses that the government is looking at. There are a lot from the developers, and from professional bodies involved in planning and construction. The developers responded very negatively to the idea of letting councils take a more flexible approach to building houses. No surprise there, of course.
I then took a look at what other professional bodies involved with planning and house-building have been saying, in the hope that their responses might have been less predictable. It’s pretty clear, though, that the government isn’t going to get a green light from this direction. Here are some examples.
The Royal Institute of British Architects don’t want past over-supply to be taken into account when determining housing numbers in a local plan. They want local planning authorities to have to continue demonstrating a 5-year supply after the NPPF has been revised. Otherwise, it says, local authorities may become less accountable for meeting their housing targets.
The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors likewise stresses the need to keep ‘a data-driven set of housing delivery targets and reporting against them (5-year supply end-of-year data)’. This is because it’s determined the government should not waver from its previous commitment to 300,000 new houses per year. They don’t want that target given up (even though last December Michael Gove called it ‘advisory’ only).
The Royal Town Planning Institute for its part wants the 5% buffer retained, so pressure can be kept up on local authorities to ‘demonstrate land supply’.
As for the Town and Country Planning Assocation, they’re keen to keep the requirement for ‘strategic cooperation’ between ‘subregional councils’, which the government are considering giving up. An example of strategic co-operation familiar to us all in this area is Wokingham being obliged to build more houses to satisfy city wannabe Reading’s housing needs.
So these professional associations are telling the government not to allow the council any more room for flexibility than it has now. Basically, they want pressure maintained on councils to build as many houses as they are supposed to build currently. If the government does what they say - and what the developers say - the WBC Lib Dem Executive’s hopes of getting our housing target number cut by two or three thousand will be in vain.
There’s a final devil in the detail to watch out for, and it lurks in the LGA’s response. It advocates using the existing planning policy framework when a council launches a pre-submission consultation on its Local Plan Update within three months of the new policy framework coming into effect. If their advice is adopted, that could mean any new planning policies the Lib Dem executive is counting on won’t apply to us, depending on how WBC times the next stage of the Local Plan.
This point is very relevant to our Hall Farm campaign. The Lib Dems’ line has been that they can (will?) take the 4,500-houses proposal out of the LPU, on condition the planning policy reforms allow them to get the housing target number reduced by a couple of thousand. But if the government agrees with the LGA’s response, that may not work. WBC will have to wait till at least three months after the new framework becomes law, before it can benefit from any permitted reduction in numbers. Already under political pressure locally, the Executive may find it difficult to leave matters that long.