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Dropping knee-jerk policies and trusting the experts - how to incentivise planning reform


This week, Michael Gove announced yet another direction for the Government’s housing strategy – suggesting the Government will ‘relax’ planning rules in England to create more homes in city centres.

Initial optimism in the headline may mask that this will be achieved through converting retail premises and betting shops into flats and houses. It sounds like a ‘two-bird, one-stone’ policy by building more housing by using up retail space on the UK’s flagging high streets.

Disagreement with the proposed policy

Industry experts have been critical of the plans to expand permitted development rights and suggest this recent policy will not boost house numbers and could lead to sub-standard housing.

This criticism comes from the fact the property industry has heard this all before. The Town and Country Planning Order 2015 allowed quick conversions of old office buildings into residential properties. A move which the Local Government Association (LGA) claimed led to the loss of over 18,000 affordable homes.

Gove’s solution to target the low-hanging fruit of small high-street property conversions feels like a knee-jerk reaction to the rather damning verdicts from the Levelling up select committees report into the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) reforms released a few weeks ago. The report concluded that the Government was ‘unlikely’ to meet its 300,000 homes-a-year target as they planned to weaken the need for councils to meet local housing figures, hardly a ringing endorsement.

What’s more, on the rare occasion the Government has recently demonstrated some forward thinking on planning reform, the end result has felt somewhat heavy-handed. Michael Gove announced this week that the Government is pushing ahead with the plans to create a new urban quarter in Cambridge, which would allegedly turn the city into a rival to California’s Silicon Valley. Response to this vision was lukewarm, particularly from Local Conservative MP Anthony Browne, who described the plan as ‘dead on arrival’ due to the lack of water to supply the new homes.

Issues with current reforms 

Such a statement highlights the political as well as practical issues for planning reform – in the face of neither a convincing housing reform agenda combined with the need for mass housebuilding in areas often opposed to development, there is little political capital for MPs to defend the government’s housing plans.

A lack of clarity on Local Plan reform and implementation has led to 58 local authorities stalling, delaying, or withdrawing their Local Plans – 28 of those since the NPPF reform announcement in December 2022. What’s more, the rise of a new wave of anti-development local politics reflects an electorate viewing development as a drain not a benefit to their communities.

MPs and local authorities are therefore turning to the tried and tested method of digging their heels, rather than spades, into the ground and the effect on Local Plans has been stark. The Government has launched a consultation this week on planning reform, which is partly aimed to reduce the average length of developing a Local Plan from 7 ½ years down to 2 ½. Such solutions are good steps, but the initial concern would be will local authorities support such an aggressive timeframe. The Government needs to listen to the industry on how this can be achieved.

Providing solutions

Some may ask, in the face of the relatively cold response to the most recent policy announcements, how planning reform can be implemented by this government.

The answer lies in the recommendations of the Levelling Up Select Committee and listening to experts within the industry.

The report concluded that the government needed to demonstrate how it could reach its 300,000 homes yearly target, revise its standard method for assessing local housing need and should reassess the reticence to utilise Green Belt land in Local Plan allocations. By taking this approach, the Government could rationalise housing numbers to local authorities, as well as open up conversations about utilising Green Belt land for housing delivery.

The report also recommended the Government go further in supporting local authorities planning resources and provide clarity on how its proposed NPPF reforms would help increase housebuilding in the UK. Local Authorities know they need to provide housing but are struggling to cope with massively under-resourced planning departments. Initiatives such as the Government’s planner ‘Super Squad’ where planners will be sent to struggling local authorities, offers some green shoots.

However, with a lack of local government planners already a massive issue, more information is needed to understand how such an initiative will be run and financed. This can only be done through engaging with the industry and understanding from them how housing can come forward.

But what the Government truly needs to accept is that house building is required in this country and demonstrate joined-up thinking on Local Plan development. Rehashing old policies, promising large development quarters and weakening the authority of their own housing targets will not convince anyone. It is now more crucial than ever that the Government listens to local authorities and the industry to bring them onside.

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