In August this year the government began a consultation on broad changes to the planning system. There were four planks of policy proposals being considered, including the method for assessing housing need. The consultation closed at the beginning of October. Yesterday (16th December 2020) the government announced its first response regarding changes to the way housing need is to be calculated, commonly known as ‘The standard method for assessing local housing need’. The full response can be found here.
There will be lots of commentators focusing on the detail and in particular what the standard method means for housing numbers. In short and unsurprisingly its biggest effect is in the city and urban areas, especially in the south and south east. There is a focus on re-using town and city centres for more housing given the sea-change in office use post the pandemic.
In the detail there remains the infamous elephant in the room: green belt. While this policy restriction does not cover the whole country, its impact on those areas where housing need is most acute remains disproportionate. If you consider the language below, taken from the statement released yesterday, you can see that once again there is a failure to grapple with the unyielding restriction on development outside settlements that green belt policy creates. With the telegraphed removal of the duty to cooperate forming part of planning changes, many authorities are going to find themselves struggling to provide much-needed housing unless and until they revisit green belt boundaries. Since they are often surrounded by green belt (or by physical limitations such as coastlines) as well as by neighbouring authorities which are likewise hamstrung by green belt and/or coastline restrictions, the changes will be as effective as a plaster on a gaping wound.
The language of government ducks finding the proper solution. Taken from the statement, the following paragraphs illustrate the problem. I have added underlying for emphasis:
'More broadly, we heard suggestions in the consultation that in some places the numbers produced by the standard method pose a risk to protected landscapes and Green Belt. We should be clear that meeting housing need is never a reason to cause unacceptable harm to such places. But harm or homes is not a binary choice. We can plan for well designed, beautiful homes, with access to the right infrastructure in the places where people need and want to live while also protecting the environment and green spaces communities most value. If we do this well, we can achieve all this whilst giving a new generation the chance to access the homes they deserve. The same chances generations before them were given. This is a matter of social justice and inter-generational fairness. It would be wrong for our built environment to respond only to the needs of older, wealthier people. We can and must strive to build more homes, but to do so with sensitivity and care for the environment, heritage and the character of existing communities.
A number of the concerns we have heard showed some misunderstanding about what was being proposed.
Many respondents to the consultation were concerned that the ‘targets’ provided by the standard method were not appropriate for individual local authority areas. Within the current planning system the standard method does not present a ‘target’ in plan-making, but instead provides a starting point for determining the level of need for the area, and it is only after consideration of this, alongside what constraints areas face, such as the Green Belt, and the land that is actually available for development, that the decision on how many homes should be planned for is made. It does not override other planning policies, including the protections set out in Paragraph 11b of the NPPF or our strong protections for the Green Belt. It is for local authorities to determine precisely how many homes to plan for and where those homes most appropriately located. In doing this they should take into account their local circumstances and constraints. In order to make this policy position as clear as possible, we will explore how we can make changes through future revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework, including whether a renaming of the policy could provide additional clarity.'
So, the government want more housing to be met in the context of such policy constraints as green belt which are nonetheless to remain as having overriding protection. If the answer is not binary as the government advises, and the solution therefore not necessarily a reduction in green belt while still requiring housing numbers to be met, what outcome might there be? This does not even begin to approach the Humpty Dumpty method of policy interpretation eschewed by the Supreme Court in Tesco Stores Ltd v Dundee City Council  UKSC 13, where Lord Reed said:
'Nevertheless, planning authorities do not live in the world of Humpty Dumpty: they cannot make the development plan mean whatever they would like it to mean.'
The same ratio will apply to what ministers say in published planning policy. The revised standard method broadly works as follows:
- What is the projected household growth for the particular authority’s area?
- How should it be adjusted to take account of affordability in that area?
- Apply a cap for that area based on past local plan performance.
- Uplift the figure in the top 20 cities and urban centres.
The housing experts will now doubtless spend time working out the calculations while authorities scratch their heads and grapple with the internal conflict of the language of the revised housing method policy. They will be damned if they do (by the voters and environmentalists who steadfastly cling to the protection of green belt) and damned if they don’t (by government policy and by voters who cannot find a home, whether to buy or rent).
KEVIN LEIGH © DECEMBER 2020
33 BEDFORD ROW
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