View from the Chair

A plea for Government leadership on planning and housing

Planning and housing delivery across the UK is in a woeful state at the moment and this I’m afraid is mainly down to Government ineptitude. Many of you may not be surprised about this. The Government has after all hardly shown a clear sense of direction and purpose on the economy or with health and social care so why should planning or housing policy be any different?   

National planning policy has been characterised by stop-start reform over recent years. None of which has been implemented. We’ve seen a bewildering number of different housing ministers every few months and a Government that doesn’t seem capable of making up its mind about what kind of local planning system it wants or how to grapple with the desperate need for better, affordable housing.

The latest hiatus has been caused by the Government capitulating to Conservative backbenchers’ concerns over the prospect of development taking place in their constituencies. Last December this resulted in further suggested planning reforms including seemingly an embargo on Green Belt development. Sensible you may think? Well perhaps, except we are still waiting some 9 months later for the Government to confirm whether this will, in fact, be new national planning policy. This delay has caused complete confusion and uncertainty among local authorities about what their local plans should be delivering on housing. Developers don’t know whether they’re coming or going either.  Dozens of Councils have now paused their local plans including, as many of you probably know, Epsom and Ewell Borough Council. This is at the very time when we need policy certainty to enable the right kind of development and investment to be encouraged.

There isn’t just confusion over the Green Belt though.  A key concern for Epsom and Ewell, and other Councils, is the amount of new housing the Government requires to be provided in each area, otherwise known as ‘the objectively assessed local housing need.’  Without trying to get too technical this is based on a national formula or algorithm called the Standard Method. The problem is it is still based on 2014 data. There is more up to date and reliable 2018 based data and we will shortly have actual 2021 census data rather than just using household projections. Why does any of this matter?  Well; the 2014 based household projections were a high-water mark in household projections and grossly inflate the apparent housing figures required. In Epsom & Ewell’s case the 2014 based projections result in a 30% growth in households by 2040 compared to a 8% growth using the 2018 based projections. 

Why on earth is the Government still requiring local plans and housing needs to be based on out-of-date data that grossly exaggerate the local housing need? A cynical view, shared by many professionals in the field, is that it is all predicated on the Government’s manifesto commitment to build 300,000 dwellings per annum: a political target, not having any current demographic basis. The more recent data sets give lower numbers, with the sum total of all Council’s housing need figures way below the Government’s 300,000 target.  Any method must surely be based on the latest data – to do otherwise undermines the methodology. Is it any wonder that Councils such as Epsom & Ewell are delaying their local plans if they are based on excessive housing targets arising out of political ideology? To make matters worse the inevitable consequence of the Green Belt uncertainty is that these huge housing targets (in Epsom’s case 10,268 dwellings for the period 2022-2040) are now seemingly expected to be built only within the existing urban areas.  We must surely resist the worst excesses of high-density, high-rise development. But this seems to be what the Government, either by design or incompetence, is trying to foist onto Epsom.       

I sincerely hope that common sense prevails. The Government needs to pull its finger out and provide clear and up to date policy guidance. The development of brownfield sites should certainly be prioritised and incentivised, and the Green Belt should be protected except for where it does not fulfil its strategic role of preventing urban sprawl. Regrettably, the Government’s planning reforms in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill currently going through parliament seem unlikely to achieve what is so desperately required, including fixing the housing affordability crisis.

So please don’t blame Epsom and Ewell Borough Council for pausing its Local Plan. Blame Government incompetence. Hopefully, Epsom and Ewell’s Draft Local Plan can be restarted once we know what is expected of us. 

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