Housing White Paper – what are we looking for?

The Government is soon expected to publish a new White Paper setting out how it intends to build more homes in England.  At the National Trust we agree that there is a pressing need for more homes. We are confident that, with a mixture of care, good planning and local involvement, it should be possible to build the homes the country needs in a way that respects, and is sensitive to, our countryside, nature and heritage.

Here’s what we think the White Paper needs to say, and what it needs to do in practice to achieve this.

Copyright National Trust Images/John Miller

Copyright National Trust Images/John Miller

What does the evidence say?

Firstly, we need to learn from the past that it’s what gets built that counts, not just housing targets or planning permissions. In the 1970’s we regularly built over 300,000 homes a year, and as recently as 2006/7, 219,000 homes were built.

But since then the figures have fallen significantly. In the year to September 2016 just 142,000 homes were built. This is against a backdrop of a big increase in the number of planning permissions granted for housing. In the year ending June 2016, 277,000 homes were given planning permission. In 2015, 253,000 homes got permission, and 240,000 in 2014. Last year the Local Government Association said there is a backlog of almost half a million unimplemented planning permissions for housing in England.

House building since 1946, Shelter, 2014

House building since 1946, Shelter (shelter.org.uk), 2014

In 2012 the Government published a revised National Planning Policy Framework. One of the central aims of this reform was to increase the number of planning permissions for new housing. This goal has been achieved, but the figures show us that housing delivery has not increased in parallel. So we expect tackling this under-delivery to be a major theme of the White Paper.

Moreover, although the NPPF has succeeded in getting more planning permissions out of the system, our evidence shows this has come at a price.  So the second key point is to rebalance the system. A few weeks ago, the National Trust and Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) published a survey of 1,200 ward councillors across England. In the survey, conducted by LGiU, 72% of councillors said that the system is too weighted in favour of developers at the expense of local communities.  It also found that half of councillors believe planning departments are not adequately resourced, and 58% of councillors with Green Belt in their area think that their council will allocate Green Belt land for housing in the next five years. The NPPF also does not appear to be having it’s intended positive impact on design quality – with only 18% of councillors feeling design has improved since the NPPF was drawn up, and just 12% of councillors thinking that the loosening of planning restrictions has had a positive effect

Councillors’ Attitudes to the Planning System, An LGiU – National Trust survey, published January 2017

Councillors’ Attitudes to the Planning System, An LGiU – National Trust survey, published January 2017

And finally, we need to tackle the serious under-resourcing of local planning teams so they can really deal with the challenges they face. According to the National Audit Office, between 2010 and 2015 planning department budgets were cut by 47%, and 55% of authorities surveyed by the British Property Federation say under-resourcing is a significant challenge. Since 2006 the number of conservation specialists providing advice to planning authorities has fallen by 36%, and the number of archaeologists by 33%.

Issues the White Paper should address

The evidence shows we have a planning system that is consistently providing more than enough planning permissions to meet the Government’s target of a million new homes by 2020, but a housebuilding sector that looks sluggish and has not yet caught up with the planning system in terms of delivery. We also have over-stretched and under-resourced council planning teams, poorly designed new development, and a lack of local control.

To help address these shortcomings, here are some steps we’ll be looking for the White Paper to take:

  • Continue a focus on brownfield redevelopment
  • Take action to tackle under-delivery of planning permissions
  • Provide more resources for Local Planning Authorities to help get local plans in place, secure local consent for development, and remove unnecessary time delays from the system.
  • Give stronger Government backing for councils setting design standards to improve the quality of new housing
  • Better cross-border strategic planning to help address pressures on sensitive landscapes.

There has been speculation that the White Paper might make changes to Green Belt policy. In our view the right place to review Green Belt boundaries is through the Local Plan, as is possible under the current system. The rate of Green Belt loss in some recently adopted plans is significant. We’d be concerned by any changes to ‘exceptional circumstances’ policy which lowered the bar, because this could undermine the long-term benefits of the policy, putting undue pressure on valued landscapes and the wider countryside.

We would also be concerned about the White Paper imposing rigid and high housing targets through changes to planning guidance. These would require councils to allocate more land for housing on top of existing allocations, when developers are failing to build-out existing consents. It could lead to unsustainable development where developers ‘cherry pick’ the most profitable sites – even in places like Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – but fail to deliver the numbers that are needed.

Many have high hopes that the White Paper will help overcome the under-delivery of new housing we’ve seen in recent years. We will be looking carefully to see if the Government uses its powers to ensure that the good, necessary development we need is directed to the most appropriate places.

Adam Royle, Senior External Affairs Adviser.

You can find out more about our views on land use planning on our website.

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2 thoughts on “Housing White Paper – what are we looking for?

  1. If you net out demolitions, we have rarely built more than 200,000 homes a year and if you compare the build rate with household formation, it is only recently that build rates have fallen behind. However, to build the homes we need, we need also to build homes that people want to live in and people are happy to see built in their neighbourhoods.

    It is too easy for developers and landowners to game the system. Developers overpay for land then use “viability assessments” to argue down the social obligations they are required to make by planning policy. This needs to stop. If your project isn’t policy compliant in respect of the provision of affordable homes or money for new school places and health facilities, then you’ve paid too much for the land. This can be exposed by placing those viability assessments in the public domain for us all to see.

    We also need to allow local people a far greater say in what gets built. Neighbourhood Plans are making a small inroad into this, but Local Plans are still far too remote from people and the first they know of the policies in them is often when an application goes in and they have no grounds to object because of policies they never knew existed. There should be more emphasis on local planning briefs and neighbourhood plans and a stronger requirement to build in character.

    We might then secure development which provides the homes we need AND is welcomed by local residents.

  2. It’s not a simple matter of brownfield = good and greenfield = bad when planning housing development. Lodge Hill in Kent is a former military training ground and therefore brownfield. But it is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), mainly because of nightingales (85 breeding pairs in 2012) but also for rare grasslands and ancient woodlands. It’s loss to the built environment would be a tragedy.

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