The proposed changes to planning for housing in the NPPF are unlikely to fix an issue that is undermining our entire planning system, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

David Rudlin

It seems that I have spent most of my career talking about housing numbers. In the 1990s the debate was over the 4.4 million homes that were predicted to be required over 20 years. A great deal of huff and puff was expended arguing that the figure was far too high, and a great deal more about where these homes should be built.

More than a quarter of a century on the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) changes mean that these arguments are no closer to being resolved. The current annual target is 300,000 homes which equates to 6 million homes over 20 years (just over one and half Londons). However, don’t worry, we have not actually been building that many homes – the latest figure was 247,000 (including about 40,000 Permitted Development Rights conversions) but in the last decade the annual number of new homes has dipped as low as 120,000.

In the 1990s the Conservative government adopted a target that 60% of new homes should be built on brownfield land within urban areas, the objective being to reduce the impact on green field sites. There were many that opposed this, some saying that it wasn’t possible, others fearing that it would lead to ”town cramming” a phrase that you don’t hear so much nowadays.

This meant that more and more housing was allocated to the areas least able to accommodate it

I did a report for Friends of the Earth arguing that the percentage in urban areas could be increased to 75% although I was more concerned with the regeneration of cities than the protection of green fields. The incoming Labour government was not initially convinced, worrying about the impact of building too densely in cities. However this all changed with John Prescott who soon became an enthusiastic advocate of everything urban.

There was however a fundamental problem with housing targets as I pointed out at the time in a report for the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions (that they decided not to publish). Housing was allocated based upon population growth. Logical as that may sound, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy – housing is allocated to areas where there is population growth and populations grow where housing is built.

This meant that more and more housing was allocated to the areas least able to accommodate it while industrial towns in the north saw their populations decline. Indeed, there was a need to invent the ill-fated Housing Market Renewal programme to counter housing market collapse and abandonment in the north.

One of the most sensible things that John Prescott did was to move away from this “predict and provide” approach towards what he called ”plan, monitor and manage”. In other words, to make a policy judgement about where new housing should be built and allocate housing land accordingly. At the time this was done through regional government – housing numbers were allocated to the regions and regional authorities allocated them to individual councils. A perfectly sensible, devolved and relatively democratic system.

And while all of this goes on, we will continue to build too few homes with implications for homelessness and the housing market

Then Eric Pickles as Secretary of State for whatever the department was then called in the Coalition government abolished regional government and imposed housing targets on councils centrally. To make this work the “duty to cooperate” had to be invented to coordinate housing numbers between councils. How Labour-run authorities like Oxford were supposed to cooperate with the four surrounding Conservative authorities was never explained and never happened. The most recent changes have seen the duty to cooperate replaced with an “alignment policy” although what this is and how it works is yet to be defined.

The housing targets still exist, past down by government to each authority. But it is now suggested that local authorities would only need to meet them “as far as is possible”. They can argue that accommodating their targets would be out of character with their area by making it “uncharacteristically dense”. This together with a number of other changes is meant to speed-up the process of agreeing local plans. It will do nothing of the kind of course – local politicians faced with opposition to housing allocations will seize the opportunity to argue that their housing targets are unrealistic, opening up years of more argument.

And while all of this goes on, we will continue to build too few homes with implications for homelessness and the housing market. Just as important is the extent to which the housing issue is undermining the whole plan-making system. It creates opportunities for developers to exploit the system and means that the housing that does get built is often badly planned – in the wrong place and without access to facilities or public transport. This is what we need to fix rather than believing that the problem can be solved by making new homes more beautiful.