In recent weeks, there has been considerable rhetoric from all quarters concerning the importance of housing delivery, good design and the need to get Britain building. Whilst there have been numerous headlines supporting the notion of accelerating housing delivery, time and time again housing targets are being missed.
There has been persistent under-delivery of housing in the North West for many years, often restricted by the imposition of housing moratoria policies as many local authorities sought to rigorously apply the housing requirements set by the now defunct Regional Spatial Strategy.
Housing delivery has been frustrated by the latest household projections and what appears to be a falling housing need. This has been particularly evident in the North West. It is a deeply worrying matter as it is clear to me and many of my peers that demand significantly outstrips supply, with concealed households becoming an ever-increasing area of concern.
Over time this may well rectify itself. Yet already we are seeing Local Plans significantly revised which, critically, involves a reduction to housing requirement. Many councils are now seeking to deliver the absolute minimum quantum of housing, which in my view is short-term and mostly politically motivated and will only further exacerbate the housing crisis.
I have seen several emerging Local Plans that only a few months ago embraced the ambitious approach to plan-making as set out by NPPF – that sought to make a difference to housing supply and affordability – wither away to plans that will not meet more than the most basic of requirements. The ambitious approach appears to have gone.
As a planner of more than 18 years I have worked in both the public and private sector in various planning roles within development management and strategic planning. During this time, I have seen first-hand the pressures exerted on planning departments up and down the country. The pressures are often very similar from one local authority to the next; the political challenges and local opposition to development vary little between north and south.
The introduction of neighbourhood plans which were intended to give local communities a say in where development should be located is often used as another tool to frustrate and delay the housing delivery process. It arguably adds yet another layer of complexity and is often resource intensive for local planning authorities who are obliged to support neighbourhood planning groups and ensure consultation processes and referendums are carried out in line with the statutory regulations – another distraction to preparing and reviewing their Local Plans.
The funding picture
There is however a more recent and very concerning change taking place, one that is already having a significant impact on housing delivery and will continue to for the foreseeable future – funding of planning departments.
I have been fortunate to work in some outstanding local authorities at times when planning departments were seen as an essential service and funded accordingly. I have witnessed first-hand the benefits of a well-resourced planning department and have taken advantage of training and investment that was on offer to become fully qualified. Looking back, I left local government at a time of positivity and good resourcing – 12 years later I see a very different picture.
The last recession resulted in a period of austerity which has seen local government budgets reduced time and time again. I will be the first to acknowledge, as with any organisation there is waste and often a need for a review to find areas where efficiencies can result in cost savings.
This is nothing new and affects private business just as much as it does local government, but the cuts that have taken place and continue to are having a profound effect on planning departments across the country and we see this on a daily basis and there can be no question that housing delivery is impacted as a result.
Target determination dates seem to be something for the history books; we are lucky to have had any meaningful discussion with our counterparts by 13 weeks, never mind be approaching determination. Planning departments have experienced very significant cuts that have impacted strategic planning and development management. Staff numbers and therefore expertise has diminished rapidly and this results in an overly protracted planning process.
A plan for the future
The majority of planning officers in local authorities are doing the best they can, but moving forward, we must recognise the importance of planning and the intrinsic link with housing delivery.
We must find ways to properly fund planning departments, to be ambitious in our plan making and strive to make a difference – in doing so accepting difficult decisions will have to made that will not please all. Otherwise we will fail in the biggest challenge of our generation, with significant adverse impacts for generations to come.
- Shaun Taylor is founder and managing director of SATPLAN