The winners and losers in Michael Gove’s vision for planning
With a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and shifting legislation, our planning system is undergoing reform. But how does Michael Gove’s vision stack up? And will it deliver for our countryside communities?
After a year and a half of in-depth scrutiny, our work on influencing the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) came to a close when it became an Act of Parliament in 2023. And just in time for the Christmas break, Mr Gove delivered his speech ‘Falling back in love with the future,’ his vision for planning.
Importance of local plans
It was news to me that he wasn’t in love with the planning system. His level of criticism was surprising considering, in its current form, it was the making of his own government. A key feature is the operation of the Housing Delivery Test, which relies on the flawed Standard Method. I’ll return to this later.
Sadly, the planning framework over the past decade has resulted in poor to mediocre design of development, a lack of infrastructure and less than half of authorities with an adopted local plan.
Local plan-led development is the best type of development. This approach undergoes sustainability assessments and listens to the voices of the local community. But the Housing Delivery Test finds local plans easily out of date. This has led to an upsurge in ‘planning by appeal’ which is costly to the public purse and has fueled contentious local battles – with inspectors considering the housing targets as anything but advisory. The result has been an accelerated loss of land in the countryside, as noted in CPRE’s State of the Green Belt report 2023.
Brownfield land lying vacant
At the same time, a nosedive in brownfield (previously developed land) completions has been recorded. CPRE’s 2022 State of brownfield report shows that year-on-year there has been a recorded increase in the amount of suitable brownfield land in our cities, towns and villages laying in vacant and derelict condition in need of regeneration. There is space for 1.2 million homes to be built on suitable land, and there’s a lot of public support for this to be prioritised for new jobs and homes.
Developments delivered which are at odds with local plan allocations have caused more environmental degradation than necessary. Crucially, they have not addressed chronic shortages of affordable housing, with no house price reduction as promised.
Some positives, on the surface
Nevertheless, at first, Gove’s speech sounded positive. As developers routinely target land in rural areas, despite the 35% uplift applied to cities, it was a relief he talked of focusing future growth on London and other cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, to better regenerate underused land. This lower carbon per capita development is in line with CPRE’s ‘brownfield first’ call to action.
The commitment to spend billions of pounds on regeneration via the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act struck a chord. There is a national imbalance in socio-economic performance with more investment, for example, aimed at transport connectivity in the South East when compared to elsewhere. Rebalancing is a function of the new Act.
This can potentially deliver development and speed up more strategically planned Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP). An updated NPPF with an emphasis on Beauty, Infrastructure, Democracy, Environment, and Neighbourhood (BIDEN) as championed by the Better Planning Coalition six tests should help deliver needed development while protecting the countryside for future generations.
Mr Gove also conceded that planners do add value, which I welcome, along with his raising of planning fees, and additional extra resources to overcome skills shortages.
Most welcome is that he revoked the requirement of authorities having to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply where they have an up-to-date local plan in place. And if an emerging plan is at an advanced stage, they only need to demonstrate a four-year supply.
Shortcomings of Gove’s vision
But having had time to reflect on the proposals, I take a less favourable view of Mr Gove’s speech. I must assume ‘environment’ is an umbrella term for climate and sustainable development, biodiversity, and nature recovery, but this urgent priority should have leapt off the page.
There are obvious opportunities from NSIPs, Local Plans and the ‘Future Homes Standard’ to reduce carbon emissions and CPRE calls for a Strategic Land Use Framework to ensure better decisions.
It would also be good to see a robust sustainability assessment of local plan policies and allocations. We need to use the best available techniques in new construction to reduce energy demand and make use of otherwise wasted space, including roof space for solar energy.
Comparing BIDEN to the Better Planning Coalition six tests, it’s clear Mr Gove was persuaded by many of our key issues. But there are huge gaps in his vision. Missing from his list are affordable housing, heritage and health and wellbeing through access to green space.
We’re calling for more social rental tenures, especially in rural places. CPRE’s recent rural affordable housing report showed a chronic shortage of affordable housing in rural communities. House prices have not come down, even in places where Green Belt has been released for development. Although Mr Gove said, ‘he is strongly in favour of affordable and social housing’, he then proceeded to criticise London’s Mayor for imposing high levels of affordable housing. To me, this is contradictory.
There were no announcements for conserving and enhancing the historic environment. Recent experience shows it’s difficult to stop development proposals – even if they harm a heritage asset – meeting arguments that the asset would degrade anyway with or without development.
Health and wellbeing through access to green space
Despite our campaigning efforts, an amendment requiring ‘healthy homes principles’ in law failed. This was a missed opportunity. In fact, Mr Gove made no specific reference to health and wellbeing in his speech.
The seeming relaxation of the Housing Delivery Test is nothing more than an illusion. When considering the government’s local plan monitoring data, more than half the country has adopted local plans that are over five years old, so they still have to demonstrate a five-year land supply, so it still has teeth.
In my view, there are clear winners and losers arising from Mr Gove’s announcement.
Some of Mr Gove’s words sit uncomfortably with me, particularly when he said ‘In bed with DLUHC might not be the best slogan for developers’. I’ve long considered the ‘more than cosy’ relationship between government and developers as unhealthy.
Developers are assured margins (of 15 to 20%) by the planning system, so they routinely abandon affordable housing, via viability assessments, irrespective of whether they paid too much for land. The upshot of all of it is major housing developments are allowed in the countryside with eye-watering annual profits enjoyed by strategic landowning interests and the larger house builder shareholders, as documented by Sheffield Hallam University’s recent research.
Perversely, developers are allowed to argue land with extant planning permission out of the land supply, making it onerous for authorities to defend their supply, whether it is four or five years supply to demonstrate.
Unfortunately, based on the contents of his speech, I anticipate more of the same, with further countryside land ‘never intended for development’ being consented, despite urban brownfield options. Such needless loss of green fields causes infrastructure gaps and harm to biodiversity.
Inequalities in the system
Given the high profits of developers, there is an inequality in the system. The development sector is not delivering enough housing where it is intended to go, especially affordable homes. People needing an affordable home and local planning authorities are the clear losers of the system.
Mr Gove fixed all the blame for obstacles, delay, and under-delivery of homes on local planning authorities, even though they progress local plans to adoption and thereafter process applications, they do not complete houses.
He blames councils for the cost of developer appeals, despite the fact they cannot control challenges, only refuse applications deemed inappropriate. Even if a development site is allocated it does not mean that the application proposes development that is acceptable.
In any case, if you look at government’s own planning performance statistics from January to March 2023, it shows a high proportion of applications are permitted in England, at 86%, and a staggering 91% within National Parks (96,000 applications received and 75,000 granted, in National Parks 1,800 applications received and 1,300 granted).
So, we should not readily accept it is local authorities that are the ‘blockers’ of the system. The evidence does not stack up.
Nevertheless, Mr Gove introduced league-tables for authorities for speed of response and levels of approvals. For strong performers (have a plan in place, pass the Housing Delivery Test, and demonstrate fast decisions) a carrot was dangled as they only need a ‘four-year’ land supply, and their housing numbers will be advisory.
Those with a local plan ready for consultation (Regulation 18 Stage) are in the same position at examination, relying on the former version of the NPPF.
A stick was brandished for the ‘named and shamed’ seven authorities not meeting their target and two authorities without a local plan added to the ‘naughty list’. They have twelve weeks to write an Action Plan explaining to Mr Gove how they intend to catch up. But it is likely that this list will quickly grow as local plans need refreshing to be up to date.
The Housing Delivery Test exposed
The Housing Delivery Test finds local plan policy, easily, out-of-date. It has wreaked havoc up and down the country and is set to continue. It not only has teeth but a nasty bite as the consequence of failure is developers can build pretty much wherever they want with all the associated problems.
The Housing Delivery Test update 2022 was published last year. On quick glance of the 311 local authorities, one third (equal to 101 authorities) must write Action Plans, and a quarter (equal to 80 authorities) have an additional +20% buffer applied (equal to a 6-year land supply requirement) and one fifth (or sixty-one authorities) have a presumption applied. This means a large amount of local authorities in England are deemed to be failing.
It would be more appropriate to scrutinise authorities on their performance of how many homes have been allocated and consented annually compared to the number completed. This would reveal who the actual blockers are. Really, it is those developers who game the system and fail to develop in accordance with local plans that should be sanctioned.
Here’s how the Housing Delivery Test could be made more honest as currently there is an inbuilt bias in developers’ favour:
- Amend the standard method which relies on flawed affordability assumptions, which do not yield lower prices when homes are built. Even though Gove made it only ‘advisory’, we ought to plan for actual need of the future population and not developer demands. Planning Committees and Inspector’s will need to rely on the target to understand delivery.
- Rely on the best available data such as the Census 2021 data or at least the updated Office of National Statistics (ONS) data. Only data with integrity should be relied on for important matters of land use. The Office for Statistical Regulation ruled ONS 2014 data as unfit for purpose as it is too old and it is based on high growth rates that have not happened, due to ongoing economic uncertainty.
- Stop allowing the exclusion of extant permissions from the land supply. This is most perverse as developers have a clear conflict of interest.
- Use Brownfield Register Part I ‘suitable’ sites first. There’s enough brownfield land to build 1.2 million homes. Brown field land is the most sustainable and it regenerates towns and communities,
- Brownfield Register Part II ‘unsuitable’ sites should be unlocked via action plans.
- The National Brownfield Strategy 2008 should be revived as it had relevant solutions to overcoming problems.
- Green Belt policy should be adhered to. This is a flexible policy that allows the release of land justified, however the Housing Delivery Test in its current form is not a robust justification.
A focus on growth on regeneration of cities in the future to take ‘needless’ pressure off building on green fields in the countryside is welcome. But I am concerned that the Housing Delivery Test if unchanged will promote harm to our countryside. My work continues…
About the author
Jackie Copley is a chartered town and country planner who has worked for CPRE for ten years. Before joining CPRE, she worked in consultancy for a leading global design, engineering and environmental company and for regeneration partnerships in Manchester and Salford.
Jackie’s work is focused on influencing government to protect and enhance our countryside as planning reform progresses.