We need more land for housing – does the White Paper have the answers?

To build the homes we need, more land needs to be released for housing development. The long-awaited Housing White Paper addresses this in three ways:

  • A determination that housing requirements should lead to the right homes being built in the right places
  • Strong new housing delivery tests for local authorities
  • A process to go through before amending the Green Belt

In doing this the White Paper pushes the weight of responsibility for housing delivery right back to local authorities.

The Government will consult on options for introducing a standardised approach to assessing housing requirements at a local level. It seems unclear whether this will tackle just the objective assessment of housing need or whether it will also consider land availability. They propose that this approach will be in place as the baseline for assessing five-year land supply by April 2018.

The idea of having a more standardised approach for housing need was put forward by the Local Plans Expert Group and potentially eases the often confused debates at local level about how to apply demographic projections and market signals. It could be a major simplification of the local plan making process.

However, the formula for assessing housing need must add up across the country to a macro-economically robust number with a specified aim. Planning Practice Guidance says that the aim is to “improve affordability”, but by how much?

A formula also needs to properly account for housing market variation. The LPEG proposal had the Royal London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in the same market category as Boston in Lincolnshire. These two markets clearly have very different housing issues with roots in very different local economies.

The White Paper also announced that there will be new ‘housing delivery tests’. These impose sanctions on local authorities for under delivery against the housing requirement. Even a five per cent shortfall against the requirement requires an ‘action plan’. A 15 per cent shortfall would result in the local authority needing to identify 20 per cent more land to be developed over the next five years. Substantial under delivery (75% from November 2018, falling to 35% from November 2020) would result in the presumption in favour of sustainable development in the NPPF applying automatically.

These are potentially strong new challenges for local authorities. Depending on how the housing requirement is determined, they may influence how local authorities deal with the Green Belt. The wording of the White Paper says that planning authorities should amend Green Belt "only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options".

But with the threat of the sustainable development presumption, local planning authorities may get to this sooner than we expect. The real challenge will be making any changes politically acceptable at a local level and this may prove the Catch-22 for local planning teams.

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