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Housing targets to be set amidst broader planning reforms

Northstowe housing scheme SEO

Northstowe housing scheme. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

The new UK government will reintroduce mandatory housing targets across each local planning authority in England, new UK chancellor Rachel Reeves has said.

The move will form part of a wider package of reforms to the planning system that the new government intends to deliver on, Reeves said in a speech on Monday.

According to Reeves, “decisive reform” of the planning system is needed to enable the new UK government’s ambitions for economic growth. She described the current system as “antiquated” and added that it “leaves too many important projects getting tied up in years and years of red tape before shovels ever get into the ground”.

In her speech, Reeves set out the new government’s plans to better enable development of all kinds, but one focus of her speech was housing. Prior to last week’s UK general election, Labour pledged to deliver 1.5 million new homes over the course of the next parliament. Reeves reiterated that commitment in her speech and confirmed that the new government will consult on proposed changes to the existing National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which is UK government planning policy and is highly relevant to local planning decisions in England, “before the end of the month”.

The changes, she suggested, would require local planning authorities to review greenbelt boundaries in their areas and “prioritise brownfield and grey belt land for development to meet housing targets where needed”. ‘Grey belt’ is Labour’s terminology for current green belt land that is suitable for release and development. It has previously described the ‘grey belt’ as areas of green belt land that are poor quality or ugly.

Another new initiative to deliver new housing Reeves confirmed is the creation of a new taskforce, which she said will seek to “accelerate stalled housing sites in our country”. She cited proposed schemes in Liverpool Central Docks, Worcestershire Parkway, Northstowe and Langley Urban Extension, as sites where the taskforce will initially focus its work, which she said account for more than 14,000 potential new homes.

In addition, 300 additional planning officers will also be funded by government, Reeves confirmed, to support local planning authorities across England with their caseloads.

Beyond housing, Reeves confirmed an immediate change to planning policy relating to onshore wind development in England – and said that the government would consult on bringing proposed new onshore wind projects within the scope of the specific consenting regime that applies to ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ (NSIPs).

Plans to swiftly resolve existing planning applications relating to energy and transport projects were also outlined by Reeves. In respect of relevant NSIPs, she said that, together with deputy prime minister Angela Rayner, who also holds the role of secretary of state for levelling-up, housing and communities, she intends to ask the new secretary of state for transport, Louise Haigh, and secretary of state for energy security and net zero, Ed Miliband, respectively, to “prioritise decisions on infrastructure projects that have been sitting unresolved for far too long”.

The new government’s policy intentions in respect of critical infrastructure will be set out “in the coming months”, Reeves added, with associated plans to update relevant national policy statements, which govern how NSIP applications should be assessed, to follow “within the year”.

To enable progress on proposed development, Reeves also said “the way that ministers use our powers for direct intervention” in planning applications will change.

Reeves said: “The deputy prime minister has said that when she intervenes in the economic planning system, the benefit of development will be a central consideration and that she will not hesitate to review an application where the potential gain for the regional and national economies warrant it… I welcome her decision to recover two planning appeals already, for data centres in Buckinghamshire and in Hertfordshire. To facilitate this new approach, the deputy prime minister will also write to local mayors and the Office for Investment to ensure that any investment opportunity with important planning considerations that comes across their desks is brought to her attention and also to mine.”

Jamie Lockerbie, planning law expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “It seems likely that, in the short-term, decisions will need to be unlocked by the deputy prime minister using her call-in powers under this new 'interventionalist approach'. The immediate question that springs to mind is, given the new mandatory targets, does the Planning Inspectorate have the capacity to deal with a massive ramp-up in caseload? Whilst 300 more planners into local councils will be welcome, the reality is that it won’t be nearly enough to get the local planning authority workforce back to where it needs to be, given that the number of planners in the public sector shrank by a quarter between 2009 and 2020.”

Iain Gilbey, residential sector and planning expert at Pinsent Masons, said: "Whilst these early interventions are to be welcomed, much will turn on the planning system’s ability to deploy swiftly the resource and skills necessary to move through the detailed consenting process. In particular, there is often a very significant delay between a decision at a local level to grant consent at planning committee - the resolution to grant - and the completion of the necessary planning obligations agreement - known as a 's106 agreement' - and the later clearance of reserved matters and pre-commencement conditions."

"As things stand, these necessary steps can take many months and sometimes years to conclude. Whilst the speeding up of 'headline' decision making is to be welcomed, local authorities will need considerable support in delivering fully implementable planning permissions for new development. That process delay will put the yearly housing delivery targets under very considerable pressure," he said.

Robbie Owen, an infrastructure planning expert at Pinsent Masons, added that he would expect the government also to focus on the slow local plan process in England, given its ‘plan-led’ planning system, and that a fit-for-purpose local plan process, with suitable levers for central government intervention, goes “hand-in-hand with the new system of housing targets and the government’s other aspirations for development to secure economic growth”. 

Rebecca Jason, an expert in social housing finance at Pinsent Masons, added: "An important part of this commitment will be to ensure that there is a sufficient amount of the new housing provision for the affordable housing sector – increasing new housing provision generally is a step in the right direction, but authorities and key stakeholders need to ensure that a sufficient proportion of these new homes are affordable given the huge demand for properties meeting this criteria. Housing associations will play a key role in this, and we would expect development programmes to feature heavily on the agenda for both for-profit and non-profit providers going forwards. Funders should expect to see more focus on development activity in business plans, as well as providers seeking additional funding for these activities going forwards."

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