Gove vows to “root out” councils “gaming the system” as he unveils long-awaited National Planning Policy Framework

Housing secretary Michael Gove has confirmed that he is watering down housing delivery targets for local authorities but revealed plans to introduce “sharper accountability” in the form of league tables for planning authorities.

Announcing the publication of the much-delayed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in central London today, the secretary of state for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities also threatened to take action against councils without local plans.


Michael Gove speaking at the RIBA head office in London today

While he confirmed that local housing targets were now officially “advisory”, Gove said the new NPPF was “not a route to the evasion of responsibilities”.  

The housing secretary also said he is “confident” the government will meet the manifesto pledge of increasing housebuilding to 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the decade “once we get back to a normal level of interest and mortgage rates”.

He added: “It has always been the case that [housing targets] were supposed to be advisory for local authorities. But that principle has more often been honoured in the breach than in the observance.

“Local authorities must provide rigorous evidence justifying their departure from assessed housing needs. They must do everything to identify other lands suitable for development. 

>> See also: Planning permissions drop to lowest level since HBF pipeline report began

“While the planning inspectorate will respect well-made cases, it will not accept undershooting that is not firmly rooted in environmental or other safeguards. This is about sensitive adjustment in housing targets, not their abandonment.” 

The housing secretary also revealed plans to publish league tables revealing the real performance of local planning authorities. The tables will show the speed of response, the level of approvals and delivery against targets. 

“At the Department for Education, I saw that nothing so concentrated the mind of leaders than sharper accountability, rigorous inspection and robust league tables. I will apply the same principles and approach to the performance of local planning,” he said. 

He accused some local authorities of “gaming the system” by using “extension of time” agreements “to slow down the system”. This practice gave developers “little option but to agree to such delays or face the frustration of their plans altogether”.

Gove added: “Strip these [delay] agreements out of the system, and in the two years to September, only 9% of local authorities determined 70% or more of non-major applications within the statutory eight-week period,” he said.

“On major applications, it is even worse. Strip out the extension of time agreements and only 1% of local authorities managed to get through at least 60% of planning applications within the statutory 13-week period.” 

We will make sure every local authority is held to account for delivery against its claim for the speed with which planning applications are processed

Michael Gove

Gove said the league tables would reveal how many planning applications are actually processed within the proper time limits, and how many local authorities are “hiding behind these agreements”.

The secretary of state, who announced the publication of the full results of the 2022 housing delivery test, also said he would “call out” local authorities that fail to publish their local plans and threatened to intervene further if necessary.

“There is now no excuse for any local authority not to have a [development] plan in place,” he said. 

“We will make sure every local authority is held to account for delivery against its claim for the speed with which planning applications are processed, and also the rationality of their decision making.”

Last December, Gove revealed that local housing target numbers would become “advisory” in an apparent concession to Tory MPs worried about a backlash from voters to building in their constituencies. 

Following a consultation on new NPPF proposals, in July, the government confirmed that its revised NPPF would be delayed until after the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill went through. 

We simply can’t be expected to believe that the government will take the steps necessary to get the homes built that Britain desperately needs

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader

The delay in publication of the NPPF has been difficult for developers, who blame the consultation on policy changes for a deepening of the current planning hiatus. Many local authorities have put local plan development on hold in response.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader and shadow housing secretary, today vowed to reverse the changes to the NPPF and reinstate compulsory local targets. “Michael Gove’s latest announcement is truly through the looking glass,” Rayner said.

“Despite all this tough talk, he and Rishi Sunak have stripped away every measure that would get shovels in the ground and houses built to appease their backbenchers. We simply can’t be expected to believe that the government will take the steps necessary to get the homes built that Britain desperately needs.

“The Conservative government has sent housebuilding into crisis, with rock-bottom rates of planning permission decisions, spiking interest rates and house building set to plummet.”

The Home Builders’ Federation (HBF) last week predicted that a drop in the level of planning applications granted will see housebuilding drop below 200,000 homes in 2024.

The HBF’s director of communications Steve Turner told Housing Today: “The removal of housing targets for local authorities, one of the key principles of the planning system, will be extremely damaging for the delivery of new homes.

“Already we are seeing house building and planning permission levels tumble as a direct result of the government’s approach and further falls are now inevitable.

“While the announcement today does include some modest improvements to the planning process, most are simply threats that will not make a difference in the short term.”

Research conducted by consultancy Lichfields earlier this year predicted that the proposed changes to the NPPF which Gove confirmed today could cause a drop in building delivery of 77,000 homes a year.