Developer groups fear the government has “given up” on housing delivery despite asserted support for 300,000-home target

Developers have warned of a “complete collapse” in local plan-making after Michael Gove proposed a series of far-reaching planning amendments designed to limit the amount of homes that local authorities have to plan for.

Developer groups said the proposals were a “complete capitulation” to backbench demands to reduce housing supply and showed the government had “given up” on pro-housing reform of planning.

The comments came after the housing secretary yesterday wrote to MPs telling them he had decided councils will be able to determine their own housing numbers, and that in future the Planning Inspectorate will not be able to force them to build even where there are green belt, flooding or “local character” constraints on development.

gove re-sized

Housing secretary Michael Gove

Michael Gove made clear his department will consult on a new version of the National Planning Policy Framework before Christmas designed to implement the policy reforms, which will make clear that the local housing need figure generated through the Whitehall “standard method” formula will only be “an advisory starting point”.

Gove told the House of Common in a written statement that: “It will be up to local authorities, working with their communities, to determine how many homes can actually be built”.

Currently, use of the figure determined by the formula is not mandatory for local authorities, but councils have to show that “exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach” if they want to plan for another number.

Significantly, Gove’s letter to MPs made clear that the new version of the NPPF “will be clear that local planning authorities are not expected to review the Green Belt to deliver housing”, and that “local planning authorities will be able to plan for fewer houses if building is constrained by important factors such as national parks, heritage restrictions, and areas of high flood risk”.

In addition, Gove’s letter said that councils will be allowed to cite the character of an area as a constraint to development, and “will not be expected to build developments at densities that would be wholly out of character with existing areas or which would lead to a significant change of character, for example, new blocks of high-rise flats which are entirely inappropriate in a low-rise neighbourhood.”

Gove also set out plans to remove the five year land-supply requirement for councils with plans in place, reduce the requirement for councils reviewing their plans in light of these proposals, and water down the power of the Planning Inspectorate overall, instructing it to “no longer override sensible local decision making”. He said “this amounts to a rebalancing of the relationship between local councils and the Planning Inspectorate, and will give local communities a greater say in what is built in their neighbourhood.”

This will include the government reviewing the soundness test for local plans so they no longer have to be “justified”, and therefore will need to meet a lower bar to be adopted.

>> See also Our leaders must stop weaponising targets and set a proper vision for planning

>> See also The best thing about the autumn statement was that it said little about planning

>> See also Gove’s return could mean a fight with the housebuidlers is on the cards

The government also plans to remove the duty to co-operate through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, meaning there will be no reason that any housing need not met in one council due to constraints will be provided for anywhere else.

Gove said he had made the changes because communities felt “under siege” from development. He said: “I share the views of many colleagues about the current system.

theresa villiers

Theresa Villiers had tabled bill amendments to remove housing targets

“That it does not provide the right homes in the right places, and at its worst risks imposing ever more stretching housing targets that are out of touch with reality – leading to developers taking advantage through planning by appeal and speculative development.”

Gove’s measures follow a significant backbench rebellion of more than 50 Tory MPs, led by Theresa Villiers, who had called for the abolition of “mandatory” housing targets among a raft of amendments to the Levelling Up bill.

He also outlined proposals for more sanctions against developers for not building out existing sites quickly enough, however, development industry figures hit back at what they characterised as a capitulation to backbench lobbying by Nimby Tories.

The Home Builders Federation has already said that an effective removal of housebuilding targets is likely to reduce housebuilding rates by anything up to 100,000 homes per year as councils rein in the number of homes they plan for. The moves come after more than 20 councils have already this year delayed or withdrawn draft local plans due to the expectation that the government was likely water down housebuilding requirements.

Sam Stafford, planning director at the HBF, told Housing Today: “Capitulation is a fair description. I think from here we can expect the slowdown in plan-making to turn into a complete collapse because these measures will effectively shut things down”.

samuel stafford

The HBF’s Sam Stafford said the changes could see a “complete collapse” in local authority plan-making

He added: “The diminution of PINS’ role could be to the detriment of the integrity of the planning system well beyond the life of this government.

“The letter explicitly states housing need is not an exceptional circumstance to justify Green Belt release, which is effectively a moratorium and will be shown to be madness.”

Paul Brocklehurst, chair of the Land Promoters and Developers Federation, said in a post on LinkedIn that “many” councils will now “not proceed with Local Plans in the next 2 years safe in the knowledge there will be no sanction.”

He said: “It appears only with a general election will we now be able to get to what we all want which is a plan led system which genuinely seeks to deliver 300,000 new homes, of all types and tenures, built by a range of builders of all sizes.”

Planning barrister Zack Simons, of Landmark Chambers, said the measures showed the government had “given up” on planning reform, a described the decision to rule out the ability for local councils to undertake green belt reviews to incorporate housing need “absurd” and “bananas.”

Planning lawyer Simon Ricketts, founder of Town Legal, said in a blog that the introduction of a “character” justification for lowering housing numbers “will be open season for authorities and/or local campaigners to press the case for lower numbers to be adopted and/or for the required proportion of affordable housing to be set at such a financially onerous level that in practice chokes off the prospect of development.”

He added: “How will the government be able to hold to its 300,000 homes a year target if significant numbers of authorities adjust their numbers downwards?”

One of the lead rebel MPs who supported Villiers’ amendments, Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely, thanked his supporters and said Gove’s changes were “a decent Xmas present in the battle for better planning.” Addressing his constituents on Twitter he added: “After all, you’re not Nimbys, you’re local patriots.”