Christopher Pincher is Minister for Housing, and is MP for Tamworth.
Earlier this month, the government set out its ambition to introduce much needed reforms to bring our planning system into the twenty-first century.
Our aim: to get the country building better-designed, more environmentally-friendly homes and help people onto the housing ladder.
Alongside these longer-term reforms, we are consulting on shorter term interventions in the current system to align it with our housing goals: building 300,000 homes a year and tackling housing affordability.
One of these interventions, the methodology for calculating local housing need within the current system that we are consulting on, has attracted some comment. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the contentious nature of our present planning system and all prior changes to the methodology, but for those who are involved in crucial work of planning for our communities, I want to set out what we are consulting on and why.
In 2018, we introduced a standard, transparent method to determine how many houses were needed in an area. The previous system involved councils employing costly consultants to estimate their housing need – too often with the final numbers being heavily contested. There was uncertainty, there were long delays, and all the while the country was not planning for the homes that are so desperately needed.
This standard method was designed to speed up the system and ensure the planning process focused on how and where homes can best be built.
It has been over two years since that formula was introduced, so we committed earlier in 2020 to review it and consult on the balance between our three objectives:
First, to equip councils with the tools they need to plan for 300,000 homes a year. Everyone wants their children and grandchildren to have somewhere to live – so we have to plan for those homes. We need local communities to be honest about the scale of housing need for which we need to plan.
Second, and in line with our commitment to protecting the Green Belt and to prioritise brownfield development, we want development to be directed to existing urban areas and level up our towns and cities with imaginative urban renewal. This makes sense when you consider that 76 per cent of local housing need is in council areas classified by the Office for National Statistics as urban.
And third, to build homes where people want to live, where the demand for housing is clear, where prices are higher and, in many cases, affordability is getting worse.
We are keen to make sure we get this balance right.
So it is important to stress the standard method is only the first step in the current local plan process – the numbers generated for an area’s housing need will not necessarily be the same as their ultimate targets.
That’s because councils will take into account various constraints in their areas, including protecting their Green Belt and environmentally significant sites. Nor does it dictate where those homes should go. Both are important aspects of the system which rest with local councillors to determine.
It was a Conservative government that got rid of top-down regional planning targets, and introduced a-locally led system, which takes account of local need and local constraints. Localism requires local decision-making – and our system puts councillors at the forefront of those decisions.
Our longer term planning reforms, set out in the Planning for the Future paper, are an opportunity for us to embrace a planning system which puts councillors and communities in the driving seat of designing their neighbourhoods and puts creating beautiful places that communities can be proud of at its heart.
Something we can all get behind.