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Set up to fail

Monday, 21 December 2015 22:11

CPRE have published a new report 'Set Up to Fail' which shows that local authorities, and our countryside, are being put under huge pressure by housing targets based on flawed numbers. This is particularly relevant to our work on the West of England Joint Spatial Plan.

set up to fail

Based on detailed analysis of 54 local plans adopted in the last two years, by independent consultants, the report shows that the current system is not working – not for those in housing need nor for communities trying to shape developments in their area.High housing targets are not helping us deliver the houses that we need. Local authorities are responsible for these targets despite, in most cases, not building houses. Missing targets can mean local planning control is loosened, more valued countryside lost to development, and brownfield sites remain untouched.

CPRE’s report identifies a vicious circle that is being repeated across England:

  • Unrealistic housing targets are set.
  • Councils are forced to allocate greenfield land to meet the targets.
  • Developers cherry-pick the most profitable greenfield sites.
  • Building takes place slowly, to keep prices high.
  • Housing targets are missed.
  • Councils are forced to allocate more land for building – because of Government policy.
  • Developers again target the most profitable sites.
  • And so it goes on, without getting more homes built.

Despite the Government’s rhetoric on localism they are effectively imposing high housing targets on local councils. The CPRE research shows that the average housing requirement of the plans is 30% higher than the projected growth in the number of households and 50% higher than the average build rate of the last 15 years. The justification for this is that we need more houses, but these high numbers do not necessarily increase the rate of building, and crucially, nor do they get the houses we need built in the places we need them. The research also shows that environmental constraints are not being taken into account when housing targets are determined, even though ministers insist they should be. The research shows that just seven of the 54 plans (13%) contain housing figures that are in part determined by environmental factors.

The Government appears to believe that the way to get more houses built is to make things as easy as possible for big builders, including by making the planning system more developer-friendly. Another planning reform, the new Housing and Planning Bill is currently being considered by Parliament. It aims to simplify the system, but again it risks doing the opposite. This is because the planning system is not the cause of the housing crisis. Far more homes are being given permission than are actually being built. From January to June 2015, 242,000 homes were given planning permission but only 136,000 were started. From 2012 to 2014, 510,000 residential planning permissions were granted for sites of ten units or more, but there were only 348,000 housing starts.

Developer land banks are growing, as are their shareholders’ profits, and the bonuses of their executives are substantial. Instead of building the houses we need, more and more greenfield land is being released because developers’ responsibility is to their shareholders. They pick out the best and most profitable greenfield sites and leave the harder brownfield sites standing empty. It is the responsibility of Government policy to do much more to meet social objectives and prevent environmental damage.

CPRE Avonside has seen the outcome of these misguided Government policies at first hand. North Somerset Council, for example, tried to plan for housing numbers that would meet local need without causing excessive environmental harm. Its local plan was approved in 2012, but successfully challenged in the courts. Earlier this year the council submitted a new plan, with increased housing numbers, but this was rejected by the Inspector on the grounds that the Council’s plan did not meet the figures in the housing market assessment. The Inspector’s judgement was upheld by the Secretary of State. Is this localism? North Somerset is highly constrained by Green Belt and the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We now have a housing target that is not likely be met. Nor is it likely to get the houses built that are most needed locally or encourage regeneration of brownfield sites in areas which need development – such as Weston super Mare. It is likely to cause permanent environmental harm to North Somerset and damage a countryside that is hugely valued by local residents and by those living in nearby Bristol and Bath.

CPRE wants the Government to pay more attention to the serious problem of Getting Houses Built (another CPRE report) so we can build the houses the country needs and protect the countryside that is so valuable to people. As CPRE’s new report Set Up to Fail shows, in the words of CPRE’s Chief Executive, Shaun Spiers, ‘setting ludicrously high housing targets without any hope of achieving them is pointless at best, extremely damaging at worst’. 

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