The government has announced plans for radical planning reforms in England which would remove local councillors and citizens from decisions on individual planning applications.
More central policy direction and streamlined local plans that directly zone land for development will, the proposals argue, significantly increase housebuilding – in part by removing local people’s power to get in the way.
The image of residents and local authorities delaying or blocking new development through the planning system is well established. This opposition to development has often been invoked as a major contributor to the housing crisis. The suggestion is that existing homeowners are selfishly preventing development, exacerbating the supply shortages that lead to inflated house prices.
However, our research shows that the truth may be somewhat different. Although opposition to development may sometimes slow things down as politicians try to avoid unpopular decisions, its effects on housebuilding are far from clear.
Opposition to housebuilding can be passionate. During a meeting of Wokingham Borough Council on July 23, Conservative council leader John Halsall reportedly suggested protesting naked against the levels of new housing development they are being required to approve. Wokingham, located in the wealthy commuter belt to the west of London, is an area whose local politics has long been marked by strong local opposition to housebuilding.
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At first glance, Cllr. Halsall’s gesture seems a stark illustration of unbending local obstruction. On closer examination, however, the elected leader of a local authority threatening to bare all to protest against new housebuilding doesn’t fit the narrative of all powerful objectors blocking development. Rather, it suggests a feeling of real powerlessness.
Our investigation of an abandoned proposal to pay residents to reduce objections to new housing found something similar. Neither planners, councillors or local communities felt local opposition made much difference to decisions about housebuilding. Rather, they believed the planning system was set up to override objections. Applications were approved irrespective of local views or the (often negative) impacts development would have on local infrastructure and services.
One reason for this is national rules that require local authorities to maintain a five-year supply of housing land in local plans. Where councils can’t show this supply, there is a presumption in government policy that developments will be allowed, leading to a loss of local control over what gets built where. The emotive politics of opposition to housebuilding needs to be carefully assessed to see whether and how it is actually impacting on planning and housebuilding.
The Local Government Association highlights that up to a million more houses have been granted planning permission than have been built over the past decade. While housebuilders require a pipeline of sites with permission to build on, this figure suggests that attempts to resolve housing shortages by targeting local opposition to development are missing the point. In fact, they may distract from other more important factors, including the structure and practices of the housebuilding industry, and the ways land and property markets work.
It is even more improbable that the private sector will build enough new housing to affect affordability, as the new planning proposals imply. New housing has relatively little impact on house prices, which are largely set by demand for second-hand homes. It is estimated that meeting the government’s target to build 300,000 homes a year would reduce prices by around 0.8%: considerably less than rates of increase over recent decades.
In fact, the only time in the last hundred years when the private sector has achieved the levels of housebuilding the government now wants to see was in the 1930s. Then, sprawling ribbon development created a public backlash that led to the foundation of the conservation movement and the introduction of more comprehensive planning controls.
Despite this, the current reform proposals aim to reduce prices by ensuring even more land is released in areas of high demand, whilst at the same time potentially reducing developers’ contributions to social housing. This will once again put the Conservative government on a collision course with many of its own voters in areas like Wokingham, without necessarily producing more affordable housing.
Indeed, research by planning consultancy Lichfields suggests a revised national formula will require Wokingham to find space for 1635 rather than the current 789 houses annually. Needless to say, this is unlikely to please Halsall. And if people are denied opportunities to participate they, too, will likely resort to other forms of protest.
Governments need to ensure much needed, affordable housing gets built to high environmental standards in sustainable locations. They also need to manage the considerable opposition and political fallout this generates. It’s not an easy task, but the approach taken in the new planning proposals looks unlikely to succeed on either count.