Blog: 8 September 2020Can we solve unmet housing need?

Michael Knott

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Michael Knott

Planning Director

Reading office

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If the Government is out to solve problems through its proposed reforms to the planning system, the problems don’t come much larger or more challenging to solve than planning to meet unmet housing need.

The Government has had an established requirement for 300,000 new homes a year for some time now, with an aspiration for 1 million new homes by the end of the Parliament. How this magic number is distributed and delivered through the planning system has, however, proved elusive, and unfortunately, there is growing discord that the ‘Planning for the Future’ Planning White Paper may not get us much closer.

Upon reviewing the application of the Government’s new Standard Method, there is a predominance of the country’s city regions within the list of those seeing some of the largest uplifts in need compared with adopted plan requirements (see Table 1 below).

Table 1 – Comparison of Adopted Local Plan Housing Requirements and Proposed Standard Method

Our cities have long been net generators of housing need and demand; pushing this need and demand out to surrounding suburbs and wider regions, worsening housing affordability. Do our cities really have the physical capacity to meet that need within their own boundaries?

Of the constraints specified in the White Paper, to be considered when setting housing requirements, urban capacity is not one. Indeed, maximising brownfield land appears to weigh in favour of higher requirements being set within large urban areas through the new Standard Method. Yet we know, for example, that the brownfield capacity of London cannot alone, deliver the 93,000 homes target, even with increased density and the ability for London Boroughs to release Green Belt to help meet needs.

Focusing on the Green Belt issue more specifically, unmet housing need surely places additional pressure on the need for release of land from Green Belts surrounding our cities. The White Paper correctly distinguishes between Green Belt as a policy constraint and wider environmental constraints such as AONB, Heritage and Habitats. Perhaps therefore a more nuanced approach to constraints (areas to ‘Protect’) should be taken? In seeking to meet the needs of our cities and the country as a whole, does the application of national Green Belt need to change so we can avoid treating it as a reason for not meeting need (including potential unmet need from cities) in full.

In seeking to satisfy its objectives of delivering 300,000 homes a year and improving affordability where need is generated, we believe the Government will need to establish a basis for distributing new ‘top down’ housing requirements at a strategic level. As a Practice, Barton Willmore continues to strongly support the introduction of a National Plan. As part of this, I also think that proposals for the re-establishment of something equivalent to the former statutory regional assemblies and specific bodies to advise on strategic planning matters, including accommodating housing needs, are necessary.

Alternatively, if not factored in as part of the Government setting the housing requirement that all authorities will be required to meet, then this requires a cross-boundary approach to meeting these needs. Yet the paper proposes to remove the duty to cooperate – the only current tool in place to drive this. Not that this has solved how to deliver an effective joined-up approach between London and the wider South East; Bristol and the West of England; or Birmingham and the Black Country. So, what are the alternatives?

If we are going to have a credible and effective planning system, surely that system must have some greater means of identifying the land required, at the right time in the right place to meet need. Rationing the use and development of land is after all the basis of the planning system?

My colleagues and I will be examining the practical implications of this in more detail for some of our major cities in coming weeks, as well as further debating and outlining our thoughts on solutions to each of these challenges. The first of these detailed commentaries relates to London and the wider South East.


Listen to our latest podcast on this subject with Catriona Riddell, Catriona Riddell Associates, Jonathan Werran, Localis, Zach Simmons, Landmark Chambers andour very own Development Economics Associate, Dan Usher and Senior Partner Iain Painting.



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Planning reform, build back better, housing need, standard method, planning for the future, UK housing, housing crisis, #Letsfindaway