The Housing Crisis in the UK looks likely to continue its dominance of headlines this year. The planning system is often blamed for delaying housebuilding which has contributed to spiralling house prices and a shortage of affordable homes.
The current Government has suggested that it aims to see built one million homes by the end of the current Parliament. Achieving that target would entail immediately building at least 200,000 new homes per year – a level of house-building not seen in England since 1989.
In May 2014, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, complained that housebuilding in the UK was half that of his native Canada, despite the UK having a population twice the size. The consequences have been rocketing prices in London, the South East and some other parts of the country.
The Government has introduced a number of measures in anticipation of speeding up the rate of housebuilding. One being the Neighbourhood Plans which the Government continues to promote as a fundamental tool to tackle the country’s housing crisis. By giving communities greater say in where building takes place it is hoped that local objections to large-scale housebuilding would be minimised, thus removing a major cause of delay.
Yet in practice the role of Neighbourhood Plans has been mixed. Although some of the positive local planning envisaged has taken place, often the process has been used as a tool to prevent or frustrate much needed development and to establish minimal housing targets that don’t contribute adequately to the wider housing needs of a district.
For example in the Arun District in West Sussex they have a five year housing land supply shortfall amounting to over 4000 dwellings or just 2.1 years supply. Its Local Plan did not extend beyond 2011 and yet 63% of the district is now covered by Neighbourhood Plans prepared subsequently. Attempting to address the shortfall Arun District Council has now suggested that planning applications be invited on the 45 sites positively assessed within its recent Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessment. The majority of these lie within Neighbourhood Plan areas which do not allocate the sites for housing. Therefore if Arun District Council is to address its significant housing shortfall it can only do so by granting consents for schemes not in accordance with made Neighbourhood Plans.
This however would not be unusual and there have been several instances where a Neighbourhood Plan has been largely ignored because of shortcomings of the wider Local Plan. In response to concerns regarding this, Planning Minister Gavin Barwell issued a written ministerial statement in December 2016 stating that Neighbourhood Plans will not be ruled out-of-date simply because of a Local Plan’s lack of a five year housing supply. Whilst the statement has now been challenged by a group of 18 claimants which includes housebuilders, it does take immediate effect and represents a major change of policy without any prior consultation.
For the next two years, all Neighbourhood Plans that allocate sites for housing and are part of the local development plan will be viewed as up-to-date as long as the planning authority has at least a three year housing land supply. After that, all Neighbourhood Plans that have been part of the Local Development plan for two years or less will be seen as up-to-date, assuming the three year supply.
The statement also promises that the forthcoming housing white paper will ensure that ‘new Neighbourhood Plans meet their fair share of housing need’. Such a measure will be essential because the written statement gives substantial weight to Neighbourhood Plans that do not attempt to make a fair contribution to meeting their Local Planning Authority’s five year housing need. The minister’s concern that neighbourhood planners should not be unfairly penalised for the shortcomings of a Local Planning Authority is understandable.
However, it is important that only those Neighbourhood Plans that can demonstrate that they have done their bit to contribute to meeting local housing need should be protected from being seen as out of date. It remains important to engage with your Local Neighbourhood Plan. For landowners wishing to promote land for development the process provides an ideal opportunity to put forward a scheme for consideration.