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Our fairer vision for new housing shared with Government

Our fairer new homes vision shared with Government

06 March 2023
[ Zoom ]
A row of new houses with planting in front

Ministers are being urged to enable a lower, more sustainable amount of new housing to be built in Wokingham Borough under possible reforms to the national planning system.

Following a long period of campaigning on the issue, Wokingham Borough Council has responded to a consultation on proposals by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities which it believes could offer a fairer deal in years to come.


As it stands, the council can’t take past over-provision into account when calculating how many homes must be built in the future, but the Government’s proposals appear to change this.


The council cautiously welcomes this, as it believes the demands of the current system lack common sense and place unsustainable housing expectations on the borough. This is why it has been encouraging residents to respond before the consultation closes today (Thursday, 2 March).


Building less tomorrow if we build more today


Like all local planning authorities, the council has a duty to look ahead, calculate how many new homes are required over a given period and plan for that figure by identifying and allocating suitable sites.


The Government's formula, which is based on past trends and predicted growth, requires the borough to plan for 781 new homes per year but if annual housebuilding exceeds this level, the council isn’t allowed to account for this by planning for fewer homes in future.


Because housebuilding has accelerated recently, which is outside the authority’s control, Wokingham Borough has provided 1,727 more homes than planned since 2006. However, if the Government's proposals go ahead, the council might be able to adjust future requirements to offset this.


Stop the wrong type of homes, in the wrong places


In its response to the consultation, the council argues it should be harder for developers to overturn refusals of inappropriate planning applications when they appeal to an inspector.


For the council's own planning policies to hold weight, it must continually prove it has enough available land to meet the next five years' housing need. Recently, some appeals have succeeded because it couldn’t do so - simply because the ‘bank’ of agreed planning permissions was used up ahead of time by accelerated housebuilding.


The council says this has “spawned an industry of speculation” and is unfair. Even if there is a temporary shortfall in housing land, the system doesn't seem to consider whether this would correct itself without allowing additional, speculative developments.


Restoring faith in a fair planning system


The Government proposes removing the land supply test for housing strategies less than five years old, but the council argues it should be scrapped entirely because it leaves residents feeling powerless.


However, if it stays, the council supports removing a five per cent, or potentially 20 per cent, “buffer” when assessing whether enough homes will realistically be built in the next five years. Locally, a five per cent buffer adds 40 homes annually over five years, so scrapping it removes the need for 200 homes.


And while this wasn’t part of the recent Government consultation, the council has repeated its calls for a planning system that looks at the national picture, considering housing requirements alongside other strategies like economic growth to achieve levelling-up for the whole country. At the moment, no national or regional approach exists.


A promising start, but more improvements needed


Cllr Lindsay Ferris, executive member for planning and local plan, said: "We've campaigned hard to get this far and are pleased to see signs that the Government may finally be listening.


“We strongly support being able to offset past over-provision because, right now, we're effectively being penalised for providing new housing ahead of time.


“Changing this would be a step in the right direction but, as we've made clear in our response to the Government, we feel the changes should go further and cut to the heart of the problems with the current system.


“Scrapping the housing land supply test would remove an unnecessary and ineffective policy which has acted to undermine local decisions. It would prevent hours of wasteful argument on the subject when defending appeals, which is a burden on the public purse.”


Keeping on campaigning for further progress


Cllr Ferris continued: “The existing system piles unacceptable pressure on councils in the South-East, particularly those adjoining the Green Belt. It's based on projections of past trends so it perpetuates existing patterns and problems with affordability, requiring ever more housing in those areas over time.


“The Government will only achieve its vision for 'levelling-up' if it looks at the bigger picture, respecting the individual character and needs of each area and not taking a 'one size fits all' approach.”


Cllr Ferris and Cllr Clive Jones, the council leader, have been campaigning along these lines and are supported by borough MPs Sir John Redwood (Wokingham), James Sunderland (Bracknell) and former Prime Minister Theresa May (Maidenhead).


Once any changes to national planning policy are confirmed, the council will consider the best way to move forward, including where and how housing and other development sites should be allocated.

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