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Our leader's letter to housing minister Michael Gove MP

Our leader's letter to housing minister Michael Gove

21 January 2022
[ Zoom ]
Photograph of Wokingham Borough Council's leader John Halsall in front of a row of new homes under construction

The following letter, calling for reform of the national planning system which guides how housing and other types of development should be allocated, has been sent to Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, by Wokingham Borough Council's leader Councillor John Halsall.


This comes as the council continues to consult residents on a revised growth strategy for its Local Plan Update, which similarly guides development within Wokingham borough, with a survey open until 5pm on 24 January. 


More information about what is being proposed, the evidence supporting it and how residents can have their say is available on our Engage Wokingham Borough platform.


We have also prepared a summary and explanation of the key points raised in Cllr Halsall's letter, and he has recorded a special video address to residents on the subject.


REFORM OF THE PLANNING SYSTEM


I am sure we both wish to see a planning system that not only works in the interests of the country, but also one that is fair to all places, and is consistent and understandable to residents and businesses.


With this in mind, I have outlined areas of current national policy which are problematic both operationally to Wokingham Borough Council, including the unnecessary deflection of resources away from delivery, but also make no sense to our residents and are frequently expressed as strong concerns. I hope you will see this as a constructive contribution to your consideration of future reforms to the planning system.


Before getting into details of policy, I think it helpful to set out our credentials.


As an organisation, Wokingham Borough Council fully understands and supports the need for an effective planning system to guide development to the right places in a managed way. This allows quality placemaking and the wrapping of infrastructure improvements alongside. We also understand that the planning system must consider the country’s needs, balancing these carefully with local impact.


Wokingham Borough Council is a proactive planning authority, seeking to shape future development through a carefully managed approach to place-making. We have experience of delivering at a strategic scale, with our existing Core Strategy local plan allocating four major developments each capable of delivering several thousand new homes. 


We understand how to get such schemes off the ground, and we know how to move beyond simple housing estates to the achievement of new sustainable communities, where residents can thrive and raise their families.


We act as master planner, banker and deliverer of key infrastructure. This includes the positive but rare step of borrowing to deliver. This has meant that we can ensure the timely delivery and quality of key infrastructure to both mitigate impacts and address concerns raised by our communities towards development. 


Our approach has enabled the delivery of sustainable, infrastructure rich communities including about £1billion investment into new primary and secondary schools, new strategic roads, new neighbourhood and district centres, new sports hubs, new parkland, and improvements to public transport, as well as over 30% affordable housing. We forward fund some £150m of this acting as banker, which the proposed changes to Minimum Revenue Provision will prohibit us from doing in the future.


In summary, we take our responsibilities to manage and deliver quality places and development seriously. We have put in place a clear plan-led approach that delivers this quality whilst capturing the necessary infrastructure investment. We want to be able to continue doing this.


Notwithstanding our commitment, actions, and delivery, some aspects of national planning policy undermine residents’ confidence in the planning system, the council, and both local and national politicians. This should not be allowed to continue. Residents overwhelmingly feel that our housing delivery has been sufficient, which it has, but should decelerate and pause. In a local consultation there was overwhelming support for “enough is enough” and no further housing delivery.


Reforms to the planning system will only be successful if they win back the trust of communities and reflect well on national and local politicians. Key to this is providing a fair and consistent framework, where the ask of communities is reasonable and the contract struck with communities through local plans is respected without deflection and unnecessary challenge.


Re-focus on the big picture of housing land supply


National planning policy has lost sight of the big picture of housing land supply and has created an industry of speculation and unnecessary challenge. Too many decisions are being made based on a mathematical position at a point in time, rather than considering whether there is a real issue that needs addressing. 


Putting aside concerns about the scale of development required for the moment, the relentless appeals of speculative developments is our residents’ biggest concern.


This has involved a substantial commitment in council resources to defend skirmishes around a few score of unplanned new homes rather than upon the vanguard containing over 10,000 managed new homes in our four major development allocations through our last plan period. That makes no sense and needs a levelling up of priorities.


There is a need to refocus national planning policy on the big picture of housing land supply. By this I mean taking a holistic view including recognising over delivery on need, understanding how strategic scale developments provide a landslide of homes over time and removing opportunities for unnecessary minor development speculation.


Rewarding over delivery on need is a common-sense approach which targets positive behaviours in the industry. If communities have accepted the impact of development, the planning system should reduce the risk of speculative, unplanned development. Simply put, our contract with communities struck through local plans should be honoured and encouraged; any changes should be subject to full engagement as part of a plan-led approach.


The five-year housing land supply test and the housing delivery test are a case in point here, as is the standard method for calculating Local Housing Need.


The calculation of Local Housing Need is based on the presumption that oversupply will lower house prices in areas where they are high in relation to local incomes. There is no evidence that this has been the case in Wokingham; indeed, the opposite is true.


National planning policy and guidance for both the five-year housing land supply and the housing delivery test are silent on the situation where past housing delivery exceeds the required number of homes. Instead, the general position is that the bar is reset annually, wiping out any credit (and incentive to continue to do so) for communities that have accepted development. 


Indeed, the current rules potentially allow a decision maker to find that a planning authority that has exceeded its housing requirement has failed to ensure an adequate supply of land meaning that more is required. This makes no sense and is frustrating the initiative that places like Wokingham Borough Council have driven forward to become delivery orientated planning authorities.


The number of new homes built in Wokingham Borough has exceeded both the requirements set out in our adopted Core Strategy local plan and the outcome of the national standard method for calculating Local Housing Need; this proves that our big picture, plan led system really does work. 


There can be no dispute that the number of new homes built has over delivered against these. Rather than our over delivery on need acting to reduce the risk of speculative, unplanned development, we have experienced the opposite with continuous challenges. 


Developers are using the existing five-year housing land supply rules and the resetting principle to wipe out the relevance of past oversupply to circumvent the plan-led approach to challenge us with proposals for small and medium sized ad-hoc largely greenfield development proposals without providing any infrastructure. This ties up our resources in knots and makes the strategic approach look fruitless and toothless to protect itself.


To illustrate the importance of changing the rules to recognise over delivery, housing completions in Wokingham Borough over recent years have been:


2016/17 = 967 dwellings

2017/18 = 1,528 dwellings

2018/19 = 1,284 dwellings

2019/20 = 1,555 dwellings

2020/21 = 1,129 dwellings


This is against a Local Housing Need calculation of around 800 dwellings over the period. It is plainly evident that our communities have accepted considerable levels of change through planned decisions, at a level above what is required. The level of building has meant that our pot of sites with outstanding planning permission has of course diminished. This means that without recognition of past over delivery, our land supply position is now tight, opening the door to speculative, unplanned development despite already delivering what was required.


Changing national planning guidance to provide a clear framework for encouraging over delivery in both planning applications and the monitoring of local plans would bring back a large amount of common sense through incentivisation.


I need to comment specifically here on the relevance to local plans. To meet the level of housing development required by the standard method for calculating Local Housing Need, many local authorities will be reliant on large scale developments. 


Delivery from such developments can be ‘lumpy’, sometimes being higher, sometimes being lower, often because of infrastructure needs. Allowing planning authorities to take account of both over delivery and under delivery over time, would allow phases to be balanced out. Current national planning policy and guidance works against sensible planning. 


Indeed, it works to penalise a planning authority which can deliver more homes in the short term, with increased delivery targets in the longer term, but credits those who choose to do less and say that they will do more in later years.


Our emerging new local plan projects higher delivery in early years to reflect peak delivery from our major developments. We should be able to balance that early delivery off against later periods without risk. Current national planning policy and guidance doesn’t allow for this.


Re-focus on delivery and remove speculation


Current national planning policy has spawned an industry of speculation. The five-year housing land supply test has lost any objectivity of the big picture, with the development industry going to great lengths to suggest uncertainty in supply in the hope of benefitting from the ‘tilted balance’.


Wokingham Borough Council works with landowners and developers of sites with planning permission to help understand what will realistically be built over the coming years. In many cases, the landowner/developer provides us with their expectations of the programme and projected completions. We undertake a sense check to ensure any information is realistic, adjusting these where we feel necessary.


Notwithstanding the clearly expressed intentions of the landowner/developer, people representing other sites challenge this position. Clearly, people not linked to the landowner/developer of a site are in a poorer place to assess projected delivery, but they nevertheless seek to raise doubt.


For example, contrary to what the controlling landowner says, a reserved matters application won’t come forward or contrary to what they say that they simply won’t want to build so many homes. We also experience people saying that a letter from the landowner/developer is not relevant because national planning policy refers to a statement of common ground. The reality of course is that there is no legal difference between them: they are both simply non-binding statements of intent.


Too many Planning Inspectors are rejecting projected delivery based on conjecture and with no specific evidence. The evidential position they take is beyond what is reasonable, seeking a degree of certainty which is not proportional or in our opinion required by national planning policy. This cannot be allowed to continue.


Also, if land supply drops short, little consideration appears to be given to the extent of the shortfall, or indeed whether the issue which caused this will correct itself without the need to grant planning permission for speculative developments.


It is worth noting here, most of the speculative developments allowed in Wokingham Borough on the basis of land supply don’t actually get built within the following five years. The reality is that they simply don’t assist land supply, the reason the decision maker has allowed them.


I should comment here that we see no need for the five-year housing land supply test at all. The best thing the government could do would be to delete it without delay as suggested in the white paper. The test unfairly places the outcome on the willingness, not the capability of developers who can choose when to build out a scheme.


The test unquestionably invites unnecessary speculation and deflects valuable public resources away from delivery to defence. Our experience is that more time is spent in planning appeals discussing the five-year housing land supply position than any other matter, including the impacts and merits of the scheme itself. A clear demonstration of the current system’s failure.


A positive plan for growth


National planning policy has lost sight of any positive plan for how development should be managed on a national scale, favouring simple mathematical formulae. These formulae are applied without any sense check or any consideration of constraints or opportunities.


Whilst at one level, having a simple approach to housing is a laudable aim, the reality is that the questions we must ask ourselves on behalf of the country are more complex than can simply be expressed in a formula.


There is a need for the government to step away from a mathematical approach and to instead set out a positive strategy for development, one which purposely aligns housing with economic aspirations such as levelling up and is fair and achievable for all places. The current standard method simply reinforces past trends and uses only three volatile datasets. It takes no account of the impact on areas or the opportunity for development, such as the availability of brownfield land. 


The most recent amendment to the standard method increased the housing ask of Reading Borough Council by 35% through the urban centres uplift without any regard as to whether this is achievable at all. Whilst the mantra is rolled out by the government that planning authorities can put evidence forward to support a different housing requirement, the reality is that the risk of this is placed squarely at the end of the local plan process, at a time when many councils will have spent in excess of £1milion on local plan work. 


Examinations across the country have also shown that there is little to no likelihood of success, for example with many planning authorities in green belt areas being required to release land despite the protections in national planning policy and statements of protection from government.


We also know that the Duty to Cooperate doesn’t work. Without objective, independent oversight, such an approach was doomed from the start, and I am glad that government seems to have realised this themselves in the white paper.


Whilst I do not see a return to the old regional planning structures, the absence of any national spatial strategy or other strategic scale planning is a clear flaw in the current system. No one is asking the question “where should housing go”. No one is seeking to align economic growth ambitions with new homes or infrastructure investment. No one is thinking about levelling up. As the old saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.


In my opinion, the government should create new streamlined strategic planning bodies to work with government and answer key spatial questions, including where new housing should be directed, replacing the standard method. This should be done quickly. It will ensure that planning authorities work from a common base date, allow constraints and opportunities to be considered, and provide a clear political narrative as to why decisions have been made. These need not be complicated and costly bodies. They should have a tightly defined remit and clear governance.


Defining housing requirements at a strategic level will provide a consistent and achievable basis from which to prepare local plans, rather than constantly moving targets and hope. It will redirect discussion on housing requirements entirely away from individual local plan examinations and will, over the county, provide a significant efficiency, particularly if coupled with refocusing on the big picture of housing land supply as mentioned above.


A focus on delivering permitted schemes


The government’s focus and energy should be firmly on the real issues of non-delivery. Government thinking to date has been on granting additional planning permissions in the hope that someone will build. A better approach would be to intervene to assist infrastructure delivery to de-risk the construction process for developers and create a framework to incentivise delivery, e.g., build it or lose it, or to provide a financial incentive.


If Wokingham Borough Council is to continue to act as master planner, deliverer in the way we currently do we also need your help with the current ‘Consultation on changes to the capital framework: Minimum Revenue Provision’ by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. 


If enacted as drafted this will also severely limit our capability to borrow to forward fund enabling infrastructure to unlock and accelerate housing delivery. This unintended consequence of this legislative change needs full cross sector consideration of impact and implications as it could single-handedly suppress economic recovery.


Whilst my letter is lengthy, many of the issues can be easily resolved immediately through changes to the NPPF and planning practice guidance.


In summary, the planning system must work for everyone. It must be one of common sense and must be trusted by communities to be fair and consistent. Current national planning policy and guidance has lost sight of the big picture of housing land supply, by applying unchecked formulae, and inviting speculation. 


Urgent reform is required so that the contracts we draw up with communities through local plans are respected, and that substantive grounds are required to justify any deviation, not mathematical speculation. 


The scale of housing required of planning authorities must align with economic priorities such as levelling up and be supported by investment in infrastructure. The housing ask of places must be realistic and proportionate. Consideration must take into account the scale of past change and whether continuing opportunities for development exist or not. We only see this being achieved through the introduction of streamlined strategic planning bodies.


I would welcome the opportunity to meet and further discuss planning reform with you. I also warmly extend to you an invitation to visit Wokingham Borough to hear and see for yourself the exemplary work we do.


Wokingham Borough Council is actively progressing a new local plan, as the government wishes to see. The matters listed above are at the centre of our residents’ concerns.


Yours sincerely,

John Halsall

Leader of Wokingham Borough Council


Cc - Theresa May MP, Sir John Redwood MP, Matt Rodda MP, James Sunderland MP, Christopher Pincher MP, Kemi Badenoch MP, Neil O'Brien MP, James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association and Susan Parsonage, chief executive of Wokingham Borough Council

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