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Set Up to Fail: Why Flawed Housing Targets Threaten Our Countryside

16/11/2015 13:48 GMT | Updated 16/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Today CPRE published a major report, Set up to fail: why housing targets based on flawed numbers threaten our countryside. I guess most people's minds are elsewhere following the terrible events in Paris, but I hope the report will get some attention in the coming weeks. Based on a thorough analysis of 54 local plans adopted in the last two years, it shows conclusively that the current system is not working either for those in housing need or for communities trying to shape developments in their area.

For all its localist rhetoric this government, like the last Labour government, effectively imposes high housing targets on local councils. It forgets that aiming to build a house is not the same as actually building one. The plans we analysed set housing targets which are, on average, 30% higher than the projected growth in the number of households and 50% higher than the average build rate of the last 15 years.

The Government, led from the Treasury, has an idée fixe that the way to get more houses built is to make things as easy as possible for the big builders, including by making the planning system more developer-friendly. The latest of many planning reforms is now being considered by Parliament. As with previous reforms, the new Housing and Planning Bill aims at simplification but risks making the system less clear. At the same time, an expert group is advising the Planning Minister on how to speed up local plan-making.

But planning is not the cause of the housing crisis and planning reform is not the solution. In the year to June, 242,000 homes were given planning permission but only 136,000 were started. From 2012 to 2014, 510,000 residential planning permissions were granted for sites of ten units or more, but there were only 348,000 housing starts.

The government has invested vast sums in the housebuilding industry, at a time of national austerity. Developer land banks have grown; shareholders are getting rich, partly on government subsidies; and the executives of the big housebuilding firms enjoy eye-watering bonuses. But the houses the country needs are not being built. When will the penny drop in the Treasury?

What is happening instead is that more and more greenfield land is being released to meet fantasy housing targets. The developers say 'thanks very much', build on the plum sites (slowly), and leave the harder, brownfield sites to go to waste. I do not blame them. They have a responsibility to their shareholders, not to the wider public good (however much they pray in aid of their shareholders the national need for more houses). But I do blame the Government for policies that serve no social purpose but cause great environmental harm.

The report gives the example of Oxfordshire, the south east's most rural county, whose Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) suggests the need for 100,000 new homes by 2031. This is means building the equivalent of two new Oxfords (though possibly not as attractive) in just 17 years. It would also mean building at virtually double the rate achieved even in boom years. As the report soberly suggests, this 'is unlikely to be achieved'.

But if the housing targets are based on fantasy, the damage they will cause is all too real. The draft local plan for the Vale of the White Horse, for instance, proposes 1400 houses in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and 1500 homes in the Green Belt. Other local authorities in Oxfordshire are making similarly damaging plans to meet these inflated targets.

North Somerset Council tried to plan for housing numbers that would meet need without causing excessive environmental harm. Its local plan was approved in 2012, but successfully challenged in the courts. Earlier this year the council submitted a new plan, with increased housing numbers, but this was rejected by the Inspector on the grounds that the Council's plan did not meet the figures in the SHMA. The Inspector's judgement was upheld by the Secretary of State: so much for localism. North Somerset is highly constrained by Green Belt and the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I am equally confident of two things: the housing target set by the Communities Secretary will cause great damage to special places; and it will not be met.

North Somerset Council at least tried to take account of environmental constraints when planning its housing numbers. Only seven of the 54 plans scrutinised in CPRE's research contain housing numbers that are in part determined by environmental factors, and in three of those cases environmental concerns hardly reduced the overall housing numbers.

The problems identified in CPRE's report are not confined to the south of the country. In Barnsley Metropolitan Council, for instance, the SHMA figures will require an implausible 44% uplift in the build rate. Regeneration within Barnsley will take second place to executive homes in the Green Belt.

CPRE's report identifies a vicious circle that will be familiar to countryside campaigners across England.

- Unrealistic housing targets are set.

- Councils are forced to allocate greenfield land to meet the targets.

- Developers cherry-pick the most profitable greenfield sites.

- Building takes place slowly, to keep prices high.

- So the housing targets are missed...

- ... and councils are forced to allocate more land for building.

- Developers again target the most profitable sites.

And so it goes on, causing huge strife without getting more homes built.

If the Government paid half as much attention to the serious problem of Getting Houses Built as it does to the planning system, we might be able both to build the houses the country needs and defend the countryside that is so valuable to most people. As CPRE's new report shows in compelling detail, setting ludicrously high housing targets without any hope of achieving them is pointless at best, extremely damaging at worst.