20 December 2023

Review of 2023: a year in planning

Review of 2023: a year in planning image
Image: bunny pixar / Shutterstock.com.

Karen Charles, executive director, Boyer (part of Leaders Romans Group), takes a look back at developments in planning policy over the last year.

2023 both began and concluded with a review of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It also saw the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act enter the Statute Book, a new housing and planning minister, and procedures put in place for a mandatory 10% biodiversity net gain on major new developments from January 2024.

This might suggest an eventful year for planning policy but in reality, little has changed in terms of what matters most – plan-making and decision-taking to providing much needed homes, at prices that people can afford.

Sadly all the statistics – house prices, development output, planning application success rates and the progress of local plans – demonstrate that policy changes (or the lack of them) have done little to alleviate this ever-pressing issue; in fact some have had the opposite effect.

The next general election may still be a year away, but throughout 2023 there has been a strong sense that the Government avoided making decisions that might cost votes. A prime example is an aversion to developing on greenfield land. Tweaks to the NPPF regarding the release of Green Belt land are a regressive policy; likewise the effective scrapping of top-down housing targets. The uncertainty that has resulted from both has delayed the progress of local plans and therefore the land allocated for housing, and ultimately the delivery of homes. This combined with fiscal issues on interest rates and the consequential impact on mortgages, has resulted in 2023 being challenging for the housebuilding sector.

Where we have seen more proactive changes, these appear to have been drafted with that same target demographic in mind. For example, the introduction of gentle density and 'beauty' into planning policy and the increased importance given to biodiversity both have potential to benefit the quality of new developments, but also creates the risk that others will be unable to come forward because of the additional cost.

The inevitable consequence of appeasing middle-aged, middle-class voters is a detrimental impact on the younger, less well off demographic. Where I am based in the South East, the price of a quality home, whether to buy or to rent, is inaccessible to many, including essential key workers such as nurses and teachers. This then has consequences for delivering public services which everyone is reliant upon.

As 2023 came to a close there were some more positive initiatives. The announcement in the Autumn Statement that £110m was being made available for nutrient neutrality mitigation schemes is encouraging, though the funding will have to work hard to address the delay in delivery of homes that have been held up by this. Nutrient neutrality is a key contributor to the housing crisis in some areas, resulting in the delay of at least 150,000 homes (of which approximately 45,000 would have been much-needed social/affordable homes).

The enactment of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill after a challenging journey through the parliamentary system should have been a cause for celebration for the development industry. But the new Act bears little resemblance to the bold approach of the white paper Planning for the Future which was launched in the early months of the current Government, or even wide-ranging commitments of Boris Johnson’s celebrated Levelling Up White Paper. To some extent this watering-down is an inevitability: politics is an art of balancing opposing priorities and finding a satisfactory compromise.

But we are left with some significant gaps in the strategic planning process. Along with housing targets, the Duty to Co-operate appears consigned to the history books, with nothing to replace it. It is vital that local authorities work together – many communities cross council boundaries, and furthermore a shortfall of housing in one authority naturally increases demand in a neighbouring authority – but in the absence of the Duty to Cooperate there is no requirement for this to be addressed.

The decision to scrap the northern leg of HS2 is yet another example of a political announcement which has resulted in a brake on development, rather than the much-needed acceleration. Similarly the omission of the long-promised suite of National Development Management Policies from revisions to the NPPF is also a missed opportunity.

The fact that housing and planning were notably absent from the Government’s October party conference is probably the strongest indication that bold measures aimed at boosting housing numbers are not a political priority. But Labour, as potentially the Government-in-waiting, clearly holds the opposite view. And as the general election approaches and the housing shortage intensifies these issues will remain high on the news agenda.

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