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Is the government’s homes target feasible?

The housing shortage will only be tackled if central government stops blaming the planning system and starts collaborating with local councils and the private sector, says Paul Walton.

The planning system is often regarded as a bureaucratic obstacle to the government’s target of building 260,000 new homes a year.

In a move to make the planning system more productive and user-friendly, communities secretary Greg Clark is introducing proposals for a pilot project that would open up planning application processing to competition.

Mr Clark believes his amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill, currently before parliament, would lead to a “more efficient and effective planning system” by allowing applicants to “shop around for the services that best meet their needs”.

He has emphasised that competition would be introduced only in the processing of planning applications, with decision-making powers remaining with local councils.

It is a bold initiative and may create benefits. Nonetheless, the simple truth is that planning system reform cannot begin to deliver new homes on the scale the country needs.

We do not need to look far for evidence. Recent Local Government Association research shows there are now 475,000 homes that have received planning consent but which have not been built. This number is up from 381,000 two years ago – an increase of 25 per cent.

Of course the planning system isn’t perfect, but this is hardly surprising because it involves innately complex and necessarily rigorous processes. Many planning applications are contentious and there are inevitably winners and losers.

Even so most councils do a good job of reaching a decision that is reasonable and pragmatic. They can’t please all of the people all of the time, but they do make a fist of pleasing some of the people some of the time.

The scale of the challenge local planning authorities currently face is put into perspective when it is considered that the last time more than 200,000 homes were built in the UK was 1968, when councils played a substantial and direct role in housing development.

Meanwhile, the volume of homes built by the private sector has remained fairly static since 1950, according to figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

With these facts in mind, it seems clear that we will not build anyway near 200,000 homes annually unless local authorities are given a much bigger and more influential role.

Whether the government trusts local councils to become more strategically involved is uncertain. What is certain is that all areas of the public sector must work collaboratively with the private sector if we are to deliver the broad range of solutions that is urgently needed.

As a director of PWA Planning, Paul Walton leads a team of specialist Lancashire planning consultants. Paul advises landowners, developers and property professionals on a wide range of planning matters. For further advice call Paul on 01772 369669.

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