Invent any description you like of England’s incredibly complex planning regulations and it’s unlikely to go far enough. “Alice through the Looking Glass”, “Kafkaesque”, “more confusing than Hampton Court maze”… and for those tempted to venture further into this convoluted world, the warning should perhaps be “abandon hope, all ye who enter here”.
And yet planning matters enormously to each and every one of us. It shapes our immediate environment; it dictates whether or not we get to build the extension that we have set our sights on; and it promises to protect the open spaces so dear to English hearts. Local planning issues can raise passions like no others.
Build a bonfire
The government’s stated intention to “make a bonfire of planning red tape” was at first welcomed by many. But doubt quickly crept in. Johnson’s mantra of “build, build, build” started alarm bells ringing long before the white paper on “Planning for the Future” was published in August 2020. Almost immediately it came under fire, not least from a number of Conservative MPs whose rural constituencies saw their housebuilding targets raised significantly under the Ministry of Housing, Local Government and Communities’ new algorithm, which rapidly became known as “the mutant”. Alarmed by the pushback, the government executed a neat U-turn and in December published a revision to the targets contained in the white paper.
So now where do we stand? If Lewes district is anything to go by, the answer is: it depends who you talk to. Far from lessening confusion, this U-turn served to increase it. A dispute about the district council’s housebuilding target broke out on Facebook between Emily O’Brien, the Lewes district councillor responsible for housing planning and infrastructure, and the local Conservative MP Maria Caulfield.
Caulfield claimed that Lewes would only be required to provide the same annual figure as before. O’Brien pulled no punches in her reply: “This is simply not true. You are posting the current figures. The point is they will more than double from May onwards.” Faced by claim and counter-claim on an already horribly complex subject, Sussex Bylines contacted O’Brien to try to clarify the issues.
Councillor O’Brien warns of flawed methodology for calculating housebuild numbers
In a long Zoom call O’Brien explained the impact on local authorities of the government’s 2020 “Planning for the Future” white paper that proposed a “once in a generation” reform of England’s planning rules on top of a series of changes to the system of calculating housing need.
“The house-building target that we have been set locally will result in grotesque over-development,” O’Brien says. “Politicians of all parties are aghast at what the government is proposing, and until they change their stance I will do everything I can to oppose them.”
To do so, the district council needs to convince the government that they have left no stone unturned in seeking sites for new housing and to prove that there are not sufficient suitable sites in the district to meet the increased target. “We have to provide cast-iron evidence to justify a lower figure.”
The first step in this process is to put out a call to landowners, which Lewes (unusually for a local authority) then shares with towns and parishes in the district, to submit ideas for sites. This has caused some understandable alarm. “We really wanted to involve local communities very early on in the process,” O’Brien emphasises. “But it does create a lot of uncertainty for people, because they may see a huge list of potential sites and not realise that many of those won’t go through.”
What will happen when the housing cap ends in May?
Every authority has to produce a five-year local plan which provides guidance on what can be built where and takes into account the annual house-building target they have agreed with government. Lewes district council’s current plan ends in May, and it seems as though there will be a long period of uncertainty between then and December 2023, the deadline for submitting the next plan for approval by the Ministry of Housing.
It is this interval that concerns O’Brien: “Under the flawed standard methodology for calculating house numbers, we were allocated 780 last year, but the actual number was capped at 385. After May that cap will be lifted.”
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She expresses disappointment that despite repeated efforts by the council to work with Caulfield, sending her briefing notes and inviting her to meetings with council officers, their offers weren’t taken up. Instead, the MP has stated publicly on social media and in writing to parish councils that the district council’s figures are “wrong”.
O’Brien agrees that the figures quoted by Caulfield are correct, as they relate to current housing targets. “But the issue in question is what happens after May this year, when the current cap will be lifted and the numbers almost double.” To make quite sure that the council’s figures are correct, she has asked her officers to confirm them with Ministry of Housing officials. Undeterred by their public dispute on Facebook, she is also still keen to work with Caulfield to achieve the right outcome for the district.
And there is so much else that O’Brien wants to put her energy into: “We want to be at the forefront of addressing climate change and biodiversity, creating sustainable housing and committed to really good place-making.” O’Brien has most definitely not abandoned hope.