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Over the course of the election campaign we will be publishing planning explainers on key topics. We're starting off on the key campaign theme of housing. Public concern about the lack of housing has put the issue centre stage of the UK General Election. In this ‘explainer’, the Royal Town Planning Institute describes how England’s planning system contributes to the delivery of new homes. We also look at what could be done to provide the safe, sufficient, and sustainable homes our country needs.

 

Why are new homes planned?

New homes are planned so that they improve, rather than weaken public services and the local economy, environment and community life. The planning process also helps to make sure that the residents who move in can access all of the things they need for a good quality of life.

Planning gives elected politicians and the public ways to actively engage with decisions to introduce new homes and to make decisions democratically and in the public interest.

Most councils are responsible for ensuring that there is enough suitable land for new homes in their areas. They also have a duty to consider and grant permission to development when proposals are suitable.

This process can be difficult but expert, professional planners can help to place the right types of new homes in the best locations to access jobs and services. They also help to balance the demand for homes with other uses for land like growing food, employment or infrastructure and ensure that the whole community’s needs and rights are properly considered.

How are new homes planned?

A ‘Local Plan’ is produced by each council for their area. This document explains how the local communities’ needs will be met through the planning process and outlines their vision for the future of housing and other uses for land.

Each area should have a local plan to explain the number of new homes needed in the area. This is forecast using a ‘standard method’ required by the Government.

Local Plans also introduce ‘planning policies’ that describe what types of privately owned, socially rented or other homes are suitable and accompanying documents can set standards about building’s size, height, design and other characteristics. Desirable and sustainable land for new homes is also shown in the local plan and can be put forward by landowners.

Councils are then responsible for deciding planning applications that propose new homes and other uses for land. Expert planners help politicians to assess proposals against the local plan and consider government policy and guidance when making decisions to permit or reject applications.

Why is there so much political debate about new homes?

Most types of new home need an explicit planning permission from the local council before they begin construction work. However, housebuilders complete many other steps to secure finance and work with a range of other professionals like architects, surveyors, builders and specialist consultants before new homes can be built.

As a result, more proposals for new homes are permitted by councils through the planning process than are built. This has become a political issue because it is widely argued that too few new homes are being built.

The outgoing Conservative Government set a target of delivering 300,000 new homes a year in England, but in 2021/22 only 233,000 were delivered. Labour have also proposed to build an average of 300,000 homes per year so that 1.5 million homes are delivered during a five-year term in Government if elected. The Liberal Democrats have pledged to build a higher number of new homes, 380,000 per year, and said that 150,000 of these should be made available for social rent.

Politicians and commentators have also been concerned that the new homes being built are not affordable and do not meet standards of quality and environmental sustainability. The limited supply of homes has also been seen as a contributing factor to rising homelessness and rising rental costs for those who do not own their own home.

What needs to change?

The Royal Town Planning Institute has argued that our planning system can do more to help make home ownership achievable and affordable and deliver a wider range of housing ‘tenures’ affordably.

Councils often spend more on developing the local plan, processing applications and advising applicants and the public than they receive from the government or from the fees that Government allows them to charge. We believe sufficiently funded planning services led by a new mandatory ‘Chief Planner’ in every council would plan for new homes faster and to a higher standard.

It can be difficult for councils in relatively small areas to plan new homes near jobs, public services and infrastructure located in neighbouring areas. Some council areas also have restrictions on where they can be built because, for example, land is protected for nature or green belt or has a historic character. We believe that Metro Mayors and Combined Authorities should play a greater role to plan over larger areas so the right number of homes can be built overall without requiring specific areas to accept more homes than they can accommodate. The next Government should also scale-up public investment for previously used and brownfield land to receive new homes and other amenities.

The Local Plan should give developers certainty that they can progress with proposals for new homes on specific sites. It should also give councils the ability to influence the quality of housing and plan for where development in the right locations for their area. However, in recent years it has become more common for housebuilders to gain permission through appeals processes and forms of ‘permitted development right’. These often do not meet the local community’s expectations, for example, housing people in former industrial estates. We believe the speed and certainty needed to build more homes would improve if sites identified in the local plan for new homes were more likely to be approved for planning permission by councils and if government introduced stricter limits on the types of building that can be converted into housing.

You can find out more about these and other changes promoted by the Royal Town Planning Institute in the RTPI’s 2024 ‘Planifesto’ .

 

Further reading

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