Set up to fail

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 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.

5 Responses to “Set up to fail”


  1. 1 Andrew Carey November 16, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    There’s something wrong here. Actually a lot wrong, but the most obvious point relates to Oxfordshire. The SHMA for this county projects a 30% population growth. You make an evidence-free assertion that this is faulty as the country as a whole is projected to have a population increase of 10%. The key question is the projected population increase for Oxfordshire of course. Growth will not be homogeneous. If population growth for Oxfordshire is predicted to be around 30% ( easily possible, intelligent population, close to London, many job vacancies, desirable county ) then the SHMA are broadly right. Claiming it is wrong because the UK average which includes places without these attributes that attract growth is faulty.

    Sticking with Oxfordshire, you state that under 70% of planning permissions resulted in a housing start between 2012-2014. That’s national. But what was the % in Oxfordshire. Your report doesn’t say.

    Growth is not uniform, nor should it be. The idée fixe is that of CPRE who think it should. There would be no great cities at all, and no new great cities to rival and improve on the old ones if this philosophy that equal national growth is desirable continues.

  2. 2 Andrew Carey November 16, 2015 at 10:09 pm

    I’ve looked it up. From the insight.oxfordshire.gov.uk website we find a quote
    “The Principal projection indicates continued population growth, reaching 930,000 people by 2052, up by over 40% from 666,000 in 2014”.

    But the CPRE thinks 10% is the baseline that should be used in planning for this county apparently, because that’s the average of the rest of the UK, most of the rest of the UK not being like Oxfordshire of course.

  3. 3 Susan Eppel November 19, 2015 at 8:05 am

    Didn’t all this housing frenzy start with the ‘Barker Review’ some years ago under New Labour? basically to kick start the housing market. I believe it is based on economics than strictly need, although any housing built should be affordable.
    Surely there has to be environmental limits adered to

  4. 4 Robert Flunder April 6, 2016 at 10:23 am

    This CPRE article says – “But if the housing targets are based on fantasy…”

    Local Authority housing targets are derived from the calculation of ‘Objectively Assessed (Housing) Needs which the NPPF requires all Local Authorities to undertake.
    Two of the major inputs into an LA’s Objectively Assessed (Housing) Needs calculation are the projected increase in the LA’s future population and the projected increase in the LA’s future household formation.
    These inputs are supplied to each local authority by the ONS and DCLG.
    Has CPRE ever, or is CPRE, challenging any of these inputs supplied to each local authority ?
    Its not rocket science to understand that if very large inputs go into the calculation very large ‘housing needs’ come out the other end.
    So large in some cases that greenbelt housing development is inevitable.
    Its patently obvious that this is caused by an ever growing UK population, but the CPRE hierarchy are so loathe to admit this that they pretend the housing targets are wrong – does CPRE therefore believe that the projected Population Growth figures for each authority are wrong – if so the obvious thing for CPRE to do would be to shout this from the rooftops.
    So why don’t they ? – is it because they know the projected Population Growth figures by area are correct and these spell destruction for much of the countryside and greenbelt – that is unless organisations like CPRE show leadership and campaign for a curb on unfettered Population Growth.

    Unfortunately the political inclinations of the CPRE hierarchy prevent them addressing this the principal cause of the destruction of much English countryside.

    • 5 sspiers April 6, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Thank you for your comment.

      Set up to Fail argued, on the basis of sound evidence, that local authorities are confusing housing need and housing demand. The calculation of housing numbers is generally outsourced to a few specialist consultancy firms who more generally act for developers. These firms come up with inflated housing targets, and certainly targets that cannot be achieved given the current state of the house building industry.

      CPRE has certainly challenged the housing targets proposed by local authorities. For instance CPRE Oxfordshire and CPRE Surrey have commissioned very thorough studies of the proposed numbers in their counties, exposing flaws in the methodology. But the system is, to coin a phrase, set up to ensure excessive housing targets.

      We have a growing population and a backlog of housing need, including too many people living in sub-standard housing, so we need to build more houses. CPRE does not deny that, and we also acknowledge that some new housing will go on greenfield sites. But there is but with enough suitable brownfield land for at least a million homes, and a churn meaning a steady stream of new brownfield sites, so by far the majority of new house building should be on brownfield land. Building in the Green Belt development is certainly neither inevitable nor desirable.

      CPRE’s focus can and should be on using our land wisely, regenerating towns and cities, and maximising the use of suitable brownfield land. We could argue for population stability or decline, and we could even propose how to control population growth. But I have explained umpteen times in various blog postings why I think it would be unwise for us to do so. I think we are unlikely to persuade each other.

      You also insist on blaming ‘the political inclinations of the CPRE hierarchy’, though I have also explained umpteen times that the issue of population has been debated repeatedly within CPRE’s forums – the AGM, the Autumn Conference, a special conference on the 2026 vision, the branch forum, the board, the Policy Committee – and there has been no support for focussing our efforts on the issue of population growth (though as a matter of fact I often mention it, including in my most recent blog).


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