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Feature: Can housing targets be met?

By Pete Canavan, Partner Carter Jonas (Oxford)

When a target is consistently missed, does it cease to have a purpose?

Never, since the new towns boom of the 1970s have 300,00 homes been built in a single year. In 2021, 228,370 homes were completed. But a raft of external pressures including the pandemic, the fuel crisis and inflation threaten even that figure being met this year. Many question whether a top-down, arbitrary figure has any purpose.

Furthermore, January’s Housing Delivery Test results revealed that 93 of the UK’s 315 local planning authorities (LPAs) failed to reach the required 95% delivery target over the last three years and the future of these tests is also being questioned.

The setting of targets by LPA is beset with difficulties. Firstly, the requirement immediately creates political tensions, with councillors obliged to meet the target while under pressure from the electorate to resist development. Secondly, the distribution of targets among LPAs is often criticised as failing to understand local pressures and geographic nuances.

In Oxfordshire where I am based, there is an indisputable need for new homes, but the housing targets for each LPA are not necessarily linked to those with the most appropriate sites. Fundamentally, we must deliver the new homes where people want to live, while also addressing the sustainability agenda. Growth must be determined in relation to social and physical infrastructure.

It has been rumoured by ministers that local targets may be dropped. So are regional targets a potential replacement? They may be more immune from political interference and have the potential to better disperse housing across a wider area. But the Duty to Cooperate has not succeeded in resolving tensions between neighbouring authorities, nor produced a clear approach to meeting needs across wider areas. A return to regional targets must identify transparently all the elements and enable space for debate on each. The absence of these factors led to suggestions of “dictatorship” in the previous Regional Spatial Strategies.

This is so much more than a numbers game: targets alone won’t result in appropriate housing being delivered in appropriate locations or address the affordability issue.

Progress towards delivery requires “carrot” as well as “stick” and should not penalise local authorities for market failure, only for slow or inappropriate decision-making that disrupts housing provision. Housing targets must remain part of plan-making, both as an aspirational target – supported by infrastructure and services – and also a minimum requirement that if missed, results in sanctions. Furthermore the number of consents, rather than just the number of finished houses, should be a clearer part of longer-term monitoring.

Local Plans will have a greater impact if they take include a wider range of factors – population and demographic changes, changing household formations and nuanced shifts in preferences such as counter-urbanisation. Projections should take into account wages, rent costs, the ability to save for a deposit and the availability of mortgages to first time buyers. Whilst the standard methodology includes affordability calculations, it fails to understand and respond to economic trends. If more time was invested in a draft Plan, more engagement would be secured from service providers and a more deliverable outcome achieved.

An efficient Plan is one that delivers tangible outcomes, not merely a list of potential development sites that gathers dust on a council bookshelf.