MPs’ outrage prompts U turn over controversial planning algorithm

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online

So what’s the point of the consultation process, that is now a statutory requirement, if the government is going to plough on ahead with their controversial policies and cause themselves so much grief?

16 NOVEMBER 2020 BY JESSICA HILL

Plans to use a new algorithm to set how many homes need to be built in local areas are being overhauled after a backlash from Tory MPs concerned the reforms would concrete over vast swathes of countryside and fly in the face of the government’s levelling up ambitions, it has been reported.

The Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday that the formula used to produce targets for each area is being “rebalanced” to focus on building homes in urban areas after many senior Tories including Theresa May made their opposition felt.

The formula had intended to take account of the gap between house prices and incomes over the past ten years, rather than the one year currently used to calculate housing need. But it was felt by many that the plans would have been a betrayal of the government’s levelling up agenda, as London would have seen 161% more homes required and the south east 57% more while in the north east housebuilding targets would be 28% lower than existing delivery.

The government is now looking at redesigning the formula so it is “fairer”, the Sunday Telegraph claimed.

LGC understands that the chair of the Local Government Association James Jamieson had been raising concerns with the government to get the algorithm changed, while district councillors in many areas had raised objections with their local MPs. However, the planned overhaul does not amount to a commitment by the government to abandon the algorithm altogether and allow councils to determine their own housing targets according to need, as the LGA have called for.

District Councils Network chairman John Fuller (Con) told LGC the housing targets thrown up by the algorithm were “so nonsensical that councillors did not have to work too hard to get MPs to see the folly of the proposals”.

Cllr Fuller told LGC the news was “no surprise” because “in many areas, the targets were to set unachievable ambitions which would have brought the entire planning system into disrepute, whilst delivering fewer homes in the areas that need the most – in urban centres and the North”.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, the change to the planned formula is expected to be formally  announced within weeks. Sources told the paper that the shift was designed to help the government to “re-imagine” town and city centres hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, and claimed the prime minister and communities secretary Robert Jenrick “have been listening to Conservative colleagues”.

Speaking to LGC last week, Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely (Con) slammed the algorithm as a “suicide note to the Tory shires” that needed “significant evaluation”.

He claimed up to 100 Conservative MPs had voiced their concerns about the plans.

Harborough MP Neil O’Brien, who was formerly a special adviser to Mrs May, tweeted that it was “very encouraging that ministers are looking at overhauling the housing algorithm with a view to focussing on inner urban regeneration – something I’ve been arguing for”.

As well as facing opposition from backbenchers, LGC has been told the algorithm had been unpopular with some senior ministers who felt unable to vocalise their views in public, including at least one who attends cabinet.

The Planning for the Future white paper has also now been thrown into some doubt, as plans to carve the country into three tiers of development zones, making it harder for residents to oppose individual planning developments are also opposed by some MPs fearful of a public backlash over the consequences.

Mr Seely described the white paper plans as an “assault on democracy” which is “a missed opportunity because we should be focusing on the environment and community led reform”.

Meanwhile, former environment secretary Theresa Villiers told the BBC that the changes to the housing targets methodology were “encouraging”, but “a few tweaks are not enough”.

She said: “We need radical change to the proposal if we’re to ensure that this algorithm doesn’t lead to unacceptable overdevelopment.

“So there’s still a long way to go before the government’s planning reforms will be acceptable to backbench MPs committed to safeguarding the local environment in their constituencies.”

Cllr Fuller said it was “premature to double guess what the government response will be” to the white paper and whether “that can has been kicked down the road”, as the consultation took place after the consultation on the update to methodology for setting housing targets and only closed at the end of last month.

“Hopefully now we can have a proper conversation on how to deliver the government’s manifesto commitment to deliver 300,000 homes a year that puts rooves over people’s heads,” he said.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government had not responded to LGC’s request for comment at the time of publication

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