Are neighbourhood plans boosting housing numbers?

Few in the sector have disputed the findings of a planning consultancy report claiming that neighbourhood plans have had a limited impact on boosting housing supply.

31 May 2018 by Joey Gardiner


A report from planning consultancy Lichfields published earlier this month threw considerable doubt on the government’s repeated claims that neighbourhood plans allocate on average 10 per cent more homes than their councils’ local plans. The claim was first made in 2015 and repeated in a written ministerial statement in December 2016 and again in last year’s housing white paper. Ministers have cited the figure in a bid to show that the documents have a positive effect on planning for new homes. 

How does this month’s report compare with the government’s research that produced the 10 per cent figure? Lichfields’ figures are certainly based on a greater amount of data. It analysed 330 adopted or ‘made’ neighbourhood plans – well over half the 542 now completed. In contrast, the government’s study was based on a 2015 study that looked at just 39 documents. 

Lichfields’ analysis found that just 15 neighbourhood plans – five per cent of the total studied – allocate more homes or set a higher target than the relevant adopted local plan. And for those 15 the additional planned housing amounts to just three per cent. The majority of neighbourhood plans – 60 per cent – allocate no housing at all. There is no requirement for neighbourhood plans to propose housing numbers or allocate sites, but where they do they are prevented by regulations from proposing fewer homes than are allocated in their local plans. "It is difficult to conclude," the report states, "that neighbourhood plans are boosting the planned supply of housing." 

Few in the sector dispute this finding. Jon Herbert, director at consultancy Troy Planning, said most areas plan positively, but added: "I’m not involved in any that are allocating more than they have to – it’s fair to say those are few and far between." The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government did not contradict the findings when asked, with a spokesman simply stating the government was "committed to giving communities more of a say in the development of their area". 

Developers and their agents feel that despite the rules stopping neighbourhood plans reducing housing numbers, they do often restrict development opportunities. This is in part, they say, because of the government’s commitment to protecting neighbourhood plan areas from speculative development by requiring only a three-year housing land supply to be demonstrated, as opposed to five years in other areas. 

Rico Wojtulewicz, senior policy advisor at lobby group the House Builders Association, said the neighbourhood plan preparation process "does not always reach those in need of housing and so their voice is not appropriately represented". He added: "In regions with higher house prices, there has been a feeling that neighbourhood plans can be designed to stifle development opportunities." Lichfields senior director Matthew Spry said: "Too many plans duck the big housing issues, and some actively plan to resist development."

Even supporters of neighbourhood planning accept that many of those who get involved are motivated, at least initially, by a desire to conserve particular sites. Gary Kirk, managing director of community consultancy YourLocale, said: "There are often sites that are sensitive locally that people want to protect." 

But while few dispute Lichfields’ findings about housing numbers, neighbourhood planning consultants reject the idea that the plans are actively frustrating development. Chris Bowden, director at consultant Navigus, said: "Communities now increasingly understand the need to plan for housing." 

With just over 2,500 plans in the system, supporters say the report underplays the success of community-made strategies in galvanising public participation. Measuring such plans only by the volume of housing they allocate misses their purpose, they insist. Community planning consultant Tony Burton said: "You can’t criticise neighbourhood plans for not dealing with housing – they have no obligation to, and lots choose to focus on other things." By giving residents an opportunity to shape the type and location of new housing, neighbourhood planning had made growth "more palatable" in many places, added Kirk. 

Some have claimed that Lichfields’ research indicates the general distaste of the development industry for neighbourhood planning. Neil Homer, planning director at consultancy ONeill Homer, said the report "fitted neatly into the overriding neighbourhood plan narrative from developers and their consultants, that they are a constraint on development". "If this narrative is not properly challenged," he said, "then neighbourhood plans will be set up to fail." "Overall, the planning system is still an open goal for developers," Bowden said. "They don’t need neighbourhood planning to be about delivering numbers too."

CASE STUDIES

The Newport Pagnell Neighbourhood Plan in Buckinghamshire, which was made in 2016, allocates sites for 1,400 new homes in the town by 2031, compared with about 450 earmarked in the 2013 Milton Keynes core strategy. Newport Pagnell Town Council, which produced the plan, has said the plan’s proposed provision of additional infrastructure to accompany the homes, notably more school places and health facilities, was a key factor in persuading the community to accept the higher housing target. 

Salford Priors Neighbourhood Plan in Warwickshire, which was formally "made" in July last year, plans for a minimum of 134 new homes over the plan period to 2031. In comparison, Stratford-on-Avon District Council gave its parish an indicative figure of just 84 homes. The plan says the homes are to allow village growth to support local services and meet local housing needs, and to "physically link the two separate halves of the village".