Confusion over new planning guidance in the north west of England has forced many of the region's councils to put a blanket ban on all new housing for the next three years.
Very low housing limits outlined in new guidance have left West Lancashire District Council, Lancaster City Council and Macclesfield District Council with no choice but to impose an outright ban.
And the AJ understands that at least one major practice in the Lancaster area has been forced to start laying off architects as a result.
The controversy centres on a new Regional Planning Guidance issued last month by the Government Office for the North West, detailing three-year housing targets for local councils for 2003-06.
However, at least five planning authorities in Lancashire - and, it is rumoured, more in Cumbria - have already exceeded these targets, leaving them with no choice but to stop all permissions.
Local architects have greeted the news with horror. Nick Gillibrand of Mason Gillibrand Architects - a former president of the Lancaster and Westmorland Society of Architects - described the situation as 'extraordinary'. 'This is desperate, ' he told the AJ. 'There are loads of houses that were about to get planning but have now been thrown out and there are even more in the pipeline that will now never get beyond the drawing board.'
Gillibrand added: 'What has happened to the democratic planning system? This planning guidance had no consultation and was simply imposed from above.'
But the Government Office for the North West dismissed the criticism, insisting the planning guidance was implemented with good intentions. Senior planner Mike Morris said: 'The housing provision for each area aims to fit the needs of the region as a whole.'
He said the limitations are designed to ensure that new housing is built in deprived inner-city areas, as a tool for encouraging regeneration.
'We have not actively stopped any authority from giving planning, 'Morris said. 'There is no blanket rule about where housing can and cannot be given permission.'
RIBA's North West region is set to report the problem to the RIBA's planning policy chair, Wendy Shillam, said a spokesman, and it is to take up the matter with the Government Office for the North West.