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Get a grip on planning skills crisis, National Audit Office tells ministers

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Council planning budgets have shrunk by 15 per cent in seven years, and the government ‘does not understand’ the extent of planning skills gaps, Parliament’s public spending watchdog has warned

The National Audit Office urged ministers to undertake detailed research into the abilities of local authority teams to cope with housebuilding on the scale required for the UK to meet its targets.

In a report titled Planning for New Homes, the public spending scrutiniser said a major overhaul of the current place-shaping set-up was required

’We cannot conclude that the planning system currently provides value for money in terms of delivering new homes effectively,’ said the study.

’The government needs to take this much more seriously and bring about improvement if it is to meet its ambition of 300,000 new homes per year by the mid-2020s.’

The National Audit Office found a 37.9 per cent drop in council spending on planning functions from their own resources between 2010/11 and 2017/18. This was mitigated by extra income from sales, fees and transfers to work out as a real drop in expenditure of 14.6 per cent.

The NAO found a 37.9 per cent drop in council spending on planning between 2010 and 2018

With broadly increasing income from planning activities, the £961 million spent across the UK on the function last year was marginally higher than the amount invested in either 2013/14 or 2014/15 but much lower than the £1.1 billion doled out in 2010/11.

‘The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should work with industry bodies on detailed research on the skills gaps in local authorities’ planning teams, particularly on the shortages of experienced planners with specialist skills sets,’ recommended the report.

Elsewhere the study noted that the average time taken for the Planning Inspectorate to determine an appeal had increased from 30 weeks in 2013/14 to 38 in 2017/18. The Inspectorate has shed the equivalent of almost 100 full-time employees this decade, the report added.

Recommendations to ministers included monitoring the difference in housing targets created by the government’s standard method, councils’ own calculations and the desire to build 300,000 homes per year.

The watchdog also called for the government to set out how it will support local authorities at risk of failing the forthcoming housing delivery test, which will penalise those who get behind targets through measures such as increased freedoms for developers.

‘Looking across the landscape – from the setting of the need for new homes, to the reductions in local authority capability, the under-performing Planning Inspectorate and failures in the system to ensure adequate contributions for infrastructure – it is clear that the system is not working well,’ said the National Audit Office.

‘Given these problems, we cannot conclude that the planning system currently provides value for money in terms of delivering new homes effectively.’ 

Housing minister Kit Malthouse MP said: ’We are determined to build the homes this country needs, and planning plays a key role in our desire to build more, better, faster. But we should also acknowledge that more than 222,000 homes were delivered in 2017/18, the highest level in all but one of the last 31 years.

’We’re conducting independent reviews on build out rates and planning inquiries. And through multi-billion pound funding, planning reforms and giving councils the freedom to borrow more to build homes, we’re helping to make the housing market work for everyone.’

Comment

Ben Derbyshire, RIBA president
Today’s report by the (NAO echoes the RIBA’s serious concerns about our planning system and calls on the government to change tack in order to address the housing crisis.

The NAO’s report spells out just how lucrative Government policy has been for large housebuilders and how costly it has been for communities due to a lack of investment in infrastructure.

The government must recognise the urgency for greater investment in the planning system

While we have seen some positive moves over the past year, including the decision to lift the borrowing cap for local authorities and the move towards greater transparency around viability assessments, we desperately need a radical new approach.

The government must recognise the urgency for greater investment in the planning system and the vital link between housing and infrastructure in creating thriving communities where people want to live.

 

Ian Fletcher, director of real estate policy, British Property Federation 
The findings from today’s Planning For New Homes report by the National Audit Office must be taken seriously by politicians. We have seen positive changes to national planning policy over the past year, but progress cannot be made without more resource at a local level.

Planning has seen some of the most severe reductions in spending in recent local government cuts. If we want the quality homes and well-designed places the public needs, then this year’s Spending Review needs to deliver real increases in funding for local government and planning. Against the backdrop of Brexit, it is also more important than ever that Government invests in growth at home.

 

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the RTPI 
[To] create new homes and places for people to live, infrastructure such as transport, healthcare, schools and [the] utilities must be in place. This will require government departments to align their investment strategies with local authorities’ infrastructure plans. It is also why we are calling for chief planners to be represented at the highest decision-making levels of local government – our research showed that shockingly 83 per cent of local authorities are now without a chief planner at the top table.

83% of local authorities are without a chief planner at the top table

Their reinstatement would be an important step towards providing the necessary join up between investment strategies at local government level. We were delighted that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government endorsed this view in his speech at one of our recent events.

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