Housing land supply and deliverability mid-pandemic

We already knew we were going to do lots of thinking and talking about land supply this year. The new Annual Position Statement and second round of the Housing Delivery Test / Action Plan process. This has all been given a big plot twist with CVD19 and many sites being stopped in their tracks. 

Lichfields have a useful blog post setting out the issues – and proposes two types of response – the “hawks” or “doves”. I think (reading between the lines slightly) that Mathew’s view is that inspectors should be hawkish unless, by virtue of their Action Plans, councils can demonstrate they have done everything in their power to boost development. 

They are correct to raise land supply as an important issue. It doesn’t have the immediacy of virtual planning committees but it is urgent in its own way. There are already many people in councils concerned about how inappropriate development might be allowed at present, and what might happen with their plan. Their “ask” of MHCLG is that the requirement of a demonstrable 5 year land supply be set aside for now. 

This post is my attempt to set out my own thoughts – and I think there is a simpler solution that just requires a bit of common sense from inspectors. 

It is not complicated but land supply turns on three related concepts – a requirement, the supply and deliverability. And land supply matters, both because it is an important part of the appeals process but also a core component in the examination of local plans. 

  • appeals matter because they provide a testing ground for whether an LPA is doing the job right (plus they are expensive) 
  • local plans matter because they allocate the land that should mean appeals become less necessary (they are expensive too)

We care about it so much because previously, in some places, not enough land was identified and some of it was perennially listed but never developed because it was not suitable. So, LPAs were given a clear steer – make enough land available to provide a medium-term pipeline and do the work to prove its the right sort in the right place. 

Laying this out simply, if your plan says you need to deliver 100 homes per year then you should be able to show a list of sites with capacity for 500 (and a few more for luck) along with clear evidence that they are going to happen. Shelly and I talked this over in our fireside chat about the deliverability cribsheet recently. 

So, baked into the approach is the assumption that more land = more houses. But that is not true at the moment. More land will not lead to more houses. Because no one is delivering at the moment. The crash stop means that everyone’s previous predictions about rates of delivery (and the housing market more generally) are wrong. Completely totally wrong. 

Against our simple example of 500 sites there can be no list of sites long enough because none of them pass the “deliverable” test. Staff are furloughed, delivery pipelines ground to a halt.  

Perhaps we should agree that this concept doesn’t apply at present, be a “dove” and set aside the NPPF requirement (via a WMS). I think there might be a simpler approach, that would simply require inspectors use a bit of common sense. 

The Wokingham appeal decision has got some people excited because in it an inspector tries to guess what the impact of the lock down will be. It’s worth a read, even if you don’t usually read appeal decisions. I predict normal people will be bemused to see that a big chunk of it reads like a narrative of someone going through a spreadsheet with a red pen. 

I think a better approach (and a very English one) to this situation is to ignore it. Don’t try to second-guess it, don’t try to amend the NPPF on the hoof. Simply put the job of an inspector is to go the spirit of the requirement – has this LPA provided enough land of the right sort ready for the world to deliver it when things return to normal ? ie the “deliverability” angle should be taken to mean “deliverable in normal times” not, as the Wokingham inspector tried to opine “deliverable given that we are mid pandemic”. 

Personal views, obvs. 

4 thoughts on “Housing land supply and deliverability mid-pandemic

  1. That is very interesting and well observed, but even so it does rather beg the question of how we assemble up to date evidence on deliverability, which has to include surveying site developers, information on lead times and delivery rates and so on. Mind you, in my experience the decisions we get ignore any amount of LPA evidence and without setting out reasoning beyond generalised statements, and without addressing the specific disputed sites, turn instead to the “safe” option of agreeing with the appellant’s consultant. The “safe” evidence has often applied generalised overall nationally based assumptions on lead times and delivery rates for example, and we have several times recently faced an argument to cap delivery on sites in individual years by the cited overall annual average – which tends to have the effect of artificially suppressing the average over the build out period to below that figure. Without better evidence of the reasoning, including site conclusions on individual disputed sites, it is not even possible to move forward and test in reviewing supply against additional and/or updated evidence. It should not be this way – and in my view the recent SoS Tiptree decision (Colchester BC v Gladman) is an example of a reasoned intelligible decision. There should be an agreed standard for Inspectors assessing 5YS, so that we can avoid these sort of problems. Covid has just made things impossible – yet PINS appear to be determined to press on with Inquiries as if the only issue to consider was an e-initiative to get around the problem of physically holding the Inquiry. It is bad enough considering how Landscape or Heritage witnesses will research and produce their evidence without walking the site and surroundings, but the questions to consider re housing land supply evidence are of a rather bigger challenge. Surely someone higher up should be intervening in this mess, not leaving it up to individual inspectors and LPAs to work out what to do. Meanwhile I am struggling to research evidence sitting on my sofa – and we are going to have a major Inquiry – 150 homes – with deadline for evidence mid May. There will of course be all kinds of knock on effects – such as the impact on median average workplace incomes used in local housing affordability ratios used in the Standard Methodology to assess local need. Big issues here – and urgent action needed.

  2. Pingback: TESTING, TESTING: HOUSING POLICY AFTER THE PANDEMIC | Philip Barnes - Blog

  3. There is lots to agree with on Philip’s blog (as always).

    However I don’t think this : “To a housebuilder, who has seen the joy of a new family securing their first home, it would feel specious to tell another young family, in 2023, that the house earmarked for them, hasn’t been built, because planning policy didn’t feel it appropriate to address the backlog which built up during that 2020 pandemic.” is a fair representation of what I am trying to say.

    It’s something quite basic and boring about how to arrive at a judgement today on land supply, which is:
    – at present deliverability is impossible to judge
    – this means land supply cannot be demonstrated
    – so planning appeals proceed on the basis of a tilted balance (sometimes unfairly and unhelpfully)
    – and just as importantly delays the local plans that allocate sites

    I proposed as a solution that we ignore* the fact that everything is stopped, and continue as if it were not. In that way, local plans can come forward and appeals be held with a fair balance. It’s less clear to me how we should address a backlog. How to “catch up” post pandemic is something much bigger than planning or decisions on deliverability.

    I also didn’t read the barrister’s exchanges as doveish. Quite the opposite.

    * Admittedly I used the word “ignore” which was a deliberately provocative word.

  4. Thinking about appeals, one issue it highlights for me is the too often overlooked question of the deliverability of the scheme that the appellant argues is needed to increase delivery to address a perceived lack of 5YS. Most housing sites will face the same covid obstacles to delivery so how does granting more permissions help delivery on the ground? Assuming of course that what we want is in fact to increase delivery on the ground and not just more permissions / more increases in book value of land as a consequence.

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