Planning departments understaffed and underskilled, warns report

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has painted a bleak picture of understaffed and underskilled local authority planning departments who are struggling under the pressure of government housebuilding targets.

It says that the government’s target of building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s is looking increasingly unrealistic and 50% of local authorities are likely to fail the ‘housing delivery test’ in 2020 for not building enough homes, so could face penalties.

According to the report, as of December 2018, only 44.1% of local authorities had an up-to-date local plan (defined as a plan less than five years old) even though they are required to do so by the government.

It says producing local plans can be ‘technically complex, resource-intensive and time-consuming,’ with local authority planning departments ill-equipped to develop them in enough time.

If a local authority does not show it has a five-year supply of land for housing, the report says this gives developers greater freedoms to build where they want, and a local authority has less control over the location of development.

The report highlights that total spending by local authorities on planning functions fell 14.6% in real-terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts said: ‘The planning system is not working well enough to support the government’s target to deliver 300,000 new homes.

‘There aren’t enough experienced planning staff, appeals take too long and local authorities are not maximising contributions from developers to pay for local infrastructure.

‘The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government needs to work with other parts of government to fix these problems and make sure that much needed new homes are built.’

Responding to the report, housing minister Kit Malthouse said: ‘I recognise the challenges identified by the NAO, and the simple truth is over the last three decades, governments of all stripes have built too few homes of all types.

‘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.’

The report says it’s too early to say whether the Revised National Planning Policy Framework, which included a new system of funding for developers, will be effective, and calls on the government to better fund planning departments.

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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