Tory heartlands will have to find space for 1.5m new homes

Before reading this article Owl reminds readers that there are TWO consultations on planning reform. Closing dates are October 1 for “Changes to the current planning system” and October 31 for the White Paper “Planning for the Future”. The mutant algorithm features in the first. These are very technical consultations but a handful of questions are really crucial.

Anyone thinking of making a response, and Owl encourages this, might like to draw on the excellent briefing paper prepared for the EDDC Strategic Planning Committee of 16 September (starts at page 12 and gives proposed answers to questions). The Committee, with cross party support, agreed to reject the “ludicrous” algorithm.

By Christopher Hope, Chief Political Correspondent and Dominic Penna 

Communities in large parts of the Conservatives’ traditional heartlands will have to find space for 1.5 million new homes under a “mutant” planning algorithm being considered by the Government.

The plans, reportedly the brainchild of Boris Johnson‘s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, will deliver an additional five million homes across England over the next 15 years, with nearly a third in rural counties.

The five million target is two million more than the targets already set out in local plans that had been democratically agreed by local councils, according to analysis by the House of Commons library.

Urban areas and communities largely in the north of England are largely let off the requirement for new homes, with shire counties hardest hit by the need for overbuilding, raising fears of a “concreting” over the South.

The analysis shows increases in annual housing forecasts compared to local plans of 181 per cent in east Sussex, 119 per cent in Kent, and 115 per cent in both Surrey and Gloucestershire.

The changes mean tens of thousands of extra homes over the next 15 years will be needed in rural counties like Kent (69,127 extra homes), Surrey (45,465 more homes) and Devon (32,782 additional homes).

The 34 local authorities with local plans that cover the Home Counties will see an average increase of 104 per cent compared with their already agreed local plans, some of which were already imposing stretching housing targets.

There is a different picture in urban centres and parts of northern England, with fewer homes required in Scarborough, Barnsley, Rotherham, Leeds, Nottingham and Lancaster.

Thirteen of the 20 areas that will see the biggest increases compared with the current local plans are represented by Conservative MPs. Tory Cabinet ministers whose constituencies have local plans will see an average increase in housing need of 84 per cent compared with current local plans, if the algorithm is adopted.

The ‘mutant algorithm’

The plans have already caused consternation among Tory MPs with a number lining up in the House of Commons pinning the blame on a “mutant algorithm” in a Commons debate two weeks ago.

Writing for the Telegraph, Tory MP Bob Seely, whose Isle of Wight constituency is seeing its housing target increase by 101 per cent compared to its local plan, said: “We all agree we need to build housing, but we need to build the right housing in the right places.

“The key fact is this: cities across England are being asked to build relatively less compared with the rural and suburban areas around them. Instead of levelling up the North, I fear we are concreting out the South”.

He added: “The algorithm row, which will worsen the more our constituents across England know about it, is an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound.

“Britons in the Red Wall seats will see little change in their communities as infrastructure cash goes to the shires. Shire voters will react with anger at swathes of greenfield planning.”

Fall of the Red Wall

Mr Seely said the plans would backfire adding: “Labour in the North will accuse Red Wall Tories of failure to deliver. Lib Dems in the South will claim to champion local democracy.

“As policies go, it’s a double-whammy of lose-lose. Only an algorithm could be this dumb.”

Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, added: “Governing by algorithm simply doesn’t work. We are in the midst of a housing crisis, and we need many more well designed, genuinely affordable homes, including in rural areas. 

“But combining this algorithm with far reaching, untested reforms to local planning, could result in irreparable harm to our countryside, without delivering the housing we actually need. 

“Local authorities could be powerless to prevent developers cherry-picking green field sites whilst leaving brownfield land unused.”

Speculative figures

A Government source said: “These figures are purely speculative. We are consulting on the new proposed formula, which will only be the starting point in the process of planning new homes. 

“Councils will still consider local circumstances in deciding how many homes can be delivered in their areas including protecting the green belt, but we owe it to the next generation to build the homes that are needed across the country. 

“We won’t be deterred from meeting this challenge, but we’ll do it in a fair and sensitive way.”

In a Commons debate earlier this month, Andrew Griffith, Tory MP for Arundel and South Downs and a former Number 10 adviser to Mr Johnson, said that “well-meaning ministerial intent has been sabotaged by a ‘mutant algorithm’ cooked up in the wet market of Whitehall”.

A Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman, added: “Local housing need proposals provide a guide for councils on how many homes may be needed in their area. Councils will still need to consider local circumstances to decide how many homes should be delivered.

“We’re consulting on the proposals and will reflect on the feedback we receive so we can deliver the homes we need, where we need them.”

How does the algorithm work?

The new algorithm will be introduced to counter what the Government calls “fundamental” issues with the current planning system, the basis of which was designed in 1947.

The algorithm will change the method used to assess each area’s local housing need in line with the Government’s target of delivering 300,000 new homes per year.

The baseline for the new method is either 0.5 per cent of the current housing stock in a local authority, or the most up-to-date projection for annual household growth in the next 10 years, whichever is higher.

The method is then adjusted to consider changes in how affordable houses have been in the last 10 years.

This is to reflect the aim of the algorithm, essentially to create more homes in areas where they are currently less affordable.

Unlike the previous method, the new algorithm does not put a limit on the increase that can take place in a local authority. Instead, the documents argue that a “step change” is needed to create as many homes as it deems necessary.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the system is “unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”.