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Why Michael Gove’s planning reforms won’t deliver sustainable housing

The Housing Secretary’s new planning framework for England does little to encourage net zero development.

By Megan Kenyon

A year after it launched a consultation on national planning policy, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) finally published its revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in December 2023. The department said the reforms will mean the “right homes are built in the right places”, and that new developments deliver the Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s catchy new acronym, Biden (Beauty, Infrastructure, Democracy, Environment and Neighbourhood).

DLUHC, in its many iterations and under the leadership of numerous secretaries of state, has long pledged to reform England’s complex planning structures by streamlining processes and removing bureaucracy. But the exact details of how it plans to shake up the system have often remained a mystery.

On 19 December in a speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Gove put some meat on the bones of his previous pledges. But what do his reforms mean for the cash-strapped, under-staffed planning departments that he was keen to put in the limelight?  

The government strongly suggests councils should build more houses – but it won’t force them

In a move that was heavily trailed last year following a potential Tory rebellion, the new NPPF confirms that housing targets for local authorities will be an “advisory starting point”. This means that while councils will be required to set a target for housebuilding that reflects local need, it will not be mandatory for them to meet it.

And in dealing with another controversial issue – the question of the greenbelt – the revised NPPF makes it clear that planning departments will not need to review or alter greenbelt boundaries. Unsurprisingly, it is this element of the revised framework that has sparked concern that the new changes will deliver less – not more – housing. Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute said her members have already “expressed concerns to government” over the risk that these changes could “lead to an under-supply of houses”.

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She added this will now mean the “proactive planning” embedded in the development of a local plan, “will become much more important for the delivery of much-needed homes”.

[See also: The planning reform that will unlock net zero]

Building sustainably is important – but it’s not a priority

The UK’s built environment accounts for around 40 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions. Constructing sustainable buildings is key to helping the UK reach its carbon reduction targets. But a quick search of the revised NPPF document reveals that the term “net zero” does not get a mention.

Much like the advisory nature of housing targets in the bill, sustainability considerations remain undercooked in the NPPF. The framework encourages planning departments to “give significant weight” to energy efficiency considerations when deciding an application but stops short of enforcing a national standard.

Christopher Hammond, chief executive of the UK100 network of local authorities described the framework as “like getting socks for Christmas”. “It’s OK, but it’s not really what you wanted,” he told Spotlight. Hammond said that, ideally, planning policy would contain a “golden thread”, which goes from the UK’s 2050 net zero target, right through to planning decisions being made on the ground. “If we’re not planning for net zero in the planning system, then it’s not going to happen,” Hammond said.

He called for a nationally agreed carbon assessment mechanism that allows local planning authorities to “understand what the footprint of a development looks like”, and helps them hold developers to account, “rather than leaving councils to try and rely on the people who are proposing the development to come up with their own plans”. Bath and North East Somerset Council has a tool that looks at the carbon impact of developments commissioned by the council.

Little joy for onshore wind

Hammond was also critical of the lack of reform to the planning process for approving onshore wind developments. Last year, following lobbying from MPs, including the former levelling-up secretary Simon Clarke, the government removed legislation from 2015 which meant onshore wind farms could be blocked by a single objection.

Still, the process for gaining approval for development of this kind of renewable energy generation remains incredibly difficult and bureaucratic. A recent report by the Guardian revealed that no onshore wind plans had been submitted in England since the de facto ban on development was lifted. Hammond described the lack of reform as “absurd” and pointed out that it’s the “only exception to the general planning process”.

Recent analysis by Carbon Brief revealed that if the 2015 ban had not been put in place, the UK’s wind generation would have continued to grow, creating an extra 15 gigawatts of renewable capacity, and generating 25 terawatt hours of electricity per year on average.

Gove’s reforms have now come into effect. Still, it’s clear that further thinking is needed to tighten up regulation, particularly around the system’s approach to sustainability. With an election looming, it looks unlikely that complex planning reform will be part of either party’s key policies. But these intricate details could prove vital in progressing levelling-up for whoever forms the next government.

[See also: Will Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement really cut “planning red tape”?]

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