Local Plans are the bedrock upon which the entire UK planning system is based. Prepared by local planning authorities (councils) they essentially establish how land should be utilised in a given area. Once agreed, they are used to determine planning applications.
The current Local Plan system properly emerged with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. This implemented for the first time a ‘plan-led’ system whereby anyone wanting to develop land had to first seek planning permission.
Despite their importance Local Plans are often treated with at best detached apathy and at worst visceral animosity.
One reason for this is their complexity. Local Plans respond to a myriad of needs. How can enough housing be provided? How can the local economy be stimulated? How can the climate crisis be addressed? Responding to these needs means that they often amount to hundreds of pages of convoluted, Kafkaesque policy.
Reading’s Local Plan is 251 pages long1. Northumberland’s is 404 pages2. Southwark’s is 601 pages3. Most people have neither the time nor willpower to wade through such gargantuan documents. In Dorset less than 2% of the population provided feedback during the recent consultation on their Local Plan4. In Portsmouth less than 1% of the population provided feedback5.
A second reason is their association with new housing. Local Plans must identify sites where sufficient homes could be built to meet independently assessed housing needs. Unsurprisingly, people often disagree with the location of these sites. In 2021 more than 8,000 people objected to the housing sites earmarked in Ashfield’s Local Plan6. In 2022 more than 10,000 people objected to the sites earmarked in Hertsmere’s Local Plan7.
‘It begins as a house, an end terrace in this case, but it will not stop there’
– Simon Armitage, Zoom!
The coalescing of these two factors, complexity and an association with new housing, means that despite their importance Local Plans are rarely up to date. Recent research by CPRE found that two thirds of Local plans are out of date8.
Why is the lack of up to date Local Plans a problem?
The most obvious impact is upon housing. Local Plans provide a degree of certainty as to where new housing is permitted. If they are not up to date this certainty is limited, meaning that housebuilders may be less willing to submit planning applications. Between October and December 2022 the number of planning applications received fell by 13% to 93,000 versus the same quarter in 20219. This figure is clearly insufficient given the scale of the UK’s housing crisis. A recent Centre for Cities report suggested that compared to other European countries the UK has a deficit of 4.3 million homes10.
However the impact of out of date Local Plans stretches beyond housing. As the National Planning Policy Framework states, Local Plans should not only address housing needs but also ‘other economic, social and environmental priorities’11. This alludes to the progressive potential of Local Plans.
‘The urban landscape, among its many roles, is also something to be seen, to be remembered, and to delight in’
– Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City
This progressive potential has existed throughout history. Ebenezer Howard in the nineteenth century introduced the idea of garden cities, marrying the positive elements of both town and country. He argued that ‘human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together’12. Patrick Abercrombie’s 1940s plan for London, based around the idea of neighbourhood units, is unmatched in its extensive scope. He hoped to allow for ‘a greater mingling of the different groups of London’s society’13. Richard Llewelyn-Davies, appointed in the 1960s to plan Milton Keynes, welded the theory of garden cities with the American grid system. The aspiration was to provide freedom with which ‘the people who come after us [can] plan and build a future’14.
If Local Plans are not up to date this progressive potential cannot be realised.
What is to be done?
How could a Labour government tackle the problems caused by a dearth of up to date Local Plans?
There have already been substantial movements in relation to the housing crisis. A plethora of policy interventions from the left have suggested ways to build more homes and counteract the drag caused by out of date Local Plans. These have begun filtering through to Labour’s leadership. Starmer recently announced his intention to back ‘the builders, not the blockers’15. He has detailed plans to restore housing targets, allow more green belt development and empower councils to purchase land without factoring in the ‘hope value’16.
Unfortunately there have not yet been similar movements in relation to the progressive potential of Local Plans.
The housing crisis is not the only crisis afflicting the UK. Inflation sits at 8.7%17. GDP growth this year is forecast to be just 0.4%18. On current trajectories the UK will not meet net zero by 205019. After thirteen years of Conservative rule the public sphere is decimated, with loneliness rising and community engagement falling20.
Labour’s recognition of the housing crisis is positive. But it is not enough.
Howard, Abercrombie and Llewelyn-Davies’ plans were not perfect. Howard’s conception of town size limits, Abercrombie’s rigid zoning system and Llewelyn-Davies’ prioritisation of car transport are all now obsolete.
Nevertheless it is not the plans themselves which are significant but the way in which the plans were conceptualised. All three individuals recognised the progressive potential of plans and in addition to building homes they all strove to tackle other crises. Howard hoped to reconnect people with nature. Abercrombie sought an entire societal transformation post-WW2. Llewelyn-Davies attempted to resolve the perceived failures of earlier new towns, such as Stevenage and Harlow.
This recognition of the progressive potential of Local Plans, and a desire to use them as a way of addressing crises, should be adopted by Labour.
Firstly, Labour should seek to change the narrative surrounding Local Plans. Steps have been taken in this direction. Labour openly discuss planning reform and expound the benefits of house building. They should go further. It is inadmissible that less than 2% of the population engage with Local Plans given their importance to the planning system and their progressive potential.
Secondly, rather than simply encouraging and cajoling councils to build more homes Labour should encourage and demand councils, via their Local Plans, to build a better society. Local Plans shape the physical world in which we live. Consequently there is a huge opportunity for them to corroborate Labour’s policy agenda. This opportunity cannot be missed simply because council’s lack up to date Local Plans.
A Labour government is potentially less than a year away. The UK faces multiple crises. Local Plans are critically important and, as demonstrated throughout history, have a remarkable progressive potential. By embracing this importance and progressive potential Labour could use Local Plans as a crucial component in their attempts at solving crises and moving the UK forward.
Sean Eke works in housing policy and public affairs for The Terrapin Group. He is a Labour member in Tower Hamlets.
Politicians may be missing the point when they reference red or blue election walls. Should they instead be focusing on multi-coloured walls, and the real walls of real houses?
The Community Planning Alliance map, was launched in March 2021, already includes 525 active planning campaign groups. It is a clear indicator that all is not well at grassroots level in our communities across all areas of the country. The planning system is potentially facing a popular revolt.
Until now, those groups were on their own – yet the battles they are fighting are very similar. These campaigners never thought they would be campaigners, most wish they did not have to be, and some, like me, have become full-time campaigners.
Local communities face many problems… Councils are, on the whole, disinterested in residents’ views, or even obstructive. Developers call the shots, targeting areas with no five-year housing supply, and regularly reneging on promises of affordable housing, using the viability loophole. (What other industry is guaranteed a profit of 15-20% anyway?).
Trust in the system is virtually non-existent. This, from a report by Grosvenor in 2019 says it all:
“This year, we conducted the largest ever canvassing of public trust in placemaking in the UK, finding that just 2% of the public trust developers and only 7% trust local authorities when it comes to planning for large-scale development.
The research also unpicks the drivers of this lack of trust − the biggest being the perception that developers only care about making or saving money, with 75% of respondents identifying this as a reason for their lack of trust.”
Green space, countryside, hedgerows, clean air, rivers and streams, are all at risk in the relentless drive to meet government’s 300,000 pa housing target, deliver its roads programmes, and even its renewable energy targets. Never has land been under so much pressure, from providing the food that we eat, to use for housing and commercial development, biofuels, off-setting and tree-planting.
And, of all those pressures, it is the high house-building targets shared by all political parties which are causing the most controversy. For years, the populist line we have all been fed is that to solve the housing crisis, we need to just build more houses.
Three misunderstood points about the ‘housing crisis’
The 300,000-homes per annum target is based on out-of-date statistics, and population growth is slowing dramatically. Local level data has been found to overstate population growth in around 50 cities and towns.
Housing targets do nothing to address real affordability or solve the housing market problems. Housing waiting lists remain stubbornly high, chiefly because very few social houses are being built – only 6,566 last year – and more are being sold off or demolished each year than built. Then there’s long term empty homes and the holiday or second home problem, all of which are housing stock unavailable to people who need homes.
Developers release new properties into the market when it does not depress prices. If prices start to fall, they will slow new build supply.
So, you might get a shiny new housing estate at the edge of your town or village, but it will be car-dependent and many of the properties will be unaffordable to your children. That’s even if they are described as ‘affordable’, which is actually only a 20% reduction off market price.
That’s why the Community Planning Alliance campaigns for three solutions :
Housing policies that address need, based on accurate and up-to-date, bottom-up local household projections, ensuring that the housing delivered is truly affordable (and based on local wages rather than discount to market value). We support Shelter’s campaign for social housing, and we support the campaign of Empty Homes, to ensure that our existing housing stock is far better used.
Enhanced community participation where residents can really shape their future with their elected councils, not, as now, have planning imposed on them. We argue for a process of ‘engage, deliberate, decide’, instead of the current ‘decide, announce, defend’. There needs to be a rebuilding of trust in the system and to start to do that, there needs to be real debate at the start of local plan-making so that issues and concerns are addressed.
Statements of Community Involvement need to be more accessible and improved, to include, for example, minimum standards such as Gunning Principles or the seven best practice principles of the Consultation Institute, which ensure that consultations are held when decisions have not already been made, that there is sufficient information available for stakeholders to respond, sufficient time for responses and that responses are actually taken into account. We also call for Local Plan Votes, in the same way that Neighbourhood Plans are subject to a referendum.
3. Taking better care of our precious environment. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and the recent Natural History Museum report in advance of COP26 noted that we have led the way in the destruction of the natural environment. Build, build, build at all cost is not acceptable, nor is token environmental mitigation.
If each of the 525 groups on the map were to count only 1,000 supporters (and we know that some have many, many more, some as many as 10,000), that’s over half a million people active in the planning and local political system. What will be the impact if each of those groups decides to put up independent candidates in local elections? There is potential for a re-shaping of the political order. It is a multi-coloured, grassroots wall that government and opposition should heed.
Rosie is Chairman of the Community Planning Alliance.
The Community Planning Alliance was founded in March 2021, with an interactive map, on which 525 separate groups campaigning against inappropriate development across the UK have now self-listed. The map has been viewed 183,000 times and we have 1,800 members of our Facebook group.
In a way, it was almost inevitable that I would develop an interest in gentrification and housing. After all, I am a millennial and I grew up in Zone 2/3 of Inner London. I didn’t just watch my neighbourhood change as I grew up, I watched the door to a future my parents’ generation took for granted close before my eyes.
My parents moved to Forest Hill, South East London in the mid-80s. Even back then my parents couldn’t afford to live in Hackney or Tooting (my mum had been a big Citizen Smith fan). Growing up, South London was the butt of jokes – most of which revolved around it being poorly connected, scary or dull. But by the noughties, my area would start appearing in the aspirational columns about London’s new exciting suburbs. Housing prices rose sharply and continuously. The global housing market crash in 2008 couldn’t stop this runaway train and the last decade has seen my neighbourhood transform.
I noticed the most rapid changes taking place after 2011, when the London Overground was delivered to the area. I was away at university over this period and as I returned each summer, there were new cafes, estate agents and pizza places to replace the launderettes, sandwich shops and second-hand electronic stores. I remember chatting to the owner of Cafe No 41 on Brockley Rise around this period. He had owned Bertie Rooster’s Fried Chicken on the same site and he said he’d noticed the area changing, so he thought he’d better change too. Smart move.
Local NIMBYs, true to form, opposed the transformative rail connections. I remember my dad, who worked in transport, railing against the local opposition to it. He had been arguing for greater capacity for the Overground, for longer trains, and an additional station between Surrey Quays and Queen’s Road Peckham. As the Overground now sits at bursting point — a victim of its own success — he should’ve been listened to. Ironically, the Overgound has been a huge boon to their property-owning NIMBYs that opposed it.
But while I infamously remain sniffy towards NIMBYism, I do understand it. A rapidly changing neighbourhood can be discombobulating and disconcerting. As a strange teenager, I remember pleading with my friends to go to the array of cornershops in Honor Oak instead of the new Sainsbury’s Local if they were buying drinks and snacks before we had a kickabout in the park. Instinctively, I didn’t like what I saw as the homogenisation of my local mini-high street and I knew that Sainsbury’s would destroy some of those independent shops (it did) that I felt I had a relationship with. My instincts were to, in a way, keep my neighbourhood ‘static’.
I’ve been on a journey to try and understand the phenomenon that shaped my home town when growing up and understand my own feelings around it. While at university, I wrote my dissertation on the changing Toxteth and Canning areas of Liverpool. I had grand ambitions to start a university society that would work with the local community to improve ‘Town & Gown’ relationships in the nearby area. Like most of my plans, they crumbled due to a bad attitude and lack of endeavour. The dream ended with me getting into a fight at a Residents’ Association’s ‘cheese & wine’ night and quite literally being thrown out.
However, looking back on the experience, it gave me a good understanding of how gentrification works and was a valuable insight into a world I would later inhabit. Gentrification is an organic process and one seen in major cities around the capitalist world. The cliched but illustrative example is as follows – artists move into an area due to cheap rents and large spaces. They create an artistic community and the area becomes ‘cool’. With it being cool, it then becomes desirable. The greater appetite for the housing then pushes up rents and prices and gradually the area’s demographics shift.
It was once thought that cities would act like a pebble falling into a pond, rippling outwards and decaying inside. Yet from the 1970s onwards the shift has been back into the centre. Some hippies and squatters now own multimillion pound property in areas of our West End. Savvy boomers profited.
The process of gentrification can be sped by developers who see the opportunities offered by a rent-gap to maximise profits. In this, developers are simply capitalising on a saturated housing market and building where demand is. Likewise, ‘gentrifying’ businesses are responding to their new clientele not moulding customers from thin-air and wishes. Cereal cafes and posh chicken shops are a symptom of gentrification, not a cause. Today, many of the anti-gentrification activists I come across are ‘first wave’ gentrifiers themselves, similar if not a bit older than my parents.
While it is an organic process, gentrification does cause profound issues. Sharp rises in the cost-of-living create havoc for low-income families and at its starkest, drives them from their neighbourhood. As I mentioned in my last blog, social homes with secure and affordable rent is a fire-wall against gentrification. But London is increasingly being hollowed out, swathes of North & West London in zone 1 & 2 have become binary and soulless places – the very well-heeled live alongside enclaves of council homes occupying parallel lives. I worry that the evaporation of London’s Little Italy, will eventually happen to our Little Bengal and our Little Portugal.
My blood still curdles at a previous generation of local politicians who seemed to actively encourage the gentrification of their neighbourhoods, as a means of improving their patch. Gentrification doesn’t solve poverty, it just kicks it down the road. But for some local politicians, that once seemed enough. Angered by what I saw, I vowed to campaign against it. It signalled my first forays into local politics.
In my last blog, I wrote about Lewisham’s Residents Charter and how we’ve come along way from this era. Like our predecessors, we know that mixed communities are positive for social cohesion and shared uplift. Likewise, we also know that many of our large post-war estates are in need of urgent renewal. However, as an administration led by a new wave of politicians, we’re committed to ensuring that any regeneration produces a net gain in social homes, expanding our gentrification fire-wall in the borough.
Yet I do not remain hopeful for the future. Writing this, I am struck by just how long I was part of the problem and what that says for the future. I was driven into local politics by the anger that while my neighbourhood was being torn up and built back up, none of these homes were for me.
It’s been through sitting planning committee as a councillor that I learnt that most of these flats weren’t ‘luxury’. The only thing luxury about them was the unaffordable price. The housing crisis has simply become so insane in London that any market-value home is deemed luxury and therefore out of reach of someone like me — a young person without assets, earning the average London wage.
This situation has bred a culture of cynicism among an entire generation. As we discuss rents at house parties and scoff in frustration at the mere idea of saving for a deposit, we’ve grown suspicious of new housing and growth. Moreover, the council-led schemes of the past have led to a sour taste in people’s mouths. While these schemes, directly reducing social housing, could be an example of top-down gentrification — it would be wrong to view gentrification as a whole, as planted from top-down from developers.
If writing to note to my younger self, I’d be rather pithy. ‘Dear Leo, sick of chain stores and the champagne et fromages under those new flats? Let many, many, more flats just like that be built, so rents and prices round here come down and the demographics that fed those independent shops and the sandwich shop you loved so much, can remain.’ As this article highlights, the forces that drive gentrification ‘do not come from the construction of specific apartment buildings or retail complexes, no matter how many granite countertops or artisanal coffee shops they might contain.’ Increasing supply will lower prices.
It is only now that I see how damaging the framing of gentrification as a top-down process, thrusted-upon benign communities by developers, has been.
As a councillor, I have been shocked by the glacial and bureaucratic process of approving new homes in the borough. Not only that, I’ve seen how small interest groups have leant on councillors to reject new homes on spurious grounds.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. As this Centre for Cities report highlights, our planning system operates like the old Eastern Bloc, rationing supply through a permit system. ‘In both the former Eastern Bloc and the English housebuilding market, firms must apply to planners for a permit, or a planning permission, to get the inputs they need to do business.’
We currently have a system that cannot respond to demand. Developers need to go through the process of receiving planning permission which is slow, often costly and fundamentally uncertain (planners can downsize or councillors can strike down an application, years into the process). This means ‘the amount of land that they can develop tomorrow is fundamentally unknown.’
It is this risk, inherent in our system, that means developers hoard land that has planning permission (or is likely to receive planning permission). As Centre for Cities notes, ‘this ‘hamster-like’ behaviour is rational as it means they will always have land on which those assets can be operating, even if planning permissions temporarily dry up.’ The report also notes:
‘A site that has planning permission or is suspected to have a high chance of receiving planning permission can greatly increase this price, especially near cities and large towns with successful economies and expensive housing’. To illustrative this point, in 2010, agricultural land without planning permission around Cambridge was worth roughly £18,500 per hectare. Once it received planning permission for housing, the value per hectare increased to £2.9m.
Developers must cover these high land costs, and they cannot escape them by increasing production or efficiency as the planning system rations the supply of land they require. They therefore need to pass their land costs onto consumers and sell new houses at high prices.
Developers experience a disadvantage trying to acquire land which can be lawfully developed, they enjoy the advantage of a sellers’ market when selling new properties to consumers due to slow buildout rates. This means that predominantly only big powerful developers can get hold of land which will get large-scale planning permission, and once they have hold it, they can build a slow ‘absorption rate’ keeping house prices high due.
If developers could instead just buy land and develop it without applying for a planning permission, then “planning gain” and thereby the absorption rate would both disappear. The price of land would reflect local demand and, as firms would and could only buy what they immediately needed, they would be forced to build new housing as quickly as possible to outcompete rival firms that could now do the same.
It is our system which creates the circumstances for large developers to be able to buy the rationed land for development and build slowly as they face little competition.
But this isn’t a cry to rip-up the rule book. Local planning frameworks should remain in place and offer clear rules of what can be built and where. However, areas zoned for development should be greatly expanded. As the campaign group Priced Out argues:
However, when reaching out to colleagues to express these views and concerns, I receive immediate and blanket push-back. Those I speak to see the bureaucracy of our planning system as a bulwark against lowering standards. They instinctively reject ideas about cutting red tape and increasing competition to raise standards. Developers are the bad guys that need to reined in by councillors, rather than firms rationally gaming a broken system that we uphold.
It has become fashionable across the political spectrum to deny that our housing crisis is linked to a lack of supply. Campaigners against new market-sale homes often point to the fact that the UK has 216,000 long-term vacant homes, which could occupy a sizeable chunk of our 280,000 homeless people, if only they were happy to be bussed to Cornwall or Cleethorpes.
However, rather than suggesting that we do not need to increase supply, our empty homes highlight our nation’s stark housing shortage. In the UK, only 0.9% of homes are long term vacant. In a healthy market, surpluses provide ‘a strategic reserve which they can use to respond to sudden changes in consumer demand.’
Compare our situation to Japan, a nation with an affordable housing market. In Japan, less than 5% of homes are socially rented (here it is around 17%). Across Japan, 5.6% of homes are long-term vacant, while Tokyo the figure is 2.5% – which is a higher share of empty home than in Burnley – other most affordable city in England and the one with the most vacant housing. Suppressing vacancy rates in the UK will only make the situation worse. Instead, we need to build enough to homes to create a healthy surplus.
As I have written previously, the housing crisis cannot be tackled by local authorities building themselves. This blog succinctly nails the issue: The UK’s housing affordability crisis is too little supply, which cannot respond to prices. However, getting Labour Party colleagues and angry young millennials alike to accept that we need developments of market-rate properties on a huge scale in areas of the country where our housing shortage is most acute — will be an uphill battle.
Steam-rolling through reforms won’t work. Instead, we need to start that process of chipping away – gradually building a coalition in support for house building. And maybe one day we can get more people to say yes-in-their-backyard to luxury flats.
Leo is a Labour and Co-Op Party Councillor for Forest Hill in Lewisham.