In defence of housing targets

Written by

Sean Fielding


Amid the crippling housing shortage across the North West and beyond, the government’s pledge to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s is perhaps the only piece of policy preventing the shortage from spiralling out of control.

The current picture is arguably far from ideal: Young people can’t get on the property ladder, people are living longer than ever and are reluctant to downsize, and landlords are inflating prices due to unprecedented demand.

So, when the Tory MP Theresa Villiers announced her intention to scrap housing targets altogether, there was naturally deep concern for the impact this would have on councils’ drive to build more houses.

Villiers’ amendment to the Levelling Up Bill would mean that housing targets would no longer have any significant influence on planning applications, nor would councils have to work within the government’s NPPF by identifying enough sites for five years’ worth of development.

In short, why would councils seek to approve any planning applications that are even slightly controversial if they no longer have benchmarks for success?

So far, Theresa Villiers has managed to get the backing of around 47 MPs, including the likes of Chris Grayling and Sir Iain Duncan Smith, despite receiving criticism from a growing number of backbenchers.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Robert Colvile, who co-authored the 2019 Tory manifesto, vilified the amendment in The Sunday Times and put it all down to ‘Tory nimbyism’.

Colvile told the Sunday paper that it would “enshrine nimbyism as the governing principle of British society” and “leave every proposed development at the mercy of the propertied and privileged.”

Now, I will always argue for greater powers for local government. But the power to opt out entirely of their important role in addressing the housing crisis is not one of them, and this would be a nigh-on guaranteed consequence of scrapping targets.

That’s not to say that targets are perfect, however. There are legitimate concerns about whether the numbers that the 300,000 figure throws out for different areas is the right one. For example, is it right that Greater Manchester has had to draw up the housing masterplan ‘Places for Everyone’ (P4E) using a target based on population projections from 2014?

Whilst there is a very strong case for housing targets to redress the failure to build enough homes over decades, targets based on such old data undermine this, and give credibility to the demands of the “anti-growth coalition” of Tory backbenchers. This is particularly the case when two rounds of more recent data have shown lower population projections during the P4E plan period, and another round, from the 2021 census, is still to be fully published.

That said, though housing targets have their flaws total abolition would almost certainly give licence to more populist nimbyism, and with it worsen the housing crisis.

Sean Fielding is the former Labour Leader of Oldham Council and now works for BECG, the UK’s number 1 public affairs consultancy. If you think we can help you get your voice heard by decision makers at a local, regional and national level, get in touch here


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