At a hearing into one of our clients’ residential developments last year, a local resident commented that it was easier to measure the distance to the sun or the breadth of a human hair than calculate the housing land supply in Renfrewshire. No one disagreed.

While it is well established that local authorities must maintain at least a five-year effective housing land supply at all times, disputes as to whether they are allocating enough land for housing are common place.

Of course central to the debate is how many houses are required in the first place. The housebuilding industry is not involved in the preparation of the Housing Needs and Demand Assessments which are used by authorities to identify the requirement for additional homes in their areas.

So it was welcome news that Graham Simpson’s amendment to the Planning Bill to require the National Planning Framework (NPF) to include “targets for the use of land in different areas of Scotland for housing” has survived to Stage 3 of the processing of the Bill through the Scottish Parliament. Kenneth Gibson’s amendments, if they survive the next stage, will see the inclusion of national targets for housing for older people and disabled people.

It is hoped that Homes for Scotland will be one of the “other persons” with whom the Scottish Ministers will require to consult before the new NPF can be laid before Parliament for approval. This is important as it was highlighted at their recent housebuilders’ annual conference, that projections based on household formation statistics fail to take into account a whole generation who are still living with their parents as they are unable to afford to buy a home of their own.

But even with national housing targets, the Planning Bill as it stands appears to give local authorities some wriggle room.

Strategic Development Plans (SDP) are to be retained, but these only need “to have regard to” to the NPF. There will be no right to have objections to an SDP examined by a Reporter and the Scottish Ministers will no longer have to approve SDPs. So retained, but less relevant than at present?

Local Development Plans (LDP) will similarly only need to have regard to the NPF. While they will not, on the face of it, require to identify overall housing targets, they will require to include targets for housing for older people and disabled people; demonstrate how they have taken into account the national targets for these sectors; and identify land designated specifically for development of suitable housing.

There will be both an independent assessment of the evidence supporting the LDP and an examination into objections to the LDP, but it would appear that the Reporter’s findings from the examination will no longer be binding on the local authority and the Ministers will not require to approve the LDP prior to its adoption. So no more letters from the Planning Minister telling an authority that they are failing to allocate sufficient land.

If there is uncertainty over whether development plans will require to set housing targets, there is discord over the calculation of the housing land supply and the interpretation of site effectiveness and delivery, in particular.

Those familiar with the housing land audit process will know that local authorities routinely include within the effective supply sites that show no signs of delivering at the levels suggested by the Council.

Councils, on the other hand, point to the fact they are not responsible for the rate of delivery of housing, which is seen to be the responsibility of developers and market forces.

PAN 2/2010 includes a fairly broad definition of site effectiveness. It is not necessary, for example, for a site to have planning permission for residential development to be classed as effective. Scottish Government has indicated it will replace PAN 2/2010 as part of the updating of policy once the Planning Bill is in place.

We can expect the changes to follow what has happened down south, where more stringent criteria are applied. The latest version of NPPF (June 2018) (which sets out national policy for planning in England) includes a new definition of “deliverable” which clarifies that sites with outline planning permission/permission in principle, sites allocated in the development plan or sites listed on a brownfield register “…should only be considered deliverable where there is clear evidence that housing completions will begin on site within five years.” The expectation is that sites should have detailed planning permission to be considered deliverable.

Housing delivery is key to an effective planning system. Greater clarity and certainty as to how the numbers are calculated is to be welcomed. However, the removal of the need for local development plans to comply with housing targets calls into question how national and regional housing need will be translated into delivery at the local level.

The reform of the planning system was to be “game-changing”, with a focus on delivering more high quality homes. The debate on the final content of the Planning Bill will not take place until the early part of next year, but as it stands, there must be doubt as to whether this will be achieved.

Footnote: The sun is 149,597,870 km from the Earth. A human hair is 0.02 mm in breadth.  The housing land supply in Renfrewshire has yet to be agreed.