Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Written evidence from Professor Colin Jones (ARSS 128)


Supply of housing has not kept up with demand for a generation.

Top-down approach to planning of housing is a longstanding tradition.

Planning policies rather than the planning system (including RSS) has shaped the housing market cycle this decade by slowing supply.

Effectiveness of these planning policies is linked to house price cycles, and in the aftermath of the credit crunch are unlikely to promote a quick revival in housing supply.

Given the dominance of planning policies rather than the planning system in housing supply the Regional Spatial Strategies top tier (and the subsequent delay for the localism agenda to get off the ground) is unlikely to have much short term influence on housing supply.

In the longer term revisions to policies currently in the process of development will need to be substantial to improve the position.


A discussion paper published by the last government in 2007 notes that "For a generation, the supply of new homes has not kept up with rising demand." (CLG, 2007, p5). This statement is a useful starting point for this paper as it encapsulates the housing problem of the UK. Added spice to this quote is that the level of house building in 2010 in England, three years later, is at its lowest since 1924. The paper examines the role and form of the planning system in this outcome and considers whether this is a structural issue for the system or the consequence of planning policies. The latter leads into a discussion about the relationship between planning, house building and the house price cycle. Based on these insights it then looks forward to the role of planning in the market downturn and beyond. In completing this task it also reviews the influence of planning on the UK housing market cycle and hence the economy.

Before proceeding it is useful to note that the discussion paper argued that a new national drive to support more affordable housing was required and set out the then government's plans to build three million new homes by 2020. Only around a fifth of this target was to be directly met by more social housing and at least a further tenth was to come from other forms of "affordable housing" for rent or sale. In other words the new house building would primarily be in the private sector reflecting the current tenure structure.


The planning system in the UK was established in 1947 and it has followed broadly the same principles since, exhibiting a relatively high degree of continuity although the context in which it operates has changed substantially. Initially the emphasis of specific policies was aimed at solving the ills of overcrowded cities and centred on restrain urban growth and channelling new development into new and expanded towns. The overall system is comprehensive and gives local authorities the responsibility for the production of strategies for the use of land and development control. The main attributes of the system is its flexibility and discretionary nature in the granting of planning permission. Nevertheless the precise role of local/urban plans has been periodically reconfigured, partly linked to the ideological stance of the government in power.

Until this summer a two tier planning system in cities had broadly been in operation in different guises since the late 1960s although not universally applicable across the UK. A key function of plans is to ensure sufficient provision of land for new development and a critical input was the assessment of local housing land requirements. The system generally has a "top down" approach to this task although the mechanisms vary in constituent parts of the country. The process has been increasingly sophisticated but essentially involves assessing a future local housing needs based on population forecasts that is then fed into assessing annual housing provision housing requirements.

As the role of social housing has diminished as a result of a combination of minimal new building over two three decades and the sale of council houses to sitting tenants so the planning system has become more pivotal to housing policy (Bramley, 1997). At the beginning of the noughties the frictions this created led to reforms to replace the plan-led "predict and provide" system with a "plan, monitor and manage" approach that ostensibly encouraged planning to steer the market rather than follow it (Prescott, 2000). The changes were also bound up with a new vision for planning entitled "spatial planning", a term adopted from continental Europe, that supposedly signalled a move from a passive to positive approach to land use planning.

It is also a time that unresponsive housing supply was identified as a major housing policy challenge (Bramley, 2007). The issue partially re-emerged on the policy agenda in the context of the Sustainable Communities Plan and then more fully in an independent government review by Kate Barker (2003, 2004). This review sets out a plethora of recommendations (Barker, 2004) aimed at changing the planning system. There is a focus on the need for greater use of market indicators as a basis of providing land for future development. In particular she suggests that the traditional approach of allocating land on the basis of household projections (and related needs estimates) could be improved by setting targets for planning that are based on affordability measurements.

In 2006 the planning system in England was reformed to speed up the system and make it more sensitive to market pressures. The new approach was firmly in the top down tradition. Two main levels of plan were introduced: Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) and Local Development Frameworks (LDF). Regional Planning Bodies took responsibility for preparing, monitoring and implementing the RSS which involved the identification of both a rolling five year supply of developable land and up to a further fifteen years of potential housing land. It was thought this system should provide market and state actors with greater certainty.

This complex system of allocating land for new housing involved numerous stages and inputs. At a general level, assessments were made of housing need, and future requirements for new housing were set out. This technocratic exercise outlined in Figure 1 was based on a range of background data including projections of future numbers of households and assessments of the capacity of regions and sub-regions to provide for this additional requirement. In practice these technical processes were subject to serious criticisms as they are data driven and have a debatable theoretical basis (Jones and Watkins, 2009). The problems started with the essential building block, the definition of local housing market areas. These functional areas were often simply taken to be convenient local authority boundaries and lack credibility (Jones et al, 2010). They are also embedded within the administrative regions even though housing market areas, for example Manchester, straddle such boundaries. The result is apparent sophisticated forecasts but scratch the veneer and their reliability is questionable.

Perhaps the process was more important than the results as it promoted engagement of a wide range of actors, including housebuilders, social landlords, property agents as well as community and regeneration agencies. And while it was a flawed pseudo-scientific exercise it offered a vehicle for justifying increased house building and a mechanism for the identification of land supply. Notwithstanding these criticisms these new processes took time to set up and implement and this may have contributed to a slowing of new house supply. But the answer may also lie in specific planning policies which are now considered.

Figure 1

Source: Ferrari (2008 p8)


Spatial planning set itself extravagant goals or claims about what it can achieve. Planning Policy Statement 1 issued in 2006 for England stated that planning aims to ensure the right development, in the right place at the right time (CLG, 2006) and the planning system was also now charged with the delivery of affordable homes, establishing sustainable communities and securing local economic development. It is useful to briefly review these policies and their impact.


The previous government strongly encouraged the use of "planning agreements" by local authorities that oblige private housing developers to make social contributions (a negotiable development gains tax) in return for planning permission to build (CLG, 2006b). In the noughties the government chose to expand the supply of affordable housing by using this mechanism. The use of planning agreements to provide affordable housing placed it as central core of national housing strategy.

However, there have been three problems with this policy. The most fundamental was that it failed to address the conundrum of using the planning system to generate affordable housing while the affordability problem is partly created by the constraints of the planning system. Setting aside this conflict it follows that this policy of planning agreements was only likely to be applicable where there are severe planning/urban growth constraints and not a universal panacea across the country. Second, the assessment of a developer's contribution is a complex task and planning officers do not have either these skills or sufficient negotiating skills. Partly because of this problem the processing of these agreements and hence the developments themselves became very slow and cumbersome. There are also considerable doubts about the efficacy of the system in generating funds, albeit in kind. Third, it was decided that to promote social mix the affordable housing had to be normally provided on the same site as the private housing.

This last ingredient added to the complexities. A major area of friction was the persistent differences between developers and planners about the type and location of affordable housing to be built (Rowlands et al, 2006). The success of the policy is also very dependent on the buoyancy of the private housing market and new house building rates, and in the first half of the noughties the numbers of affordable housing provided in this way did increase (Crook et al, 2006). However, the success of these agreements was heavily concentrated in areas of high housing demand/value, principally London and the South East of England with very few affordable housing units provided in northern regions. Overall though the use of planning agreements dampened the upswing in house building expected with the rise in house prices and therefore contributed to exaggerating the house price cycle.


Sustainable development is an overarching goal of planning yet the term is subject to interpretation. The planning profession has emphasised environmental and ecological concerns and both the government and the planning profession have placed a strong emphasis on urban design as part of sustainable development within a compact city form. This has been translated into a policy that encouraged high residential densities by following a stringent defence of the green belts surrounding the cities, a minimum recommended development density of 30 dwellings per hectare in England (since 2006, although recommendations were higher between 2000 and 2006) and the reuse of "brownfield" land. There was a target in England for building 60% of new homes on re-used urban land.

The consequences of these policies were seen in a transformation in the nature of housing development over the brief period of just five years. The contribution of flats to new house building in England rose from a fifth of the total at the beginning of the 1990s to 46% by the end of the noughties. If social housing completions are added the proportion of flats increased to half in 2008-09 This move toward flats built for sale induced a major reduction in the proportions of three and four bedroom housing units built in favour of smaller units, especially two bedroom properties.

The building of so many small flats, especially in city centres, raises long term questions for the housing market and sustainability. However, in the short term this trend was facilitated by the emergence of "buy to let" private landlords on a large scale who bought up many of them. At the same time over the last decade as the house price boom increased the unaffordability of house purchase many households have had to delay home ownership and there was a growth of long term private tenants.

The combination of land constraints and planning policy had increased development densities in cities. Much of this intensification of land utilisation incorporated redevelopment of existing housing including their gardens. The recycling of residential land has rose by around 50% over the latter half of the noughties. This is emotively referred to as "garden grabbing". This reflects both the increasing drive toward higher density across the whole of England. Regions where there are high demand pressures are consistently above the average. Looking at the local authority level statistics it is clear that the statistics reflect not just demand pressures but also the availability of gardens/residential space to redevelop.


The election of the Coalition government has seen some significant changes to the planning system notably the swift abolition of the Regional Spatial Strategies and their replacement with the "Localism Agenda". As part of this new approach minimum densities for housing developments have been abolished and gardens are to be reclassified and will no longer be treated as brownfield land. New house building is to be promoted by property tax incentives to the local authority.

The reforms are still a work in progress but the top down approach to forecasting/allocating housing demand/supply has been abolished but otherwise individual local authorities will still need to follow the existing procedures. The essential difference is that these forecasts/allocations will be undertaken at the individual local authority level although they are encouraged to work with neighbouring authorities. This will take time to be implemented and could cause delays and uncertainty to the house building industry. There are additional fears that public expenditure cutbacks will limit the necessary new infrastructure required for new housing development.


Planning policies rather than the planning system (including RSS) has shaped the housing market cycle this decade by slowing supply. The operation of these planning policies is also dependent on a buoyant housing market but has still not delivered sufficient housing supply in a housing boom. The effectiveness of these planning policies is linked to house price cycles, and in the aftermath of the credit crunch are unlikely to promote a quick revival in housing supply. The corollary of this conclusion and the dominance of planning policies rather than the planning system is that removing the Regional Spatial Strategies top tier (and the subsequent delay for the localism agenda to get off the ground) is unlikely to have much short term influence on housing supply. In the longer term the revisions to policies currently in the process of development will need to be substantial to improve the position.


Barker K (2003) Review of Housing supply—Interim report: Analysis. HMSO, London.

Barker K (2004) Review of Housing supply: Delivering Stability—Securing Our Future Needs, final repor— recommendations. HMSO, London.

Bramley G (1997) Housing Policy: a case of terminal decline? Policy and Politics, 25, 387-407.

Bramley G (2007) The sudden discovery of housing supply as a key policy challenge, Housing Studies, 221-42.

CLG (2006) Planning Policy Statement 1, CLG, London

CLG (2007) Homes for the Future, More Affordable, More Sustainable, CLG, London.

Ferrari E (2008) Do planners need to understand housing markets? Paper presented to ACSP/AESOP Conference, Chicago, June.

Jones C and Watkins C (2009) Housing Markets and Planning Policy, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Jones C, Coombes M and Wang C (2010, forthcoming) Geography of Housing Market Areas, Final Report to NHPAU.

Prescott J (2000) Statement on PPG 3 by the Deputy Prime Minister, DETR, London.

September 2010

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Prepared 31 March 2011