Standard Method – help or hindrance?
By Richard Pestell
On 19th February 2019, the Government announced a small number of changes to the NPPF and associated guidance. As part of this it confirmed that, for the time being, the Standard Method for housing would temporarily revert to the 2014 based projections. So setting aside the 2016 based projections.
While the 2014 based projections are generally higher across England, this is not universally good news for developers.
The announcement demonstrates that the Government is struggling with the Method. Also that it has no short term fix to increase the Method to match the stated target of 300,000 dwellings per annum. Furthermore, no solution is expected any time soon with the consultation response suggesting that it will be at least 18 months before any major changes to the Method are made.
For everyone in Planning, this means that the long-promised certainty and simplification that the Method should have brought is again kicked further into the long grass.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the Government’s response is the apparent elevation of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ to depart from the Method when examining plans. The consultation response offers this as a ‘lifeline’ to councils which are aggrieved by the new method. It also stresses that councils don’t need to accommodate their full need and clearly cites Green Belt as one example whereby this may occur.
These ‘escape clauses’ are not new. But this public response to the consultation certainty raises their profile and suggests that ‘exceptional’ may not be as rare as we hoped. Over recent months we have tried to dissuade local authorities from promoting either option as justification not to meet their need (whether 2016 or 2014 based). This was on the grounds that, in our opinion, ‘exceptional’ means ‘very rare’. So the profile this has been given in the consultation response only gives (false?) comfort to some local authorities that they can continue to underprovide new homes. It also gives councils hope that they may not need to be as rigorous with their Green Belt reviews as we would like.
When the Standard Method was initially launched, it was widely welcomed because it promised to provide the planning system with some stability. The Method promised an approach which was free of manipulation by any party to the housing numbers debate.
The development industry needs to be alive to the risk that many councils may try to cite ‘exceptional’ in cases where it cannot be justified. So we need to be prepared to demonstrate that their circumstances are far from unique and so not exceptional.
We also need to keep a firm eye on where future rounds of projections are heading. We are already being asked by clients to estimate where the relevant future projections may be at the time local authorities come to submit their development plans. This is because many councils acknowledge they need to future-proof emerging plans in case numbers go up. But this is not universal. We need to maintain pressure on local authorities where they are ‘sailing close to the wind’ and emerging plans are only testing the bare minimum that the Standard Method may show today.
We also need to encourage local authorities to be ambitious rather than promote ‘just enough’ housing. In many places across the country – and particularly in the North – just about ticking the Standard Method box will not deliver the transformational change that is needed, and the Government’s 300,000 dwellings per annum rhetoric will remain just that.