Last month saw downward revisions to the official projections of new household formation upon which the standard method is partly based, slashing the calculated housing need in many authorities.
The changes in the figures were not random; they are a result of corrections to systematic errors in the way household growth has been estimated. The ONS has said there is a problem in the latest 2016 based population estimates with graduate migration estimates but haven’t yet got a good method to fix it. In the case of Guildford, the previous method over estimated need by under-recording students leaving at the end of their studies, distorting and exaggerating overall need.
Julian Lyon, chairman of The Guildford Society said: “We have explained in our paper why we think the government’s statisticians are working from flawed data in university towns, and we, along with Guildford Residents Associations (GRA) who have done (and commissioned) more work on this matter, have continuously been vindicated by the reductions in official population forecasts and statements of need.” The GRA believes there is now an overwhelming case for re-opening the examination to take account of the latest official household figures.
The standard method has resulted in some bizarre regional patters and causes for concern in university towns. In the cases of Oxford and Cambridge, housing needs have plummeted in the latest projections and there is a clear void of jobs-led need where it is arguably required.
The government has committed to revising the standard method to bring it back in line with its target of planning for 300,000 homes a year. Housing minister Kit Malthouse, said the government is only likely to consult on these revision at the end of the year, and maybe not even until the new year. This raises serious questions over how local authorities should approach their plan-making efforts. The current confusion is likely to cause serious postponements to the plan making process from consultations to submissions and examinations are likely to be frozen, some will have to reopen.
Both St Helens Council and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority have indicated that they are pausing plan progress because of uncertainty. Matthew Spry, senior director at consultants Lichfields said: “It is currently impossible for authorities to know what their minimum housing need figure is going to be at the point at which they will submit plans for examination. It’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall.” Land promotion by developers is also, he said, in “limbo”.
Recent concerns certainly seem to be undermining the assumed status of the standard method number in plan-making. Richard Crawley, programme manager at the Planning Advisory Service said: “This uncertainty has actually served a purpose in reminding everyone that we can’t just passively accept numbers falling out of the method and roll them into documents.” Riddell added: “The government has created a rod for its own back by implying that this standard method should be used as the local plan target. The figures are only the starting point – plan-making needs to be based on strategy, not numbers.”