No response from Government on lowering housing targets
Matthew Smith Local Democracy Reporter
- Credit: Paul Zukowskyj
Council bosses are still waiting on a response from the Government more than a month after suspending progress on its plan to build 15,000 new homes.
In October, the borough council cancelled a meeting of the Cabinet Planning and Parking Panel and a Special Council after comments made by the prime minister prompted speculation about a potential reduction in how many homes the council would need to provide.
During his speech at the Conservative Party Conference, Boris Johnson pledged to limit the number of new homes being built on green fields and said he wanted to take some housing pressure off the south-east.
At the time, Cllr Stephen Boulton, executive member for planning, said it would be “irresponsible” for the council not to seek clarification from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities before proceeding with meetings concerning the emerging Local Plan.
The borough council is currently expected to build 15,000 new homes before 2032.
In a statement on October 12, the council added the meetings would be rescheduled “as soon as is practically possible following the response from the Secretary of State.”
However, it has emerged more than one month on, neither the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, nor the department have yet responded to the council.
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At a meeting of the Cabinet Planning and Parking Panel on Thursday, November 11 officers confirmed that they were still waiting for a response before being able to reassess the council’s position.
The Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said they were “aware” of the borough council’s concerns, but couldn’t say if or when the Secretary of State would respond to the letter.
Last week Michael Gove told MPs he is looking at how housing need is calculated but refused to set a timetable for any reforms to be published.
The delay in Welwyn Hatfield has prompted opposition leader Cllr Paul Zukowskyj to suggest the council are using central government as a “scapegoat” to shift blame from the Local Plan process.
The pause also comes just two months after officers admitted they wouldn’t meet Planning Inspector Melvyn Middleton's deadline of September 17 to outline any additional sites for inclusion in the plan.
In an amended timeline, the council was set to discuss individual sites in October before a consultation was held later in the autumn. Their proposed schedule also included a new report being submitted to the inspector in February 2022, ahead of the plan being adopted in the summer.
However, the cancelled meetings have yet to be rescheduled and the borough council declined to confirm whether the postponed meetings would take place before the end of the year.
Cllr Zukowskyj added that he believes the plan will fall “very soon”, which could see the council lose control of the process as a result of the delays.
He said: “I do not expect DLUHC [Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] to respond with anything meaningful or useful, if and when they eventually do.
“In my view, the Conservative administration knew that would be the response from DLUHC when they sent the letter, but they know just how unpalatable the plan they have would be, especially with some of their core supporters.
“It’s entirely probable they had enough rebel councillors that they were unable to assemble a majority to vote the plan through, so decided this was a ‘cunning plan’ to avoid the plan falling in council and be able to blame the government’s lack of response when the plan is eventually thrown out. Pass the buck is the name of this game.
“I am entirely unsurprised by the situation and believe the plan is likely to fall very soon. The Conservatives locally want a scapegoat, but fundamentally it is a problem of their own making, especially as the housing minister at the time much of this policy was drawn up was Grant Shapps.”
A spokesperson for the borough council said: “We are still awaiting the response from the Secretary of State and hope to hear soon.”
A Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “We’re aware of the concerns raised by WHBC.
“Building new homes is an absolute priority for this government, which is why we are investing over £12 billion in affordable housing, including half for social rent.
“Councils are responsible for setting housing targets, and our guidance should be considered alongside local factors in working out how many homes can be delivered.”