Government Housing Targets: How 80% of Councils Are Failing to Plan

Picture of Harry Quartermain

Harry Quartermain
June 12, 2023
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that England is in the middle of a housing crisis. 

You might also be aware that the problem isn’t that we’re not hitting our 300,000 new homes a year government housing target. The problem is we’re getting further away from that target.

Entire reports have been written about why this is happening. There are lots of variables, lots of reasons, and lots of discussions. But the simple answer is:

We’re not building enough homes because we’re not planning to build enough homes. 

And it gets worse.

According to our research, a scant 20% of local councils in England possess the autonomy to guide where development should (and should not) take place. 

How did this happen?

How a Council's Planning Performance is Measured

England has a ‘plan-led’ system, which means that applications for planning permission are judged against a locally-driven development plan. 

In theory, local councils get to decide where development should occur, and which areas should be preserved, by first outlining this in a Local Plan then having a role in the decision-making process through a planning committee. 

On a national level, national planning policy is guided by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It supports this locally-driven planning in paragraph 2: ‘planning law requires that applications for planning permission be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.’.

The NPPF also outlines, in paragraph 11, that there should be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ when making decisions on planning applications.

(We’ll explain what that means in a bit). 

The NPPF sets out (paragraph 11c) that where there is an up-to-date development plan in place, and where the applications accords with that plan, applications should be approved without delay. Makes sense.

It also states (paragraph 11d) situations where the local development plan can be effectively set aside. These situations include: 

  • Where the local plan is out of date (i.e. more than five years old); or
  • Where the council has achieved delivery of less than 75% of its need in the Housing Delivery Test (or government housing targets); or
  • Where the council is unable to demonstrate five years of housing land supply. 


If a council finds itself in this unfortunate situation, they only have one way to refuse a planning application. That is if they decide that the adverse effects of an approval would ‘significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’.  

This ‘tilted balance’ of decision-making makes it much harder to justify a refusal of development, even if the application is contrary to the local plan or the local councilors’ wishes. A development that changes the character of the neighbourhood? More likely to get approved. A development that is in a non-growth area, and puts more pressure on already strained local services and amenities? More likely to get approved. 

This shifts the balance. It changes from “developers need to prove to the council that the development will benefit the community” in order to get approved, to the council has to demonstrate that “the development will harm the community” if they are minded to refuse.  

It’s the planning equivalent of changing the jurisprudence of “presumed innocent before guilty” to “presumed guilty before innocent”. 

With this, a democratically elected local council has little power to shape communities in the interests of residents, and in line with the council’s vision for growth. 


How 80% of Councils are Struggling to Keep Pace

To get the key stat at the beginning, we looked at a number of sources to understand how far the extent of the ‘presumption in favour’ had spread across England using current data. We used the data available, which includes the now amalgamated former districts in North Yorkshire, Somerset, Westmorland and Furness, and Cumberland. 

To understand which local plans are ‘up-to-date’ (i.e. they have been adopted within the last five years) we looked at the information provided by the Planning Inspectorate on local plan examinations.1

To understand which councils are unable to deliver more than 75% of their housing need we drew data from the 2021 Housing Delivery Test (HDT), which is currently the most up-to-date dataset of this information.

To understand which councils are unable to demonstrate five years of housing land supply we looked at the summary that is maintained by the Planning Resource magazine. 

Following the amalgamation of councils in North Yorkshire, Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, and Somerset there are 295 local authorities in England (including the City of London but excluding the Isles of Scilly).  Of these: 

  • 64 (21.5%) have the presumption consequence due the HDT requirement; 
  • 123 (39%) don’t have a 5 Year Housing Land Supply;
  • 214 (73%) don’t have an up-to-date local plan; 
  • A further 14 local plans will become ‘out of date’ in the next six months; and


When we filter and put all of this together, we get a startling stat: 236 of 295 councils (80%) are currently likely to be subject to the ‘presumption’ ruling. And this is likely to increase within the next six months as more plans reach the five-year mark. 

Put another way, more than 8 out of 10 LPAs right now are not able to rely on their local plans to direct development to the right locations. They lack the autonomy to shape where development goes and doesn’t go. 

This will likely discourage the economic growth that comes from delivering new homes and communities, and also means that councillors are powerless to stop development that they don’t want. 

(Although this doesn’t stop planning committees voting against proposals that then get approved, at great tax-payer expense, by the planning inspectorate).  

Maybe this could be because of party politics? There’s rhetoric in the news right now of one party being that of builders, and another of blockers (and a few years ago, the rhetoric was the other way around).

However this isn’t because of that. When we looked at how the overall control of the councils in England relates to whether the ‘presumption in favour’ is likely to be in force, we found that the problem applies fairly evenly across the political spectrum.


The housing crisis has been a national issue for a number of years, and the pressure behind this is only growing. Following the May 2023 local elections, affecting 230 local councils in England, the electorate’s message to the new (and continuing) councillors of all political persuasions is: surely we can do better than this!

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1  (Disclaimer: paragraph 33 of the NPPF requires that ‘Policies in local plans and spatial development strategies should be reviewed to assess whether they need updating at least once every five years’. PINS does not register where LPAs have ‘reviewed their local plan’ and decided that no updates are required - this argument is sometimes made where local plans are older than five years but the authority still considers them to be ‘in-date’. In this situation the council acts as judge and jury on the continued relevance of its own policy, as this is clearly unfair and doesn’t allow for an independent examination of their policy position, we’ve included any council that has not been subject to an Examination).