Councils need to act quickly to avoid a policy vacuum on new housing, a planning expert has warned.
And Peter Taylor, planning partner and national head of planning at DLA Piper, urged them not to use an impending legal challenge to put decisions on hold.
Housebuilder Cala Homes has asked for a judicial review of the Government’s decision to axe Regional Spatial Strategies, claiming it was unlawful.
It has lodged a High Court claim against Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who announced last month that he was revoking the “Soviet-style” strategies – they formerly set housing goals for councils across the country – with immediate effect.
It is aggrieved because a long-running battle for planning permission to build 2,000 homes in Winchester has been stopped in its tracks. Cala says its appeal against the council’s refusal can no longer be considered in light of Mr Pickles’ decision.
The case’s outcome will have implications for schemes throughout the West Midlands.
But Mr Taylor says councils should not be distracted and get on with assessing their housing needs.
He charged: “Many developers and land owners are feeling aggrieved that the removal of Regional Strategies has quite severely affected their ability to take forward schemes across the UK.
“But the reality of the situation is that, regardless of the outcome of the Cala Homes challenge, we all need to get used to a Regional Strategies-free world.
“In that respect what is important is that matters like this court action do not distract from what councils should be doing which is to assess their housing needs and come to a policy conclusion.”
Noting that in a letter to councils of July 6 Mr Pickles, in announcing the abolition of Regional Strategies, had told them to carry out the assessments quickly so as not to leave a vacuum, he went on: “It is the possibility of just such a vacuum that we must seek to avoid.
“We need to get certainty back into the system because the industry requires it if it is to move forward.”
Under the West Midlands blueprint the previous Labour Government had ordered councils to build 397,900 homes in the region by 2026.
It claimed a rapidly ageing population, further increases in life expectancy and the growth of single-person households would result in a devastating housing shortage unless local authorities used their powers to plan for more homes.
Authorities will now no longer be forced to follow centrally-imposed targets and are free to decide appropriate growth figures for their area.
The previous demands were for an extra 57,500 homes in Birmingham, 10,500 in Solihull, 63,000 in the Black Country and 33,500 in Coventry, as well as 40,500 in Worcestershire – mainly in Bromsgrove and Redditch– and 43,500 in Warwickshire.
There has been speculation that the 38 West Midlandscouncils may revert to the 365,500 figure for new housing they claimed was the maximum that could feasibly be built by 2026.
Alternatively, the figure could be scaled down to less than 300,000 – a total the councils say is reasonable given the impact of economic recession, uncertainties about future recovery and a collapse in land and property prices.
In unveiling the change in policy, Mr Pickles insisted: “The previous Government gave a green light for the destruction of the Green Belt and we are determined to stop it. That’s why I have written to all councils to let them know they can make planning decisions in the knowledge Regional Strategies will soon be history.’’