Oxford could lose out on almost 1,000 council houses, if Government changes to planning rules go ahead

Published: Friday, 2nd October 2020

Oxford could lose out on almost 1,000 new council houses, if the Government goes ahead with proposed changes to planning rules.

There are currently 2,355 families on the waiting list for desperately-needed new council housing in Oxford. And, with unemployment on the rise, there are likely to be more people falling into housing need.

Oxford City Council, under the Local Plan 2036, has allocated land to build 2,700 new council homes over the next 16 years.

But the Government – in a consultation named Changes to the current planning system – is proposing changes to planning rules that would see the number of council homes built in Oxford before 2036 slashed by up to 919.

The change would mainly benefit large housing developers, meaning they no longer need to build council homes on their development sites and can instead focus on market value homes.

In Oxford, which is the least affordable city in the country to live in, this would mean building more houses that are unaffordable to the majority of Oxford residents, and reducing the proportion of homes built for social rent, such as council housing.

Council housing in Oxford is provided at about 40% of average rent levels in an area. While the median private rent for a three-bedroom house in Oxford is £1,500 a month, the City Council recently let six new three-bedroom homes to families on its waiting list at a social rent of £600 a month.

The Government’s new consultation was issued at the same time as – but is separate from – its controversial Planning White Paper.

Oxford could lose almost 1,000 council homes

The Government says its proposed changes to the planning system are to improve the effectiveness of the current planning system.

As part of the proposals, the Government is planning to redefine what a “large development” site is, at least in the short-term, but potentially permanently.

In Oxford, a “large development” is currently defined as a site with 10 or more houses, but the Government is looking to change this to a site with either 40 or more, or 50 or more houses.

This means that planning rules for “large developments” will no longer apply in Oxford on sites of up to 39 or 49 houses.

In Oxford, the City Council’s Local Plan 2036 – which was agreed by Government-appointed planning inspectors earlier this year – states that sites of 10 or more homes must include 40% council housing and 10% intermediate housing.

In a further change, the Government is also proposing to change these percentages to require “large developments” to have 30% council housing, 12.5% First Homes, and 7.5% intermediate housing.

The combined impact of these two changes, in a worst case scenario where a “large development” is defined as 50 or more homes, would see Oxford go from producing 2,700 council homes by 2036 to producing 1,781 – a loss of 919 council homes.

Impact of Government's proposed changes to planning rules in Oxford
  Current policy (50% on sites of 10+ homes) Option 1 (50% on sites of 40+ homes) Option 2 (50% on sites of 50+ homes)
Total homes 6,749 6,159 5,937
Social Rent, including council housing 40% (2,700) 30% (1,848) (-852) 30% (1,781) (-919)
Intermediate 10% (675) 7.5% (462) (-213) 7.5% (445) (-230)
First Homes 0% 12.5% (770) 12.5% (742)

But this could be an underestimate

However, these numbers could be an underestimate because the Government’s proposals would create a cliff edge for housing developers.

If the Government goes ahead with creating the threshold at 50 homes, it would mean developments consisting of 49 homes would not have to build any affordable housing, including council housing, but developments of 50 would have to build 25 affordable homes – 15 council homes, six First Homes and four intermediate houses.

This is likely to see developers proposing schemes with fewer homes than they may otherwise have done – meaning fewer affordable homes and fewer homes overall. It could also see land owners splitting up their land and submitting several planning applications for developments that are under the threshold.

The combined impact of this is impossible to quantify, but it would have a profound impact on the delivery of council housing in Oxford over the next 16 years.

Oxford has already lost hundreds of council homes

This is not the first time that a national planning decision has caused Oxford to lose out on new council homes.

Last year, Government-appointed planning inspectors scrapped a key planning policy in Oxford that is expected to see the city lose out on hundreds of council homes.

“Oxford’s Local Plan 2036 is rightly based on meeting the requirement for desperately needed council housing in the city.

“At a time when unemployment is rising and more and more people are struggling to afford rents, we need more council housing, not less.

“These deeply damaging proposals need to be dropped immediately, and the Government needs instead to invest in the kind of mass council house building programme that is long overdue.”

Councillor Alex Hollingsworth, Cabinet Member for Planning and Housing Delivery