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Getting right back to where we started from: what do the latest record-high ONS projections suggest about housing need?
ONS’s latest population projections represent the fifth set of projections published since the 2014-based projections (which currently underpin the standard method for assessing housing need) were produced in 2016. After a progressively declining picture of population growth nationally, these latest figures suggest a return to higher levels of population growth anticipated in the 2014-based projections. In this blog, we look at how projections have influenced planning for housing in the last decade, what these latest projections are showing (and why), and what they could mean for housing need and plan-making more widely.

How did we get here?

For those professionals involved in planning for housing, the last decade has been somewhat of a rollercoaster. With ONS producing population projections on a two-yearly basis (although this has been even more frequently, in recent years) and with DLUHC (and subsequently ONS) producing accompanying household projections on a similar – but slightly delayed – cycle, planners had been on a continuous hamster wheel in attempting to ensure that housing needs assessment and local plan requirements are based on up-to-date evidence. Of course, the cycle of plan-making moves at a much slower pace than projections are updated, which has led to assessments of housing need being updating repeatedly during the plan-making process, or even in some cases, becoming out-of-date almost immediately upon adoption.
The introduction of the ‘standard method’ for assessing local housing need in 2018 was in direct response to recommendations of the Local Plan Expert Group (LPEG) which noted that debates around housing need were often the most time consuming and costly element of the local plan examination process, and recommended a more simplified, transparent and standardised approach to this. The ‘standard method’ is a simple formula which is based on the 2014-based household projections, plus a percentage uplift for affordability; the worse the affordability ratio is, the greater the uplift.
Just months after it was introduced however, ONS published updated household projections (2016-based) which suggested much lower household growth nationally, leading to debate around the suitability of the 2014-based projections for assessing housing need, particularly by local authorities. In response, in October 2018 Government consulted on whether the standard method should continue to rely on the 2014-based projections, ultimately concluding for a variety of reasons that it should. Importantly, the 2014-based projections were broadly consistent with achieving the target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.
Subsequent household projections (2018-based) have continued to suggest lower growth more in line with the 2016-based figures, although there were no changes to national guidance which has continued to direct authorities to continue using the 2014-based figures in the standard method.
Further, interim, national population projections were published in January 2022 (2020-based interim projections), although these pre-dated the first findings of the 2021 Census which were published in June 2022. Commentators at the time highlighted that these projections suggested even lower growth than any of its predecessors (see Figure 1), but with no accompanying sub-national population projections or household projections, and with the Census findings being released just months later, these projections largely fell by the wayside in the planning sphere.

What are the latest projections showing?

In January 2024, ONS published the 2021-based interim national population projections; the first to post-date the 2021 Census and the first to reflect the stark increases in international migration seen since the pandemic – a factor we return to later in this blog. In contrast to the previous sets of projections, these are almost exactly in line with the 2014-based projections upon which the standard method is based, with England’s population projected to reach just over 63.5m by 2040. Over the next ten years, annual population growth is expected to be higher than any of the previous sets of projections, at 361,000 per year (Table 1).
Figure 1 Projected population – England – to 2040

Source: Various ONS Projections. Refers to principal projection.


Table 1 Projected population – England – to 2040

Source: Various ONS Projections. Refers to principal projection. Figures rounded. Life expectancy is average of males/females.


Clearly changes in international migration have had a significant impact, with the long-term assumption for migration now at 315,000 per year; nearly double that in the lowest projection (2016-based) and 70% higher than that in the 2014-based projections, even though the population projection for 2040 is the same in the latest projection as in its 2014-based predecessor. This shift – with more growth being driven by migration (rather than natural change – i.e. births and deaths - within the UK) - could also have implications for the types of housing needed, even if the overall number of homes remains the same.
Migration rose steadily from around 200,000 per year to 300,000 per year in the mid-2010s, and then fell steadily in the aftermath of the EU referendum (in 2016) and the onset of the pandemic (in 2020), as shown in Figure 2. But since then there has been a complete reversal of this trend, with news outlets even commenting on how migration was at record hights[1] towards the end of 2023, reaching around 750,000 in 2022 and almost entirely driven by migration from outside the EU.
So, although ONS’s long-term projection of migration of 315,000 per year seems high in the context of previous projections, it still represents a fall of around half of current levels to a level broadly in line with what was seen in the mid-2010s immediately prior to the EU Referendum. Although forecasting long-term migration trends is somewhat of a ‘crystal-ball-gazing’ exercise, a fall to 165,000 per year from mid-2022 (which was expected in the 2016-based projections – the lowest in terms of migration) surely now seems highly unrealistic.

Figure 2 Net migration (UK) – June 2012-present

Source: Adapted from ONS here


What does this mean for housing need?

Of course, we will need to await ONS’s next set of sub-national and household projections. But based on these interim projections outputs, we can still make some important observations on the direction of travel.
Perhaps most obviously, the latest projections place a renewed emphasis on the importance of planning for the standard method in line with the 2014-based projections, in order to support the aspiration of delivering 300,000 homes a year. At the national level, they are likely to suggest there are fewer (if any) circumstances in which authorities can suggest they have ‘exceptional circumstances’ which justify adopting a lower assessment of housing need.
They also highlight the importance of being able respond to changing circumstances in the plan-making context, particularly when it comes to housing needs. Projections of future population growth can evidently change rapidly in a short space of time, reflecting changes in current national trends particularly around migration, and it is vital that plans are equipped to deal with this.
Plan-makers will also need to keep an eye on how these projections affect economic growth forecasts, particularly forecasts where demographic change is an input. Whilst the 2014-based and 2021-based population projections have similar overall levels of population growth, the latter projections are far more driven by international migration than by natural change within the UK population (i.e. births and deaths). Growth driven more by migration is likely to yield an overall younger population, with growth in the labour force, in turn suggesting higher job growth. Plan-makers will need to ensure that enough homes are provided in the right places to support sustainable economic growth, reflecting these latest projections. Similarly, plan-makers will need to ensure that the changing age profile is reflected in assessments of housing mix, to ensure that the right types and tenures of housing (particularly those catering to working adults and families) are delivered.


[1] See BBC news here

[2] ONS’s release calendar suggests that it will next be producing a set of full 2022-based national population projections in Winter 2024, with associated 2022-based sub-national population and household projections to follow in Spring/Summer 2025.




Planning and housing written ministerial statement, December 2023  – the brief but important ‘other announcements’
This blog looks at some of the easily missed policy tweaks that were announced alongside and shortly after the NPPF revisions, within the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (SoS’s) 19th December written ministerial statement[1] (WMS). While they may not have made headlines, Mr Gove’s announcements identify and explain future national policy intentions to be consulted on in the coming months, with the exception of the gypsy and traveller policy amendment, which is already national policy.
For our other blogs on the reforms to national planning policy, see our resource here.

Enactment of LURA enforcement provisions

One of the SoS announcements in the speech that will have significant consequences was that he is to enact the planning enforcement “package” in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act to “address the concerns and frustrations expressed by communities about breaches of planning control more immediately.”
My colleague Sean Farrissey will shortly publish a blog examining the enforcement provisions in the LURA for those wishing to understand the package in more detail. The most significant change is that the period for taking enforcement action is to be extended to ten years in all cases– it is currently four years for ‘operational development’ and change of use to a single dwelling. This will be particularly relevant for our clients when carrying out ‘due diligence’.

Build out consultation after final Competitions and Markets Authority report

So-called ‘use it or lose it’ provisions to monitor and speed up build out – known to us more formally as sections 111, 112 and 114 of the LURA – were referenced as part of the statement; this involves the Government consulting on measures to improve ‘build out rates’ after the Competition and Markets Authority publishes its final housebuilding market study. ‘Use it or lose it’ regulations can be made at any time, because the provisions allowing them are already in force. For a more detailed analysis of what these provisions might mean for housing delivery, see Harry Bennett’s blog.

Developer character test – not dead after all?

The Government has also announced its intention to further consider consultation responses regarding whether an applicant’s past behaviour should be considered in decision-making, either through making “irresponsible” behaviour a material consideration (option 1) or allowing local planning authorities (LPAs) to decline applications from applicants with “a bad track record” (option 2).
The Government’s response to the NPPF consultation revealed that 59% of respondents supported the proposal to consider past behaviour in planning applications[2]. However, when it came to the mechanism for achieving this, responses were more varied, with 60% being either indifferent or not selecting one of the two options set out by the government. The government said it welcomed “the range of views expressed in the consultation responses and will consider these carefully in any future policy development”.
It should not be forgotten there is a provision in s113 of the LURA, which is not yet in force, that gives power to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to afford an authority the “power to decline to determine in the case of earlier non-implementation”. It is possible this may come forward as part of the ’use it or lose it’ provisions, this year.

Further reform to the Housing Delivery Test?

In a similar tone regarding the role of past behaviour in planning, the Government has announced that it plans to give further consideration to taking planning permissions into account in the application of the Housing Delivery Test. This would sit alongside other reforms to this test, also announced in the NPPF revisions in December, and analysed here. 

Review of building regulations for water efficiency in new homes

The WMS contained a promise to “review building regulations in Spring next year to allow local planning authorities to introduce tighter water efficiency standards in new homes”, related to concerns that Cambridge lacks the water security to enable development of the scale the LPA However, the inference is that the review will have nation-wide implications.

Successful bids announced for nutrient mitigation funding

Another step taken in the Government’s package of measures intended to unlock housing delivery is the release of the allocation the Local Nutrient Mitigation Fund to successful applicant authorities, on 20 December. The fund aims to release homes being held up by nutrient neutrality issues in the UK. Alongside this, Housing and Planning Minister Lee Rowley also announced a “second round of Nutrient Support Funding with another £100k for 2023/24 the lead local authority for substantive catchments (those over 10,000 hectares in size)”.
The funding allocation was accompanied by a letter[3] from the Minister Rowley, which confirmed that the Government has no plans to attempt to pass legislation relating to nutrient neutrality before the next general election.

Gypsy and traveller definition

In response to a judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of Smith v Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities & Another (2022)[4], the definition of Gypsies and Travellers to be used in national planning policy and decision-making, including the NPPF, has been changed back to the one adopted in 2012, rather than the definition adopted in 2015.
The definition currently applicable includes those who have ceased to travel permanently (the text in bold is the re-inserted text):
For the purposes of this planning policy “gypsies and travellers” means:
"Persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin, including such persons who on grounds only of their own or their family’s or dependants’ educational or health needs or old age have ceased to travel temporarily or permanently, but excluding members of an organised group of travelling showpeople or circus people travelling together as such."
The Smith judgment found that to remove “or permanently” from the definition had been discriminatory, giving rise to a negative impact on those Gypsies and Travellers who had permanently ceased to travel due to old age or illness, but who lived or wanted to live in a caravan. This discrimination was inextricably linked to their ethnic identity”. The SoS had not demonstrated to the judges that the discrimination was justified.
It is also stated in the WMS that the Government intends to review this area of policy and case law in 2024.


This blog has explored some of the future policies that the government intends to revise or take forward as part of its Long-Term Plan for Housing, alongside the NPPF, subject to consultation.
Most of these were given a light touch mention in the SoS’s WMS and associated speech, but most will have significant implications where they apply.



[2] See question 30 and 31

[3] Letter from Minister for housing, planning and building safety on nutrient neutrality, December 2023

[4] Smith v Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities & Anor (2022)