Published: 06:00, 21 November 2020
The retreat follows a backlash from Kent MPs and council leaders who warned it could have led to thousands more homes being built across swathes of Kent countryside.
The algorithm would have resulted in a significant increase in house-building targets in parts of the county that have already seen extensive development in recent years.
The shake-up also provoked fierce criticism from campaign groups with complaints that what they described as a “mutant algorithm” could see more development on green field land.
The methodology would have seen the annual target for new homes in Kent rise by 32% from 10,441 to 13,732.
The worst hit districts included Dover, where the target would have seen an increase of 115%, Dartford, with an 86% increase and Tonbridge and Malling where there would have been a 71% rise.
Nicholas Heslop, the Conservative leader of Tonbridge and Malling Council, said: “The algorithm was just not acceptable but I want to see what the revised algorithm is before I get too excited.”
He said the borough lacked the necessary infrastructure - such as new schools and GPs - which would have been needed to cope with even more homes than the council’s own Local Plan envisaged.
“We just have not got the infrastructure that would respond to significant growth,” he said.
He also sounded a note of caution over reports that the government was set to allow shops to be converted into residential accommodation without the need to go through the planning process.
“If we get permitted development rights in urban centres that don't allow for planning conditions, then there is no contribution to the infrastructure.”
Councillor Mike Baldock, the leader of the Swale Independent group that opposes extensive development, said: “I am pleased they have done away with this lunatic idea, however this is only the tip of the iceberg and the government really needs to review the whole system.
"We need more powers for local councillors to control, to stop land banking and the rush to develop on greenfield sites.”
Housing minister Robert Jenrick told the Commons he would be reviewing changes in the light of the criticism but insisted that the government remained committed to a target of building 300,000 new homes a year.
It is thought the focus will shift towards building more homes in the North and Midlands and in urban areas or city centres.
The algorithm was just one part of wider planning reforms the government is considering. These include proposals for targets to be set centrally with local decision-making restricted to setting three zones, one being protected from development, and another being earmarked for it.
The Conservative leader of Kent County Council Roger Gough had warned that the threat of dramatically increased targets for new homes represented a threat to the Conservatives’ prospects at next year's county council elections.
In a letter to Kent MPs, he said it was hard to exaggerate the anger among traditional party supporters about development.
He wrote: “We cannot countenance the imposition of arbitrary housing requirements that threaten the quality of life in the county. they also no pose a grave threat to Conservative Party support in future elections.”
Battles over house building are nothing new in Kent.
As long ago as 2004, the Conservative-controlled county council saw off an attempt by the regional assembly created by the Labour government - the unloved South East England Regional Assembly - to impose huge new housing targets.
Fast forward to 2020 and a familiar fight is playing out over the government's house-building targets - this time with a twist: it has been a case of Conservative councils leading the charge against a Conservative government.
In military terms, it is the equivalent of what is known as “blue on blue” in which parties of the same political stripe attack one another.
The focus this time has been the government's attempt to impose on councils house-building targets that have been calculated using an algorithm.
This new methodology was supposed to be a way in which the distribution of new housing was more evenly spread across the country. Instead, it produced projections for huge increases in the number of homes in areas which had historically already seen extensive development.
The figures for some parts of Kent could not have been more perverse or alarming with increases ranging from 70% to more than 100%.
"The battle over algorithms may have been won but it is just one flank of the government's prospectus for an overhaul of the planning system."
Conservative MPs were implored to take up the cause of council's facing deeply unpopular targets, with the refrain that the Garden of England was at risk of being concreted over with tens of thousands of new homes.
Councils rightly highlighted that there was something perverse about calculations which would have meant significant increases in Kent when the government's avowed intent was to level up economic investment in northern regions with the south east, the so-called engine room of the national economy.
Kent MPs needed no persuading that this planning shake-up was to be resisted; if anything piles up more in their post bags, it is complaints about over-development and the prospect of the countryside being swallowed up by new housing estates.
It is, of course, the case that there may be an element of Nimbyism involved. But more pertinent is the justifiable apprehension over house building without sufficient guarantees that the necessary infrastructure in the form of of extra school places, medical facilities and road improvements, will be funded properly.
Politically, the argument rests on the Conservative view that these issues should be resolved locally, not through the kind of top down government imposition of targets.
It is worth noting, however, that this battle over a mutant algorithm is just one aspect of the government planning reforms.
The determination to speed up the planning process by adopting a zoning system in which there are areas designated by the government for development is equally as contentious.
The battle over algorithms may have been won but it is just one flank of the government's prospectus for an overhaul of the planning system.