Our planners offer a comprehensive analysis of the Housing White Paper.
Reading the Housing White Paper, published this week, most certainly feels like déjà vu. The much anticipated paper promised so much and, by its own terms, needed to present ‘radical, lasting reform’. Yet its measures have, by and large, been stated or tried before.
The meat on the bone for planning proposals appears in the first two sections of the document, ‘Planning for the right homes in the right places’, and ‘Building Homes Faster’. Here, we take a detailed look at these main proposals.
The case for change
The White Paper identifies too few places as having an up-to-date plan. Even where plans are in place they may not be fulfilling their objective to recognise and plan for the homes that are needed.
It dubs plan-making as slow, expensive and bureaucratic, with arguments about the number of homes to be planned for often being a particular cause of delay.
In response, the White Paper sets out proposals to reform plan-making, identify sufficient land in the right locations, and make the most of development opportunities; with more community involvement.
However, with a few exceptions, much of this section appears to be a rewording of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Opportunities for bolder reform, such as an overhaul of Green Belt policy, are missed.
Ensure plans are in place, review every five years
The White Paper says that the Government will, when necessary, intervene to ensure that plans are put in place, so that communities in the areas affected are not disadvantaged by unplanned growth. It will also set out in regulations a requirement for Local Plan and other local plan documents to be reviewed at least once every five years.
These measures reflect how the system works already. As many Councils still rely on old Local Plans from the late 1990s and early 2000s, it would be more useful if the Government could intervene where plans do not come forward.
Statement of Common Ground
Authorities will be expected to prepare a Statement of Common Ground, setting out how they will work together to meet housing requirements and other issues that cut across authority boundaries.
Whilst this is all well and good in principle, it is unlikely to promote collaborative working between authorities where a fundamental disagreement exists about housing allocations. The NPPF already contains a duty to cooperate between public bodies, so it is unclear how this proposal will change anything.
Assessing housing requirements
The Government will consult on options for introducing a standardised approach to assessing housing requirements.
The complexity and variance of current models means that the principle of consistency is to be welcomed. But there is a hint of a ‘get out clause’ here. If Councils do not use the standardised approach, they merely have to justify their own methodology. Invariably, Councils wishing to avoid the standard approach may try to do so.
Therefore the Government should make it mandatory for all Councils to adhere to a standard methodology (unless in prescribed exceptional circumstances). To give Councils greater discretion would mean that the considerable time spent debating appropriate methodologies in Examinations nationwide would only continue. This would be a self-defeating rather than time-saving move.
Making land ownership and interests more transparent
It can be difficult to establish the ownership of land. The Government wants this information to be more freely available, to help SMEs acquire land for development and to allow local communities to understand who owns land in their areas.
The modernisation and completion of land records should be welcomed.
The White Paper seeks to maximise the contribution from brownfield and surplus public land. It states that amendments to the NPPF will attach ‘great weight’ to the value of using suitable brownfield land within settlements for homes unless there are clear and specific reasons to the contrary.
In the absence of a Local Plan, when introduced, the presumption in favour of housing on brownfield land would appear to outweigh the loss of employment land. Where adopted Local Plan policies are in place that seek to retain employment land, such policy would overrule the proposed NPPF change. The NPPF is clear that the development plan takes primacy. Where consideration of residential development on brownfield land is finely balanced however, the presumption in favour of housing should tip the balance towards the proposed development.
The presumption in favour of housing on brownfield sites is a positive step towards delivery. Greenfield sites will, however, continue to be required to fulfil strategic levels of housing demand.
Public sector land
The White Paper supports more homes on public sector land by launching a new £45m Land Release Fund and ensuring that authorities can dispose of land with the benefit of planning permission granted to themselves. Further consultation is planned to extend authorities flexibility to dispose of land.
There has been a recent increase in authorities and public bodies seeking to dispose of land, often for brownfield sites. Plymouth City Council won an award in 2016 for plans to release land in its control for 5,000 homes. The HCA has also assisted authorities to release land through its tender process. The new fund would enable to authorities to release land with the benefit of planning permission that would reduce the risk taken by developers.
Further guidance will no doubt be welcomed by authorities that have so far been reluctant to release sites or are unsure of the processes involved.
Supporting small and medium sized sites
The NPPF will be amended to expect Local Plans to contain policies that support the development of small ‘windfall sites’ and an indication that great weight should be given to using small undeveloped sites within settlements for homes.
Together with the additional weight that national policy will place on the benefits of developing brownfield land, they will ensure there is a clear presumption that residential development opportunities on small sites should be treated positively.
Whilst this measure is to be welcomed, most local plans already contain policies that support development within defined settlement limits. The presumption in favour would at least confirm the acceptability of residential use, subject to compliance with other NPPF policies such as flood risk.
A new generation of new communities
New settlements are very much needed to bring forward significant numbers of new homes. The White Paper proposes to bring back New Town Development Corporations. These bodies delivered significant numbers of homes in the 1950s to 1980s in places such as Bracknell, Stevenage and Milton Keynes. There is definitely a place for such bodies in the future, provided the investment in infrastructure is forthcoming from the Government.
Green Belt land
The Conservatives are keeping their manifesto pledge to maintain the sacrosanct status of the Green Belt. The White Paper states that local planning authorities (LPAs) can only change Green Belt boundaries when they have exhausted every other option and they have put compensatory measures in place to offset the loss of Green Belt land. Green Belt policy is one of the major barriers to significant and sustainable housing delivery around our major towns and cities. However, as relaxing Green Belt policy would be deeply unpopular with core Conservative voters, it is likely to remain a mainstay of English planning policy.
Strengthening neighbourhood planning and design
The Government wants more communities to prepare their own neighbourhood plans. The White Paper offers more funding and more co-operation from LPAs to help local groups to put their plans in place.
Neighbourhood plans are largely written by volunteers and they are to be congratulated for their efforts. However, it is questionable as to what happens in those areas where residents are not motivated or able to write their own plans.
Using land more efficiently for development
The White Paper advocates increases in density for housing and highlights that many of our cities remain predominantly low density environments compared to our European neighbours. It cites mansion blocks and mews house as good examples of high density housing.
Urban areas are places where higher density housing can be accommodated. However, these sites are frequently small and in short supply, especially in London and the south of England. Many sites have been built out already, often at very high densities. There are numerous examples of residential towers being constructed in urban areas.
The White Paper also accepts that densities at edge- of-town and city sites are not best suited to these higher densities. However this is from where a significant proportion of new housing land derives.
There is agreement that cities with infrastructure can accommodate more homes and town and city fringes should be lower density. The paper promotes developing out sites around accessible locations. However, in the absence of a sensible Green Belt review, the best options for new high density sites in these locations seem unlikely to come forward.
A possible consequence of the White Paper is that we may see a new wave of sites developed around train stations beyond the Green Belt. But this is not that far removed from the current NPPF.
The case for change?
According to the White Paper, of 684,000 consented units with full planning permission at July 2016, only 349,000 were under construction. This ‘slow building of homes’ undermines local and neighbourhood plans. By preventing Councils from demonstrating a five year land supply, this can lead to speculative development undermining confidence in the system.
But, looking at the footnote to the figures, it is apparent that:
Given that much delivery comes from larger sites, where there is natural market constraint on what can be delivered in any given year, the White Paper does not convince that the ‘case for change’ has been properly identified.
There is an implicit, and occasionally explicit, theme, throughout the paper that housebuilders are equally culpable in the non-delivery of housing sites through their desire to ‘landbank’. This is a popular accusation by politicians, and the argument is never supported by statistical analysis. The HBF’s May 2014 research paper ‘Permissions to Land: busting the myths about house builders and ‘land banking’ did much to rebut this allegation, but this is not credited within the White Paper.
There is, by common consensus, an issue about the number and length of obstacles between the grant of an outline or full consent, and the ability to start on site. The Government’s response to Building Homes Faster’ is to:
Of these, there seems to every sort of assistance short of actual help for the housebuilder, with the exception possibly lying in the changes to CIL.
The paper frankly acknowledges that CIL has failed on its original brief. The CIL Review team’s paper states that, whilst some authorities have found CIL to be successful (it can only name three), the vast majority have failed to secure the contributions expected, with CIL only raising between five and 20 per cent of required funding. The solution proposed is a much lower Local Infrastructure Tariff, but far more widely applied and with far fewer exemptions and reliefs – its bureaucracy to be substantially simplified. For large housing developments (over 10 units,) this will be supplemented by enhanced S106 packages and, within Combined Authorities, the right to raise a Mayoral, low-level Strategic Infrastructure Tariff, to fund flagship projects of wider benefit.
Over use of Planning Conditions
The proposed solutions appear to be ineffectual. The offer to ‘prohibit conditions that do not meet the national policy tests’ is a recitation of the existing position; conditions which do not meet the tests are already ultra-vires. The suggestion that pre-commencement conditions will only be used where there is agreement on their use is hollow. If an LPA is refusing to release a planning permission unless a developer ‘agrees’ to the imposition of a pre-commencement condition, then it seems there is nothing proposed that is going to help avoid a pre-commencement condition being imposed. Recent experience, however, is that more Councils are voluntarily looking to agree conditions before reports are finalised for planning committee. This approach is commendable.
Housing delivery test
This is a move away from five-year land supply, to measure a rolling average of the last three years’ delivery against the annual target, with LPAs facing increasing ‘penalties’ for failing to deliver. However, the assumption that any shortfall is deemed acceptable is disappointing. Up until the next election, LPAs only face the full penalties where they very substantially under-provide (i.e. less than 25 per cent of the actual development target is being achieved). The ‘penalty’ to be engaged for such substantial under provision? The automatic engagement of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which currently would already apply if there was no five-year land supply.
A significant number of the proposals will require consultation or be part of the review of the NPPF to take place later this year.
However, it is hard to see in the White Paper the radical changes that were promised to speed up housing delivery. With the exception of long overdue CIL reform and the presumption in favour of residential development, the paper seems to offer limited practical help to either the development industry or local authorities.
Although well-intentioned, the White Paper doesn’t tackle the bigger issue – the need to deliver strategic levels of housing growth. Without more meaningful reform, it will not meet the Government’s identified need of 250,000 new homes a year.