Quote of the Day:

“Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Bill Gates

And so, hot on the heels of the Spending Review and the Housing and Planning Bill, the government have rather quietly pushed out the Consultation on Changes to National Planning Policy. Clearly by using a dull and technical sounding title they were hoping that no one (ie. The Daily Telegraph) would notice that what is proposed is actually quite a significant shake up of planning.

Alas, the Telegraph was indeed paying attention making the story front-page news today.  Even now, the researchers are dusting off all the ‘hands off our land’ articles ready for recycling in the paper. Whilst the paper is allegedly unwilling to pan some of its major advertisers, luckily the housing industry is fair game.

In reality, only around 0.1% of greenbelt is brownfield land so the greenbelt review is unlikely to be as exciting as the media may wish to make out – but then, unexciting doesn’t sell newspapers.

The consultation covers the following, insignificant areas:

  1. Broadening the definition of affordable housing, to expand the range of low cost housing opportunities
  2. Increasing the density of development around commuter hubs, to make more efficient use of land in suitable locations
  3. Supporting sustainable new settlements, development on brownfield land and small sites, and delivery of housing agreed in Local Plans;
  4. Supporting delivery of starter homes

Affordable Housing
Government is keen to reiterate that affordable housing means ‘to buy’ not ‘to rent’. This is disguised behind a thin attempt to appear as if they care about those who will pretty much always be renters and never owners (and, so the thought process goes, never Tory voters). Affordable housing will now include things such as discount market sale or ‘innovative’ rent to buy – the key here being that there is no ‘in perpetuity’ clause attached as is the case with shared ownership.
There is also to be a decision on what proportion of a housing development needs to be ‘starter homes’ (discount market sale) and what the threshold is. Big questions obviously remain over whether this will be instead of other forms of affordable housing or as well as. If the latter, how will this affect percentages and, the nemesis of all planning committees, viability assessments.
Commuter Hubs
The consultation document floats the possibility of using non operational railway land near existing stations as well as increasing densities. This will be welcomed by many town centre developers who struggle to get densities through, particularly in the Home Counties.
The intention is that planning policy will be changed to dictate a higher density around commuter hubs (tram, rail or tube) although without actually setting densities leaving it all down to the planning lawyers I would assume. It is good to see Localism really taking the leading role again with Government ceasing to dictate to local authorities how they should take decisions in their own area. Oh, wait a minute, dammit…
Supporting New Settlements
Government wants to support local authorities to bring forward sustainable sites within their own area. I am a little confused as to why that is new as that is pretty much the entire basis of the NPPF in the first place. Perhaps it just isn’t quite working as well as it should be…
Government has an ambition to have 90% of brownfield land suitable for housing to have consent by 2020, this is to include some brownfield land in the greenbelt – a fact that CPRE, The Telegraph, the National Trust and others conveniently overlook is that some greenbelt is degraded brownfield land. This is carefully worded, focusing on consent rather than delivery. Given that there is a widespread view in government that consenting schemes isn’t the issue, persuading developers to actually build them out is the problem, this is a somewhat ambiguous policy proposal.
Increasing the focus on smaller sites and smaller developers is seen as the panacea to the apparent slow pace of development by the larger housebuilders. This will just require planning committees to agree with the policy and give consent in sometimes difficult and controversial areas. So that should be easy then.
Ensuring Delivery
Government proposes to introduce a housing delivery test which will compare intentions in Local Plans with actual delivery. Where there is a significant mismatch government wishes to look at ‘incentives’ to encourage delivery – carefully no mention of penalties for non-delivery but reading between the lines this looks likely. Whether penalties or indeed incentives would be for local authorities or for housebuilders is unclear.
Starter Homes
The NPPF will be amended to ensure that unviable or underused employment land should be released for housing unless there is compelling evidence to justify the retention for employment. This is unlikely to be welcomed by local authorities who are keen to hang on to much industrial land and employment land, just in case the industrial revolution kicks off again and there is a need for large scale factories and mills (stretching it a little but in some cases, not by much!) Former health and educational sites along with unlet commercial units on mixed-use sites also make it into the policy for conversion to resi now. Government is looking for views on exact criteria to justify releases/retention. The intention is that planning can only be refused if there are overriding issues which cannot be mitigated. Again, Localism in action…
With a nod to Neighbourhood Plans, Government is keen to allow local communities to identify sites in the greenbelt for starter homes in their area. I can’t see this being that widely taken up by all those Neighbourhood Forums who are producing plans pretty much to try to limit development not encourage it, but you never know.
Greenbelt release will primarily focus on starter homes and comprise only a small quantity of land in reality. But, this is sure to be the running story over the next few days.
Responses need to be in by 25th January, so it gives everyone something to think about over Christmas. Government has also gone all 21st Century on us and is using Survey Monkey to complete the consultation: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/YZBLFJP