UK govt announces changes to shake up house planning and get more homes built

A series of planning reforms announced today by the UK government aimed at boosting house building have been widely welcomed by the property and construction industries

Under the changes planning permission will be granted automatically for homes on brownfield sites, even over ruling wishes of local authorities in England. But experts warned that councils will not like the move although they have been heavily criticised for not creating local plans and taking too long to make decisions.

Ministers will also get powers to seize disused land which is suitable for houses and major housing projects are set to be fast tracked through the planning system. There will be penalties for local authorities that make 50% or fewer planning decisions on time in a bid to inject some speed into the planning process.

The rules on extensions in London are to be relaxed in terms of building upwards to match neighbouring levels and the Mayors of London and Manchester are to get power over planning in their cities.

The British Property Federation (BPF) said the changes have the potential to be an enormous boon to housing supply but it warned that some of the new measures will only work if the government addresses the severe shortage of funds within local authority planning departments.

The BPF also urged the government not to over focus on providing new homes for sale and pointed out that there is also a need for more purpose built rental accommodation in order to combat the housing shortage and deliver a more balanced housing market.

Melanie Leech, chief executive of the BPF, British Property Federation, called for a dialogue with both the public and private sectors on how to address the severe shortage of funds which is afflicting local planning departments.

‘The private sector will need to play a part in helping to address this funds shortage, and this needs to be explored fully if we want these new measures to work. We would also have liked to have seen some commitment to growing the purpose built rental sector, which has an important part to play in solving the housing crisis and creating a balanced housing market,’ she said.

‘We warmly welcome the government’s recognition of how a functioning and efficient planning system can contribute to the UK’s growth by creating not just new homes, but also the infrastructure that supports great places,’ she added.

Leech explained that a lack of dynamism among local authorities on Local Plans should be addressed by the government being able to intervene. ‘Local Plans are fundamental to growth, and we are firm believers in a plan led system. There are still areas, however, without a Local Plan in place, and so we are pleased to see that government is taking steps to ensure that plans are delivered in a timely fashion,’ she said.

‘A number of recalcitrant local authorities have been dragging their feet and producing bloated local plans that are overly long and simply take too much time. Without a plan in place, much needed, sustainable development is less likely to be delivered, so providing local authorities with more of an incentive to produce plans that ensure that housing need will be met is surely a good thing,’ she added.

Taking tougher action to ensure local authorities create plans is a positive step that will help deliver the homes needed, according to Susan Emmett, Savills residential research director.

Indeed, recent research from Savills showed that 76% of local planning authorities outside London do not have a recent plan in place and that local authorities are failing to plan enough homes as things stand. ‘We calculate that the current planning shortfall would grow to 180,000 homes over the course of the next plan without radical change. Local authorities must have up to date plans that reflect true housing need for the system to work,’ she added.
Colleague David Jackson, Savills head of planning, pointed out that brownfield land is important as such sites represent an untapped resource. ‘The national challenge however is ensuring there is enough land available, whether brown or green, to meet the country’s need for housing. In our larger towns and cities then the greater part of that housing need can be met on brownfield sites. Elsewhere, currently undeveloped land will need to be identified in Local Plans if the housing challenge is to be met. It is therefore a balanced approach that is required, matching the land resource to meet the evident demand for new housing that the country faces,’ he said.

‘When assessing the brownfield potential, local planning authorities need to assess what measures are necessary to get such sites that have been locked up for too long back into use. They have to be deliverable, free of major constraint, capable of development, and capable of supporting good quality new homes. If sites are developable, they should be developed. There can be no hiding place. On the other hand, if there are genuine reasons why some sites might take longer, these should be publically stated. Then nobody is in any doubt,’ he added.

The plans are a positive step towards addressing the gap between demand and supply, according to Jeremy Blackburn, head of policy at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

‘Some brownfield sites have been locked up for too long and these moves, coupled with a brownfield register and fund, will get them moving. Sites have to be deliverable, free of major constraint, capable of development and capable of supporting good quality new homes,’ he said. 

RICS research showed that over 226,000 new homes could be built on existing brownfield land with existing permission over the next four years. ‘While not all sites will be suitable, the task now is to quickly distinguish between what’s viable and what’s not, and more importantly, if there are genuine reasons why some sites might take longer, these should be publically stated. Then nobody is misled,’ he explained.

‘If the knock on effect is that greenfield land has to be released, that should be done with equal urgency. The real objective here is meeting the housing challenge,’ he added.

Jonathan Bower, a partner in law firm Bond Dickinson LLP’s Planning and Infrastructure Team, pointed out that local authorities might view the changes less favourably as they may now be forced to see homes built in their area even if opposed to development.
‘While the plans set out today are a step in the right direction for house building, we shouldn’t lose sight of the chronic issue we have in the UK with housing and speed of delivery. Recent estimates outlined in the Lyons Housing Review suggested that at least 240,000 new houses need to be built per year just to meet current demand and that on current numbers we are only seeing about 125,000 delivered,’ he said.

Stuart Robinson, chairman of UK planning at CBRE, warned it will not be a quick fix. ‘There is no doubt that many local authorities have struggled with plan making in recent years, often because there has been a lack of resources and because there are no clear targets. As a result few council leaders have had to tell the residents of their local authority that sites need to be found for large numbers of new homes,’ he explained.
‘The measures introduced today still do not address this and the inadequate co-ordination of housing numbers across the regions as the duty to cooperate has never looked like the solution required. In addition the government also needs to bring in measures to incentivise the institutions to support a private rented sector to come into the market. This could play a major part in getting the numbers up,’ he concluded.