Policy Briefing: Ministers seek speedier delivery of brownfield housing

Last month's productivity plan outlined further measures to secure housing consents on brownfield sites. Jennie Baker and Francesco Mellino report.

Brownfield development: government measures aim to expedite housing
Brownfield development: government measures aim to expedite housing

Key points

The government’s Fixing the Foundations productivity plan, published on 10 July, provided more details of the "planning reforms" heralded in that week’s Summer Budget.

According to the last effective returns from the National Land Use Database (NLUD), brownfield sites in England suitable for housing have a notional capacity of about one million homes.

Of the estimated 47,904 hectares of brownfield land recorded by the NLUD, 64.5 per cent were derelict or vacant, while the remainder were in use but with potential for redevelopment.

What steps did the previous government take to increase development on brownfield sites?

Housing zones, the vacant building credit, amendments to the Community Infrastructure Levy regulations, the Starter Homes exception sites policy and permitted development rights – notably for changes from office to residential use – were all intended to encourage brownfield development.

The coalition government also promoted local development orders (LDOs) as a way of securing permission for housing development on brownfield land. In June 2014, it set an objective for LDOs to be in place on 90 per cent of such land regarded as suitable for housing by 2020. A £5 million fund was made available to councils to support up to 100 LDOs, and the Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service started pilot schemes. In early 2015, the government consulted on measures now being taken forward under the current proposals.

What additional measures are now proposed?

The government seeks to remove "planning obstacles" to the redevelopment of brownfield land. The Housing Bill will require statutory registers of previously developed land in England that is suitable for housing. The productivity plan announced a "zonal" system for such land, giving "automatic permission in principle" for sites placed on the registers, "subject to the approval of a limited number of technical details".

How could this automatic permission work in practice?

Zoning systems in other countries usually zone all core land uses, not just housing, and the process is more akin to what we know as development planning. The precise arrangements envisaged by the government here are not known at the present stage.

One approach could be to rely on existing strategic housing land availability assessments (SHLAAs), which could identify sites that should be added to the register. Orders could then grant automatic permission in principle for these sites, subject to conditions.

A SHLAA performing this role might need to undergo consultation and be examined and subjected to some form of environmental impact assessment (EIA), particularly in relation to large or complex sites. To avoid delays, sites that prompt no objections could be added directly to the register as soon as the SHLAA is complete. Following consideration of consultation responses to identified sites, the local authority could then choose to adopt its proposals for inclusion on the register.

How do local development orders fit in with this?

LDOs have previously been identified as a mechanism for circumventing the normal application process. Unfortunately, their benefits in terms of speed are unproven, and they can be resource-intensive for cash-strapped councils.

Some form of streamlined LDO could apply, or perhaps permitted development rights with a prior approval process for smaller sites, but with a requirement that factors such as siting, number and size of dwellings be established and subject to conditions on design and infrastructure matters. The Starter Homes exception site policy might extend to sites on the register, and exemption from a requirement for planning obligations might apply.

It will be essential to find the right balance between "zoning" sites quickly for housing to establish the principle, addressing legitimate planning and EIA issues that often arise, while providing developers with enough certainty to invest, alongside the flexibility to deliver a viable scheme quickly.

How effective are these proposals likely to be in delivering homes where most needed?

If the government is able to introduce an effective process for automatic permission in principle – and it is a big if – these measures are likely to lead to some improvements in brownfield land supply. However, there is a mismatch between the location of brownfield sites and the areas where demand is highest.

The last attempt at a national register of brownfield sites did not identify sufficient land to meet need. And, of course, many barriers to redevelopment – including contamination, existing uses, land assembly, amenity, infrastructure, ecology, lack of market demand and viability – will not be directly addressed.

When could the new measures take effect?

The Housing Bill, due to gain royal assent during the upcoming session of parliament, will introduce some of the necessary legislation. Amendments to streamline the compulsory purchase process, which may also assist delivery, are expected this autumn.

Jennie Baker is a senior planner and Francesco Mellino is a research consultant at planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners

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