Can regime switch spur housing, by Angus Walker

The recently published Housing and Planning Bill removes the ban on allowing housing to be considered as part of a nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) application.

Although as drafted the bill doesn’t allow housing-led projects to use the regime by themselves, it does go further than many had thought, in that homes that are not necessarily related to an NSIP can be included in the application provided that they are close to it. The Department for Communities and Local Government said this week that schemes of more than 500 homes were "very unlikely" to be approved via this route.

This is one of a number of measures in the bill designed to speed up the delivery of housing, a tacit admission that previous measures haven’t worked, or worked well enough. Will this one succeed?

Procedurally, there shouldn’t be a problem. But businesses and commercial projects have been slow to exercise the option of using the regime, which suggests that there may be more hurdles before projects including housing do so on a regular basis.

The first of these is that housing developers are not the same as infrastructure developers. The latter have familiarised themselves with the NSIP regime over the past five years, although it still took a while to get going. The same issue applies to housing, as it will take housebuilders some time to become properly acquainted with the system.

Second, there will be no national policy statements (NPSs) setting out a need for housing, whereas infrastructure projects generally have the benefit of such documents. This is particularly important when it comes to new compulsory purchase arrangements, since this power will become available to housebuilders for the first time.

They will have to demonstrate that such powers are required in the public interest. Given the government’s keenness on new housing, it should not prove to be a problem, but it will force housebuilders to look for support from sources other than NPSs.

Third, there will be the reaction of local authorities, who until now had exclusive jurisdiction for granting permission for housing. Some may welcome such difficult decisions being taken from them. Others may be unhappy about it. Either way, developers may be wary of circumventing councils, given the long-term relationship that they need to maintain between them.

Given these hurdles, is there any way to speed up use of the new powers, or will the pattern be the usual one of gradual, stop-and-start take-up? The first, and probably most difficult, hurdle can be alleviated by well-disseminated information, the second with clear statements of public need for housing, and the third with a reassurance that local authorities are still key players in granting permission. All of these are possible in the year or so before the powers are likely to come into force.

Angus Walker is a partner at Bircham Dyson Bell. He blogs on infrastructure planning at bdb-law.co.uk/news-and-views/blogs-pages


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