New draft guidance provides crucial detail on proposed changes to allow housing to be included in applications submitted via the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) regime. Permanent housing is currently excluded from the Planning Act 2008's fast-track consenting process.
However, the Housing and Planning Bill put the government's July pledge to widen the scope of the NSIP regime to include applications with "an element of housing" into writing. Last week, the government issued draft guidance fleshing out the details of the plans.
It says promoters of "suitable" NSIPs in England - such as a new nuclear power plants, major roads or rail schemes, and sufficiently large commercial developments - can incorporate proposals for up to 500 new homes in their applications. It says NSIP housing is permissible in two scenarios: if there is a "functional need" for it related to the project, or if it is in "geographical proximity".
The first category could include temporary housing for construction workers that is then converted into permanent homes, or it could be accommodation for workers at the finished project. The guidance adds that it may be "more sustainable in overall terms" for functional-need accommodation to be in a "location that is not in the immediate vicinity of the infrastructure project", but in a town at reasonable commuting distance. The second category does not need to have a link with the NSIP, but must be within one mile of it.
The draft guidance states that there will be no change to the NSIP application process for projects that include housing. However, it adds that in considering whether an application meets the criteria for being decided via the NSIP route, the secretary of state will look only at the infrastructure and not the housing element.
The draft guidance says, while NSIP applications including an element of housing will be subject to a single examination process, the housing "is likely to need examination as a discrete entity" to ensure that it is acceptable in planning terms. No national policy statement is proposed for NSIP housing. Instead, proposals will be assessed against the National Planning Policy Framework and "relevant" development plan policies. The draft guidance says the secretary of state's final consent can approve the infrastructure but refuse all or part of the housing.
Michael Wilks, planning projects manager at Suffolk County Council and chair of the Planning Officers Society's NSIP network, said functionally unrelated housing is likely to be the most controversial element for councils. "It's not clear how the relative impacts of the housing will weigh in the bigger equation of the acceptability of the NSIP," he said. "The proposed changes should not open a back door for hostile housing applications to be expedited via another route. This is a risk because the housing element will not be decided on its own merits as it would at local authority level."
Wilks said the relatively low number of NSIPs suggests that the impact of the proposals would be limited. But he added that the measures could be a "test bed" to include housing-led schemes in the NSIP process in future. "There is little difference in principle between the secretary of state deciding an application for 500 dwellings with no functional link to an infrastructure project and determining a housing-led NSIP application," he said.
Kevin Gibbs, partner at law firm Bond Dickinson, predicted that the measures could be could be particularly important for developers of transport hubs and major roads. "Councils and local enterprise partnerships might find that a local transport plan that previously couldn't stand up financially might be able to now," he said. "You may be able to agree a housing scheme with a developer that may provide some funding for the infrastructure." Gibbs said allowing the conversion of temporary workers' accommodation into new homes could enable urban extensions near the infrastructure, if the housing need could be justified. Both he and Wilks said new nuclear power developments would offer the most potential in this regard.
John Rhodes, director at consultant Quod, said there is "emerging interest" from the property sector in new housing development routes. "Some limited partnerships may emerge between infrastructure and housing developers. But because the number of NSIPs is limited I do not expect this to be on a large scale," he said. "The new regime may encourage other funding sources into the market."
Philip Barnes, group land and planning director at housebuilder Barratt Developments, agreed that introducing housing into NSIPs would be of interest to commercial developers. "This could yield new housing opportunities and, subject to market and amenity considerations, is something Barratt will be keen to consider," he said.
The Planning for Housing Northern Edition will consider ways to boost housing supply in high-demand areas across the north of England. For more information, please visit PlanningResource.co.uk/planningforhousingnorth