How system change could enable major housing schemes

Garden cities and other large housing schemes would attract more opposition than energy or transport projects if allowed to use the nationally significant infrastructure project regime, say some experts, though others say the idea is worth pursuing.

Housing: experts want large schemes included in NSIP regime
Housing: experts want large schemes included in NSIP regime

"Garden cities are not going to happen under current regulations," shadow housing and planning minister John Healey told guests at the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) annual dinner, held in London last month. "They will never happen without national leadership or planning".

His scepticism about the current planning system’s ability to deliver homes on a scale sufficient to ameliorate housing shortages significantly is widely shared. Earlier this month, a group of senior lawyers, consultants, academics, developers, planning officers and housing professionals were convened by law firm Bond Dickinson and consultancy Quod to discuss how to tackle shortages. The conversation was held under the Chatham House Rules, which prevent attribution of comments made at the event in subsequent reports.

Many of those involved agreed that the current system would continue to struggle to deliver substantial new settlements. One argued that it allowed landowners to "hold developers to ransom" on land prices, starving new schemes of adequate resources for infrastructure or affordable housing. Another said the system focused planning authorities’ minds so firmly on five-year housing supply that the longer-term planning needed for garden cities or large new settlements was being ignored.

Healey had told the NIPA guests that the government should address the problem by extending the remit of Lord Adonis’s new National Infrastructure Commission "to take account of forecasts for the nation’s housing needs". But the guests of Bond Dickinson and Quod were discussing a different solution, first proposed by the two firms in a report published in September: that the government should bring garden cities and other large new housing schemes into the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs). Last month’s Housing and Planning Bill proposes letting housing projects that are linked to infrastructure schemes, either geographically or functionally, use the NSIP system. But the government has made clear that projects of more than 500 homes are not expected to pursue this route.

Several of the guests of Bond Dickinson and Quod were sceptical about this measure. They cited a likely lack of developer interest in the route, as well as public distrust. Several asked whether people would accept decisions on housing schemes from a national body rather than locally elected councillors. With infrastructure, promoters could say "we have to do this, or the lights go out," but this is not the case for housing, said participant.

Others countered that the NSIP system still enables applications to be tested against local as well as national planning policy. Local authorities have a significant role to play in determining NSIP applications, another guest said. "An NSIP development consent order is like an outline permission," he said. "Matters such as design quality and infrastructure provision can be left to the local authority to discharge".

It was also pointed out that, were new settlements to be allowed to use the NSIP route, a National Policy Statement on housing, or mixed use, would be needed. This could set criteria requiring local authority consent, one guest suggested.

Planning 's Housing Delivery focussed seminar, taking place next week in Birmingham, will be devoted to overcoming planning barriers to housing delivery in the Midlands and North , and will focus on how to bring forward developments at an increasingly faster rate. For more details and to book your place click here.

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