Policy Briefing: Autumn statement ramps up delivery drive on new homes

The chancellor's autumn statement has a lot of key messages for those planning new homes. Harry Spurr reports.

New homes: chancellor outlines fresh planning policy changes
New homes: chancellor outlines fresh planning policy changes

Q What did the statement say about planning for new homes?

A Chancellor George Osborne promised the "most ambitious plan since the 1970s" to promote homeownership, aiming to deliver 400,000 affordable housing starts by 2020/21 focusing on low-cost ownership. The statement outlined measures including changes to green belt policy, release of non-residential land and stiffer performance targets for council planners.

Q What do the proposed changes to green belt policy involve?

Green belt protection will be relaxed on redevelopment of brownfield sites. Current policy allows such development only where it maintains openness and avoids conflict with the aims of green belt designation. The new rules will treat such projects like other brownfield schemes as long as they contribute to provision of Starter Homes and are subject to local consultation.
While this change of direction will apply to some sites that contribute little to openness or visual amenity, the prospect of a blanket relaxation will raise concerns. Nonetheless, it offers more housing numbers where policy is restrictive and pressure is high. It also reflects a move away from the notion that all green belt land is equal and worthy of protection for its own sake. But the purpose of the "local consultation" referred to in the statement is unclear.

Does the statement open up non-residential land for housing development?

Osborne said release of unused and undeveloped commercial, retail and industrial land "will be supported" where it involves delivery of Starter Homes. Presumably, this foreshadows the introduction of national policy encouraging planning authorities to relax protection of such land where the Starter Homes criterion is met. While potentially controversial, this also raises the prospect of a significant cumulative contribution to housing numbers.

Vacant or underused sites represent a lost opportunity, and pragmatism in policy-making will instil confidence that the housing crisis is being given the priority it deserves. On the other hand, councils will be uncomfortable at the prospect of local plan allocations being overridden and potential loss of valuable employment land. Others will point to sustainability and the importance of infrastructure, employment and other services to support new homes within easy reach.

Q How are council performance standards being tightened?

A New standards will apply in the development control context and to the delivery of housing. In the former case, the current threshold for decision-making quality will be tightened, putting councils at risk of designation as underperforming and allowing applications to be made direct to the secretary of state where more than ten per cent of major decisions are overturned on appeal. Wider circumstances, such as the status of the relevant local plan, will be considered and there will be a new test to monitor housing delivery against development plan targets.

Higher performance expectations are welcome in principle. Tougher thresholds will be a focus for good, timely performance. But the statement does not recognise, never mind address, the deficit in councils’ planning resources and fails to mention application fees. The development industry is receptive to raising fees and the resourcing advantages this may bring and many feel government should explore it.

Q What other significant measures appear in the statement?

Support for small housing schemes is welcome and should help to maintain diversity in the market. Equally, a standard approach to viability assessments will reduce scope for contention, while extension of the right to appeal against onerous section 106 obligations reflects Whitehall’s recognition that, whatever the shortage of housing, the development sector faces ongoing market-related challenges.

There is no reference to the build-to-rent sector. This represents an important part of the affordable end of the housing market. It must not be marginalised in the drive for increased homeownership.

Harry Spurr is a barrister at Hogan Lovells International.

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