The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), set up by former chancellor George Osborne in 2015 to think "dispassionately and independently" about the country's infrastructure needs, is taking a growing interest in housing. Despite housing supply not featuring in the advisory body's remit, supporting the delivery of new homes is identified as a top priority in the commission's interim national infrastructure assessment, published last week. "Housing is the greatest infrastructure capacity challenge of all, and a significant increase in the rate of homebuilding is a key imperative," the document states.
The interim assessment - which will feed into the NIC's 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) - identifies "supporting delivery of new homes" as one of seven priority areas in which it believes "current plans and policy frameworks fall well short of what will be required if the UK is to have the infrastructure it needs to support its long-term prosperity and quality of life". Currently, the interim assessment says, the provision of the infrastructure necessary to unlock new housing "is too often not funded, timed or delivered in a way that facilitates or expedites housing delivery".
Ben Lewis, infrastructure and energy director at consultancy Barton Willmore, said that the draft assessment's focus on housing "gives a clear steer that there needs to be more joined up thinking". "It would have been remiss of the commission if it had just looked at the infrastructure areas within its charter," he said. "For infrastructure development to work, you need housing to sit alongside. It goes hand in hand."
Kevin Gibbs, planning partner at law firm Bond Dickinson, said the government's long-held stance has been that housing delivery is a matter for local planning authorities and previously, when there had been calls for housing to be brought into the development consent order regime for major infrastructure projects, the government "has batted that back". He said that the draft assessment's focus on housing followed a report published last year by the commission into the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor, which had identified housing as a key barrier to the area's growth potential. The draft assessment's message is similar, he said.
For Richard Laming, senior director at consultancy Turley, the commission's draft assessment contains some difficult messages for the government. He highlights the document's suggestion that opportunities for the co-location of jobs and homes "could warrant some degree of development around infrastructure hubs in the green belt" as one such area. The passage is "quite carefully worded", he said. "But the very fact they've put that in is a bit of a challenge to the government."
Laming adds that the approach taken by the commission appears to be at odds with the government's proposed standard methodology for assessing housing need, which does not take into account jobs growth. "The NIC seems to be very at ease talking about the relationship between jobs and homes, but the Department for Communities and Local Government, in its consultation document, doesn't want to go anywhere near that," he said.
Commentators agree that the contents of the draft infrastructure assessment give a strong indication of the likely focus of the final NIA, due for publication next year. The final version of the document will analyse the UK's long-term economic infrastructure needs, outline a strategic vision over the next 30 years and set out recommendations for how identified needs should be met.
What happens next could have significant implications for the planning system. The final NIA will be laid before Parliament, and government will endeavour to respond to its recommendations within six months "and not longer than a year", according to a document published by the Treasury earlier this year. Recommendations that the government agrees should be taken forward will become known as endorsed recommendations and, where the government is responsible for delivering endorsed recommendations, the government's endorsement will be a statement of government policy, the document states. "If the government endorses those recommendations, from a planning perspective, they will become a statement of policy," said Barton Willmore's Lewis.
But observers are unsure in practice how any housing-related recommendations might be taken forward by the government. "I'm not sure that we'll see an amendment to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)," said Laming. "I get the sense that the government will take a hands-off approach. I'm not entirely sure that the government is going to want to be prescriptive. It would be at odds with its current approach."
Gibbs also believes that the final assessment is unlikely to affect policy-making on housing delivery, pointing out that it is likely to be published after proposed revisions to the NPPF are due to be made early next year.
How planning features in assessment's seven priority areas
1 Building a digital society
Local authorities have to do more to encourage the deployment of digital infrastructure, the interim assessment says. "This includes facilitating planning permission for the investment the UK needs, without long delays," it adds.
2 Connected, liveable city-regions
City leaders need to be able to plan for housing and infrastructure together, the interim assessment suggests. City-level transport authorities should be given the option to levy congestion pricing, the document says.
3 Infrastructure to support housing
The interim assessment suggests that densification around urban infrastructure hubs, "notably bus or railway exchanges or near city centres, could help to provide much needed homes in high demand and desirable locations".
4 Eliminating carbon emission from energy and waste
The commission says it will be considering whether there are unnecessary barriers in place preventing the deployment of onshore wind, "one of the cheapest renewable technologies". Planning requirements in England "already include specific additional hurdles that onshore wind projects have to meet", it says.
5 A revolution in road transport
Putting sufficient charging infrastructure for electric cars into new housing and commercial development now can avoid costly retrofitting later, the interim assessment says.
6 Reducing the risk of drought and flooding
The interim assessment says it is likely that new capital investment in water supply will be needed. The commission will examine whether supply options, such as reservoirs and desalinisation plants, may be needed and how best to deliver them.
7 Financing and funding infrastructure in efficient ways
The draft assessment calls for views on how section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy regimes can be improved to capture land and property value uplift efficiently and help fund infrastructure.