Why sanctions are being considered to drive brownfield register progress

The government has suggested that it could use sanctions to spur local authorities to prepare brownfield land registers as survey findings suggest that many town halls will miss the end-of-year deadline for getting them in place.

Brownfield: survey raises questions over whether councils will get registers in place by deadline
Brownfield: survey raises questions over whether councils will get registers in place by deadline

A survey of local authorities published last week has raised fears that many will not hit the statutory deadline to have a brownfield land register in place by 31 December this year. The survey, undertaken by planning consultancy Troy Planning, also indicates that even those authorities that will have brownfield registers ready will mostly not have done them in a way that actually aids the building out of brownfield sites. The findings raise questions about a policy originally designed to meet a target for 90 per cent of brownfield sites to have planning permissions in place by 2020.

Troy Planning's survey, carried out in September, obtained responses from 58 local authorities. Of those, just under half said they had not made a start on the brownfield register, despite the fact that 80 per cent expected the process to take three months or more to complete. Jon Herbert, director at Troy Planning, said the figures suggested "there's a question whether many authorities will get this work done". Graham Jones, of the Planning Officers Society, said progress was "patchy". "Some authorities are taking them seriously and will produce them by the deadline, but many - probably the majority - won't," he said.

Putting a register in place is a legal duty under the Brownfield Land Register Regulations 2017, but the government has not until now threatened to impose sanctions or penalties on those authorities that do not do it in the same way that it has where local plan and development management targets are missed. Jones said: "With pressure to produce and update local plans and on development management performance, both of which have sanctions for underperforming, it is no surprise that brownfield land registers are taking a back seat."

However, in a statement, the Department for Communities and Local Government said it is now "keeping a close eye on the situation and we are considering what sanctions and incentives we might use to drive progress".

Even if most authorities do ultimately play ball, Herbert is concerned about what is going on the registers. Overwhelmingly, the survey finds most brownfield registers will comprise only existing permissions or sites already identified in local plans and housing land availability assessments. Only one local authority said it was conducting street-by-street surveys to find additional sites.

Martin Hutchings, improvement manager at the Planning Advisory Service, said registers still provided a useful function in making the location of brownfield sites "more transparent" even where no additional sites were identified. But Herbert said it was not clear what this approach added. "Our feeling is that for the brownfield register to deliver changes it will need authorities to be far more proactive in identifying opportunities," he said.

This accords with the experience of both Bristol City and Stroud District Councils, which were both pilots of the brownfield register approach. Both told Planning they were not conducting physical surveys to find additional sites. Mark Russell, planning strategy manager at Stroud District Council, said: "There are not many sites that are completely new to us, many are usual suspects that haven't previously come forward."

This sites listed on brownfield registers are capable of being granted permission in principle (PIP), a new form of upfront consent with a limited number of procedural requirements. But, with no government requirement to grant PIPs, just one respondent to Troy Planning's survey said it was planning to use the new mechanism.

Both Bristol and Stroud said they had no plans to use PIPs, which require additional work by council planning teams. In a statement, Bristol City Council said it was "not clear what the advantages of permission in principle are", while Russell said: "Overwhelmingly, the reason brownfield sites don't come forward is not about difficulty getting permission, but about constraints and viability issues."

Jennie Baker, associate director at consultancy Lichfields, said the brownfield register policy did not appear to be on developers' radar. Jones added: "Some authorities will see a particular role in promoting and marketing council and public sector land ... but the government's original objective for 90 per cent of brownfield land having a PIP by 2020 looks very optimistic."

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