The rise and fall of the big 'unplanned' housing scheme, by Richard Garlick

Slightly less than seven years ago, we published an article called "Unplanned England", which detailed the ten biggest housing schemes on sites not supported by local authorities that had been allowed at appeal since the publication of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework.

Despite the fact that the NPPF had been in place for little more than a year, already ten such schemes including 550 homes or more had been allowed. The framework’s presumption in favour of sustainable development greatly strengthened the hand of the applicant on sites unallocated in the local plan, if the council was not able to demonstrate an up-to-date local plan or a five year supply of sites for housebuilding.

In this issue, we publish new research exploring the extent to which such unplanned development has continued to be allowed at appeal.

As our figures make clear, significant numbers of schemes on unallocated greenfield sites continued to win permission until very recently. Seven appeals for projects of 400 or more homes on unallocated sites were allowed in 2016, and nine in 2017. But since then, there has only been one such approval, for Hallam Land Management’s 600-home scheme near Doncaster in February last year. Approvals for schemes of 200 homes or more on unallocated sites have tumbled from 23 in 2016 to six last year.

Explanations of why this has happened differ. Some experts see it as a result of a rise in the proportion of councils that have adopted local plans in place, and can demonstrate a five year housing land supply. If so, it may be that we see a resurgence of unplanned development in the coming year, as many of the third of English councils sanctioned under the latest iteration of the government’s housing delivery test struggle to meet higher housing land supply targets. Others see different factors at work, not least a decline in the influence on inspectors’ decision-making of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. They suggest that factors such as landscape impact and visual harm are increasingly tilting the decision-making balance away from developers.

Some argue that the unplanned route to development is an important safety valve in a system that is too easy for nimbys to bottle up. At least one of the commentators we have spoken to credit it as a key factor in the rise in housing completions in this decade. It is indeed essential that councils know they can’t delay local plan-making with impunity. But if the decline in big unplanned schemes is a product of councils allocating the necessary housing sites and adopting local plans, then that can only be a welcome development.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //  

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