Overall, 60 planning permissions for housing schemes of 500 or more homes were granted during the period, with 47 granted before the lockdown and 13 after the 23 March announcement, according to our data. Between 16 November 2019 and 23 March 2020 – a period which includes the two-week Christmas and New Year period as well as the general election purdah period – an average of 2.6 big housing permissions were issued per week. But between 23 March and 31 May, this figure fell to 1.4.
The list of big housing permissions granted consent features urban extensions, several in the East Midlands or the East of England, mixed-use redevelopments in cities and estate regeneration schemes, mostly in London.
The largest consent was for a 4,000-home urban extension of Attleborough in Norfolk, followed by the Durieshill housing development in Stirling, Scotland (3,012 homes), and the Purfleet Centre Regeneration in Thurrock (2,850 homes).
Jay Mehta, director at law firm Howes Percival, which worked on the Attleborough project, said it was a scheme which had been formally allocated in the Breckland Council's local plan, adopted last year. "The planning permission was granted a week into lockdown, so – save for some socially distanced exchange of documents and signing of the section 106 agreement – the current pandemic did not fortunately delay the issue of planning permission," he says.
David Jackson, head of planning at consultancy Savills, says the data shows that the supply of large sites coming forward from local plans prepared over the past five to six years is starting to bear fruit. According to Nick Freer, chairman at consultancy David Lock Associates, which was involved in a scheme at land west of Worcester, this reflects the urgency the government has given to tackling the housing crisis. "The general messaging on high housing need in particular is something getting through to local authorities," he says.
The improvement in the nationwide coverage of development plans in recent years has improved the pipeline of urban extensions, Freer says. "One of the differences between urban extensions as compared with urban regeneration projects is that they are a bit more development-plan-dependent," he says.
Jonathan Steele, head of housing in the planning division at Savills, says the development industry was "very active" before the lockdown announcements. "And that was everything from regeneration all the way through to greenfield urban extensions," he says. This activity was experienced across the
country and in all regions, he adds.
The main impact of the lockdown was practical, commentators report, with all professionals involved quickly having to adapt to the new situation and try to create ways around the restrictions which would allow planning activity to continue.
Jackson says the challenges included having to deal with clients with staff on furlough, leaving fewer people to continue with the work in progressing applications. "But once the system had worked out how to progress things through lockdown, it proved to be pretty agile," he says. "Local authorities werepretty quick in getting virtual planning committees set up."
Many of the major permissions coming through are "projects that have been ongoing for many, many years", says Bernadette Hillman, partner at law firm Sharpe Pritchard. Hillman says her firm acts for several local authorities. She adds that, despite the temporary pause caused by lockdown, "all the councils have prided themselves on the fact that they have been able to get online and get things moving".
Colette McCormack, partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, says it is "really positive" that the housing list includes a wide mix of greenfield and brownfield schemes. "It is great to see estate regeneration schemes coming forward, and now it is all about delivery and for everyone to come through working together," she says.
London was the region with the highest levels of affordable housing secured from big schemes, with 36.5 per cent on average, according to the data. Roy Pinnock, partner at law firm Dentons, says London mayor Sadiq Khan's "muscular approach to fast-tracking viability" has been effective in ensuring schemes reach the benchmark target of 35 per cent affordable housing.
"But it remains to be seen, particularly in this current market, how these schemes will play out and if they are still viable at 35 per cent affordable housing," he adds.
Karen Cooksley, partner and head of planning at Winckworth Sherwood, agrees that the 35 per cent fast track scheme has helped the flow of permissions. "I think also that the standardisation and greater understanding of how you calculate viability has helped as well," she says.
The local authorities which granted the most big planning permissions were Birmingham, Ealing, Salford and Barnet, with three each, with a further big application being allowed on appeal in Barnet.
Salford's three big permissions were all residential schemes, including the Greengate area regeneration project, which incorporates three tall buildings and a new public park. The city council's lead member for planning and sustainable development, Cllr Derek Antrobus, says he was pleased to see the flow of
permissions continue through the pandemic. "We immediately took our planning panel meetings online so we didn't hold up decision-making, and this has clearly paid off," he says.