Accusations of ‘mixed signals’ after pre-Christmas planning changes which effectively removed local housing targets

Government plans to accelerate urban housing development have been welcomed by some in the built environment sector, but critics say the intervention is too little, too late. 

Michael Gove published a consultation paper this morning which proposes changes to national planning policy in a bid to force councils to approve brownfield schemes. 

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Gove wants to focus development in the UK’s 20 biggest towns and cities

The housing secretary wants planning authorities to give “significant weight” to the benefits of delivering as many homes as possible, particularly on brownfield, and to “take a flexible approach” in applying planning policies in such cases. 

A spokesperson for the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said they welcomed “any moves to bring land through for development more quickly” but said the consultation would “do little to tackle the housing crisis” given the policy context. 

“It comes just weeks after Ministers capitulation to the NIMBY wing of the party with the removal of housing targets, that could see supply drop by 77,000 homes a year and has already seen over 60 Local Authorities withdraw their housing plans,” they said.  

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“It is also the first time in decades there is no government support in place for first time buyers, preventing young people from getting onto the housing ladder.  

“If we are to reverse the sharp falls in housing supply we are now seeing, we need some serious joined up policies, not tinkering around the edges.” 

Claire Dutch, co-head of planning at law firm Ashurst said the flagship brownfield policy announcement was “nothing new” and that the government had merely “added bells and whistles”. 

She also accused government of sending “mixed messages”, noting that “the new proposals come within weeks of a revised NPPF which states that urban densification should not happen if the uplift is out of character with the existing area”. 

“The government continues to single mindedly focus on more brownfield development as the panacea to solve the housing crisis whilst the green belt remains sacrosanct,” said Dutch. 

Paul Wakefield, planning partner at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau, said the distinction between brownfield and greenbelt that has been stressed by Gove is a “false equivalence”, as numerous brownfield sites lie withing the green belt.  

He said the content of the consultation “doesn’t quite match the rhetoric” and noted that the majority of urban development is already focused on brownfield.  

“With this in mind, it’s not clear how much these proposals will change things, although further incentivising such development will likely be welcomed by developers,” Wakefield said. 

He also noted that the higher expense of brownfield developments could force local authorities to make concessions on affordable housing provision or other infrastructure impacts.  

“Given the troubled finances in many local authorities, this may actually place an increased burden on councils whose finances are already stretched to breaking point,” he added. 

Ravi Pankhania, managing director of developer Nacropolis Group said the policy was a “good start” but also noted that “a sizeable amount of the greenbelt is actually brownfield land with little to no environmental value”.

“Developing these areas together with promoting building more densely in urban areas, Britain’s pressing need for more homes can begin to be properly addressed,” he said.

Landsec’s chief executive, Mark Allan, welcomed the move and said his firm had been “campaigning” for a refocus on urban opportunities. 

“The emphasis on maximising housing development in urban areas set out today means that we can seize some of those opportunities, deliver more homes and secure better outcomes for cities and the people who live there,” he said. 

The brownfield announcement is one in a series of measures put forward by the government this week, including a £3bn increase in a government-backed loan fund aimed at helping registered providers to build thousands of new affordable homes. 

However James Prestwich, director of policy and external affairs at Chartered Institute of Housing said the move was a “sensible step”. 

“The additional flexibility reflects the importance of finding a balance between existing homes and new supply at a time when financial capacity in the sector is stretched,” he added. 

Marc Vlessing, chief executive at developer Pocket Living also said the move was a “wecome step” but said it is ”concerning why it has taken this long for the penny to drop”.

Vlessing said: ”There are still critical details needed for this policy to be effective. We know that on average planning determinations take roughly 69 weeks almost five times the statutory requirement. As we have been campaigning for, a presumption in favour of development can only be effective if it tackles this problem.

”A more permissive approach to development is key to the growth of the sector and the country more generally. It is now critical we work together to deliver on these promises and we look forward to engaging with the consultation to make sure we get housing supply on the right track.”