“Housing is a long term problem… we need to see a lot more homes being built in Britain.”
“We have beautiful landscapes… To preserve them we must make other compromises.”
“If we want to limit development on important green spaces, we have to remove all the obstacles that remain to development on brownfield sites.”
“Councils will be required to put local development orders on over 90% of brownfield sites that are suitable for housing.”
In his annual Mansion House speech in June this year, George Osborne announced what he claimed to be an urban planning revolution. The production of Local Development Orders (LDOs) will, he said, effectively grant planning permission for up to 200,000 new homes by 2020. This will be supported by half a billion pounds worth of financial assistance.
There is no doubt that housing delivery needs to be accelerated. Despite rhetoric that the number of starts on new housing units has been increasing year on year, we are still witnessing the lowest rates of new housing development since WW2. Indeed, house building has stayed low for decades, irrespective of the administration in charge. But pressure to increase the rate of delivery is building. The IMF recently challenged the Government to address ‘planning restraints’ to both brown and greenfield developments to help overcome imbalances in the housing market.
The requirement for LDOs could help. Made by local authorities, they effectively grant planning permission for certain development, streamlining the planning process by removing the need for applications to be made. They also remove the need for S106 payments and should limit conditions placed on development. They are intended to solve all of the widely perceived problems of the planning system by creating certainty and saving time and money.
This all sounds positive, and the focus on brownfield land must be welcomed. But is it enough?
It is estimated that there is a need for 200,000 to 300,000 new homes per year in order to meet demand. The provision of ready-made planning permissions for 200,000 new homes will make a positive contribution, but will not go far in meeting demand. Is it merely a drop in the ocean? To be delivered by 2020, and assuming a (very) fair wind, this would see just over 30,000 homes delivered on these sites each year for the next six years. This is clearly well below need. We are told that these homes will be delivered across 5,000 hectares of land. This equates to an average density of just 40 homes per hectare. Assuming that most of these sites are in towns and cities and thus have good access or will have good access to services, facilities and public transport, why such a low density? Why not promote higher densities that optimise land and location?
To date, only 65 LDOs have been prepared in England. So far, they have not proven to be a particularly popular mechanism for local authorities to use and have tended to concentrate on employment land. None has been produced that focus on new build residential development. So this is uncharted territory. This lack of experience could exacerbate problems identified in a recent survey by PAS on the use and effectiveness of LDOs, such as resource and cost issues and concerns about loss of planning control.
Going from no new-build residential LDOs to a requirement for them on 90% of brownfield sites is a tall order. Assuming a Council has identified 100 brownfield sites in its SHLAA, will individual LDOs need to be prepared on 90 of these? Can this really be done? Do Councils have the resources? Will they be able to be delivered in a short enough time frame to contribute to debates around the five-year supply?
The intention of the LDO is effectively to prepare an outline planning application. This is not a quick process. It will require evidence to back it up, potentially involve EIA and other supporting technical studies, and it needs to involve wide consultation. It is doubtful whether an LDO can be prepared, consulted upon and adopted, a site taken up by the market, construction started and completions on the ground contributing to the five-year supply. So until then, does it just mean more of the same?
And will the LDOs deliver what the market really wants? There is nothing to stop a developer submitting an application for a different form or type of development. If this happens, it begs the question as to the value of the LDO in the first place. It must call for collaboration among the Council, communities and developers to create a scheme that all can sign up to, and that accords with wider policy objectives. But what if the wider policy framework does not back this up? The removal of minimum density targets, design guidance and brownfield recycling targets has seen a shift away from brownfield to greenfield development in recent years. If the Government really does want to increase delivery and bring brownfield land back into use, then it needs to be seen as part of a wider package that really gives thought to quality of place.
The use of LDOs, and the wider financial incentives announced to help unblock brownfield sites, are a signal that our approach to housing needs to be rethought and that a positive and proactive approach is needed to help effect real change. This will provide an opportunity for the local authority to influence the shape and form of development, but this can only really be done through collaboration. If this happens and LDOs are flexible enough to adapt to alternative responses to the site and, where they are, help remove the burden of red tape, then they could be a real game changer. But all this will take time. What perhaps is needed in the short term is an open dialogue as to what sites should come forward, when and where, and how they contribute to wider placemaking and sustainability objectives. Or, what is commonly known as good planning…
Jon Herbert and Cora Barrett
Jon is the spatial planning lead within the PlaceMaking team at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Cora is a senior planner in the PlaceMaking team.