Housing White Paper: Five key planning points for developers

9th February 2017

The Government published its much-anticipated Housing White Paper on 7 February 2017. The White Paper contains no silver bullet, as addressing the housing crisis will require tweaks throughout the complex web of intersecting policy areas involved. We have picked through the White Paper with a fine tooth comb and identify these five key planning points for developers:

1) Watch your track record

The Government proposes to take account of the ‘track records’ of particular development sites and developers.

It says that Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) should “consider how realistic it is that a housing site will be developed when deciding whether to grant permission on sites where previous permissions have not been implemented“. This adds pressure on developers to build out sites for which they have obtained permission. It may have a ‘chilling’ effect on applications as developers undertake more rigorous viability and deliverability surveys.

The Government will further consult on “whether an applicant’s track record of delivering previous, similar housing schemes should be taken into account” as a material consideration in determining planning applications. This proposal would only relate to major developers applying for large-scale housing sites, though mid- and small-scale developers should be wary of any ‘creep’ in policy.

This is aimed at stopping so called “land banking” by developers which is a controversial subject particularly as the Home Builders Federation hit out only last year on this concept arguing that given the high market demand for houses it did not make commercial sense to leave land undeveloped.

2) Turning the screw on implementation

Pushing for permitted housing developments to start “as soon as possible“, Whitehall is “considering the implications” of shortening the default period for implementation from three years to two years. They are particularly mindful that this may impact SME developers, from whom they encourage consultation responses.  However, the success of such a change may depend on whether progress is made with reducing the ‘shopping list’ of condition precedents that Councils often impose which leads to long lead in times for discharge.  There may also be an “opt out” for developments where a shorter timescale may hinder viability or deliverability.

3) Beware the stalled site

The White Paper proposes “more effective tools” for dealing with stalled sites. The Government wants to “speed up the completion notice process, whereby if development on a site has stopped and there is no prospect of completion, the local authorities can withdraw planning permission for the remainder of the site“. This, the White Paper says, would help “to stimulate building or clear unused permissions from Council’s planned supply of land“.  In general to date, the service of completion notices has been rare as they can lead to wrangles over what is a “reasonable time” to build out.  It is hard to see how this obstacle would be overcome as no one fixed period would fit all schemes.

The White Paper also makes strident pledges to encourage LPAs to use compulsory purchase powers more actively. The Government pledges to “prepare new guidance to local planning authorities… encouraging the use of their compulsory purchase powers to support the build out of stalled sites“.

4) Starter homes climb-down

The NPPF is to be amended to make it clear that starter homes should be available for households earning less than £80,000 (£90,000 in London). The White Paper also clarifies that there will be a 15 year repayment period instead of the original 20 years.  One of the biggest climb downs, though, is the scrapping of a mandatory requirement of 20% starter homes on all developments over a certain size. Instead, the NPPF will introduce a policy expectation for housing sites to deliver a minimum of 10% affordable home ownership units.  This will be welcomed by social housing providers as it will allow for a greater mix of types of affordable homes to respond to “local needs and local markets“.

5) Green Belt

The White Paper is somewhat fuzzy on probably the hottest topic – relaxation of the Green Belt.  The Government reiterates its commitment to protecting the Green Belt and recognises that boundaries should only be amended in “exceptional circumstances“.  On the other hand they propose to provide greater powers to local authorities to amend the boundaries if they can “demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options”.  Such options would include making use of brownfield sites, selling surplus public sector land, optimising density and exploring swaps with neighbouring councils.  If land is removed from the Green Belt, however, the impact will need to be offset.

On the whole it is difficult to get excited about the White Paper’s proposed changes as there is not yet much “meat” on the bones and one can see why the Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, John Healey called it “feeble“.  However, some of the changes have the potential to be far reaching depending on responses to the consultation proposals.

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