This week’s Planning for the Future proposals sets the government’s course for planning and housing reform over the next year. Forthcoming changes in the Planning White Paper, Building Safety Bill, Renters’ Reform Bill and Social Housing White Paper – together forming a new housing strategy – plus more details in the next Spending Review will focus on the triple commitments of increasing housing delivery and home ownership; improving stability for renters, and reducing homelessness.

Before then, a number of changes are planned to ‘encourage local authorities to take a more proactive approach to enabling home building across the country’, a list that includes supporting them to consider innovative options such as housing-led regeneration of their high streets, building upwards on already developed land and stations, densifying gently in existing residential areas and making the most of their under-utilised brownfield land.

Measures will be introduced to encourage local authorities to put ambitious plans in place now (and they will be incentivised to deliver them too).

Immediate changes

An additional £10.9 billion of funding was set out in yesterday’s Budget to support communities, brownfield regeneration, infrastructure investment and increase housing, jobs, schools and opportunities.

1.    Under-utilised brownfield development is inevitably the focus:

·         £400m for ‘ambitious’ mayors and local leaders to regenerate local brownfield land and deliver homes, helped by a national brownfield map that will be launched in April and a call for proposals to build above stations.

·         A new brownfield map and investigating further building above stations in urban areas and making more of transport hubs.

·         Reviewing the formula for calculating Local Housing Need – a new approach which encourages greater building within and near to urban areas to help deliver 300,000 new homes a year.

·         Introducing new rules to encourage building upwards, increasing density in line with local character and make the most of local infrastructure with new permitted development rights by the summer, also consulting on new permitted development right to allow vacant commercial buildings, industrial buildings and residential blocks to be demolished and replaced with well-designed new residential units which meet natural light standards.

·         There’s also more support for community and self-build housing and a clear focus on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, including a new spatial framework and up to four new development corporations with potential for a new town south of Cambridge, a move that follows the announcement of a new Cambridge South station in yesterday’s Budget.

2.       More land and sites

·         New changes are coming forward to bring forward more land and sites for housing delivery, with a deadline for local authorities to have up-to-date local plans by December 2023. 

·         Plans to raise the Housing Delivery test threshold to 75% in November 2020 will still happen and the New Homes Bonus (NHB) will be reformed.

3.       Infrastructure investment

·         Local authorities will get more investment for infrastructure, while plans to take an infrastructure first approach to building new homes – including digital connectivity and community services as well as transport and utilities were set out as well as a further £1.1 billion in local infrastructure is planned to unlock almost 70,000 new homes

·         Finally, a new £10 billion Single Housing Infrastructure Fund is proposed with more details to be announced alongside the Spending Review.

With most of the significant changes still to come, there is a mood here of ‘wait and see’. Certainly everything announced so far should allow for progress around the principal challenges around housing delivery.

The clear direction to build upwards and build above stations offers immediate opportunities, while the front-loading of infrastructure to unlock new housing stands out. By contrast, Permitted Development Rights changes bring with them a note of caution around quality and ensuring the right balance of uses in town centre and other environments. With the rise of e-commerce, industrial space is now an essential part of the urban mix.

But what we need to see next – and what will set this announcement apart from previous planning changes – is the detail of how these changes will come about, how the development community can best engage and how housing schemes can be built out quicker.

For us, a key part of the Planning White Paper, therefore, will be how in practice planning can be accelerated. The prospect of an automatic rebate of application fees if an appeal is successful would be a good step towards reducing politically motivated planning decisions. Reform of planning fees overall is also muted– something that would be welcome by most if it brought with it more dedicated resource for planning teams and decision-makers.