Have you ever wondered why major housing development schemes aren’t one of the categories of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs), so qualifying for the simplified planning regime of a Development Consent Order (DCO)?  The recent publication by the journal Planning  of a report on NSIPs prompted the question in my mind. 

With the continuing (sometimes it feels almost constant) hue and cry for more housing to be delivered, more quickly, it would seem that DCOs could be the perfect answer to speeding up the process of achieving planning permission, employing compulsory acquisition powers where needed to bring into a single title what are often fragmented landownerships.

Of course, there are a number of reasons why.  First and foremost is the question of scale and complexity which comes with large (by which I mean 4,000+ homes residential-led) schemes.  The DCO which comes from the NSIPs process is reliant on all the detail of the subject project being known and identified to a high degree of certainty at the outset. Sustainable urban extensions and new communities of their very nature develop over time.  They require a high degree of flexibility in their implementation over an extended period, to respond to changes in the market and the needs of the emerging community as the project grows and evolves.

Whilst housing is a matter of national significance, the Government (and the Labour party in opposition) remain firmly wed to the principle of localism and planning for new development being a matter for local communities. Alongside that there is a certain irony, which will not have escaped readers’ notice, that scarcely a week goes by without a Secretary of State’s decision made on appeal for the grant of consent for an “edge-blobbing” housing consent (which arguably is the most reviled), as a consequence of a local planning authority being found wanting in its five year land supply. 

Many of those engaging in the debate about new garden cities, especially in response to this year’s Wolfson Prize competition and reacting to the Government’s recently published Garden Cities Prospectus are suggesting that there should be a national spatial framework or plan promoted by Government to inform the locations for the delivery of new homes in sustainable communities, well served with all the necessary infrastructure, puting at least some of the responsibility firmly in the hands of national government. 

Moreover, a wide range of respected individuals and organizations with deep experience and expertise in the field of planning for large-scale new communities are suggesting that the only way of securing new garden cities - which have become the by-word of such new sustainable settlements - is by central government taking the lead working with local authorities on designating the sites for such developments.  In that respect, they may be locally-led as the Prospectus envisages. 

So if there is a role for national government in planning the location of these new communities, is there not also a much-needed role for Government to secure a faster and more certain process for consenting the projects to deliver the new homes?  Commentators quoted in the NSIPs report I mentioned at the start of this piece contemplate housing schemes coming within the scope of the regime, but suggest that as things stand that is unlikely to become a reality.  More likely is the use of Development Corporations under an updated model still provided for in the New Towns legislation.  That is equally capable of bringing forward a simplified, streamlined and speedier consent process, combined with compulsory purchase powers which will often be required to bring the vision of new garden settlements to reality.