Following a recent Court of Appeal judgment, which highlighted a gap in national policy coverage, the issue of what constitutes a sufficient housing land supply within a local planning authority is in urgent need of review.
In this article Kathryn Jump (Joint Head of Planning and Environment at Shoosmiths) and James Corbet Burcher (Barrister at No 5 Chambers) consider the issue of housing land supply, brought to prominence again through the Court of Appeal judgment in Peel Investments (North) Limited v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
In particular, we consider the current consultation on the Planning for the Future White Paper and the need to ensure that any review of the planning system guarantees delivery of the full range of housing types to meet local and future needs.
Whilst setting aspirational numerical targets for the amount of new homes needed is crucial to resolving the housing crisis, providing the variety of new homes (including family and affordable housing) also needs to be addressed if we are to finally get to grips with the ongoing crisis.
This article is concerned with issues raised by the factual background to the case, not the specific judgment itself.
Peel Investment (North) Limited had applied for planning permission for two alternative residential schemes in Salford, one for up to 600 homes and the other up to 165. The Council resisted development of the site on the basis that it was protected from development by a protective policy contained within the 2006 Salford Unitary Development Plan. In determining the s78 appeal, the Inspector found as follows:
- Although the Salford UDP had reached its expiry date in 2016 and contained no housing requirement and no policies for the distribution and delivery of housing, the protective policies were not “out of date”.
- The protective policies were therefore “not impeding” delivery of housing sites: i.e. that the Council could still demonstrate a more than five-year numerical supply of housing land, namely a 13-year supply made up primarily of city centre apartments.
- There were significant deficiencies in the Council’s provision for family properties, as well as affordable housing, but these did not mean that the “tilted balance” should not be applied in favour of the proposals under Para 11(d) of the NPPF.
This decision highlights three core difficulties with, or gaps within, national policy on what amounts to a “sufficient” housing land supply. All may be relevant to consultation responses on the Planning for the Future White Paper. The three core difficulties are:
1. It’s not just about the numbers
- There is a need to move away from what has become an almost purely numerical approach to judging whether an area is meeting its current and future housing needs for all residents in an area.
- In the Salford case, it was agreed that, at the time of the appeal, the Council’s 13-year supply of housing land consisted of an overwhelming majority of apartments (85%) as against houses (15%) and was concentrated in just two wards within the city centre.
- This was despite the latest Strategic Housing Market Assessment for Greater Manchester for the area identifying that there was a need in the area for an approximately 50-50 split between houses and apartments. It was also agreed that only 634 affordable homes identified to be built over the coming five years, against an assessed need of 3,750 new homes.
- This disconnect between the numbers and the actual need was not considered a basis for the activation of the presumption. Although the Inspector and Secretary of State accorded the provision of housing “significant” weight, without the “tilt” or “presumption” in play, this could therefore not outweigh the protective policies.
- This leaves the enduring reality of inadequate housing, homelessness and overcrowding experienced by many thousands of people in the area; the need to improve and diversify the housing stock to attract new people to the area, and drive forward economic growth, and the government’s “levelling up” ambitions.
- The proposed planning reforms present the government with the opportunity to remedy these omissions, and require a qualitative, as well as quantitative response to meeting the housing crisis. This could be achieved by the government setting a policy requirement for LPAs to meet specific figures for the delivery of suitable family housing (for example with three to four bedrooms and gardens), as well as target figures for the delivery of affordable housing. The government should also amend the tilted balance so that it is engaged where these deficits of the right type of housing emerge.
2. Limits to what can be achieved without greenfield and Green Belt development
- The White Paper also casts a spotlight on where family and affordable homes can realistically be located.
- The statistics as to the type of properties in Salford show it is dominated by smaller homes, and the majority of its planned supply are apartments to be constructed in the city centre. While this accords with the government’s priority of brownfield development, over greenfield, it only addresses the needs of a narrow section of the population. Without adequate school, health and community provision in the city centre, the apartments predominantly attract younger people without families. Indeed, there is no Section 106 requirement for contributions to school places from such apartments for this very reason. This then leaves families in the more suburban, and rural, areas where the supply of suitable properties to buy or rent is limited, with the flow of new homes being built constrained by the current policy approach, particularly Green Belt policy.
- It has been said before, but action seems so much harder to do. If we are to genuinely address the current problems of the housing market, much bolder steps will need to be taken in relation to enabling some review of existing Green Belt boundaries, and the allocation of land in places where people actually want to live. Careful and proportionate Green Belt release will not only provide land to meet current needs, but act as a catalyst for economic growth in the areas that need it most. Given the viability advantages of greenfield development, such development could also provide a massive boost to the delivery of affordable housing across the country.
- The pressing need for targeted Green Belt reviews is an obvious omission from the White Paper’s proposals, and one that needs to be included if “radical” reform to the current system is to be achieved.
- The answer to the problem already lies in changes brought into the NPPF in 2018. Much Green Belt is of poor environmental quality and is inaccessible to local communities. By allowing some development, what remains can be improved for people and the planet through a plan-led approach that secures net gain and ensures housing needs are met. This will require a more positive approach from both national and local government than we have seen to date, to embrace what is really the only sustainable solution to this challenge.
- As leading consultancy Turley observed recently, it is time to review how the presumption is engaged in Green Belt cases.
3. The need to future-proof the system
- The drive to focus residential development in town and city centres needs to be reconsidered in its own right in a post Covid-19 world. The pandemic has shone a light on the need for everyone to benefit from accessible open spaces, and there has been a surge in demand for houses with gardens. We have also seen how technology has enabled highly productive home working, potentially shifting the balance away from the daily commute forever. Never has the focus on home, and what each of us needs from our homes, been so up-most in people’s minds.
- The planning system needs to view itself from this new perspective and the changes introduced following the White Paper must not fall into the trap of addressing society’s needs as they were pre-March 2020. They need to look beyond the current pandemic and have enshrined within them the flexibility, ambition and clarity needed to ensure that the planning system can be a powerful tool in the nation’s post Covid (and post Brexit) reality.
The closing date for the submission of representations to the Planning for the Future White Paper is Thursday 29 October 2020.