The long awaited White Paper, entitled 'Fixing our broken housing market', finally emerged from DCLG on February 7th. It signals the government's direction of travel under Theresa May, with an emphasis on a fairer Britain supporting the hard working for whom housing has become increasing unaffordable. Consultation on some of the key proposals closes on 2 May 2017.

This article is part of a series of articles about the Government's long awaited February 2017 Housing White Paper, which sets out the UK Government's broad approach to addressing issues in the housing market. To read our top-line overview and to access other articles in this series please click here.

Optimising the use of land: the role of brownfield development, green belt and small sites

At the heart of government policy is a tension between preservation of the green belt whilst boosting housing supply. The result is increased focus on maximising the use of land, including brownfield sites, and on bringing forward smaller sites.

Key Proposals:

Maximising the use of land: Changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) are intended to require authorities to have a clear strategy in their plans for maximising the use of suitable land. Further, 'great weight' must be attached to the value of using suitable brownfield land within settlements for homes. Other proposals include to

  • require plans and applications to make efficient use of land and avoid low density housing where there is a shortage of land to meet needs;
  • encourage higher-density housing in urban locations close to public transport;
  • encourage the replacement or building over of low density uses such as car parks; encourage upward extension (an earlier proposal about permitted development rights for upward extension is not being pursued).

However, the government is keen to ensure density reflects character, accessibility, infrastructure capacity and the nature of local housing need which may give authorities grounds for objections. More flexibility in the application of policy is helpfully intended, recognising the overly rigid adherence of some authorities to the strict wording of policy guidance. Views are sought on whether and what minimum density standards could be of assistance.

Green belt: Many authorities are releasing areas of green belt through plans to meet housing need. The White Paper notes that NPPF policy requires green belt release to be "exceptional". The consultation includes changes to the NPPF so “local communities can hold their councils to account” over what exceptional means. It is proposed that boundaries should be amended only where authorities have examined fully all other reasonable options, including brownfield, estate regeneration, underused land, surplus public land, optimising density and exploring where other authorities can meet need - and that neighbourhood plans can then have a role in setting new boundaries. The implication appears to be that release should be slowed down. Further, if land is released, local plan policies should offset the impact through improvements to the quality or accessibility of remaining green belt land. Other proposed tweaks relate to cemeteries, green belt development under neighbourhood development orders and encouraging brownfield redevelopment of green belt sites which contribute to starter homes where there is no substantial harm to openness.

Allocating small sites: Sites suitable for custom builders and smaller developers are to be promoted. The NPPF will be tweaked to seek local plan policies supporting development of unallocated 'windfall' sites and to require great weight to be attached to the use of small undeveloped 'suitable' sites in settlements for new homes. In addition, the government is consulting on requiring at least 10% of allocated sites to be of half a hectare or less and to encourage developers to sub-divide larger sites. Yet the White Paper emphasises that authorities will still have powers to protect valued open space and residential character, including by stopping unwanted “garden grabbing”. Proposals for a small sites register are not being pursued at present and those to encourage development of small sites adjacent to existing settlements are dropped.

Those who have called for wholesale review of the green belt will be disappointed by the steer of the White Paper away from green belt release. Authorities will need to be bolder in accepting higher density schemes if the government's ambitious housing targets are to be met.