Blog: 6 January 2016Putting housing on the National Infrastructure agenda

Mark Sitch

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Mark Sitch

Planning Director

Birmingham office

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In 2016, housing will clearly remain front and centre for politicians, both regionally and nationally, especially given the consultation currently running on The Housing & Planning Bill (the responses to which must be received by 22 February), and the opportunity it presents to remove obstructive barriers to housebuilding and direct strategic development where it is needed the most.

Back in 2014, our Wolfson Economics Prize Submission called for national direction to ensure major residential development – 5,000–10,000 homes in scale – is delivered in the correct, smart and sustainable locations. To do this, however, we need national leadership. Bond Dickinson and Quod recently fed our views into a report on the opportunity the National Strategic Infrastructure Projects framework (NSIPs) presents to provide this national view and I joined them at a professional roundtable at the end of 2015 to discuss their findings.

We all agreed that the NSIP regime of Development Consent Orders (DCOs) offers a strong structure, providing everyone involved with a clear process, parameters and timescales. The DCO process is a detailed one, allowing for full engagement from LPAs and local communities and determined by an Inspector, which all in all can deliver an earlier decision than when compared to a planning application followed by appeal – the route large housing applications are frequently having to follow.

More importantly, NSIPs could directly tackle the cross-boundary issues we currently face. Consistently large housing applications are delayed and/or resisted due to sites crossing Local Authority boundaries. We have experienced this issue time and time again, where careful negotiation finally gets us to the point of agreement, only for political alliances/make-up to change.

When looking at the suitability of the NSIP regime we must, however, also consider what happens when there is no plan or a draft plan in place. At this point, a DCO would be running ahead of site allocations, and therefore the democratic process. Overriding local decision making in this way would make it far harder for Local Authorities to engage and support, despite the process allowing for significant engagement and examination. The Housing & Planning Bill seeks to tackle this by forcing post NPPF Local Plan delivery, but the Bill’s success at achieving this is paramount if the NSIP route is to be pursued.

There was also significant concern around the table that we shouldn’t simply be referring to this as a ‘Housing’ NSIP. In practice, an NSIP for a major new settlement or significant housing will incorporate far more than just homes. Community infrastructure around schools, leisure, a local centre, open space and employment provision could, and should, all be encompassed. As such, the label of ‘housing’ is too narrow and unhelpful given the often emotive response to housing and change to their environment.

Currently, Clause 107 of The Housing and Planning Bill proposes a limit of 500 homes functionally or closely linked geographically to an application for a nationally significant infrastructure project. This is a welcome move, but the Government could do more. I believe the NSIP regime offers a process that ought to be utilised by the Government to deliver large-scale housing. It works where you have a recently adopted Local Plan and, given the drive for these proposed, a lack of one should not mean we ignore it but instead work with Government. The key question then is does the Government, and in his new role Lord Adonis, have the appetite? It is after all a big step from 500 to 5,000, never mind 10,000, homes.

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Infrastructure, Planning and Housing Bill, Wolfson Economics Prize, NSIP