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CPRE finds current process isn’t spotting enough small brownfield sites

We've had the Housing White Paper, but what comes next and how can we ensure housing policy will keep our countryside protected?

shaunThere will be much to welcome in this month’s Housing White Paper. We expect a big emphasis on brownfield development and more support to enable local authority planning departments to do their job. Best of all, the White Paper looks set to address the main cause of the housing shortage: over-dependence on a small number of big companies to deliver the new homes the country needs.

For too long the state’s responsibility for decent housing has been outsourced to private developers who have neither the will nor capacity to build on the scale needed. Now at last Ministers seem willing to tackle this market failure, for instance by helping small builders and promoting custom build and ‘modern methods of construction’.

No quick fix

But we should not expect to see any quick increase in output. The Government is stuck with a policy of setting housing targets and making more land available in the hope that developers increase their output. This approach has failed for years and it will continue to fail. Under the current system, councils are pressured to set unachievably high housing targets and to demonstrate that they have a five-year supply of land to meet them.

Targets are missed because developers do not use the planning permissions they have; the local authority has to release more land; developers cherry pick the best sites, often in the Green Belt or other countryside, but build so slowly that the local authority is unable to demonstrate that it has a five year land supply; this then leaves the door open for predatory firms to put in speculative applications in the countryside on the grounds that the council does not have a valid plan in place.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has analysed the Government’s brownfield registers pilot scheme. Employing a variety of conservative methodologies, CPRE now estimates that the available data translates to a minimum of 1.1 million homes on suitable brownfield sites across England. More ambitious methodologies put the figure much higher, towards 1.4 million. This suggests that the Government has previously severely underestimated brownfield capacity.

Much of our countryside and green spaces are at increasing risk from development but we know all too well that there is plenty of previously developed, or brownfield, land across England that is suitable for development but isn’t being used. Indeed, the Government has been slowly accepting this: in the wake of CPRE’s Wasted Space campaign and Wasted Spaces to Living Spaces report in 2014 on the amount of brownfield land available, it has introduced statutory brownfield registers as part of the Housing and Planning Act to help address this issue.

Government figures released yesterday showed that, despite a small increase, rates of house building are continuing to fall considerably short of what’s needed.

Statistics on the number of house building starts and completions produced quarterly by DCLG show that in the year to June, 139,030 homes were finished – an increase of 6% on the previous year. While the Government may well highlight this as a sign of success, when compared with the number of houses needed, the figure does not bode well.

The Government pledged to build one million homes in England this parliament – in effect 200,000 a year – a level of housebuilding that’s not been seen in England since 1989. In June, Brandon Lewis – then minister for housing and planning - attempted to row back on this commitment, and it is obvious why. The Government is simply nowhere near meeting its targets on house building.

If the Government does harbour the intention of meeting one million target on time, it has a great deal of ground to claw back and will need to find a way to radically increase delivery. Only 139,650 were built in 2015/2016, leaving another 860,350 over the next four years – meaning 215,088 per year, more than has been delivered annually since 1978-79.

Why Government will most likely not be able to meet its ambitious targets relates to broader questions about the housing market. Previously, from the mid-1990s onwards housing starts were broadly increasing under the plan-led system, even surviving Labour’s reforms of planning and local government in the early 2000s. Then the credit crunch hit and house building nose-dived. But as the economy began to recover, even under the Labour government in 2009, housing starts began to rise again.

Then the momentum was lost. The uncertainty caused by the coalition and then Conservative Government’s deregulation of planning and their focus on home ownership over meeting housing needs appears to have slowed this growth, and we are now still struggling to claw ourselves back to the rates of house building being achieved under the pre-NPPF plan-led system, while remaining roughly 60,000 per year short of this Government’s stated aims.

What is abundantly clear from the nation’s housebuilding record is that the biggest influences on building rates are economic. The only impact that planning deregulation has is to harm the quality, location and sustainability of housing development: build rates are unaffected.

Government is slowly beginning to recognise that the market-led system they (and, to be fair, their New Labour predecessors) have been pushing, favours big developers and encourages them to maximise their profits by building slowly. So now they are just starting to incentivise developers to build out their vast bank of planning permissions, and to encourage a more diverse base of businesses contributing to housing development. But these attempts to get Britain building again have been a case of too little, too late – with the emphasis on too little.

At the same time as promising to build 1 million new homes, the Government also promised to protect the countryside and the Green Belt. And yet, over a quarter of the homes that this Government says it will build during this parliament could be on sites now being proposed to be released from the protection of Green Belt, and more half the homes currently being built are on greenfield sites.

CPRE’s evidence from 2014 has shown that there is capacity for at least 1,000,000 homes on brownfield sites that had been identified by councils as suitable for housing development (about half the total number of brownfield sites that had been identified by councils, the remainder not being suitable for housing development). Our initial analysis of the pilot brownfield registers undertaken by over 70 councils this year suggests that this figure is likely to increase. This capacity could on its own meet the Government’s house building targets, and has led the to a much-hyped £1.2billion fund for brownfield housing development – but this is only expected to result in 30,000 starter homes, still unaffordable to the people most in need of homes, and it’s not even restricted to brownfield sites.

The Government is simply not living up to its commitments and is not helping itself by failing to address fundamental obstacles to the delivery of a greater volume of houses. It’s time for them to take the housing crisis seriously, and be more proactive in getting the right houses delivered in the right places.

Find out more

From Wasted Space to Living Spaces

View Matt's profile

More on CPRE's work on housing

CPRE argues that rural areas should be treated as a special case to protect and provide affordable housing

CPRE paper finds nine largest housing developers have 314,000 housing plots in strategic land banks

Following the Queen’s speech, CPRE warns of increasing threats to the countryside.

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