Homes England launched with fanfare this month, announcing a series of core objectives, both new and invigorated policies intended to get housebuilders on site and start reducing the country’s housing shortfall. The newly introduced Brownfield Land Registers are one such policy.
However, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is – it seems that’s certainly the case with the registers.
While the thinking behind the registers is certainly sound - the intention being the creation of a list of developable brownfield sites in each local authority area – as things stand, the registers are without substance or value.
It’s unlikely that the registers will have any meaningful impact on Housing England’s target of building 300,000 homes every year until the mid-2020
Around 310 local authorities have now published a register, revealing 26,000 hectares of developable land over 16,000 sites - all well and good, but not all it seems on deeper inspection.
Local authorities were given until the 31 December 2017 to complete their respective registers, a deadline many councils missed completely. There are also two parts to each register – while many have indeed completed part one, a simple list of brownfield sites, the majority have failed to populate section two.
Section two of the register should comprise a list of brownfield sites on which the council has granted permission in principle, removing an element of risk for developers and speeding up delivery. The fact is, none of the information on part one is new – these sites are already listed on SHLAA documents, available to any developer that should wish to look.
There are no doubt numerous reasons for the failure of local authorities to list sites within part two of their registers, the primary concern being loss of control over the final design of the development. It has also been suggested that the potential for a reduced application fee in the absence of the usual planning permission requirements isn’t quite as appealing. In addition, the subjectivity of the current system for compiling the registers is also questionable, opening the risk of differing standards and guidelines throughout the country.
Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely that the registers will have any meaningful impact on Housing England’s target of building 300,000 homes every year until the mid-2020s. It’s unlikely to have very little impact at all.
Without penalties or incentive for local authorities to complete part two of the register, it’s a toothless strategy.
Not only will brownfield sites remain unused, the policy will also fail to succeed in achieving Homes England’s intention of supporting SME builders to grow their businesses and build more homes, “disrupting” the housing market.
Transparency is also key – were accurate lists of suitable brownfield sites available, we would be likely to see more constructive discussion at a local level around the unavoidable development of some greenfield sites if we are to meet the 300,000 per year target. The fact is the vast housing shortage cannot be met by developing brownfield alone.
Despite the widespread (but nonetheless erroneous) belief that housebuilders are only interested in greenfield land, in reality it can often be more appealing to develop a brownfield site, not least due to political issues, local sensitivities and the ability to generate sales quickly. Should councils take the time to complete part two of their register, they will no doubt see considerable interest from developers keen to move forward with schemes.
An alternative solution can be found in up-to-date local plans, listing all developable brownfield sites, with the addition of permission in principle – as it stands, the superfluous registers will have little or no impact in getting housebuilders on site, building the homes this country urgently needs and supporting smaller builders and SMEs.
Paul Smith is managing director at Strategic Land Group