David Wilson Homes is fortunate enough to have secured a site in an area where a moratorium on planning approvals is in operation. I bought the 227-acre RAF Burtonwood site in Warrington just over a year ago from Defence Estates for £91m. The mixed use site, now rechristened Chapelford Urban Village, will make a big contribution to local housing supply with 2000 units, 15% of which will be affordable. "RAF Burtonwood is one of the last big allocations," says Stansfield. "We're looking to bring other developers onto site by swapping land elsewhere in the region, but nobody has got any land to trade with."
With Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders and a government-dedicated growth corridor stretching from Liverpool to Newcastle, the North should have plenty of sites feeding through the development pipeline. But the picture has been complicated by the actions of some local authorities that are halting or constraining supply. This month Newcastle council took draconian steps to make sure housebuilding would happen in its designated regeneration areas, in imposing a planning ban on any schemes of 10 or more homes outside it. This follows moves by more than 10 local authorities across the region to use the planning system to put the brakes on development. Planning authorities across Merseyside, Manchester, Staffordshire, Cheshire and west Lancashire say they have enough homes in the planning pipeline, and have no need to give approval for more.
"Local authorities are saying they can interpret the guidance that way," says Pierre Williams, spokesperson for the House Builders Federation. "A lot of the problem stems from the fact that government guidance isn't clear and that leads to misinterpretation. Newcastle is using the designated growth areas as a reason to stop development." Kate Barker's review recommended that councils should not be able to refuse applications if they markets demands new housing.
Are Pathfinders the answer?
As a result of the problems in finding sites some housebuilders are focusing more attention on regeneration, and particularly housing market renewal. The government is backing nine Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders from Newcastle to Birmingham. They could prove a good source of development opportunities, and one where housebuilders can build their traditional product, the family house. "We would very much want to see mixed development so that we can give people what they move out of the city to get. We want to see spacious family housing," says John Robinson, Gateshead officer for Newcastle/Gateshead Pathfinder.
The pathfinder won £69m of government funding last month and is up and running. "In Gateshead we'll soon be inviting housebuilders to come and see us. We've got to speak to them early," says Robinson, citing a project already under way, St James Village, as an example of the kind of project they will be undertaking. St James Village is a mixed use scheme of some 900 homes, 200 of which have been built so far by housebuilders Persimmon and Dunelm Castle, and 150 of which are retained council homes. "As well as an imbalance of housetype, we have an imbalance of tenure – there's rather too much rented stock," points out Robinson.
View from ScotlandIn Scotland, there is still an overwhelming reluctance to release any land classed as green belt. Rather than using the existing legislation as a guideline for carefully managed development, planners are rejecting outright virtually all development proposals deemed to fall within this designation, writes William Kyle, land buyer with Miller Homes Scotland East.
Land can be of low agricultural or scenic value but this is not taken into account. Planners rarely look more closely at the site’s specific circumstances. As a result, green-belt developments in Scotland are still rare, which is already restricting the country’s housing supply.
Realistically, the situation can only get worse, particularly with the large number of new homes that are required by emerging structure plans.
At the moment, developers have no choice but to deliver urban, flatted, high density schemes on brownfield sites. Take a look at any Scottish city and you will find numerous planning applications for one and two bedroom apartments but just a handful for developments offering family homes.
The harsh reality is that the pattern of home building is driving families out of cities into more peripheral locations. In the long term this won’t be good for our city centres. They thrive on diversity and must not become the domain of strictly young professionals.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. A report looking at the role of green belt in Scottish housing policy is being prepared by Heriot-Watt University. It is only in draft form at the moment but was presented to the industry at the end of February. I don’t expect any particularly radical outcomes but there were definitely indications that the Scottish Executive is open to suggestions which could improve the implementation of green-belt policy. All it would really take is an acceptance that not all greenbelt is out of bounds and careful management could mean homes that actually add to the landscape.