Southern England is facing an increasingly desperate land famine. Here the issue is about kicking the jams out of the planning system and large-scale site assembly
A fight for sites
Shortage of land supply has put pressure on large and small housebuilders. National housebuilders are competing to buy much smaller sites than they would have considered in the past, as they scramble to find land to feed their big hungry businesses. This affects the smaller players. "We've been up against a national housebuilder to buy a 12-unit site, and we're against all the big boys to buy a 32-unit site. That's because they're desperate for the numbers," says Andy Wibling, chief executive of Sunley Estates.

When English Partnerships stepped in and paid £96m to buy the RAF staff college site at Bracknell that housebuilders had been bidding for, the losing parties were aggrieved. But John Lewis, strategic joint ventures director of EP, says that the government agency is not competing with housebuilders on housing delivery. "Any form of delivery for the site will be through the private sector," he stresses. "We're simply keen to see the right context is set out for the site, which is so closely linked to the town centre. At the moment it is designed as an isolated site. We'll revisit the brief. We've the opportunity to look at sites and say what can we get out of it for the communities plan."

Barker says EP should have a lead role in delivering development through partnering with private and public sector bodies.

THe big push
In the communities plan, the government reserved its biggest, boldest ideas for Milton Keynes, Thames Gateway, Ashford and Stansted. But the housing growth areas intended to alleviate supply-side blockages are not coming through the pipeline fast enough, says David Wilson Homes' Stansfield. "The problem is delivery. In a lot of cases sites either can't be delivered or can only be delivered very piecemeal."

Housebuilders consider the Milton Keynes area, where 370,000 homes are destined to be built and EP is a major land holder, to be the most easily deliverable of the growth areas. Some of those sites will be greenfield, and there EP is setting new standards in delivery to overcome potential resistance to development.

Design codes: A secret weapon
Barker sees design codes as a good way of streamlining planning approvals. At Upton on the outskirts of Northampton, EP is using design to overcome local authority concerns to deliver a 1200-home urban extension on greenfield land. EP has worked with The Prince's Foundation, Northampton council and consultant EDAW to come up with a comprehensive set of design codes for the mixed-use village. "The site required significant infrastructure investment and it was felt that in order to get EP's board to commit to it, we needed to be as certain as possible that the local authority would give planning consent," says Peter Springett, EP's area director for Northampton. Springett says that bringing the site through has been a "lengthy but challenging process", but it has produced detailed planning consent this month from a planning application submitted just before Christmas, a fairly rapid result. And Springett says that the approach has worked for local stakeholders: "The site is seen as an extension of Northampton, rather than as a bolt-on piece of development."

As well as imposing rules on design quality, the development team is also asking for affordable housing – set at 22% for the first site sold – and for all homes to have an EcoHomes environmental rating system score of "excellent", the maximum attainable. Bids for the first 200-unit tranche of land to be released, as with all ensuing releases, were assessed on design quality, more than land value. In view of those criteria, it is perhaps not surprising that the first site has gone to a small housebuilder, Shenley Lodge Developments, and not to a major name. "Some of the bigger housebuilders were more enthusiastic than others," says Springett. "A number of developers took the view that this was really interesting, but that they have other things to pursue, and that they'll keep a watching brief and see how the market responds."

View from Wales

A review of one of the most important planning policy issues to affect Wales for some time is drawing to a close, writes Tim Gent, partner and planning specialist at GVA Grimley in Cardiff. The National Assembly for Wales is considering a new version of TAN 15 (technical advice note 15), examining development and flood risk in the principality. Once adopted, this advice note could significantly influence planning decisions throughout Wales, and as such, play a key role in determining the location for new development.

A consultation draft of the guidance, issued last year, caused major concerns – not least among the sponsors of some of Wales’ most significant regeneration initiatives. With projections that well over 100,000 new homes are required in Wales over the next ten years, TAN 15 in its draft format could have severely limited the use of brownfield sites for housebuilding, confusing planning authorities and developers, and frustrating the delivery of much needed development.

Opposition has been directed at two key elements of the draft. The first is the lack of flexibility, which would allow developers to prove that their sites are not at risk of flooding. This was recommended in an initial report by consultants appointed by the National Assembly, but was missing from the Assembly’s first draft. This inflexibility is compounded by the Assembly’s decision to produce its own zoned maps indicating areas that might be at risk of flooding.

According to these maps, new residential development will be directed to areas of low or no risk, and will therefore not be allowed in many areas, which at the moment include a large part of Cardiff Bay, and high priority regeneration areas in Newport and Swansea. More alarmingly perhaps, there is a conflict between maps prepared by the Environment Agency, and those prepared by the Assembly.

Under the draft guidance, there is a risk that planning permission could be refused for much needed housing on brownfield sites, forcing developers to turn to “safer” greenfield locations.

Flood risk is an extremely important and emotive issue. However, unless revisions are made to TAN 15, there is a distinct risk that some high profile regeneration schemes could either fail, or be delayed. This surely cannot be the intention of the guidance – simply because that would be at odds with almost every other planning policy that the Assembly has issued.

Local intelligence suggests the final version of TAN 15 is likely to have some flexibility, allowing developers or owners to show that land is not at risk of flooding. Adjustments to the planning maps are also rumoured, although nothing is yet available and more consultation is highly unlikely.