If housing is a long-term priority for the UK, the planning system does not recognise it

Rachel Fisher

Infrastructure: it’s big ticket. It’s transformational. Everyone knows what we mean by it. Or do we? In general if you ask someone they’ll probably say roads, rail, maybe even broadband. This is what a friend of mine refers to as the “long and thin” infrastructure - the Jack Sprat, if you will. But there’s also Jack’s wife. The “short and fat infrastructure” things like nuclear power stations, airports, and large stadiums.

What’s that you say? Stadiums (and indeed theme parks) are considered nationally significant infrastructure? Yes, they are. However, what’s slightly more surprising is that housing is not.

The reason for the introduction of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Planning (NSIP) process in 2008 was that investors require certainty. By streamlining applications and providing the certainty of forward planning at a national scale the NSIP process has largely proved to be a success. One wonders if HS2 might have benefited from being taken through NSIP rather than the parliamentary procedure, but that’s probably for another time. 

It made sense to extend the NSIP process to include nationally significant business, research and development and yes, stadiums, as these are also large scale projects that require long term investment. However, housing is also a long-term project that requires certainty for investors, and indeed for communities.

The reason that this is important is that this is yet another example of the disconnect between the delivery of housing and infrastructure. This means that the delivery of any residential property associated with the infrastructure has to be dealt with through a separate application to the local authority. Or, in the case of a certain nuclear power station, needs to be built as temporary accommodation and then taken down again.

And you can forget about mixed use schemes – which might make sense if you were delivering, say, a huge new stadium. Looking at the regeneration of Arsenal stadium and the Spurs proposal a huge amount of the planning gain for the community is delivered through more housing, much of it affordable housing. Planning housing and infrastructure together means that you can think strategically in terms of access to new employment and you can properly develop mixed use schemes which will work better in the long run.

Planning housing and infrastructure together means that you can think strategically in terms of access to new employment and you can properly develop mixed use schemes which will work better in the long run.

The Infrastructure Bill which is wending its way through parliament this summer has seen some robust debate in the House of Lords recently. Lord Best, a cross bench backbencher, put forward an amendment which would see large scale housing developments of 1,500 units and above be added to the nationally strategic infrastructure list. This was then supported by Liberal Democrat backbencher, Lord Tope, who said that the government needed to go further and have a long-term plan that would see houses built “in the right places where people want to live”.’ Lord McKenzie of Luton, who is the opposition spokesperson for communities and local government, didn’t support the amendment but made it clear that he had “no reservations in recognising that there is a need for a long-term policy to tackle our housing crisis and the role that housing associations, in particular, can play in this.”

The amendment was rejected by Baroness Stowell, the DCLG minister, who agreed that all parties recognise the need to build more homes, but raised concerns about reducing the scope for local decision-making, and said that in any case it was a finance issue, rather than a planning issue. This government has done a lot to provide access to finance for large-scale sites, and there is some evidence that this is working. That said, though finance can be an issue for large-scale development it is one that can be overcome through investor certainty, which inclusion in the NSIP process might provide.

At the time of the introduction of the NSIP process by the last government there were debates about community engagement and local accountability, and this was one of the key arguments that stopped housing being included in the first place. Apparently homes are more contentious and in need of local accountability through local planning processes than, say, wind farms. We need to have a proper debate on how to deliver new homes, at scale and at pace. Streamlining planning is one way to do this, and no doubt other options will emerge as we get nearer and nearer to the general election.

Rachel Fisher is head of policy at the National Housing Federation