On the horizon

The UK's current development strategy is creating an affordability crisis and housing stock shortage for the future. Flemmich Webb finds out why

Since 2000, government housing policy has been defined by two over-arching drivers - high density and the increasing use of brownfield land. The policy, framed by planning guidance PPG3, is inspired by a prediction that a large number of single occupancy dwellings will be required in the future.

The latest figures released by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) show that the proportion of new homes being built on brownfield sites remains at 67% (the target is 60%), with density increased from 34 to 39 dwellings per hectare since 2003. PPG3 objectives are being met.

But not all stakeholders agree. A recent survey found that 64% of people thought the area they lived in could not accommodate more new housing at higher densities. Developers also have concerns. Many feel there is a crisis of affordability and availability looming. While 40% more flats have been built for the influx of single occupants onto the housing market (up 17% since 2000) this has been at the expense of larger, second-home-type housing stock.

"In the long-term this policy of higher density is not sustainable," says John Stewart of the Home Builders Federation. "There will be an increased demand for bigger homes as people move up the property ladder, and these just aren't being built. This will mean a bottleneck, which will push up demand, which in turn will push up the price."

Meeting the needs

Chris Garner of the Woodford Group, the UK's largest brownfield land acquisition and remediation company, agrees: "We support the general government policy regarding brownfield land, but in terms of new-build areas, we're often unable to accommodate all the needs of people's housing aspirations with high-density housing. A broader choice of development needs to be made available." This view inevitably leads to the thorny issue of whether developers should be allowed access to more greenfield land. Because there is more space for housing at lower densities on greenfield sites, they say it makes them a necessary part of the solution to the predicted housing shortage.

Though politically sensitive, the government does seem to be considering the idea. The Barker Review (2003), which the government broadly supports, reported growing evidence "of a persistent, inadequate [housing] supply".

To deal with this, it said, the planning system needed to be revised. "Central to achieving change [in the system] is the recommendation to allocate more land for development. Housebuilders would have greater choice as to which sites to develop, increasing competition." While not suggesting all land use restraints should be scrapped, it implies the need for a more flexible approach to building on greenfield sites.

Paul Syms, director of national brownfield strategy at English Partnerships, said: "There will be more pressure on greenfield sites, in those areas where there is not enough brownfield land. There probably does need to be a revision of how the development targets are set in certain areas."

Land and freedom

The government continues to monitor the issue. As well as the Sustainable Communities Plan (SCP), it's considering whether planning decisions should include affordability considerations and influence land release. Most importantly, for developers at least, it's planning a review of PPG3.

Stephen Rainford, of the Woodford Group, is clear about what he would like from the review: "The government and local authorities have got to be far more reactive when making planning decisions - it's taking us 12 to 18 months to work our way through the planning system at the moment. Our key objective is to develop closer links with planning departments to speed up the process. We think some release of greenfield land will also be needed further down the line."

Not everyone agrees. The hints at policy change have upset NGOs such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). "It would be economic folly and political madness," says CPRE's Neil Sinden, "to tamper with planning policies in ways which undermine their capacity to secure efficient and effective use of land. The outcome will be to stimulate public opposition to unnecessary greenfield development and failure to meet a genuine housing need."

The battle for the future of Britain's housing policy, and the environment in which it is built, has only just begun.


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