Housing plans: market forces will ruin brownfield progress

New housing and planning proposals unveiled this week could undermine the government's own Sustainable Communities plan, lead to a relaxation of the brownfield target and exacerbate regional inequalities, critics claim.

Under the proposals, local authorities in areas of high housing demand, such as the South East, South west and parts of the Cotswolds, could be forced to make land available to the private sector, regardless of the environmental cost.

The Deputy Prime Minister said a shake-up of the planning system was needed in order to respond better to market demand for more homes and to ensure more first time buyers have the chance to get a foot on the ladder.

Announcing the new proposals in the consultation document, Planning for Housing Provision, Mr Prescott said local planning authorities would have to work together to be more flexible and able to respond to demand by making more land available more swiftly for building new homes in areas of high demand.

“For decades, this country has built too few homes, with the result that too many people on moderate incomes can’t afford a home,” Mr Prescott said. “Today’s proposals will mean the planning system can respond faster to the housing market and local needs, so that more homes can be built where they’re needed.”

However, critics have claimed this amounts to little more than a developers “free-for-all” in the countryside. Under current planning regulations, local authority planning bodies have to consider a number of factors when deciding on new developments such as environmental impact and social need.

The new proposals suggest that housing would be given far greater weight than all other considerations and that, for the first time, land-allocation will be linked to house prices so that, in areas of high price and high demand, developers will be able to demand that land be released for development.

Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said: “These proposals amount to environmental vandalism. They risk unleashing a tidal wave of urban sprawl on our countryside and at the same time condemning many of our most deprived communities to continuing urban decay.”

Preference will still be given to brownfield land under the new proposals, but, other sites will have to be made available if there is insufficient supply.

Opponents of the government plans say that, while there is plenty of brownfield land in areas needing regeneration, it is unlikely there will be sufficient in areas of high demand and will lead to an abandonment of those areas that genuinely need development such as many northern and western communities.

Friends of the Earth’s Planning Advisor Hugh Ellis said the plans mark the end of any attempt by the government to deliver socially and environmentally responsible housing and totally ignore the need for sustainable economic development across the whole of the UK.

“The market will drive where new housing is built. This will result in a vast expansion of housing in areas of high demand such as southern and eastern England and continued decline and abandonment in northern communities,” he said. “These proposals will have a potentially disastrous impact on the environment in areas like the south east where water resources are already scarce, air quality is poor, the strain on roads and railways is already apparent and the market led housing system has failed to provide affordable homes.”

The market reforms are in response to the review of housing supply by economist Kate Barker which identified the planning system as the biggest obstacle to housebuilding (see related story).

Both CPRE and Friends of the Earth dismiss claims of ‘nimbyism’ and recognise that there is a need for affordable housing, but both point out that there is no mention whatsoever of social housing in the new proposals and that private housing does not necessarily mean affordable.

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors also doubted the proposals ability to increase affordable housing. It claims that linking house prices with the amounts of land released would be very complex and unlikely to lead to improvements in affordability.

Friends of the Earth believe that the recommendations are specifically designed to marginalise community participation in decisions about how much housing is provided and its location as regional assemblies will decide the housing figures based on market information. This will then be imposed on local authorities who will have to ‘early release’ the land if the private sector demands it.

These views echo the words of Peter Ainsworth MP, Chair of the Commons Environment Select Committee who, after reviewing the report Housing: Building a Sustainable Future, said: “Until the Government takes proper account of the strain which house building places on the environment, we will continue to create serious problems for ourselves and future generations. I accept the need to improve housing supply but, as things stand, the principal beneficiary of housing growth will be property developers, with the environment we all depend on being the principal loser.”

The consultation runs until September 2005.

By David Hopkins

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie