Michael Gove, The Secretary for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the UK, has said that: “Britain needs more homes to fulfil more dreams of home ownership and increase choice for renters… But they must be of the right type and targeted in the right places.”
Therefore Mr Gove recently revealed that the Government will be turning its attention to brownfield sites in order to alleviate the housing crisis. His aim is for unused commercial space in “inner cities” to be used for developments “so that we protect our countryside.”
This announcement should make it more convenient to convert retail premises and agricultural buildings into homes. It will also relax Permitted Development requirements, allowing homeowners to utilise more loft spaces and renovate buildings. Unfortunately many industry commentators believe the latest policy announcement will fail to solve the UK’s housing crisis and that a more comprehensive solution is required. Many would argue the cure will need to include a balance between brownfield and greenfield developments. Though the current government policy avoids any strategic review of the green belt and developments on greenfield land.
The Government fell so far short of its previous aim of delivering 300,000 new homes a year that the target was not long ago dropped. In fact a recent report deemed it impossible to achieve. So what are the major obstacles to achieving these dream homes?
Mr Gove argues, “We must make better use of the buildings we already have — empty shops or offices cannot be gathering dust while we have an urgent need for more homes.” It sounds simple, though brownfield redevelopments present a plethora of complications. Prioritising brownfield land is not a new tactic. Yet its not produced the desired results in the past. That’s because amongst the opportunities within high-density housing, there are also many challenges.
The costs involved in brownfield developments are far greater and consequently, they are said to generate on average a much lower proportion of affordable properties. They also create more flats and apartments. This type of housing stock is less suitable to the demand that exists. Many believe that homes suitable for families are in more urgent need. Managing the large, complex apartment buildings that are more commonly created on brownfield sites is also not straightforward.
Land that has been previously used for commercial purposes clearly presents an excellent opportunity for re-development. Such initiatives can revitalise communities and provide many, much needed new residencies. Yet critics point out that there is still insufficient brownfield land to provide the required number of new homes, regardless of whether you think the units produced are desirable or not.
Many would argue this Brownfield strategy needs to be delivered alongside the delivery of new high quality homes on greenfield land. Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has outlined his party’s plans to allow English councils greater authority over green belt building decisions. So, there is now an obvious point of differentiation on this key policy area between the two major parties.
Building on the green belt is clearly a controversial and emotive topic. So, you would think that his party’s proposed policy, that will potentially allow this to occur, would have been carefully considered in terms of the preferences of labour’s key voter base. The benefits of using greenfield land near to existing communities, where local people may have relatives, or their places of work are based and where transport and other infrastructure already exists will be appealing to many.
Ecological factors, despite the cost of living and housing crises, are also an key consideration for housing strategy. Net zero by 2050 remains on the agenda. Working with institutional investors and landlords could play a crucial part in achieving environmental targets. Key challenges with brownfield sites include securing funding for comprehensive site clean-ups. This can make it difficult to keep a development financially viable whilst still delivering an adequate level of affordable housing. Lowering stamp duty for EPC A rated homes has also been suggested as a positive and workable incentive.
Additionally, a planning skills delivery fund will hopefully help planners gain the requisite knowledge and expertise in sustainable housebuilding to tackle the housing crisis in the right way. For example, modular property building is emerging as a potentially innovative solution that can provide faster, greener and better homes. But up until now how many decision makers in hard pressed and stretched planning departments will have garnered in depth knowledge over recent years?
Cutting Red Tape
The Secretary for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities believes that a review, “of the rules around permitted development rights” will “make sure we can regenerate, build and grow.” He does have a point. A significant constraint with brownfield land lies in implementation. Streamlining complex planning processes could make a difference.
Development corporations will also feature as part of the policy. They will have power to issue compulsory purchase orders to obtain land with the intention of delivering homes. Yet these corporations will no doubt struggle to be established and to gain traction before a likely election next year. Also completing compulsory purchases is often complex and prolonged. And NIMBY-ism will remain a fundamental obstacle. Local communities will continue to muster vehement opposition, no doubt arguing that they’re now battling undemocratic processes.
For that reason previous efforts to reform the planning system with the hope of stimulating house building levels have failed. As recently as 3 years ago, when Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government , Robert Jenrick revealed reforms to safeguard green areas and facilitate brownfield developments. They didn’t seem to do the trick? Though the latest announcement did also include the aforementioned planning skills delivery fund to help local authorities tackle the backlog in their housing departments with additional upskilled resource.
The Government’s proposed leasehold reforms are also coming under scrutiny. The plans will potentially pass onto resident associations the responsibility for managing blocks of flats and large buildings. A number of organisations have pointed out that this outcome isn’t desired by all who stand to “benefit”. Industry stake-holders are instead lobbying to protect consumer choice in the market. This would mean that both leasehold and common-hold tenures are available. Yet they must be properly regulated to ensure they are both fair and fit for purpose.
Thousands of leaseholders await the outcome of government deliberations over a potential leasehold reform bill. The cost of their lease extensions are likely to be escalating the longer the delay continues.