Developers are ‘gaming’ the planning system to get applications approved for lucrative new housing estates in the countryside – even in areas where councils had plans in place to meet housing needs in other locations, new research by the National Trust has revealed.
The conservation charity found flaws in the government’s planning rules were being exploited by developers to get homes built on green-field sites even though local authorities had never intended them to be built on.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was introduced two years ago to boost development and tackle the housing crisis by cutting red tape. At the time ministers pledged that local communities would be given a greater say over planning rules and decisions on new development. New local plans would be ‘sovereign.’
But the guidelines also said councils which had not earmarked suitable land to meet housing demand over the next five years must adopt a presumption in favour of planning permission.
This has opened the door to speculative challenges from house-builders, undermining the local planning process and bypassing local opinion.
The Trust’s report, Positive Planning, looked at 27 local authorities with significant areas of countryside. All the authorities had followed the NPPF rules and had a ‘local plan’ in place which outlined how it would meet the area’s housing needs and where they would be built.
The research however found 16 local authorities had still seen their local plans challenged by house-builders. This led in some cases to developers getting consent to build new estates in areas of the countryside which had never been allocated for housing by the council. :
- 8 of the 16 authorities faced problems after house building rates fell dramatically during the recession. The planning system wrongly assumed this because there was not enough land identified to build on when in fact there was plenty of supply and not enough demand.
- The backlog in housing provision caused by the downturn has left many authorities struggling to meet previous targets and therefore open to challenges from developers which have identified other ‘off plan’ sites to build on.
- Four authorities which adopted high growth targets for housing also fell into difficulty when the extra land they had allocated for development still wasn’t enough to meet their own ambitious targets.
- Councils which are reliant on building most of their new houses at a small number of large sites were at risk of being required to release unallocated sites if for any reason house builders delay development at the large sites. Three authorities have had to release unallocated sites as a result.
- And in at least four authorities, the housing needs outlined in the local plan have been challenged by updated assessments claiming land supply is not sufficient to meet requirements.
Problems with demonstrating a sufficient land supply have been exacerbated by the NPPF requirement to clear any housing backlog within five years, and, in areas which have a ‘record of persistent under delivery of housing’, the requirement to provide an additional 20% buffer of land.
Commenting on the report, Ingrid Samuel, Historic Environment Director of the National Trust, said: “This new evidence shows that the Government’s plan-led system is too open to challenge from streetwise developers. In 2011 The Prime Minister assured us that the new system would give local people more of a say. But it seems that in some areas the local vision for development is being bypassed. The rules need tightening to prevent this from happening.
“Sadly the NPPF is allowing developers to ignore the local communities it said would be at the very heart of its new approach. The communities we looked at are those that accepted the Government’s challenge, and have made difficult choices about where new housing should – and shouldn’t – go.
“Whilst we support the principle of building on brownfield land first, we recognise the need to build some homes in the countryside. But homes should only be built where land has been allocated for development by the local council and is supported by the local community.”
The Trust is calling on the government to:
- Ensure that the Local Plan is sovereign, and that there is greater certainty about where development should and should not go, in areas where a local plan is in place.
- Clarify that where a plan is in place, strategic questions about housing need and land supply should be dealt when a new local plan is prepared.
- Ensure local authorities are not penalised for: including large sites in their plans or setting ambitious targets for new housing
:: South Hams, Devon
A site for 48 houses at Leyford Close on the edge of Wembury was permitted in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The planning officer’s report said that development would “fundamentally conflict” with the authority’s local plan which aimed to restrict any new housing within an AONB. However, planning officials concluded that the council had a shortfall in its supply of housing land under NPPF rules, and granted permission. Another site for 40 dwellings at Moorview on the edge of the large village of Marldon near the Torbay boundary was given the green light. The absence of a five-year housing land supply was again a key issue.
:: Breckland, Norfolk
A greenfield site for 375 homes at London Road, Attleborough, was approved despite the fact the land was not allocated for housing in the council’s local plan. Officers have also advised that another site for 255 homes south of Dumpling Green, Dereham, should be permitted . The officers report stated that the application was ‘clearly contrary’ to its own planning policies but the” lack of a 5-year housing supply carries significant weight in the consideration of the application.”
:: South Cambridgeshire
The effect of the statistically insufficient land supply in South Cambridgeshire has been to put pressure for development on unallocated sites in line with the ‘sustainability’ policies of the NPPF, which trump the council’s development plan. As a result, the Council controversially permitted an unallocated site for 47dwellings at Beach Road, Cottenham in March 2013.