Bringing housing under the national infrastructure brief could pave the way for more affordable high-quality developments, says David Cowans of Places for People.
The Shelter commission’s final report, A Vision for Social Housing, makes 23 recommendations to shake up housing and sends a clear message that bold decisions are needed to deliver millions more social homes. But, as highlighted by commission member Lord O Neill, bringing about tangible change will also require the government to view housing through a very different lens.
Speaking about the report, Lord O’Neill, who serves on Shelter’s commission, said: “There needs to be a profound shift to see social housing as a national asset like any other infrastructure”. I couldn’t agree more.
The government’s aim to build 300,000 new homes every year by the mid-2020s will only be met by building at scale, including major new villages, towns and suburbs across the UK. For development to happen at this level and to create sustainable places, policy has to change so that housing can be classed as infrastructure in the planning process.
Although recent updates to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) have helped to create a more joined up approach to housing and infrastructure delivery, more needs to be done. We need a policy that prioritises housing alongside transport, broadband, energy and water. This would enable planning applications for larger housing developments to go through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) process, so they would be considered at a national level by the Planning Inspectorate instead of the local planning authority.
This approach would offer a number of significant benefits. The NSIP ‘one-stop-shop’ process means that the transport requirements for a new housing scheme could, for example, be determined at the same time as the residential element. Crucially, this would allow developers and local authorities to integrate infrastructure into a development right at the start of the planning process, rather than use it as a bargaining chip at the end.
This approach could be instrumental in creating more great places and not just large volumes of new homes. Residents need to feel at home from the outset and that relies on the delivery of infrastructure right from the beginning of a development project. From transport links and community amenities through to green open spaces and play areas, there needs to be a mix of facilities matched to local needs and which can combine to create genuine and sustainable placemaking.
"Residents need to feel at home from the outset and that relies on the delivery of infrastructure right from the beginning of a development project. As a placemaker that's been delivering new places for more than 50 years, we know that this approach works."
And as a placemaker that’s been delivering new places for more than 50 years, we know that this approach works. Our Brooklands scheme in Milton Keynes is just one example of a large development site where infrastructure came first, including a primary school and as a result, is creating a thriving community. A total of 2,500 homes are being built all supported by a raft of facilities and amenities including a new primary school, health centre, shops and acres of green open spaces for residents to enjoy.
Another benefit of the NSIP process is that it’s clearly defined with developers and local authorities aware of their responsibilities from the outset. This would create more certainty for all parties responsible for delivering new housing. And it would encourage comprehensive and early engagement with communities likely to be affected by development as NSIP applications must be properly consulted on.
It’s important that not all decisions are taken out of local hands, so planning policy would have to set clear inclusion criteria for NSIPs, such as residential schemes comprising more than a certain number of units or those likely to have a significant impact on local services. However, this is a route which could vastly speed up delivery and help the government to develop a more strategic, national plan for development.
Redressing the planning system may sound like an ambitious move but as Shelter’s landmark report has clearly expressed, without significant change, we won’t come close to overcoming the housing problems we face.
The much-needed recommendations in the report can’t come soon enough, but to get enough spades in the ground by 2022, the government must give housing a clearer identity in the policymaking process.
Bringing it under the national infrastructure brief could pave the way for high-quality developments, which are supported by both the right infrastructure and local communities, resulting in sustainable places that work for everyone.
David Cowans is group chief executive of Places for People.