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Brownfield boost prioritised in pre-election plans to address housing crisis

By Robyn Evans
13 February 2024
Planning Communications and Consultation
Public Affairs

The UK Government has today announced a series of proposed changes to the planning system intended to facilitate the development of housing on brownfield sites, while protecting the Green Belt.

Under the reforms, which are being spearheaded by Michael Gove, every council in England will be told to prioritise brownfield developments and instructed to be less bureaucratic and more flexible in applying policies that halt housebuilding on brownfield land.

The bar for refusing brownfield plans is also set to be made higher for big city councils which are failing to hit their locally agreed housebuilding targets. Planning authorities in England's 20 largest cities and towns will be made to follow a 'brownfield presumption', if housebuilding drops below expected levels.

In other measures, new legislation will extend current Permitted Development Rights to allow commercial buildings of any size to be converted into new homes. The government is also launching a consultation on proposals to remove extensions or large loft conversions from the process of receiving planning permission.

The government’s initiative is based on a recommendation from a panel of experts commissioned to review London’s housing plans. Published today, the London Plan Review report shows that new brownfield presumption in the capital could result in up to 11,500 additional homes per year.

This principle is now set to be applied more broadly across the UK’s major urban areas to ‘turbocharge’ housing delivery and support sustainable growth. A consultation on the proposals will run until 26 March, with the government looking to implement the proposed changes to national planning policy imminently.

The move comes amid growing political pressure over the government’s failure to reach its housing targets. In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative government pledged to build "300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s". In both 2021-22 and 2022-23 the figures were just under 235,000 a year. The manifesto also pledged to build at least a million more homes by the end of this Parliament.

With polls showing that support for the Conservatives is collapsing among younger voters, and the Prime Minister recently admitting that the Conservatives have much more to do to help young people get on the housing ladder, Rishi Sunak will be well aware that the housing crisis could negatively affect his party’s chances at the next General Election. By only changing the rules in the 20 biggest cities, the government’s latest policy is aimed at attempting to appeal to younger, aspirational voters keen to get on the housing ladder, avoiding the places where the government last had a planning row represented by their own MPs.

Commenting on today’s announcement, Labour’s Angela Rayner stated: “A threadbare announcement consisting of old, failed policies and minor tweaks to brownfield planning policy is not going to paper over Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove’s reckless decision to capitulate to anti-housebuilding Tory backbenchers.”

The Shadow Housing Secretary said the plans to reform planning rules for brownfield sites are a “rehash” of old ideas, and whilst industry reaction has been altogether more positive, it is fair to say there is widespread scepticism that these measures will go far enough to tackle the housing shortage.    

UK housebuilders have broadly welcomed the plans but pointed out that further financial support would be needed given the complexities and costs that come with brownfield regeneration. Whether this policy will make a material difference to housing numbers remains to be seen. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Housing Minister Lee Rowley refused to be drawn on a “numbers game” over any new target in the buildup to a General Election later this year.

Whilst this announcement is likely to have a positive impact in terms of assisting delivery of housing, particularly for SMEs as brownfield sites are often located in sustainable locations, brownfield development itself cannot be the panacea to solve the housing crisis.

Further measures will be needed, and the right balance will need to be struck between reducing red tape and bureaucracy and placing importance on ensuring we are building the right houses, in the right places and to the highest standards and quality. Given the Budget is set to be announced in just over 3 weeks, and we saw how Michael Gove has attempted to bounce No.10 and the Treasury into providing a boost in funding to match today’s ambitions, there may be more to come on 6 March.