News and Comment

Could statutory consultation on housing schemes address a shortage in stock?

Wednesday 25 September 2013

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Those working in the field of housing are becoming increasingly concerned that developments currently in the pipeline are not  large enough to meet the significant demand for housing that exists.

Because of this, the idea of building on a larger scale (whether in the form of Eco-Towns or urban extensions) is gaining popularity. Yet housing development remains a controversial issue, especially where it involves greenfield land, and many schemes become stalled in the planning process.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) recently published a report making recommendations for how to ‘unlock’ larger sites for developments involving thousand of units. Delivering Large Scale Housing follows consultation with the Institute’s membership and presents recommendations covering 5 key ‘pinch points’ identified as stalling development on such sites: community engagement; land; infrastructure; finance; leadership and governance.

As part of the consultation process informing the report, I recently attended a workshop co-hosted by the Consultation Institute which focused on the first of these issues: community engagement. One of the discussion points which really struck me during this event was how a lack of clear guidelines around what consultation should cover means that it is often sidelined altogether by other demands on the developer. This can result in a poor standard of engagement, which in turn may end up worsening relations with the local community and undermining applications.

A comparison can be drawn here with the more robust requirements for pre-application consultation and engagement which apply to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). The Planning Act 2008 created a separate planning regime for such projects in order to avoid protracted and costly public inquiries at the application stage – like that for Heathrow Terminal 5. The 2008 Act sets out a number of requirements for consultation at the pre-application stage, covering the timeline of consultation, the groups of people to be consulted, and the need to demonstrate that regard has been had to feedback from each. Dialogue by Design has worked on a number of pre-application consultations under the Planning Act 2008 process, for clients including National Grid and EDF. While not perfect, when contrasted with the current situation in housing, these regulations do seem to offer greater transparency to participants and certainty to the developer. Ongoing engagement from an early stage allows stakeholders and affected communities more influence as the proposals take shape, rather than only being able to react to a final application. With the opportunity to iron out many controversies in this way, the resulting application is likely to be stronger.

Following a consultation by the Department for Communities and Local Government earlier this year, certain larger business and commercial developments will soon be eligible to be considered under the NSIP planning regime too. Housing remains excluded though, reflecting reasonable concerns about decisions on developments being taken away from local authorities. But if classing housing schemes above a certain size as NSIPs is not the answer, then perhaps some specific regulations are needed with regard to consultation for such developments.

As with energy and infrastructure applications, large scale housing developments pit national policy against local amenity. And at a time of acute housing shortage the pressure to develop on larger sites will only increase in the coming years. If community engagement and consultation is to contribute effectively to the challenge of where new homes should be built, it might be time to lay out some clearer ground rules about how they should do so.

Ian Thompson is a Project Coordinator at Dialogue by Design, part of the OPM Group.