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08/09/2015

Planning for nationally significant housing projects

The housing crisis will continue to grow for as long as exclusively local approaches to planning fail to meet the needs of our growing nation. We need to think bigger, say Marcus Bate and Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons

Marcus Bate and Robbie OwenHousing is a basic need for society to function. It serves UK plc as much as roads, rail, utilities and telecoms. Building a larger number of affordable homes was one of the Conservative Party’s core manifesto commitments.

But our planning system does not recognise housing as one of the types of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) that can be consented centrally; 16 types of such projects are specified in the Planning Act 2008 and since 2013 nationally significant commercial and business projects can also be taken down the NSIP route by the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Housing is omitted from both these lists. Garden cities and major urban extensions will be delayed because of this anomaly.

It is not only the residential sector that suffers from this limitation of the NSIP regime. Take-up of business and commercial NSIPs has been low since it was extended to accommodate them in 2013. Only one such project has been notified to the Planning Inspectorate in the first two years, London Paramount in Kent. This is mainly due to the last government’s decision to prohibit inclusion of any amount of housing in commercial/business NSIPs.

"The last government said housing decisions were best made at local level. The centralised, top-down architecture of the NSIP regime sits uncomfortably in this political context."

The last government said housing decisions were best made at local level.

The centralised, top-down architecture of the NSIP regime sits uncomfortably in this political context. Such thinking is flawed and we hope it will be reviewed. It is based on a misunderstanding of how the NSIP regime operates in practice. Rather than excluding local authorities, the Planning Act embeds local authority engagement at the centre of the NSIP process from start to finish. The strategy for community consultation must be discussed with local authorities early, with pre-application consultation with communities and the local authority itself a mandatory requirement, unlike under the current planning regime for housing.

The local authorities’ views must be set out in local impact reports that have a particular legal status in the decision-making process, alongside local plan policies. The relevant local planning authority, in most cases, retains control over all approvals of details post-consent and is responsible for enforcement decisions.

It also assumes that councils would not want big housing schemes to be consented locally. But councils can welcome central government taking decisions on large housing schemes with full local involvement, as the NSIP regime provides for. They will often be the first to see the benefits the NSIP process and the resulting Development Consent Order offers – its one-stop-shop approach to all the main consents required, including compulsory purchase powers, fixed timetabling for processing and decision-making within 18 months, the ability to include in the consent all infrastructure needed for the development, and necessary governance and delivery mechanisms analogous to New Town Corporations and UDCs.

"The simplest option to extend the NSIP regime to housing would be to replicate the approach for commercial NSIPs."

The simplest option to extend the NSIP regime to housing would be to replicate the approach for commercial NSIPs. Promoters of large nationally significant plans should be able to apply to the secretary of state for designation of the scheme as an NSIP. Regulations or guidance would specify the minimum threshold for the qualifying types of housing scheme. A DCLG policy statement would set out what the secretary of state would take into account when deciding whether to give housing NSIP directions.

This would allow applicants and councils to respond to market opportunities and would avoid the need for nationally prescriptive spatial designations or blanket scale thresholds. Local engagement could be maintained, and the secretary of state could consult councils on each application for a housing NSIP direction before deciding whether to send a scheme down the NSIP route.

The regime’s benefits are that appropriate weight is given to national need and CPOs and non-planning consents can be wrapped up in the Development Consent Order authorising the NSIP. And there is greater certainty on the timescales to securing development consent. Significant housing projects deserve such benefits.

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