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19/07/2018

Are new settlements a nationally significant solution to the housing crisis?

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Delivering housing / iStock-166225668

For the June 2018 issue, The Planner spoke to the sector about whether or not garden communities could be delivered through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime. Here, Ben Lewis offers his reasoning for why the regime could offer a solution to a nationally significant problem.

On the face of it, new settlements – be they the ‘garden’ variety or otherwise – are exactly the type of development that the NSIP regime was invented for. They are hugely complex, large-scale, multi-faceted development projects requiring national political direction, up-front engagement and a comprehensive masterplan (delivered following robust assessment and scrutiny by the determining authorities).  

The current 500 home limit – and its requirement for a geographic or functional connection to an NSIP – doesn’t provide the solution. While the majority of NSIP applications are determined in line with a National Policy Statement (NPS), any proposed housing will be determined against the local development plan, and the examining authority has the ability to grant development consent for the NSIP and refuse the housing element. While you could run an ‘enabling’ argument to overcome any lack of conformity with the development plan, the DCO regime in its current form is not attractive to residential developers – as it does not remove the need for development plan promotion, nor does it provide a higher certainty of achieving a consent.  

New settlements or garden communities are very large-scale projects providing an appropriate mix of uses to allow the community to be self-sufficient – arguably this should include several elements that already fall within the DCO regime. The development will need energy generation, water supply, waste treatment, transport links (road and potentially rail), business and commercial space. This raises a separate question on how many NSIPs would it take to create a new settlement if each provided 500 homes?

The DCO regime has created a ‘one-stop shop’ for consenting large-scale development and there is no doubt it has been successful and is favoured by project promoters for the certainty the process provides, particularly on timescales. One of the major benefits of a DCO is that it allows all the powers required to deliver a project to be wrapped in one consent – e.g. environmental permits, compulsory acquisition of land or rights, and highways orders. Powers are granted to the applicant irrespective of whether they are a development corporation, a local authority or a private developer.  

One criticism that is often raised is that large-scale new settlement proposals are too complex to be brought forward as one single application. But if the expansion of Heathrow (which includes two NSIPs) ends up being brought forward as a DCO then surely the regime could be used for a new settlement.  

There has also been some criticism by others of the way designated garden cities or towns have been delivered in the past. Some critics have commented that multiple developers bringing forward individual phases with a focus on residential creates a risk that essential services, open space and employment land may fall through the cracks. Identifying and planning new settlements as a coherent whole with a single consent covering the entire scheme (as a DCO would) could be one way to resolve this. The clear advantage being the process that all involved would follow.

"Projects within this NPS would have to be designed as self-sufficient, sustainable new settlements as opposed to dormitory residential suburbs"

What about the localism agenda though, and the government’s clear wish to see housing delivery planned and consented at the local authority level? If we were to go down the NSIP route, how would the local community’s views be accounted for?

This could potentially be achieved through the introduction of a NPS for new settlements of a nationally significant scale (say 15,000+ new homes) but with a spatial element. This would be similar to the current NPS for nuclear power stations, where through a thorough process of assessment and scrutiny, specific locations for new power stations were identified. Applying this to new settlement locations, sites could be put forward by landowners, developers and/or local authorities (either individually or in collaboration with neighbouring authorities), and local stakeholders and communities would be consulted during the site identification process on both the principle of development and then again on the detail as part of the DCO process. This could also open up the opportunity for greater collaboration between local enterprise partnerships, local communities, landowners, developers and local authorities to put a business case together to attract both Government commitment and support for wider inward investment linked to new settlement development.

Projects within this NPS would have to be designed as self-sufficient, sustainable new settlements as opposed to dormitory residential suburbs. They would need to have a full range of services, utilities and integrated transport links – delivering benefits to the wider region through economic, social and environmental inter-connectivity.  

There is no doubt that the housing crisis in the UK is a nationally significant issue, and new settlements of 15,000+ homes, identified through a new NPS and delivered through the DCO regime, may well offer a nationally significant solution.  

Ben Lewis is infrastructure and energy director at Barton Willmore


Read more:

News report: Can the NSIP regime deliver garden communities?


Image credit | iStock

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