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Are we overlooking the contribution of smaller housing sites?


We seem preoccupied with large schemes as a solution to the housing shortage, but small sites can cumulatively make a significant contribution to supply and offer a flexibility that larger sites cannot, argues Jo Gregory

We are all aware of the debate surrounding the housing crisis and discussions on the need to build more houses. The House of Lords’ economic affairs committee stated in late 2017 that this need equates to a minimum of 300,000 new homes a year. 

This has resulted in a familiar ‘formula’ being rolled out: high housing targets plus historic shortfalls equals allocation of large housing sites. These are often in the form of ‘sustainable urban extensions’ (SUEs) of between 500  and 2,000+ units.

Perhaps this response makes sense. Fewer landowners, fewer planning applications, fewer section 106 agreements and the evidence, on paper at least, needed to reach that all-important five years of housing land supply.

But these sites are prone to hold-ups, rely on infrastructure projects and can fail to deliver. This is not unusual for all development sites, but it causes issues when SUEs form such an integral element of a council’s housing land supply. The housing market does not march to the same beat as the planning system’s fixation on a five-year supply.

Our focus on large allocations results in us missing opportunities offered by smaller sites. These can cumulatively make a significant contribution to supply and offer a flexibility that larger sites cannot.

"The housing market does not march to the same beat as the planning system's fixation on five-year supply"

Local and regional housebuilders operate within strict timetables, meaning that sites are delivered fast once planning permission is given. Their brand is locally based, meaning that it is crucial that they deliver a quality product. Smaller sites are able to respond sensitively to existing settlement character, do not result in pressure points on existing infrastructure and can respond directly to local need. 

Local housebuilders are keen to build but often slip through the gap between large allocated sites and windfall sites. So gaining permission can be a long process. While large allocated sites take years to go through planning before they start to deliver, local housebuilders are keen to deliver now yet face an uphill battle to develop windfall sites considered too small to allocate.

We need to value more highly the contribution of smaller sites to the economy, housing delivery and crucially the delivery of good-quality housing responsive to local context. 

The government appears to have recognised this with the brownfield register and a requirement in the last Budget for planning authorities to bring forward 20 per cent of their housing allocation as small sites. But it remains to be seen how this will be implemented. Small sites might not solve the housing crisis alone, but their potential has certainly been overlooked.

Jo Gregory MRTPI is a senior planner and urban designer for Urban Imprint


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