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Government announced plans to build on brownfield sites

Ministers have announced that every council in England must prioritise brownfield developments and demonstrate more flexibility in applying policies that halt progress.

On Tuesday 13th February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and housing secretary Michael Gove, announced the beginning of a consultation into a package of measures aimed at making it easier for developers to get permission to build on derelict sites in England’s 20 biggest towns and cities.

man kneeling on unfinished building during daytime

In a statement, Rishi Sunak said: ‘We pledged to build the right homes in the right places – protecting our precious countryside and building more in urban areas where demand is highest. [This new package] is us delivering on that.’

Michael Gove added: ‘Our new brownfield presumption will tackle under delivery in our key towns and cities – where new homes are most needed to support jobs and drive growth.’

As part of the new plans, all local authorities across the country will be required to approve new developments on brownfield land – a site which was previously developed but has fallen into disuse – unless they can come up with a good reason why they cannot.

In addition, the new plans include limits being removed on the kinds of former commercial buildings that can be turned into flats, removing restrictions on how big the building can be before a developer has to apply for planning permission.

Previously, planning rules stated that when turning a commercial building into a block of flats, the floor space of the existing building must not exceed 150 sq metres.

Against this backdrop, ministers will also consult on making it easier for homeowners to extend their houses without seeking planning permission – an idea that has been trialled before by former prime minister David Cameron. He attempted to axe red tape for single-storey extensions of up to eight metres long in 2012, however, the idea made a U-turn following severe backlash from his MPs.

Following the announcement, some industry experts have welcomed the news whilst others believe it to be the wrong decision.

Ritchie Clapson, co-founder of propertyCEO, said: ‘[The] announcement underlines the importance of converting unused brownfield sites which could unlock up to 1.2 million new homes right across the country, according to countryside charity CPRE. But simply removing restrictions will do little to solve the housing crisis unless other key issues are addressed.

‘The vast majority of brownfield conversion projects are too small to be attractive to large housebuilders. But they’re perfect for SME builders – a group who previously accounted for over 30% of all development in the UK but who now represent just 12%. The government needs to be doing a lot more to encourage landlords and other solo entrepreneurs to take on these smaller development projects, otherwise they simply won’t happen.’

aerial photography of white high-rise concrete building

‘Removing the ‘vacant for 3 months’ requirement means developers can buy with the certainty they can develop, which in turn means they can get funding. Scrapping the 1,500m2 rule should also create opportunities for larger developers. Both are good news – but permitted development rights still require approval from local councils,’ Clapson said. ‘And that’s where there’s a major problem. Local planning authorities are massively under-resourced and regularly view permitted development as an unwelcome affront to their authority. The government needs to invest in these planning teams and get them onside – otherwise these housing projects run a significant risk of being vetoed out of hand.’

The consultation on the new proposed plans is set to run until 26th March 2024.

David Thomas, chief executive of Barratt Developments, said: ‘We welcome any efforts to make it easier to get planning permission, particularly for brownfield regeneration, which is already naturally a more complicated and capital-intensive process.’

Although, Clive Holland, broadcaster on Fix Radio – the only national radio station for builders – echoed similar views to Clapson, as he claimed that other areas of the development industry need to be addressed before new homes can be built. Particularly hiring new staff members.

‘To keep up with current construction demand alone, it is estimated that Britain needs an extra 225,000 tradespeople by 2027. This is before we account for new homebuilding pledges,’ Holland said. On top of this, our industry is losing record numbers of colleagues, with nowhere near enough new recruits entering the trade.’

Holland added: ‘Data from the Department for Education has revealed that the number of completed construction apprenticeships in England fell from 12,420 in 2018 to 7,700 in 2022. Another alarming stat: 17,500 people apply for electrician apprenticeships every year, yet only 2,500 pass their course, while an estimated 8,000 electricians leave the industry each year.’

Images: Ivan Henao and Ivan Bandura

More on this topic:

New energy efficiency standards announced for older properties

Planning approval secured for new major Cornwall development

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