We used to read about the housing shortage every week. Then every day, and now every hour. But most policymakers and commentators seem to have a blind spot to the very easiest way of getting more homes built, very quickly.
Namely to build more units per site by allowing housebuilders to increase the yield in outline consents secured by landowners, where it is clear there will be no additional harms.
It’s definitely my No.1 ask of Government.
Often Barratt is invited to bid for a site with outline permission but the consented form of development isn’t exactly what we want to build and sell. The density (mix as we call it) is too low and perhaps too focused on upmarket 4/5 bed detached homes in order to address superseded mortgage market perceptions.
Barratt wants to build more. This means both securing more land and building more units on the land we control.The reasons are simple. We are feeling Government pressure and seeing market opportunity to accelerate and increase output from the sites we invest in. We want more homes for mid/low income first time buyers and second steppers – our traditional Barratt customers. Such homes often sell quicker so, counter-intuitively, a 2/3/4 bed mix for 120 units maybe quicker to build and sell than a 4/5 bed mix for 100 units.
But we generally don’t try to increase the site yield as the risks are too high. Firstly the risks of not winning the site and secondly the planning risks and delays.
So what is actually happening and what should be done to get more houses from less land, as we would like.
The key issue is the outline consent. Most large site outline consents are not secured by housebuilders.
Often the applicants’ perceptions (or even the guidance from the council officers and politicians) is to keep the numbers down. Perhaps 90 units sounds less scary than 120 units. Perhaps nice 4/5 bed detached homes sound less scary than 2/3 bed apartments and small houses. Especially in suburban locations.
But it’s often not what we want to build and the gross effect is thousands of units not getting built because the outline consent is not right for the market. To give a feel for the scale of the issue I recently looked at 36 Barratt land bids where, in the last 12 months, we had bid for the site in accordance with the outline consent, and failed to win. For these sample sites our preferred mix (density) would have yielded a further 1,500 homes. Big stuff. One builder, 12 months. And not a comprehensive survey.
If we win the site we clearly we have the theoretical opportunity to increase the density by submitting a new planning application. This isn’t actually available to us for two reasons.
Firstly in most cases the landowner, having secured the outline consent wants their money quickly. Unsurprising after having done the hard risky work. Doesn’t want unnecessary delays or additional planning risks – simply wants a risk free guaranteed sum.
Secondly increasing the density is not risk free – indeed it is a long process with significant planning risk. Without getting too geeky we have three options:
- If the site density is not controlled by a condition we can apply, via Reserved Matters for a higher density scheme. Case law establishes that such an approach is perfectly legal providing the scheme does not bring additional harms impacts which not been appraised. However most LAs, particularly if the density is indicated in the Description of Development, are not keen to agree such an increase via Reserved Matters.
- If the density is controlled via condition but its it’s only a handful of extra units (say increasing density from 150 units to 154) then we can try for a Non-Material Amendment (NMA) via S96A. No new application but inevitable questions and concerns from the Council about whether the increase is actually non-material in planning terms.
- If it’s for a more significant number (say increasing density from 150 units to 180) we can try for a Minor Material Amendment (MMA). This requires a formal application under Section 73 thus creating a whole new planning consent with all the consequent risks and delays. It requires the applicant to demonstrate no additional harms and that the development is essentially the same as that granted. Unfortunately the NMA provision is rarely used as many LAs have little willingness to grant NMAs for increased site yield.
- When bidding for land to a deadline set by a landowner, rightly keen for prompt receipt of his/her hard earned money, it is usually inconceivable that we will have the opportunity to take on the risks or delays of a NMA or MMA application.
- If we have won the land bid,and spent the money to purchase the site, our fast-asset-turn business model means we are then wholly focussed on getting on site fast and securing a return on the capital expended as quickly as possible. Planning risks and delays are not on the menu at that stage.
So What Needs to Happen?
Very simple – just go back to 2010 and re-heat the Greater Flexibility for Planning Permissions guidance specifically brought in during the recession to enable stalled sites to get going with different mixes than approved at outline. (It’s ironic that the need then was to remix apartment-led sites to deliver more houses given the collapse in mortgage availability whereas today the need is to get more smaller units built given H2B, the return of mortgage availability and the chronic shortage of homes for FTBs and low/mid income households)
The Government needs to put the old guidance back into NPPG with a bit of a fanfare. Perhaps a Written Ministerial Statement. There is already some guidance in NPPG but currently it lacks the precision or weight to encourage housebuilders to increase housing delivery via S96A or Section 73. Politically it must be far easier for Government to encourage LAs to allow 30 extra units on an existing site than encourage them to grant consent for a brand new new site of 30 units.
In my view it should be made crystal clear to LAs that they MUST quickly support Reserved Matters applications or new outline consents, which propose to increase site yield, UNLESS they can prove new and unforeseen harms which outweigh the benefits of accelerated delivery. That must be the test NOT whether the scheme is slightly different than that approved at the outline stage.
Simple change, but a major increase in the type of homes the nation drastically needs.