Thinking Big – Why Large Scale Housing Projects should be the Number 1 Planning Priority

Very helpfully the RTPI has asked for a call for evidence on large scale housing, including questions such as

  1. Do you feel that there is a need for large scale (thousands of units) housing developments – as opposed to expanding many areas by a little – and, if so, where in the country would these developments work most effectively?

  2. Should the focus for large scale development sites be on urban extensions, new separate conurbations or both? What would be the criteria for choosing one over another and does their delivery require different approaches?

  3. From your knowledge and experience, what has worked well to allow large scale housing delivery? Case study examples are welcome.

  4. From a planning perspective, what are the most significant barriers to large scale housing development? What are the most important two or three things need to be in place to overcome these barriers?

  5. What changes to current planning processes and/or legal frameworks would you advocate to boost large scale housing development?


Here are some initial thoughts:

-The failure to sustain and deliver large scale housing projects, especially for affordable housing,  has been the biggest failure to deliver housing in the uk.

-The falloff in large scale planned and delivered housing is the biggest single cause of the UK house-building shortfall

-Hence it is the failure to deliver large scale housing, and not the false neo-liberal analysis of ‘over regulation’ that has been the fundamental weakness of UK planning

-Removal of planning restrictions may see some increase in housebuilding, if sustained by genuine, not government subsisidised, mortgage delivery, but this can only delivered scattered small sale housing, often in the wrong place and lacking in infrastructure. The NPPF encourages such a scattergun approach which can only deliver sprawl and not development in volume in the right places and properly planned and designed.

-Examples may be seen in many countries of such a scattergun approach, such as Portugal, Spain and Ireland.  In all cases it is the public sector which is left to pick up the tab  of very expensive to service housing in remote location, often causing significant environmental problems.

-Large scale properly planned housing around the world has only been delivered through significant public sector intervention.

-Many nations understand the key economic advantages of urbanisation, density and economic concentration.  Their is now string evidence from economic geography that it is the largest settlements that experience the fastest economic growth.

-However the largest settlements also have the highest tendencies to sprawl, a point is reached in many cities where the costs of servicing sprawl outweigh the economic dynamism of settlement size, when this is reached there can be catastrophic decline.

-A well educated populace is a cities greatest resource, but today they are mobile, the length of commute, lack of greenspaces and poor quality of life of a poorly planned expansion may induce these to take flight, leading to the economic decline of cities even if they provide sufficiently for housing – most ‘high tech’ clusters eventually reach this position and then slowly decline.

-Clearly there should be a preference for brownfield development and brownfield sites are always being created.  The stock and future flow of brownfield sites in the fastest growing parts of England is however well below the scale which is needed, so therefore significant greenfield development is inevitable.

-Growth of villages is necessary but not enough.  Most young people are now forced to move away from villages.  However if all of Englands growth requirements were to be met in villages over the next 20 years  then it would require around 100 houses for each of the around 10,000 English villages, increasing the size of many of them 2-3 times, this would be unacceptable.

-Only large scale housing delivery will be likely to force local house prices down and deliver affordable housing at scale

-Given then that there are limits to the growth of cities and villages any significant pick up in housing  delivery requires large scale new housing sites.

-Some of these will need to be on the edge of existing towns and cities, many will require strategic reviews of green belts, but in many areas such as Surrey, Herts and Essex if all of the growth were to be met in this way there would be unacceptable convergence between already tightly packed settlements.  Here national stats such as the % of urbanised land are meaningless, the needs of Maidstone cannot be met in the empty fells of the North Pennines.

-Therefore the only realistic planning choice is large scale new housing development, whether urban extensions or new towns and cities.

-The perverse focus of UK planning however has been on the very small scallo, on neighbourhoods, whilst valuable to those lucky enough to get funding it is a misdirection of effort in financially strained times.  It is much more efficient to focus limited planning expertese and infrastructure funding on large scale programmes.

-The duty to cooperate, whilst well intentioned , is demonstrating the vacume in the planning of large scale settlements.  In many areas where the housing market area spans several authorities if every authority individually meet the ‘local’ proportion of household growth then it leads to ever longer commuting times, as mewly forming households cannot afford to buy houses in high growth cities they commute further and further out.  This effect can be clearly seen in the household projections for areas such as Cambridgeshire.  There is no incentive for any one authority to take a ‘strategic’ lump of housing to meet large than local needs, leading to, in areas such as south Hertfordshire, a likley unsustainable planning of housing in areas near closely packed towns where infrastructure is already streached and in locations not served by public transport.

-The only sustainable answer is smart growth , planning large scale housing around public transport nodes, with the integrated planning of housing and public transport networks at sub-regional, regional and national scales.  But for this to happen needs a shaking of the neoliberal fixations of British planning, towards deregulation, privisation, marketisation and narrow parocial localism.

-Our competitors, especially in merging markets, know this too well, hence the great focus in places such as China, India, Malaysia and Brazil towards large scale new towns and cities and new transport infrastructure.

-England already has on the statute books legislation that with small scale changes could make this happen, the New Towns Act, this could be updated to involve greater community and private sector partnerships (joing development corporations) and enabling the sharing out of land value upflifts to future residents (as in the original Garden City model).  This is a model that can work well in brownfield and greenfield locations.

-There are many part of the UK where it is clear this isolated LPA by LPA planning is not delivering sustainable large scale solutions.  This includes Hertfordshire, the London-Brighton corridor, Cambridgeshire, the area to the South East of Birmingham, South Essex, and around Milton Keynes. Oxford and Bristol.   A series of sub-regional studies, aligned to national studies on transport and other infrastructure, could be used to inform local plan making.  This does not require immediate statute, the studies could start straight away.

-The planning profession already knows the answer to these questions – what is needed is plans.







Melton Inspectors Report – The Dangers of Ignoring an SA

Sorry to have not posted the Melton Inspector’s preliminary conclusions from April which led to the plan being withdrawn.

Apart from the by now familiar issues regarding not providing enough housing and the short timescale of the plan the report is interesting for being one of the few to have found that the strategy is not the ‘most appropriate strategy when considered against reasonable alternatives’ in that contrrary to the SA and the landscape assessments it had chosen the most environmentally sensitive quadrant of the edges of Melton for an urban extension. It appears that issues over funding for a town bypass had overidden all other issues.