Both the government and London mayor are keen to see more homes built on small sites. But what does this mean for planners?

As the government looks at ever-increasing ways to boost housing delivery, it is increasingly promoting the development of smaller sites.  In the autumn Budget, the government said it would consult on measures to require local authorities to bring forward 20% of their housing supply as small sites, though it has not as yet set a size threshold.

This would “speed up the building of new homes and supports the government’s wider ambition to increase competition in the housebuilding market”, the budget document stated.  The theory is that small sites can be developed by small building firms that would not take on larger schemes.

Just after the announcement, the government introduced regulations to allow developers to apply for the fast-track permission in principle route to planning consent for housing sites of fewer than ten homes, which will come into force in June 2018.

It is not just central government that is interested.  London mayor Sadiq Khan is also keen to focus on smaller sites.  His draft London Plan, published in December, wants to see 38% of its overall housing target come from small housing schemes, defined as those of 25 homes or fewer.  The plan sets each borough individual targets for small sites.  For some, such as Sutton, these form as much as 79% of their overall housing target.

The plan proposes that boroughs should apply a presumption in favour of certain types of small housing development, including “infill development on vacant or underused sites” and extending buildings upwards.  The policy, according to the Greater London Authority (GLA), forms part of the mayor’s “commitment to stimulate growth for small- and medium-sized builders in the capital”.

What lies behind this focus on smaller sites? One reason is to help those smaller housebuilders cited by the GLA, many of whom were wiped out following the 2008 financial crash.  A report by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) last year estimated that if the number of smaller builders rose back to the pre-2008 level, an additional 25,000 homes could be built each year.

Smaller sites can also be brought forward more rapidly than larger strategic developments, say commentators, allowing local planning authorities to meet housing targets.  “The dominance of big urban extensions hasn’t led to the delivery levels that we’d want to see.  They’re not the answer on their own,” says Anna Rose, head of the Local Government Association’s Planning Advisory Service.  Nicky Linihan, housing delivery specialist at the Planning Officers Society, agrees: “Small sites bring development forward much more quickly.  They don’t have the same infrastructure needs.”

Despite these benefits, the ambitious small sites targets in the draft London Plan angered some outer London boroughs when they were revealed.  Speaking to Planning last November, Steve Barton, strategic planning manager for Ealing, said its small sites target of 1,000 homes a year had trebled compared to the current level and was undeliverable.  Such increases were “causing real consternation here and across west London”, he added.

“It’s quite resource-intensive to identify small sites,” says Linihan.  “You have to demonstrate that sites are suitable and deliverable. “Having to meet a target such as that proposed in the draft London Plan is very prescriptive at a time when local authorities are stretched, she adds.

Giorgio Wetzl, planning researcher at planning consultancy Lichfields, agrees that some authorities, particularly outer boroughs, might struggle with the London Plan targets. “It will mean intensifying development.  Some councils might struggle to justify this to communities and some may feel that the targets have been imposed on them.  The GLA needs to provide support,” he says.  “Allowances will have to be made as some local authorities will have more potential for housing on small sites than others,” adds Andrew Dixon, head of policy at lobby group the Federation of Master Builders.

There is also some scepticism about the government’s proposed 20% requirement.  “I don’t think a target for small sites is helpful. When you’re deciding whether to allocate a site brought forward by a developer, you have to balance a wide range of issues and that would only be one of them,” says Joanna Gray, Gedling Borough Council’s planning policy service manager.

Whether small sites can be delivered or not is “really down to local circumstances and what can be delivered practically by local housebuilders,” adds Martin Wilsher, West Somerset District Council’s principal planning policy officer.  Chris Brown, executive chair at regeneration specialist Igloo, points out that some local authorities are already building more than 20% of their homes on smaller windfall sites, typically involving plots under 0.25 hectares, that are not allocated in local plans but can still count towards meeting housing land supply targets.

A potential risk for authorities planning for many small housing sites is political, say commentators.  Though pressure on local infrastructure can be mitigated through the Community Infrastructure Levy, experts say development of small sites still prompts opposition from local communities who fear new housing could reduce their access to transport, schools and healthcare facilities.  “Local authorities admit that it’s more difficult politically to have a large number of small sites rather than a small number of large sites,” says Dixon.

Because of this, Andrew Whitaker, HBF planning director, says the presumption in favour of small sites could help create a “more positive attitude” from authorities towards small sites.  “We see lots of local authorities put small sites in their housing land supply plans and yet when housebuilders bring them forward for development, they are the ones with the most local opposition and the elected members reject them,” he says.  But Rose says that, during her time as director of growth, economy and culture at Milton Keynes Council, she experienced no local authority opposition to small sites.  Instead, there was “nowhere near enough” such sites proposed by developers, she says.

In fact, many authorities have wanted to increase housing delivery from small sites for a while, Rose believes, which suggests that government and London mayor moves in that direction might be pushing an open door.

How councils are supporting smaller sites
West Somerset District Council has traditionally had a high rate of housing development on sites of fewer than five homes.  Large housebuilders have not usually been interested in development in the district, due to its relatively remote location, which makes delivering housebuilding targets difficult, says Martin Wilsher, the council’s principal planning policy officer and hence the council has needed to make small sites available to attract smaller builders.

In its local plan, which was adopted in November 2016, the local authority removed development limits around selected villages in the area.  Its Policy SC1 allows “limited” development, meaning individual schemes of up to ten homes, in eight “primary villages” and “small-scale” development of up to five homes in five “secondary villages”.

The maximum number of homes that can be allowed under the Policy SC1 provision during the local plan period to 2032 is equivalent to a 10% increase in the settlement’s total housing stock.

Source: Catherine Early, Planning Resource, 1 February 2018

Local Comment: The newly established Birkenhead and Tranmere Community Benefit Society (BATCOM for short) will be seeking to develop small sites such as the ones discussed here for community-led housing.  The support of local people is needed for this to succeed.  You will be hearing a lot more about BATCOM in the coming months.  Please think about becoming a member and contact chair@batnpf for more information – Philip Barton, founder member, Birkenhead and Tranmere Community Benefit Society Limited