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Realising the full potential of small housing developments

Nov 8, 2022

Gareth Ellis ARB PGCert MA BArch BA(Hons), Associate Architect, CAD Architects

When there is discussion about the need to urgently address the UK’s housing shortage, the focus is usually on large-scale housing developments of hundreds of homes. However, small sites of 20 homes or fewer have a really valuable role to play in meeting our long-term housing needs.

Indeed, there is huge potential tied up in these sites which could be released if there were an approach to planning consent that was more appropriate for smaller sites.

The Government’s key goal on housing

In a statement following the appointment of Rishi Sunak’s new cabinet, Michael Gove reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to deliver 300,000 new homes per year. The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto pledged to “continue progress towards our target of 300,000 homes year by the mid-2020s”.

However, that target still appears a long way off. According to the Office for National Statistics, 216,000 homes were delivered in 2020/21.

Two of the key barriers to meeting this target are the availability of suitable land for development and the time and costs of obtaining planning permission for development.

The role for small sites

There are a number of benefits that small sites bring in addressing our housing needs:

· Once planning approval is granted, they can be built relatively quickly, meaning less delay in bringing new homes to market.

· They don’t require major changes to local services, roads and amenities.

· They can be used to ‘infill’ available land within the existing footprint of a town or village, rather than expanding its boundary.

· They contribute to the sustainable growth of towns and villages, but as ‘evolution not revolution.’

· They can make use of small brownfield sites which might otherwise be dormant for years.

· They allow smaller building firms to play a valuable role in housing delivery, rather than being completely dependent on the bigger companies.

An example of this approach in action is a project in Cornwall for which CAD Architects secured planning permission in October 2022.

This is a small development site of 5 new dwellings in the village of Wall, in the parish of Gwinear-Gwithian. This scheme will make use of an extensive garden area that forms part of an existing property.

Why aren’t more small sites being developed?

The way that the current planning system is structured means that small sites need to go through the same exhaustive approval system as much larger developments. Whilst developments of less than 10 dwellings in an urban area and 5 in a rural area do not attract requirements for affordable housing and Section 106 contributions, such sites need to be considered infill or rounding off to an existing settlement. The determination of which is in the power of the Planning Officer. All too often through pressure exerted by Parish and Town Councils or dictated by the existence of a Settlement Boundary established by a Neighbourhood Development Plan such schemes become Affordably led schemes.

The ”Small Sites” policy devised by Government to encourage small and medium sized developers has been subverted by Neighbourhood Development Plans and Settlement Boundaries. Such applications are now rare indeed and make little contribution to housing delivery.

Even where a small or medium sized developer is prepared to persevere the requirements to provide complex financial appraisal analysis to establish the amount of affordable housing coupled with the provision of Section 106 payments for education, open space and special areas of conservation add significant cost and time delays which again add costs in holding land before development can commence.

All of this adds significant time and cost to the front end of the process, while adding business risk for the builder – bearing in mind that smaller builders typically do not hold land banks and move from site to site. What they need is a system that allows them to program their work effciently.

In a survey of small house builders and developers carried out by NHBC, almost two-thirds said that the length of time and unpredictability of the system were serious impediments to homebuilding.

The Government has publicly recognised that the current system hampers the efforts of small developers – and the long-term trends back this up. Thirty years ago, 40% of all new homes in the UK were constructed by small building firms. Today that figure has declined to 12%.

What needs to happen?

Meeting the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes per year will require some radical new thinking across the board.

For small development sites, it is clear that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to planning is not working.

There needs to be a more streamlined approach for smaller sites, especially where the developments are in areas which are already well served by public transport and local amenities.

One simple change that would make a significant impact is to require all Neighbourhood Development Plans to include land zoned for small and medium sized residential development. The amount could be determined by reference to the number of dwellings already within the NDP area. A set percentage would force NDP Steering Groups to consider planning for growth and not for the status quo.

National planning guidelines should direct local authorities to take a more proportionate approach for small sites, emphasising the national need for swift delivery of new homes.

With some pragmatic adjustments to the current system, the huge potential that smaller sites offer could finally be realised.

Get in touch with CAD Architects to discuss your next residential development project. We think you will be impressed by our professional and practical approach.

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