Debate to tackle five-year land supplies

Tackle five-year land supplies to help solve the housing crisis

If national politicians can agree on one thing it’s that we need to build more homes. If local communities can agree on one thing, it’s where not to build them. At the heart of this great tension sits the planning system.

Later today I will be opening a Westminster Hall debate on an apparently technical part of our planning law, “five-year land supply”. In fact, innocuous as this phrase sounds, whether communities possess a five-year land supply or not is potentially one of the greatest determinants of community content — or otherwise — that you could currently conceive.

At present a district must be able to demonstrate at any given time that it has five year’s worth of approved sites available for development. If not, local policies become far less important and the dominant consideration in planning approvals is national policy. To really cut to the chase, this in turn means that developments which would normally not be permitted by the local council have a much better chance of getting through on appeal.

Such applications are known as “speculative” development, and in my experience and that of colleagues up and down the country, they are applications to build homes that nobody wants — not even those more sympathetic to development — but over which the local community has no control.

When first elected, I heard of other colleagues experiencing applications for homes from semi-notorious housing promoters who would deliberately target local authorities without a five-year land supply, such is their perceived vulnerability. It then shocked me when some months ago the largest district in my constituency, Babergh, announced it had lost its five-year land supply. Soon after one of the more infamous promoters was active with an application that brought the local community on to the streets in protest.

To this, readers might say: but we need more homes. Surely we need tough rules to compel “nimby” councils to develop? In fact, the five-year land supply system achieves the opposite in practice. In Babergh, currently without a five-year land supply, nearly two thirds of all necessary plans for the next two decades have already received permissions. The issue is that developers are not building out those permissions.

I’ve heard this from many other MPs. Typically, their district is way ahead of target on permissions, but there is no five-year land supply because build-out rates are so low – and the community is inundated with hugely unpopular speculative applications. To be fair, the Government fully understands the build-out issue and has tasked Oliver Letwin with a review to find ways to ensure permissions become homes.

Which leaves with me one central ask: until those new powers are in place, councils should not be measured on build-out rates over which they have no control, but purely on the number of permissions granted. The result of this would be to avoid opportunities for speculative development and, instead, require developers to complete the sites they have already been given permission for.

Written for the Red Box, Published on The Times website 4th July 2018.