The government’s recent planning policy – which could have resulted in property developers dodging up to £1bn in affordable housing payments – has been definitively quashed following a High Court ruling.
Introduced by housing minister Brandon Lewis in November 2014, the “vacant building credit” let developers convert empty buildings into housing without making the usual Section 106 contributions for affordable homes. It was framed as a way of encouraging empty buildings to be brought back into use, but – given that there was no detailing of how long a building had to be vacant for – the policy sparked fears of mass evictions, widespread loss of workspace, and councils losing out on the affordable homes they so desperately need.
a second policy, introduced at the same time, had even greater implications for small-scale housing developments. It introduced an exemption from Section 106 contributions for any scheme of 10 homes or fewer, which represents the vast majority of planning applications in many boroughs, where in-fill and pull-down schemes of just a few units make up the bulk of new homes. Under that policy, luxury housing developers were free to make even bigger profits, while local authorities were powerless to claw back any uplift in value.
Both misguided policies have now been hastily withdrawn after a High Court challenge, which was brought by the councils of West Berkshire and Reading – one Tory, the other Labour. In a powerful show of cross-party support, the two councils claimed the policies would cut the affordable homes they could build by 15 to 30% a year, and that the guidance was in direct contradiction of their established local plans. They further argued that the policies would result in a loss of 21% of affordable housing across the country, with a much bigger impact in regional areas, where tight green belt restrictions mean that much new housing is made up of small-scale developments on brownfield sites.
In a landmark ruling – which could have far wider implications for central government’s gung-ho approach to planning – Mr Justice Holgate concluded that both policies had been implemented without a proper evidence base, against the advice of officials, and that they were simply “incompatible” with the statutory planning framework.
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