Challenges facing the British Planning System

There are many challenges facing the British Planning System over the next 10 years, the most pressing of these being the need for housing to cater for the increasing trend for single dwelling occupancy. It is estimated that in the South-East of the UK alone some 4 million additional homes are required by 2021. The current demand for housing outstrips supply. Unless the rate of house building picks up there will be a shortfall of 453,000 homes within ten years (www.newsbbc.co.uk/housing). Shortages will be most acute in London and the south-east of England.

To understand why this problem has become so acute, it is necessary to look at the social changes that have taken place in recent years. People in the UK are increasingly choosing to live on their own; this has created a surge in the demand for housing which has pushed up house prices dramatically, thus making it harder for first time buyers to purchase homes. However, three and four bedroom detached properties are still the most common type of property being built, even though the size of the average household in the UK is getting smaller, this shows that developers are clearly not taking account of changes in trends in the housing market.

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Also another contributory factor is that people are marrying later and divorce is more prevalent, as a result the number of households is increasing by 200,000 a year. The problem lies not in the increased demand for housing, but in the fact that the number of new homes being built year on year cannot satisfy the current demand. In 2001 according to data figures published in 2002, just 162,000 new properties were built, despite demand for housing being in excess of 200,000 a year in the UK (www.newsbbc.co.uk/housing).

Affordable housing is also required within the core of the new housing stock that is to be built. Earlier this year the government announced plans to build 200,000 homes in the south-east of England to tackle a severe shortage of affordable housing for key workers. The Urban Task Force, whose primary objective is to bring people back into UK cities, towns and urban neighbourhoods through regeneration and careful environmental management have many solutions to the housing shortage in the South-East. They have identified affordable housing as a priority. With a worrying trend of people being ‘priced out of the market’ by massive house price increases there is a clear need for the provision of affordable housing. (Lesley B. Punter, 1999, The future role of planning agreements in facilitating urban regeneration)

Options to deal with challenges

Changes to planning policy and legislation have been made to provide the sort of housing that lower income persons can afford. A good example of this is the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula in London. A former industrial site, this brownfield site was put out to tender for redevelopment. There were several provisos that developers had to abide by. Firstly the site was to be of mixed use development, combining residential properties with commercial and retail. This type of land use makes best use of the land available. Another proviso was that a percentage of residential properties built had to be made available to affordable housing inline with local authority planning policy initiatives. Under the affordable housing policy 20-25% of housing on the site had to be affordable housing, which can be either rented housing or shared ownership. (www.moat.co.uk)

Measures need to be taken to accommodate the huge number of homes needed in the South-East. In order to prevent urban sprawl I feel that greater emphasis is needed on infill development and brownfield development. Many residences occupy large plots of land which are suitable for development, this process known as infilling involves the construction of homes on land surrounding existing homes, such as gardens. Infilling within urban areas helps to reduce the need for development elsewhere especially in rural areas, which is a positive step towards meeting housing stock requirements.

Brownfield development is the construction of dwellings on land which has previously been built on. This can include land previously used for residential use, or even industrial use. Redundant plots provide a viable alternative to building on Greenfield plots which are largely protected. Inline with the development of brownfield sites is the regeneration of urban areas through regeneration of existing buildings such as former factories to provide residential use. This type of development is favourable as it does not encroach on the countryside and focuses growth in urban areas.

At present housing is not dense enough. In order to achieve the required number of new dwellings housing will have to be of far greater density. According to a document published by the Guardian, new house building is resulting in suburban sprawl because homes are being constructed at “ridiculously low” densities, according to London mayor, Ken Livingstone, and his chief urban adviser, Lord Rogers. In a report published on June 25th 2003 by Ken Livingstone and Lord Rogers, it was claimed that if homes in London continued to be built at current densities an area 20 times the size of Hyde Park would be required to accommodate the homes needed in London (www.society.guardian.co.uk/urbandesign/story).

It is clear that if the objective of creating 200,000 homes a year is to be achieved without causing irreversible damage and encroachment into rural areas then much higher housing densities are required for the new housing. In Britain new homes are built on an average of 25 homes per hectare – the size of two park-sized football pitches. This level of density is far too low to precipitate the construction of the required number of homes in the South-East. The problem of low housing density in the UK is exemplified by looking at other countries and their approach to fulfilling housing deficits. Typical housing densities are 300 homes per hectare in Paris, 500 homes per hectare in Barcelona and 1,700 in the Kowloon district in Hong Kong (www.society.guardian.co.uk/urbandesign/story).

A controversial solution to the housing shortage in the South-East is the construction of 80,000 homes in the countryside surrounding the four growth areas. The four growth areas outlined are East London, Milton Keynes, Ashford in Kent and Stansted in Essex. The bulk of the new homes will be built in the Thames gateway, a 40-mile strip to the east of London, described as “Europe’s largest brownfield site”. Within this proposal is a groundbreaking initiative designed at regaining potentially “lost housing”. Councils in the south-east will also get powers to compulsorily let up to 70,000 empty homes to help ease the shortage of homes. This compulsory letting scheme is an effective way of helping to meet the housing stock shortage but may well have negative implications as the difficulties of forcing property owners to rent houses are immense and the administration involved would be huge and costly (www.society.guardian.co.uk/urbandesign/story).

Relating to the compulsory letting scheme is a government plan to reclaim empty houses. Drafted in 2003 the consultation paper on empty homes outlines ways in which empty homes can be reused, these include, incentives through lower rates of VAT, penalties to empty home owners through higher council tax, prioritising the development of existing land in preference to Greenfield land and finally guidance for local authorities and property owners on unlocking the value of empty houses. Homes which remain empty for prolonged periods are wasteful in terms of housing stock. (www.odpm.gov.uk 2003, Empty Homes, Temporary Management, Lasting Solutions)

Empty homes account for 3.4% of the total housing stock in the UK, nearly 730,000 homes lay dormant and empty in the UK in 2002 (www.odpm.gov.uk 2003, Empty Homes, Temporary Management, Lasting Solutions). Empty homes if utilised by local authorities could ease the need for new housing considerably, meaning less new development would be required in Greenfield areas. I feel that schemes such as this are vital to solving the housing shortage as they require short term measures to implement but will have lasting long term benefits.

The creation of single occupancy dwellings could also go some way towards solving the housing shortage. Single occupancy dwellings would be high density and would have a much smaller footprint than traditional dwellings. Primarily intended for urban areas to house key workers in cities, single occupancy housing would solve many of the issues of space within urban areas. Developments of single occupancy housing would cater for the increasing trend of people living on their own and would maximise use of space in already crowded areas where little room for development is available.

One way in which the housing shortage can be addressed is through rural regeneration. The Housing Corporations new rural housing policy aims to seamlessly integrate affordable housing with existing properties in rural communities with the aim of creating pleasant environments where people will actually want to live. This development is by no means large scale and would involve the construction of a relatively small number of dwellings within rural communities to accommodate those who do not have the means to purchase a home.

Market towns have been identified as suitable locations for affordable housing schemes. Within the rural housing policy is a scheme to purchase satisfactory housing, or purchase and repair schemes which will purchase unsatisfactory housing and improve it so that it may be sold or rented under the affordable housing scheme, thus helping to ease the demand for housing. Rural regeneration is an effective solution for dealing with the shortfall in housing because it does not require widespread development, although certain development may be required in key rural areas this does not necessarily have to occur in Greenfield areas. Also the policies contained provide scope for the regeneration of existing dwellings which would not involve the creation of vast amounts of new housing. (The Housing Corporation, 2001, Housing In Rural England)

Conclusion

The main challenge facing the British Planning System is undoubtedly the shortage of housing stock in the UK and the problems associated with this. Many policies have been put in place to provide the housing that is required. These measures include the creation of new homes in the South-East by urban regeneration and infilling, with an emphasis on mixed use development and the provision of affordable housing. Other initiatives include the construction of dwellings on brownfield sites which make better use of already existing land which is redundant.

Policies to rent out homes which are left empty long term have been drafted and aim to help meet some of the required homes capacity without resorting to building new homes as a solution. Rural regeneration schemes aim to provide affordable housing and go some way to providing the required level of housing. However there is still much that can be done to improve these schemes if the housing shortage situation is not to become critical in the next 10 years.

Housing that is currently being constructed to meet housing stock requirements has been identified as being too low density. Far too much land is being used by residential developments; higher density housing would result in more dwellings and would therefore help to meet the required number of dwellings. In the short term housing stocks need to be managed and brought under control, empty homes need to be reclaimed, and housing shortages need to be addressed at a local level as well as a national level to ensure that residential developments suit the area in which they are constructed and prove to be places where people actually want to live.

In the long term viable alternatives to building on Greenfield land need to be sought. Higher density housing, mixed use and infilling would help to contain urban sprawl which is an almost inevitable outcome of urban expansion fuelled by the demand for homes. Adequate homes need to be built to meet the demand which currently stands at an extra 200,000 homes per year. As the social trends which are creating the surge in demand for housing cannot easily be changed, the only viable option is to accommodate for this change and to provide adequate housing without compromising build quality or harming the vast rolling countryside for which Britain is renowned.

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