UK government to unlock industrial sites to ease housing shortage

The UK government wants to change the planning system to make it easier for developers to build homes on brownfield sites. It may also intervene in cases where local authorities are not meeting local housing demand. 

The measures are part of Chancellor George Osborne’s "Fixing the Foundations" package, which is aimed at boosting productivity in the UK economy and addressing the country’s failure to meet housing demand. 

If the plans are implemented, developers will be granted automatic planning permission for schemes built on disused industrial sites in England. 

The government may also give itself powers to compulsorily purchase disused land, and large-scale housing developments will be fast tracked through the planning system.  

The government has said it aims to bring forward enough public sector land for 150,000 homes over the next five years. It estimates that there is, altogether, enough brownfield land available for 400,000 homes.  

Last week, the government also announced measures intended to double the number of self-built properties from 10% to 20%. From next April, councils will be obliged to allocate land to self-builders. It also announced plans to invest public money in developments begun by small builders.  

The move is intended to address the low rate of housebuilding in England. Annual housing completions in England totalled 125,110 in the 12 months to March 2015. That’s an increase of 11% compared with the previous 12 months, but well below a postwar average of about 300,000, which was achieved when councils were allowed to building their own housing – a power taken away by a previous Conservative government in the 1980s.  

In 2012/13 England had one of the lowest house building rates since 1923, with just 108,190 completions. 

The moves are likely to be controversial, partly because they will be seen as reducing the autonomy of local authorities and centralising more power at the national level.  

Some economists are also sceptical about the role of housing in boosting productivity within the wider economy.  

Emran Mian, a director of the Social Market Foundation think tank, told the BBC: "I think if I was thinking about a productivity plan, housing wouldn’t be the first issue I would leap to." 

A number of infrastructure schemes have been postponed since the general election in May. The most prominent decision was the delay to the electrification of the Trans Pennine line between Manchester and Leeds. Meanwhile, a decision on a third runway at Heathrow, recommended by an independent commission, will not be made until the end of the year. 

Photograph: Greenwich Millennium Village in London, one the UK’s better known industrial reclamation sites (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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