The government’s new move to unlock land for small developers by taking a direct commissioning approach to the building of homes on publicly owned land is welcome.
There has long been a need for a wider breadth of development players to help tackle the UK’s housing crisis. However, the move will not be without challenges.
Large public land sites often come with complex issues, such as decontamination, flood alleviation measures or major infrastructure upgrades. These challenges will necessitate a level of investment that small developers are unable to finance. Not only could this slow down delivery, it could also result in schemes emerging in an unplanned manner. It could be a risky move, particularly if a developer working on a small package of houses does not have insight into how its project connects to neighbouring sections of houses and site-wide infrastructure.
There is undoubtedly a need to introduce arrangements to support small entrants to the market so proposed projects are delivered efficiently. The sector has evolved significantly in the past decade and small developers are starting to emerge. Others are innovating in construction methods or in new tenure models. Providing the right platform to help these small players succeed will be key. And encouraging smaller players into the market could also facilitate greater innovation, as these players are more likely to try out different approaches such as self-build, custom-build and manufactured homes.
An overseeing masterplanning agency would help support smaller providers by looking at the wider picture before large-scale sites are divided into smaller packages of work. A masterplanner provides clarity over how each section of the site connects with transport and social infrastructure. Introducing this type of arrangement will be essential to bringing large-scale sites forward.
And the focus must remain on large-scale developments that are supported by high-quality transport and social infrastructure. Tackling small-scale developments and brownfield sites risks only tinkering at the edges of the housing problem. There is still an urgent need to look at additional sites that can accommodate much larger schemes.
Equally, a focus on affordable home ownership at the expense of the affordable rental sector will simply not deliver the required scale of homes. More must be done to encourage a broader mix of tenures to truly solve the housing crisis.
Overall, the government’s new housing policy shift is a step in the right direction. Fundamental to tackling the country’s chronic housing shortfall is a joined-up approach, with homes built in line with infrastructure investment. Until housing is viewed as a crucial component of long-term infrastructure planning, the challenge will persist.
Andrew Jones is practice leader - design, planning and economics at Aecom