In response to DCLG's just-published guidance on its proposed housing NSIPs the immediate POS response is that we don't believe there will be a housing NPS, because the housing element is not nationally significant infrastructure in its own right. NPPF policies will be drawn upon, but it's not completely clear about how the relative impacts of the housing (especially that not functionally related to the NSIP) will be weighed in to the bigger equation of the acceptability of the NSIP itself.
Michael Wilks, the POS NSIP Subject Specilaist, in a lengthy contribution to Planning magazine said "I don't believe the proposals will have far reaching consequences at all for either town planners or housing delivery, because there are simply not enough NSIPs being consented for the impacts to be widely felt."
"I also think it unlikely many future proposals would include housing that is not an integral/necessary part of the NSIP, due to the consenting risk this would introduce (especially at the outset due to the lack of precedents)," Wilks added "the potential increase in objection due to the 'double whammy' effect and in any event most NSIPs are brought forward by statutory undertakers for whom building houses is not core business."
"Additionally," Wilks continued "the NSIP will still be the driving force and many spatial and market factors drive their siting which will mean that that will not necessarily coincide with being within a 1 mile radius of a large settlement, so the sensible opportunities presented might be limited for non-functionally related housing. There are relatively few NSIPs that include temporary accommodation for construction workers, I think limited to new nuclear development - so again few opportunities emerge from the conversion angle (though certainly one of interest to those authorities hosting new nuclear)."
Indeed, Wilks believes the Government's own Impact Assessment, indicates that it does not expect significant impacts on housing delivery concluding that there may be a net gain of a handful of houses that otherwise would not have come forward through other routes, perhaps through business or commercial projects or land released by the infrastructure for development.
Nevertheless, Wilks suggested "allowing temporary accommodation to convert to permanent more easily and to provide more scope for business and commercial projects are logical steps. Inclusion of non-functionally related housing could have mixed consequences, which would be very scheme and site specific and is the area of more controversy."
Wilks is of the view that setting an arbitrary 500 dwelling cap is a limited safeguard against interfering with the Local Plan "which is as much about a spatial strategy as a quantum of development, and the one mile threshold could result in housing being promoted in entirely inappropriate locations. If, however, the Local Authority is a willing host, it neither makes particular sense to set a restrictive limit on either numbers or distance as this might be counter-productive."
With the Local Plan continuing to have a status inferior to the National Policy Statements, which will remain the main point of reference in decision making, Wilks believes this does raise concerns. "The proposed changes should not provide a backdoor for hostile housing applications to be expedited via another route. This is a risk because the housing element will not be decided on its standalone merits as it would at a local authority level, but rather as part of the debate about the merits of much bigger NSIP. The significant weight afforded to the national benefit of the NSIP should not (or perhaps cannot in the absence of a Housing NPS), apply equally to an unrelated 500 dwelling housing development which is only of local importance, as this could see local impacts of the housing underplayed and perhaps insufficiently mitigated for."
Furthermore, Wilks suggests "While I think the changes could have positive effects, I do believe the local authority role (especially for non-functionally related housing) needs to be beefed up and one option may be that the applicant could be required to submit with its application a Statement of Common Ground with the local authority on the housing element. Alternatively, or additionally, at the point a Local Authority gets to comment on the Adequacy of Consultation it might also get to submit a statement on the conformity/ acceptability of the housing elements of the project having regard to the Local Plan. Perhaps Local Authority support in principle of the housing elements is a better criterion/safeguard than a maximum number or distance restriction."
Wilks also mused "It is interesting, generally, though, to note the change in tack since 2013 when Government last resisted bringing any housing into the regime, then arguing it inappropriate for it to take on decision-making on housing applications by right, which was properly a local authority matter.
Finally, Wilks suggested "What we might be seeing, therefore, is the test bed for the addition to the regime of housing-led schemes in the future, because there is little difference in principle between the Secretary of State deciding an application for 500 dwellings of no functional link to the infrastructure project they happen to piggy back on and the determination of a housing-led NSIP application." He also voiced the view that "the advantage to Government of the proposed approach is that it gives it an opportunity to see how the regime copes with housing and in particular the interaction with local plan making. If it is found to be attractive to developers and acceptable to local authorities then the next step may be taken."
"The changes do highlight the ongoing importance of local authority engagement in, and understanding of, the NSIP regime and the need for resources to support those endeavours" Wilks concluded.