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September 22, 2020

Beware the volume housebuilders

To the casual observer the housing market might seem relatively simple to understand. Demand for houses outstrips the supply of land for building, hence the inflated value of land and house prices which are beyond the reach of most. But for communities that take more than a passing interest in the quality and quantity of houses getting built and the appropriateness of location, the process quickly becomes unfathomable and the relationship between planning authority, land owner and housebuilder increasingly opaque. Planning Democracy offers a route map through the latest attempt by Scottish Government to resolve the planning guddle.

Planning Democracy

When the Scottish Government were naming one of their latest consultations, they were hardly thinking of Clickbait. The title Housing technical consultation is not really designed to compel readers to click on the relevant link to find out more.

What it should have read was

Yikes! Four small changes that could change YOUR life!

or perhaps

You won’t believe it! Four ways to tackle the tricks of volume house builders.

Mind you the SG are ‘technically’ correct because this consultation is not for the faint hearted. It focusses on a particular policy area where you are required to have detailed understanding of both housing and planning, along with a degree in related acronyms (see poem at the end of this blog).

However, we know of several communities who can hardly be described as faint hearted, who are considering their responses. Over the years (for some it has been over 20 years), communities who live close to potential building sites that happen to be rather lucrative for house builders, have been subject to a deluge of housing applications. Many of these applications have been fought and won by developers on arguments based around housing land supply and how it is calculated.

“So what?” you may ask, “I don’t live in one of these areas, so these proposals won’t change MY life”.

Well they may not directly affect everyone but the way we plan future housing will ultimately affect us all in some way or other and these changes will help guard against the more unsustainable housing developments.

Currently house building in the UK is dominated by a small number of volume house building firms who acquire land and seek planning permission for large scale housing developments.

In fact “over the last 10 years, the top ten housebuilders have acquired over 2 million plots of development land, demonstrating the scale of their control over the residential land market in the UK” (Bob Colenutt 2020)

Indeed there is a monstrous powerful industry involved in acquiring land for housing. So we must congratulate the SG for attempting to take back control. We hope that the long term effect will encourage good quality housing developments to be built in places where they are needed and where communities want them.

Under severe pressure to deliver on crude housing targets set by the Government, it has become increasingly difficult for local authority planners to refuse planning permission, even on housing sites that they feel are not appropriate. But even if they do, many major developers pursue planning permission in a highly aggressive manner, by going to appeal after appeal until they succeed. These tactics are used on the more profitable sites, usually greenfield land in areas where people are prepared to pay a lot of money for executive luxury housing. The result is more housing sites are being granted planning permission, but not for the type of affordable housing in areas where there is housing need.

When challenging the local authority’s decisions, developer’s arguments frequently centre around local authorities not allocating enough land in their local development plans.

Local authorities are required (since 2014) to provide a 5 year supply of housing land in their development plans. How this ‘5 year effective land supply’ is actually calculated has not, until now, been specified by the Government. So local authorities allocate what they deem is enough land, only to be challenged by the likes of Homes for Scotland on the way that it has been calculated.

This is one of the reasons house builders are often successful at appeal. If a local authority has not provided enough land then their development plan is no longer considered up to date. An out of date plan triggers a rather tautological policy that gives “a presumption in favour of development that contributes to sustainable development”. Effectively this means that there is more weight given towards allowing the development to be given permission, whether or not it is actually sustainable. In this context any development is almost certain to be considered ‘sustainable’, if it adds to the housing land supply.

Local authorities are having to respond by ‘allocating’ larger and larger amounts of land for housing in order to prevent developers appealing. However, the developers have a number of tactics up their sleeves to ensure they can continue their practice of acquiring more and more land for planning permission.

Here is a quote from Gladman’s (a company who in 2014 were reported to be going after over 100 edge of town greenfield sites).


“We normally only target local authorities whose planning is in relative disarray and … either have no up-to-date local plan or, temporarily, they do not have a five-year supply of consented building plots.”

In addition to targeting local authorities with out of date plans, these developers also use their own methods of calculating housing land supply to ensure there is always a shortage, which means that the Development Plan is deemed to be “not up to date”.

Now as the impact of covid will likely affect local authority’s ability to update their local development plans there comes a risk of multiple successful appeals by developers. In addition Gladman’s have just won a landmark case putting the balance even more heavily in favour of developers who are pursuing appeals using these kind of arguments.

So, the Scottish Government have decided to try to sort out the mess, and have come up with these proposals.

The Government is likely to meet strong opposition from the developers who are still cock a hoop about their recent success in the courts. Last time the Government consulted on this it was withdrawn due to lack of agreement between parties. Presumably this means that they were in some way held to ransom by the development lobby. We desperately need to counter this, so please do respond to the consultation.

We are very happy to help.  At the end of the article we have given a basic response you can send to support the proposals.

These policies have exposed numerous communities to excessive unsustainable house building that threatens the resident’s quality of life as well as our planet. This past month we have been in contact with a number of these remarkable people, who over the years have had to figure out, not only how the system of planning in Scotland is meant to work, but how it is being abused and undermined in order to satisfy the profit margins of a bunch of wealthy businesses. They will be responding to the consultation in detail, but we need others to show support for the proposals.

For anyone affected by the issues discussed in this blog please do contact us.

Here is a brief guide to the consultation with a suggested basic response

Guide and quick response