Castle Debates: Meeting the need for more housing without environmental damage

We were delighted to support and speak at the latest Castle Debates event, held at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) head office in Parliament Square. The debate focused on the supply and demand for housing, issues and innovations to overcome the need for inevitable development and environmental impact.

From an environmental perspective, property construction creates significant carbon. However, delegates agreed that the need to meet housing demand was an overriding priority facing the burgeoning UK population.

Population growth

Peter Sharratt, Visiting Professor at Westminster University, opened proceedings by reviewing the scale of housing need – some 1 million homes within the next 20 years in London alone. But a plethora of constraints stand in the way including green belt, protected open space and flooding. He believes housing shortages are driven by economic boom/bust, land banking, a construction skills shortage and planning decisions being sat on.

With the South East of England containing a third of the UK population, there have been a variety of proposals to disperse population out to regional hubs. However Sharratt believed transport links remained the key weakness and there was enough space for London to growth within its own boundaries.

Legalities of the planning process

John Pugh-Smith, Barrister at 39 Essex Street Chambers, then outlined the legal framework on housing and land use policy. Multiple layers of national, local and community protections ensure that the planning process remains slower than it could be. However, he reported that many councils report time wasted on development schemes that are just not viable or inappropriate. They have to meet the public need in the first instance and often “preferred” sites are just not attractive to developers.

Pugh-Smith stated that developers’ prime objective is to make money and they need certainty on sites. Land banking is a phrase and criticism often levelled at developers and used as an excuse for delaying bringing forward schemes – but they have to be viable. Brownfield sites are often the first to be put forward by councils, under the edict of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Creative solutions do exist on available land or existing development. Temporary buildings, sat on top of brownfield non-remediated land, could overcome time and cost hurdles so urban infill development happens.

Over-builds on existing buildings could help double population density without materially increasing height. The trouble is that most of the UK housing stock is owned by middle aged or retired households who do not view their property as a device to add more people into.

It is possible that incentives could be made available to add over-builds or basements where applicable on commercial property conversions, for example.

Brownfield regeneration

Stephen Sykes, of Sykes Environmental, then took up the role that Brownfield regeneration can play. It is clear that time risks and unknown cost exposure from the types of contamination on site make these options less attractive to developers – but innovative approaches to mitigating risks and continual NIMBY pressure in green field locations means brownfield has a role to play.

Local authorities have a target of 90% of brownfield must have planning permission by 2020. Sykes estimated that between 200,000 and 1.8m new homes could be built on brownfield and not put pressure on urban boundaries. However, many of these sites are in areas where there are few jobs, so what is the sense in building more houses here? The Homes and Communities Agency are selling 120 sites over the next year & the Government may pass more over in due course.

Sustainable development

Our Innovation Director, Dr. Paul Ellis, then took the stage to outline how development and sound environmental management could go hand in hand. With climate change very real and creating severe weather events anywhere in the country, new developments must take account of sustainable drainage within scheme design.

But legislation needs real bite to ensure that developers and land owners understand the flooding risks from groundwater and surface water runoff. Surface water flooding is very common and not as understood as that from rivers or sea. Houses on the tops of hills can be flooded too.

Good data is the key to understanding these risks. This will help inform more strategic forward thinking by both planners and developers, leading to more intelligent design that accounts for the environment.
This also extends to surveyors, lawyers and lenders all of whom have a risk responsibility throughout the property purchase chain.

He outlined examples of sustainable drainage (SuDS) schemes that mitigate the heightened levels of surface water that development creates. SuDS replicate natural water drainage from a site. Legislation now requires all major developments to use the “drainage hierarchy” and to use SuDS unless deemed ‘inappropriate’.

The debate concluded with a Q&A session that explored the tension between population growth, which we can’t legislate against, and the economics of development. A combination of brownfield, infill and green field zoning and a looser planning regime, however locally unpalatable, may be the final answer.

Further info