Big builders exploiting loophole to push greenfield developments through on appeal, CPRE research shows

Build, build, build...

  • Deep-pocketed developers are winning on appeal against cash-strapped councils by exploiting a planning loophole
  • Individuals and firms proposing small-scale projects have far less chance of successfully challenging planning decisions – the system appears weighted in favour of big builders
  • Major developments on greenfield land use the ‘five-year housing land supply’ rule to override Local Plans

Big housebuilders are exploiting the ‘five-year housing land supply’ requirement in Local Plans to force through major developments on greenfield land, shows a new CPRE report.
Despite plenty of brownfield land being available, countryside in the Green Belt and alongside Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty is targeted for new housing estates against the wishes of local people.
The research identifies 144 major developments on greenfield land that were forced through on appeal in just the two years between 2020 and 2022 after having been denied permission by local authorities. Of those, 91 were clearly going against policies in the Local Development Plan.
Meanwhile, the research shows how difficult it is for individuals and small local builders to successfully challenge planning decisions. The appeals system appears weighted in favour of big housebuilders and landowners. The reports shows that the larger the size of the proposed development, the more likely it is to succeed on appeal.

The report finds:

  • 144 major developments on greenfield land, often just outside and affecting protected areas such as Green Belt or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, over the two-year period
  • 112 of those developments were clearly allowed on the grounds of technical arguments about whether the local authority had allocated enough sites for housebuilding
  • The developments were largely of market housing, with eight schemes totalling 2,200 houses having no more than 12 per cent of these houses classed as affordable
  • 91 of those developments were clearly going against the policies in the Local Development Plan.

The report adds to suspicion that deep-pocketed developers use the land-supply loophole in the planning system to force the hand of cash-strapped councils. Six-figure legal fees eat into council budgets, with decisions frequently overturned on technicalities. For example, Waverley Borough Council in Surrey has spent almost £900,000 defending planning appeals, including £370,000 in the two-year period covered in our research.
Roger Mortlock, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “There’s no question we need to build hundreds of thousands of new homes a year. But there’s a critical debate about the kind of homes that should be built and where they should go.
“Small-scale developments of genuinely affordable homes, and housing for social rent, are desperately needed in rural areas. What people living in the countryside rightly object to is mammoth new housing estates that are mostly large, unaffordable executive homes. Their prices are out of whack with local wages, take up valuable land unnecessarily and generate additional car traffic, often not linked to more sustainable transport options.
“There’s an abundance of brownfield sites in almost every local authority in need of regeneration. Councils need more powers to direct where new homes should be built so they meet local needs. A Plan-led approach is vital. Although well intentioned, the ‘housing land supply’ loophole is being targeted by developers who want to make easy profits from green fields. They must instead be required to redevelop derelict sites and help revitalise our tired urban centres.”
CPRE wants to see greater focus on regenerating suitable brownfield land in urban areas and genuinely affordable housing in rural areas to meet identified local needs. The ‘five-year housing land supply’ rule should be removed from national planning policy as soon as possible, as proposed by the government in the recently published NPPF consultation.

Among the recommendations for central government are:

  • Remove the requirement to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply in cases where there is a Local Plan with a strategic housing target adopted in the past five years
  • Publish regularly updated data on building rates for large development sites, to hold developers who are stalling projects to account and to help prevent unnecessary development of greenfield sites
  • Allow local planning authorities to introduce policies to guide the order in which sites for new housing should be introduced (so-called ‘phasing’ policies) – developers already carry out such phasing but in a way that maximises their profits
  • Empower local planning authorities to shape large new housing developments and insist on higher levels of social housing than are currently provided, as recommended by the 2018 review of build-out led by Sir Oliver Letwin.