Delivering More Homes in a Climate Crisis – Time for an Informed Debate on Where we Build
In the first of a trio of housing blogs, David Stewart, Policy and Practice Lead, discusses our latest research and explores the importance of option agreements in creating better places.
The Scottish Land Commission has today published research on what information is available on where new homes are likely to be built in Scotland. The research looks at land that does not yet have planning permission, but where housebuilders have entered option agreements to buy and develop in future. Our research concludes that there is a lack of clear, publicly available information on this ‘raw’ land.
Below I discuss why where we build new homes matters, explore the Commission’s previous work in this area and ask, what next?
Where we build new homes matters
The Scottish Government recently creating a national development framework (NPF4) which aims to deliver net zero and biodiversity net gain. For housing and development, this means a shift from the low-density new build estates on the edges of towns and cities, which have characterised housebuilding in recent decades, to higher density development and the re-use of land and buildings.
Providing greater clarity on where developers plan to build, so that communities and local authorities can fully engage in deciding where new homes should be built, could support this switch.
This research looks at what information is available on land optioned for development and explores the potential benefits to increased transparency. It also asks whether there are any risks to be managed if there is to be increased transparency on where future development is planned.
Land for Housing – What do We Already Know?
Research by the Scottish Land Commission into the housing land market found that housebuilders need a supply of land to provide a pipeline to build out. There was a lack of information on land optioned for development.
A study by Savills, which looked at the role of land in supporting new housing in rural Scotland, found that a lack of information on land prices could be restricting the supply of land for rural housing development, with landowners with unrealistic ideas about value keeping land from the market.
A study looking at the value of early engagement in planning found that where developers carried out early and in-depth community engagement, a number of benefits were delivered. Development plans were improved, communities were more likely to support development, and planning applications might be passed more quickly.
The first two pieces of research concluded that a lack of information on optioned land had a negative impact on the delivery of housing, while the research on early engagement found that providing greater information on proposed development sites led to better places and support for development. This led us to propose a Transparency Obligation in our Review of Land for Housing, with Registers of Scotland to provide data on land ownership and on where options are held to develop land on a publicly available, searchable map.
New Research on Transparency and Option Agreements
Having established a case for greater transparency, we commissioned further research to determine what information is publicly available, look at the case for increased transparency and understand any concerns that housebuilders might have on increasing transparency. Our research, by the Diffley Partnership, involved an evidence review followed by surveys and interviews with key players (including developers, local authority planners and representative organisations).
The research confirmed that there is not publicly available information on where developers plan to build in future. While there are ways that people in the housebuilding industry can explore whether land is optioned for development, this information is incomplete and difficult to access. It requires expertise and experience in development – what information is available would not be accessible or meaningful to members of the public. The research also found that there is no public record of the cost of land bought for new housing.
Benefits to Increased Transparency
Diffley identified a number of benefits to increasing transparency – these were mainly supported by local authority planners and community groups. Benefits cited include:
- Transparency is democratic and that is positive
- Community engagement is viewed as essential to good development
- Transparency has practical advantages for creating Local Development Plans
- Transparency would enhance competition and efficiency in the land market.
Concerns and Challenges
There were also concerns raised about the proposal to increase transparency, particularly by people in the development industry, including:
- A transparency obligation infringes upon commercial confidentiality
- Scepticism around the benefits of community engagement
- Questions were raised about the practicality of the proposal.
It is clear that there is a lack of information on where new development is likely to take place. Concerns about climate change and food security mean that Scotland needs to think about where new homes are built. The new national planning framework aims to tackle these issues and shift development to land and build re-use while supporting active travel.
Shifting development from the edge of settlements to land re-use will be challenging. Providing transparency on where developers have options to build houses can help support this switch by enabling communities and local authorities to play a full role in determining where new communities should be created. Increased transparency will only be part of the solution – we have plans for future work on urban land to support land re-use and denser development which are outlined below.
There are concerns from housebuilders on the impact of a transparency obligation on commercial confidentiality and on an increased administrative burden – there would therefore be a need for dialogue with the industry before an obligation was introduced.
What’s Next – Delivering NPF4
Delivering NPF4, and its planned shift of development from the fringes of settlements, will be challenging. The Scottish Land Commission will look at how land policy can support this shift.
- Land Re-use: Bringing vacant land and sites back into use is essential to delivering low carbon development. We will be reviewing progress with the Vacant and Derelict Land Taskforce recommendations, a cross sector group that made a wide-ranging series of proposals to re-use vacant land. The review will identify successes that can be built on and gaps that need to be addressed.
- Land Assembly: Developing in urban areas can be challenging, with issues such as land contamination and sites with multiple owners. We plan to form a Community of Practice on Land Assembly so that practitioners can share challenges, and what works, in assembling sites for development and develop practical solutions to support urban regeneration. We hope that this work will include pilot projects which test the benefits of land assembly to support development close to services and amenities in line with plans to create 20-minute neighbourhoods.
Find out more in our Land Focus discussion paper which looks at the research, and the importance of transparency in option agreements for the housing land market, in more detail.