In December 2023, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) published several eagerly anticipated revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The NPPF outlines the government’s planning policies for England and how it wants them to be applied. It guides locally prepared plans for delivering housing and other developments.
As long-time champions of community-led housing, we were excited to see some policy changes relevant to the sector.
In essence, the revised NPPF now crucially includes an exception site policy specifically for community-led development. The revision states that local authorities should support developing exception sites for community-led development, creating a new land supply for the community-led housing sector. Exception sites are sites on which housing and other developments can be built that benefit from exceptions in policies and development plans that would otherwise restrict development. Importantly, they can deliver any tenure of affordable housing as defined in the NPPF, so they are key in building new types of housing that are genuinely affordable and community-led. As per current guidance, sites should also be adjacent to existing settlements and proportionate in size to them and no more than one hectare in size or five per cent of the settlement they neighbour while complying with local design policies and standards.
The revised NPPF also includes a provision that local planning authorities should seek opportunities to support small sites to come forward for community-led development, and it goes further by clearly defining what community-led development is. The aim of this is to give local authorities the encouragement and evidence they need to include policies in their Local Plans to begin or continue supporting community-led schemes. This will also give greater clarity and strengthen the case for community-led planning applications, ultimately providing more affordable homes for local people.
We’ve been working with the Community Land Trust Network and other organisations to campaign with ministers and MPs to see policies that support the scaling and better implementation of community-led housing. In September, alongside our partners, we attended a roundtable hosted by the then housing minister Rachel Maclean, at which the NPPF proposals were discussed, so we are delighted to see the inclusion of exception sites in the revised NPPF and pleased that the government has listened to the opinions and expertise of the community-led housing sector. This is a great win for the sector and will help support its growth to become a genuine alternative to mainstream approaches to delivering affordable housing.
However, while we are pleased to see the revisions, there are several relatively small but important changes that could be made to provide more explicit support for community-led development models of various forms. These include:
- Extending the community-led exception sites policy to include developments within existing settlements as well as adjacent to them. Developing under-utilised land in existing areas, such as garage sites, car parks, and spaces in back gardens and between buildings, can increase the supply of land available for affordable homes. Due to their locally embedded nature and the high levels of trust they enjoy on the part of local people, community-led groups are exceptionally well-placed to unlock sites of this kind. There’s a clear opportunity to strategically and explicitly link the community-led exception site policy to more efficient use of land in existing settlements.
- The new definition of community-led housing development is too prescriptive about the constitutional form community-led housing groups can take. We would like to see different types of community-led housing groups participate and contribute under the new exception site policy. Long-term community benefit can be ensured, not just through organisational form, but also through attention to organisational processes and measures such as asset locks.
- Removing the cap on the maximum size of community-led housing sites (currently one hectare or five per cent of the existing settlement) and allowing community-led housing to be built on and convert existing buildings.
- The government should reconsider its stance on whether it should be made easier for organisations that aren’t Registered Providers (organisations independent of councils that provide social and affordable homes, like developers of community-led housing) to develop affordable housing for rent. While we very much support the government’s aim of ensuring that the provision of affordable homes for rent is well-regulated, the current regulations set out requirements for becoming a Registered Provider that are very difficult for many small, volunteer-run community-led groups to meet. We’d like local planning authorities to be given leeway and powers to exercise their judgement.
- Recognising that communities can play a leading role in developing Design Codes (requirements that developments in a site or area need to meet) to support supplying high-quality, characterful housing in their areas, not merely a role as consultees to councils and developers.
On the whole, the revisions to the NPPF are significant for the community-led housing sector, and we’re pleased with the progress made. The changes will give local planning authorities more options and opportunities to develop sites for community-led housing, opening the door to a greater supply of affordable homes. But there’s more to be done to unlock further opportunities for building community-led housing, and we’ll continue to work with the sector to make this happen.
This blog post has been written with invaluable input from Tom Chance, Chief Executive at the Community Land Trust Network, and Melissa Mean, Director at WeCanMake. You can find the Community Land Trust Network’s public comments on the NPPF changes here, and WeCanMake’s here.