Rethinking housing infrastructure

by David Cowans, Chief Executive of Places for People

Talk about housing and you have to talk about infrastructure. That may sound an obvious statement, but is it? Many objections to new housing schemes are often centred on the fear that the surrounding roads won't cope, schools will be over-subscribed and there simply won't be enough facilities to cater for additional residents. And in some cases, those fears are completely justified. To overcome this, we need infrastructure to go hand in hand with housing and that means moving it much further up the planning agenda.

Housing quality doesn't just impact quality of life, it affects economic growth as well. But high-quality housing isn't just about design and architecture, it's about creating neighbourhoods. New homes have to be supported by facilities that make people's lives easier and more fulfilling - in turn, helping to attract and retain people that will make communities, villages and towns prosper.

To achieve that, there needs to be change.

We need to recast planning policy so that infrastructure provision forms a key part of the permission. Any plans for new housing developments must include a range of services and facilities that will help that development thrive and make it attractive to existing communities. And those potential benefits need to be tabled, discussed and debated right at the start of the process.

On top of that, any form of planning gain must be specific to a particular scheme. That way, local people can see what infrastructure is being proposed for their area from the start. This would offer a more targeted and effective incentive than just the possibility of new homes, as well as a transparent mechanism for delivering infrastructure and responding to residents' concerns.

And, if we can continue to strengthen the connection between housing and infrastructure, there is also an argument that large-scale housing schemes should be considered as 'nationally significant' in the same way as major developments in the transport, waste and water sectors are. Housing could then be added to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project process and determined by PINS rather than local authorities.

Of course infrastructure also needs significant investment. Limited investment has been a major blocker to financing new developments and settlements. But there are signs that this is starting to change with Legal and General being the first to announce a major £252m investment in helping to solve the UK's housing and infrastructure crisis. We are confident that this move will pave the way for other institutions to help contribute towards the national housing crisis.

Changes to our planning system won't happen overnight, but we will continue to strive for it. Marrying infrastructure with new housing, stimulating investment and giving more people a voice could result in major changes that will benefit existing communities as well as future generations.

23 April 2014