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Right to contest may stymie housing delivery

The government has announced that the public will be able to contest the use of central government land and property and apply for its release.

Currently, members of the public only have the right to challenge local authorities where land or property is empty or under-used.

Under the Right to Contest scheme, this power is widened to central government land and property, both vacant and occupied.

Communities and businesses will be able to submit applications challenging the use of sites using a simple form explaining why they believe a site is potentially surplus and could be put to better economic use. Only if the location is vital for operational use or there are overriding reasons will it fail to be released to the open market.

The Right to Contest policy is an interesting move that should certainly accelerate public bodies to better understand and manage their land and property portfolios, with the government owning over £330bn of land and property. 

However, there must be concern that in certain locations the policy could be counter-productive in terms of housing delivery.

Local, well-organised community groups could use these powers to argue that emerging housing schemes on private sector land, often green fields, should be stalled pending the outcome of the review process – a process potentially instigated by the community group.

This is worrying given the current housing delivery crisis in the UK and need for all appropriate sources of housing supply to be considered and supported within the context of the National Planning Policy Framework’s presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Moreover, while government land may be deemed surplus to operational requirements, this should not be a mandate to simply argue that it should all be used for housing development despite the national shortfall.

Good and sustainable planning relies upon identifying housing, jobs, leisure and community uses in locations that are well related to one another. 

Ad hoc disposal of sites for housing development outside of any well thought-out planning framework will result in isolated and detached communities without the necessary social or community infrastructure to support them.

Where the Right to Contest could be really valuable is within town and city centres.

Many government buildings within urban centres could be redeveloped for residential use, bringing increased population, vitality and viability into struggling towns as well as accelerating housing delivery.

Roger Tustain is managing director of UK town planning, regeneration and development consultancy Nexus Planning

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