Public land release: challenges and opportunities

Almost a year ago, then-Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, proclaimed that the Government wanted to build one million new homes by 2020; an ambitious target – some would argue unrealistic, at current construction rates. Nevertheless, the Government’s attempt to boost housing numbers in order to match demand is certainly admirable and this week’s news that both Network Rail and the Ministry of Defence intend to release land for housing will be welcome news.

According to Network Rail, it is estimated that land for up to 12,000 homes could be unlocked, following an earlier announcement this year that the Department for Communities and Local Government is hoping to work with local authorities and Network Rail to release suitable land around railways stations.

With new homes being earmarked for Manchester, Merseyside, York and Tyneside, it seems the release of land is in line with Government rhetoric on both housing and the Northern Powerhouse agenda, where improved transport links can drive inward investment and economic growth. Nevertheless, the land being released will in many cases present challenges that will require effective consultation to ensure the land is utilised as well as it can be.

For instance, some of the sites will suffer from a lack of infrastructure which will require significant improvement prior to housing being developed – or conversely, be close to certain kinds of infrastructure that may give potential homeowners doubts. Additionally, some brownfield land could be contaminated or in some cases, it could be of historical importance which would face considerable opposition from local groups. All of these factors will need to be taken into account when plans are drawn up.

The release of Ministry of Defence land which could see up to 17,000 homes built is likely to present alternative challenges. Unlike the brownfield land around railway stations, MoD barracks and airfields are likely to be in more rural locations where open green space is the norm. Proposals here will face different challenges, with MoD facilities often having long histories, and strong local feeling about how they should be used.

Releasing land will certainly provide opportunities for more housing and the freeing up of land by government agencies could be an initiative which helps the Government meets its ambitious targets. Although the Government is committing to building more homes, the release of land will present challenges that will require clear and effective public and stakeholder consultation, to make sure proposals work for the whole community – and for future residents.

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