Identifying new sources of land for homes in the South West – Q&A with Jo Davis of GVA

Identifying new sources of land for homes in the South West – Q&A with Jo Davis of GVA

Housing land supply in the UK is struggling to keep up with the growing demand for new homes – and as a result, there will be huge pressure on the next Government to get building.   The big question is – where are we going to source the land needed to build these new homes, and what are the implications for the South West?

With a general election on the horizon, we asked Jo Davis, senior director at GVA, for her thoughts on what this means for the South West, what the best opportunities are for sourcing new land in the region.  

What is the situation in the South West?

There’s no doubt that we have a housing problem in the South West.  After the abolition of the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS), the South West councils collaboratively reduced their housing numbers by 18.3%, from what was originally proposed by the RSS.  That’s about 100,000 houses down on what we need, based on the demographics of the region.  

Looking at Exeter in particular, housing numbers were looking good against their five-year housing land supply – until the recent decision in Pinhoe in September, where it was concluded that Exeter City Council not able to include student numbers in their five-year housing supply plan.  Therefore, the number of houses delivered during the recession, (899 in 2011/12, 473 in 2012/13, 555 in 2013/14) – looked brilliant against the annual target of 600 dwellings −  but only because it included student housing numbers.  This led to the housing land supply from 1 September 2014 dropping from 6.7 percent, to 3.6 percent.  As a result, the housing target per annum has moved up to 869 units per annum and the heat is on the housing land supply. 

Where will new sources of land come from?  

There are a number of opportunities to provide this housing in a sustainable way, with the most important being: 


Using brownfield sites is a popular route and can be an easy win, but in reality there’s not much brownfield land available in the region.  Only nine out of 36 authorities in the South West have a National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) compliant plan – so there are a number of opportunities to find non-allocated sites for housing.  Finally, there is a massive oversupply of employment sites in the sites allocation for the region, providing even more potential. 

Estate renewal

Estate renewal provides great scope for development.  There are less potential sites in the South West, compared to other regions in the UK, but the opportunities that do exist, look promising.  Estate renewal takes longer, is outside the ‘norm’ and requires partnerships, but the reality is these partnerships are very simple, and the benefits lead to a significant land value uplift.  

A good example is the MOD Fox Hill site in Bath.  Part of a 14 year programme, the developers are about to build 1,200 new homes, also refurbishing a further 700 homes.  This project has been very positively received both from the council and the community – and this model is a real consideration for the South West.  


Currently, greenbelt land sits in the ‘too difficult box’ − but this will have to change after the election if we are going to deliver these ambitious targets outlined by the main parties. 

The key to unlocking greenbelt, will be assembling strong evidence to support its release, and ensuring the local planning authorities undertake the exercise of review in a robust way, which avoids challenge and risk.  Key locations will be Bristol, Taunton, Exeter, Plymouth and probably Truro.  

Neighbourhood plans

Neighbourhood plans and localism are here to stay, and this is where I see the biggest opportunity for securing new sources of land.  Nevertheless, this will be a big challenge and in turn, will be a big change in the way we do things currently.  

The emphasis put on neighbourhood plans by all parties is strong, so we will soon be launching a ‘neighbourhood toolbox’ to assist developers and landowners to influence and shape neighbourhood plans.  

Large-scale urban extensions

Something we’re great at in the South West, is delivering large-scale urban extensions, which look set to take the place of garden cities.  Garden cities are being dismissed on three grounds:  planning is complicated and takes too long, cash flow of developers, and the challenge of putting together consortiums to make the schemes work can be prohibitive.  Whilst you will hear people talking about garden cities, it’s well-planned urban extensions, in the right locations and right sustainability credentials, where the focus will lie in terms of growth.  

They key to achieving these large-scale urban extensions −which all the parties are talking about – will be the streamlining of the planning process, to help us deliver them far more successfully. 

What direction is housing policy likely to take after the 2015 elections?

At the September 2014 Party Conferences, the Conservatives looked set to continue their success in streamlining the planning system in terms of disused land, focusing on permitted development rights through empty offices and probably, pushing that forward into public land too.  Interestingly, there was complete radio silence on the garden cities position. 

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats took up the garden cities mantra, proposing 50,000 new homes across five garden cities to run along a rail line between Oxford and Cambridgeshire.  A bold and ambitious plan, but is it realistic, or just rhetoric?  I’ll leave you to decide. 

Meanwhile, the Labour party hailed house building as one of its six national policy goals for the next ten years, with Ed Milliband saying by 2025 the UK would be “building as many homes as it needs… we will deliver 200,000 homes per annum by 2020.” – another ambitious target. 

Of course, we won’t know anything for certain until the outcome of the election, but it’s clear that increasing supply will remain a priority for all parties.  Previously Developed Land (PDL) will be a key focus pre-election − as nobody wants to talk about greenbelt in the run-up to election, however, we expect it to jump quickly back on the agenda post-election.  

What’s next?

We’re entering the perfect storm – the South West planning policy position is vulnerable.  There’s a proven oversupply of employment sites, a very limited robust five-year housing land supply, and there’s a national policy push for housing.  This provides developers with a great opportunity to go in there and be ambitious about what they are trying to achieve – identifying sites slightly outside of the box, and pushing them through the planning process. 

The brownfield sites that we’ve got available in the SW aren’t big enough, so we need to be looking for the right site to house the next Cranbrook, because in reality these sites take 10-15 years to germinate.  This means starting now, working with the neighbourhood partnerships and the communities from the start.

Putting policies and opportunities to one side, the key to successfully reducing this pressure and build more homes, is going to be the streamlining of the planning process moving forward. 

Jo Davis heads up the South West and South Wales Planning Development & Regeneration Team for GVA, which provides multi-disciplinary commercial property advice and services to clients in the public and private sectors.  Jo is a commercial town planner specialising in complex brownfield regeneration schemes and the promotion of strategic greenfield sites.  

Jo Davis, Senior Director, GVA

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