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Clark urges Whitehall and local councils to release surplus land for new homes

The UK communities secretary Greg Clark has requested that Whitehall departments release any surplus and redundant land for new homes. 09 Jun 2015

Ahead of the first meeting of the new cabinet housing taskforce Clark has set a target to release enough land to build 150,000 new homes before 2020. The communities secretary said he wants "to see departments going further and faster than before, starting right away, to loosen their grip on sites that are standing idle and to turn them over for house building."

In 2011 the previous coalition government set a target that enough public sector land needed to be released for 100,000 new homes. In March this year it was announced that this goal had been exceeded and 146 sites, with space for 103,000 homes, have been released in the last five years. Reports show that the Ministry of Defence released the most land with enough space for 38,661 homes.

A statement from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said that the DCLG and the Homes and Communities Agency have already identified a possible 150 sites that can be readily used for house building; and that this is enough land for 14,000 new homes.

Clark has also extended this request to all 326 local councils in England, asking them to follow suit and review any land they hold, particularly brownfield sites. "Councils are significant landowners and town halls should be looking at their estates and thinking about how they could make better use of their holdings by releasing land for new homes for their communities," said Clark in the DCLG statement.

Following the announcement of the upcoming Housing Bill, local authorities will need to maintain a register of brownfield land suitable for housing development. The DCLG has said  accounts prepared in 2011 show that councils held land and buildings worth £108 billion.

Some councils have already released land, including Bristol Council and Surrey Council. Chester West and Chester Council are releasing sites at Ellesmere Port, with the potential for 15 acres of brownfield land in the town centre and a further 42 acres on the edge of town and provision for 1,880 new homes.

Planning expert Helen Stewart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "Public sector bodies hold the key to unlocking swathes of land across England and Wales which is ripe for housing development. Post-election, and post-coalition, the government continues to accelerate its release of such land."

"By setting a target for 2020 which is 50% higher than that set in 2011, Clark has laid down a steep challenge for Whitehall and local councils to release land for housing, but one which, if met, could make significant inroads into the housing shortage. Facilitating workable structuring of these disposals will continue to be the determining factor in whether this new target is realisable," said Stewart.

Rebecca Warren of Pinsent Masons said that the pace at which land was released by public bodies was not the only factor delaying the delivery of homes on unused or underused sites.

"Some councils have already been proactively releasing land over the course of the last few years, leading to some people criticising them for disposing of their crown jewels" said Warren. "However, public procurement constraints have delayed schemes commencing, so just an aspiration to release will not guarantee a flow of schemes coming forward in places where the market would be interested."

"The pressure of resourcing within councils and other public bodies to deal with the disposal or other vehicles used to secure redevelopment also will be a factor in the success of this initiative," Warren said.