The government is in the process of introducing legislation that will make it easier for individuals to purchase disused land or property from councils and public sector organisations (including TFL, the Police, the BBC for example). This follows the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick’s, bid to reform England’s planning laws and to cut through red tape.
Current position – Right to Contest
Currently, individuals are able to use the ‘Right to Contest’ Application to challenge councils and public sector organisations to sell land or property where that individual believes it is not needed and could be put to better economic use.
Once an application has been submitted, the onus is on the council / public sector organisation to either agree to sell the disused land or to make a case for why they need to keep it. For example, they may argue that the site is vital for operational purposes or there are other considerations that outweigh the potential better economic use.
If the landowner agrees to sell the land, nothing further needs to be done. However, if the landowner attempts to make a case for keeping it, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will consider both sides of the argument. Importantly, the applicant is not given a right of first refusal and the owner of the land is not compelled to sell to anyone who offers. This appears to disincentivise applications under this procedure.
There have been calls to update this approach as it is inefficient, especially as the current process has only resulted in one sale of disused land since 2014.
Right to Regenerate
Reforming the Right to Contest to create a new ‘Right to Regenerate’ in respect of land owned by councils and public sector organisations could provide a quicker and easier route for the regeneration of underused or empty land.
The consultation is considering issues such as whether:
- to give the applicant first refusal if the application is successful;
- to include land owned by town and parish councils;
- to introduce a presumption in favour of disposal unless there is a compelling reason not to do so; and
- to define ‘unused’ or ‘underused’ land for this purpose.
The proposed policy is meeting a mixed response from the property industry. Some see it as an ideal opportunity to regenerate local areas and for developers to acquire unused land in key locations. It has been particularly welcomed by smaller developers who may benefit from this route rather than competing for open market sites with larger developers. It may also require local authorities to re-assess their current land holding and consider bringing forward their own development opportunities.
However, there has been some concern as to whether these reforms will pave the way for the Government’s intervention in the acquisition or development of privately owned unused land.
These reforms remain in consultation until the middle of March 2021, and the government will consider the responses received before making a decision as to whether they should be finalised.
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