The Government has published a consultation paper proposing the reform of the Right to Contest which enables the public to request that publicly owned land is sold where it is unused or underused.
It is proposed that the right will be relaunched as a new “Right to Regenerate” which it is hoped will provide a quicker and easier route for individuals, businesses and organisations to identify, purchase and redevelop vacant land in their area, including social housing and garages. The aim is to support greater regeneration of brownfield land, boost housing supply and enable the public to convert vacant plots of land and derelict buildings into new homes, businesses or community spaces.
Perhaps the main change the consultation paper discusses is the introduction of a presumption in favour of disposal when considering applications under the new right, establishing clearly that disposals to individuals or communities will be ordered unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. There will also be greater publicity and reporting requirements to improve transparency around these requests. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will act as an arbiter to ensure fairness and speedy outcomes in all cases.
The consultation paper discusses the lack of requests and high refusal rate under the current Right to Contest which it says arises largely because the relevant public body can identify a use/intended use for the land, or because the land is allocated in the Local Plan. It is acknowledged that this may mean that some sites are left vacant for many years. Therefore, the Government is proposing to require public bodies to have clear plans for the land “in the near future”, even if only a temporary use before later development. Where a temporary use cannot be identified, a sale will be ordered under the new right. This is intended to help minimise blight until sites are put to better long-term use and help keep neighbourhoods vibrant and productive, especially in town centres and urban areas.
The consultation paper discusses the possibility of introducing a “right of first refusal” for those who make the request to give them time to prepare a bid. It is acknowledged that, because a successful request leads to the land being placed on the open market, this can act as a significant disincentive for those putting in a request, particularly community groups who may find it difficult to raise finances quickly. The right of first refusal will be for market value and for a limited period of time.
The Government is also considering publishing a definition of land that is unused or underused, to make it clearer what this means and help guide people in making applications. It is also interested in views as to whether extending the right to include unused and underused land owned by town and parish councils would increase the effectiveness of the right.
The paper is also inviting views as to whether it should require applicants making a request under the right regarding local authority owned land to demonstrate that they have contacted their local authority before making a request. At the moment, the Right to Contest operates as a last resort where public bodies have refused to engage with a request to bring land back into use.
In practice, the New Right to Regenerate could – for instance – enable a private individual to acquire land at the back of their house to extend their garden, or a community group to come together to use vacant land in a more beneficial way. There are over 25,000 vacant council owned homes that could be put to use by housing associations or community land trusts through the use of this new right. However, concerns have already been raised that it could result in the loss of important public assets for purposes other than the public good.
The consultation will close on 13 March 2021. Following the consultation, the Government will consider the feedback as it determines whether to bring forward these reforms.