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Vacant Building Credit – an own goal?

Vacant Building Credit (VBC) was re-introduced into the NPPG in May 2016 to less vocal opposition than it faced when originally introduced following a Ministerial Statement in November 2014.  The Statement remains intact following the Court of Appeal’s ruling that it should stand.

The broad premise of  VBC is that is acts as a credit which can be offset against the affordable housing requirement of new development.  The credit is equivalent to the existing gross floorspace of a vacant building brought back into use or demolished for redevelopment purposes.  However, neither ‘abandoned’ buildings or those vacated for the sole purpose of redevelopment are able to benefit from VBC.

Unhelpfully, the NPPG gives no guidance on how VBC is intended to be applied.  Two immediate issues arise:

  • buildWhat is meant by “vacant”?  There is a concern that VBC will incentivise landlords to force the vacation of offices, industrial buildings or even houses to benefit from VBC.  There is also little assistance on where the line can be drawn to assess whether a building is “vacant” or “abandoned”.
  • What is meant by the “gross floorspace” of the vacant building – GIA over GEA?  Once that has been confirmed, how that floorspace should be applied to calculate the off-set?

As a consequence, local authorities are left to make sense of how to apply VBC, and inevitably are creating methods and policies for approaching VBC in a way which will minimise its impact on affordable housing delivery.  Emerging practice includes:

(i)         interpreting “vacant” as being opposite to the “in use” building test set out in the CIL Regulations.  This ensures that a development is unable to benefit from both VBC and the demolition credit which can reduce the amount of CIL payable;

(ii)         requiring the entire building to be vacant, not just part of it;

(iii)        requiring the building for which VBC has been sought to have been actively marketed for a specified period (and for the method and details of marketing to be provided);

(iv)        requiring details of existing floorspace to be provided on a GIA basis when a planning application is submitted.

Of those local authorities that are putting in place policies for calculating VBC, it is clear that there is no standard approach; others will be reviewing whether they apply VBC at all.  The West Berkshire appeal confirmed that the VBC policy is a material consideration and is not capable of being applied in a “blanket” manner; many local authorities will be taking comfort from this, possibly even reviewing how Local Plan policies can be formulated to disapply VBC altogether.

VBC was introduced on the basis it would assist smaller developers deliver viable schemes, however the Government has failed again to build the necessary clarity into the guidance to ensure that it is only small developments which benefit from VBC.

Left to local authorities to put in place their own mechanisms provides no guarantee that VBC will assist those it was intended to; as a consequence VBC’s long-term impact on affordable housing remains potentially damaging at a time when the need for affordable homes remains critical, while the ability to rely on it to bring forward otherwise uneconomic schemes remains unclear.