Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
In recent weeks, planning applications for three different schemes for nine new homes, 250 and 300 in one part of Suffolk, alone, have been rejected, with a local councillor commenting that, despite the government’s policy of a presumption of development, ‘it was wholly appropriate that local councillors and their communities should oppose housing where it was not suitable’.
Elsewhere in the county, an appeal is in progress following refusal of an outline application for 175 new homes (reduced from the 195 previously refused) which would ‘impact on rural views’ and nearby listed buildings; part of the debate revolves around the lack of a local development plan.
No-one could argue with the right to challenge, but how are we to deliver the 200,000 new homes needed annually when there is so much opposition, not just in Suffolk? Is opposition always right when planners have recommended approval following pre-application consultation with all parties over months or even years, which should mean that proposals meet policies and respect local concerns?
These negative outcomes are costly to both developers and councils (especially if they lose appeals and costs are awarded against them) but, as newspaper headlines claim a hollow victory, the housing crisis simply escalates, with prices rising in response to shortages, leaving too many young people excluded from home ownership. At the same time, those who want to downsize are forced to retain their family homes which can be unsuited to changing mobility and/or too expensive to sustain on pension income because there is no appropriate alternative.
Yet construction is a major contributor to the economy, according to the Sunday Times’ annual Profit Track report, listing builders, architects and their suppliers amongst the top 100, with a shortage of skilled workers second only to planning in constraining further progress.
TV’s George Clarke of ‘Amazing Spaces’ fame suggests we need a 40-year strategy, building to higher density in towns and cities, with a greater emphasis on good design. The Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) says that UK new-builds are already the smallest in western Europe, but Clarke argues that smaller can mean more affordable, and advocates building creative homes, with multifunctional spaces which can be ‘really beautiful if well thought out’. Given today’s preference for open plan living this is certainly appealing, and viable, with mezzanines proving popular for sleeping or working areas. Prefabricated construction can also reduce costs and timescales.
As well as good design, good infrastructure is key to approval: somewhere with safe, easy, access where people want to live and work, attracting investment to create and sustain jobs, both in town/city centres and rural areas, where new homes can be the difference between saving and losing pubs, shops, schools, church groups and other local amenities which are essential to community cohesion.
This means a flexible approach to new homes if local need is ever to be met. But it’s essential to truly understand that local need, and speak up for it, balancing economic and lifestyle benefits.
Unfortunately, maintaining that balance can sometimes be difficult.
In some areas, second homes are increasingly dominant, detracting from community cohesion by forcing up prices and thereby depriving locals of the opportunity to purchase, and transforming High Streets with high rents squeezing out traditional retailers; deprivation can be masked when affluent weekenders and holiday renters driving Range Rovers arrive to enjoy themselves in the designer shops, bars and restaurants, giving a false impression of a more general wellbeing which can be far from the actuality. Despite second-home owners failing to integrate, they can, nevertheless, carry disproportionate influence, voicing the loudest opposition to new housing which is not necessarily representative of the broader community desperate for investment.
Although there is justifiable resentment about the way some national developers may try to impose schemes from their standard design portfolios, which are often unsuited because of their overpowering scale and lack of local context, plans can be tempered with determined negotiation and a shared understanding of what is acceptable, allowing for some give and take on both sides.
However, instead of bowing to the will of the Big 8 which require economies of scale to meet their profit margins, the solution to these impasses could be the smaller builders who used to dominate the 1-100 range, but have declined in recent years, with many absorbed into the national groups.
Three decades ago, they delivered about 65 per cent of new housing but are now reduced to around 25-30 per cent at best, yet they have a greater affinity with local aspiration, using local architects who are sympathetic to the design imperatives, history and landscape.
Nevertheless, their success also hinges on the same planning and regulatory framework which applies to any development, with the upfront costs difficult to absorb due to the lack of credit, which effectively dried up in 2008, and their more modest bank balances.
For example, a £1 million bank loan requires substantial equity, which can’t accrue until a site is paid for and the first units sold; consequently, these vital SMEs are held back from contributing their specific expertise. Some Local Enterprise Partnerships have addressed the problem by allocating funding streams for loans which can be released quite quickly once a strong business proposal has been accepted, so maybe local authorities could be persuaded to defer payment of their fees, adding a modest interest charge, until a small builder is able to recover its initial costs. Another option would be for local authorities to partner with small builders, taking a share of the eventual profits.
All around us there are small – and large – sites in public as well as private ownership potentially suitable for new homes, which wouldn’t impinge on the green belt, but would revitalise owner occupation statistics, when currently one in five households rents privately. If it was possible to achieve 200,000 housing completions in the l980’s, surely the only thing stopping us now is the overwhelming bureaucracy and (local) political correctness, which prevents creative solutions.
Shelter has launched its Great Home Debate to discover what a home means to people in today’s market; what they want from a home and what they don’t. Is it more important to live near a good school than to have a garden; is size more important than location? Clarke believes that security and relative permanence, as well as affordability, are key considerations for most people to live and thrive. Local authorities would do well to have the same debate in their own areas; the results could inspire fresh thinking on policies and decisions to reflect what local people actually want.