Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a local councillor in Suffolk.
Speaking in May, at the launch of the Home Builders Federation’s Blueprint 2017 – a plan to deliver more homes, Stewart Baseley, Executive Chairman, noted that:
“Whilst supply has increased by over 50 per cent in the last three years, developers have been bogged down in red tape. Speeding up the planning process is imperative. The regulation, cost, risk and complexity involved is a significant constraint on delivery, especially for smaller builders.”
His comments came in the wake of revelations extracted from Government data that more than 240,000 planning applications for new housing schemes had suffered delays between 2011 and 2016, with approvals described as a postcode lottery. This is amidst claims by developers that just a third of local authority planners are good. According to the Federation of Master Builders, land availability and the planning system are the two main constraints on building new homes, with self-build and small builders accounting for just one-third, losing market share to a handful of big companies.
Having one of the world’s most complex planning systems, successive governments’ attempts to cut red tape is failing to resolve the housing crisis, which deems it unlikely that one million new homes can be delivered by 2020. Radical change is urgently required, allowing greater flexibility, but that doesn’t mean adding new regulations. Even the Royal Town Planning Institute condemns constant “tinkering, which slows the process down”.
Negotiations over Conditions and Section 106 obligations are increasingly blamed for delays before work can start on site, and need an injection of realism instead of the ‘bunker mentality’ described by a retirement developer’s land director, ‘you feel harassed from all sides’, which led to their withdrawal from several sites, despite rising demand for appropriate elderly housing to support downsizing.
Protecting the environment is another issue: a campaign to protect nightingales scuppered a scheme to provide 5,000 new homes at the former Lodge Hill army camp near Rochester in Kent when Land Securities pulled out after spending £11 million on the plans, which were approved by the local council but referred to a public enquiry. In another case, NorthStar Projects bemoaned the fact that EU law required checking for newts, toads and foraging bats on a former playing field site, intended for a new elderly care development in a Suffolk town with a shortage of provision and which had welcomed the plan. Facing delays of up to seven months, ‘who is protecting the elderly humans who have no habitat?’ they asked. Archaeological digs are another cause of endless delays.
I would never challenge the need for these investigations, but I suspect they could be managed more efficiently; rather than waiting for a site to be approved for development, the work could be done in tandem with developers, their advisers and planners, as part of the planning application.
The Local Government Association rejects much of the criticism, although acknowledging that more needs to be done to speed up the process, ‘councils approve nine out of ten applications, but thousands of permissions have yet to be activated by the developers.’ Nevertheless, it took three years for a derelict site in Haringey to eventually win approval, on appeal, during which prices had risen by 60 per cent. A similar story in Ipswich delayed a major project for more than ten years.
Greater collaboration between planners and developers, alongside communities is essential. Shelter surveyed 20,000 adults about their views on potential development in their neighbourhoods, with 69 per cent favouring or neutral, leaving 11 per cent of Nimbys strongly opposed and most likely to vocalise objections which can usually be overcome with proper engagement and evidence that proposals match local need.
Extending and upskilling the construction workforce, when a lack of skills continue to hold the industry back, is just one factor in delivering more housing. Another is to stop the migration from North to South, by creating more quality, well paid, jobs beyond the M25, where land and housing is cheaper. The lack of investment in some areas, the British equivalent to America’s ‘rust belt’, is a tragedy; these are areas where too many young people lack any hope or aspiration, but those lucky enough to acquire a good education and ambition escape as soon as they can.
We can only hope that the Government’s new Industrial Strategy, due for publication shortly, will address these issues.
Improving infrastructure and access, creating more enterprise zones, supporting start-ups and working with existing businesses to identify their staffing needs as well as development / rationalisation plans, and the impact of Brexit, are all crucial. However, too few local authorities (and some Local Enterprise Partnerships) understand how to engage with business, nor how to attract new enterprises; sharing knowledge and even seconding staff from one (successful) council or LEP to another could be the answer.
Redundant buildings and sites can be revitalised for a variety of uses, providing employment alongside living spaces, with the right expertise, imagination and determination. Urban Splash is a role model for revitalising neglected areas, creating some of the best schemes.
As we await the Budget, with promises of tinkering with finance and planning to deliver more homes, it’s worth remembering that the planning system doesn’t merely control residential development. It also governs what businesses are permitted to do.
In Suffolk, the BBC reported two recent decisions: the first resulting in the loss of 10 staff in a high quality, garden office company because it was refused permission to extend the working day by just three, yes three, hours.
Another decision, preventing a long-established, successful, business from extending its factory into a vacant field adjoining the site because of its ‘green belt’ status, means that the company either gives up on any plans to expand, or moves its entire operation elsewhere, costing millions of pounds and no doubt taking several years – and further negotiations with the planners. It would surely be better if the company could use those millions to create more employment on its existing site within months, rather than years.
Should the planning system really be penalising businesses by rejecting perfectly reasonable proposals for further investment and jobs?
Unless housing policy is linked to jobs, there is a danger of simply adding to a cycle of deprivation, with the homeless being relocated to poorer areas where properties are more likely to be available, cheap and potentially substandard. Britain already has more council/social housing than equivalent European countries; borrowing billions to provide more (when taxpayers are paying £45 billion a year in interest on the existing national debt) is only part of the solution.
Genuine need must be met, but interest rates are already on the rise, and borrowings have to be repaid. More council/social housing recycles public money through housing and other benefits as people age, inevitably leading to ever higher local and national taxation for everyone in work or receiving an income – but without improving living standards for the disadvantaged. It is only by investing in good education and incentivising businesses to expand and provide good jobs which gives people independence, mobility and responsibility, rather than dependence on the State.
People take pride in home ownership, designing their own kitchens, putting pictures on the wall, and having an asset for their children. They deserve the opportunity to spend their hard earned money buying a property, rather than spending the equivalent on a lifetime paying rent to social or private landlords.
Newly published data clearly identified that just six per cent of land in Britain is actually built on – this is a surprising statistic, which clearly means that there is scope to sensitively address the housing shortage (and support new jobs) without destroying that which we all hold dear.