Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Building around a thousand new homes across East Anglia each year, Hopkins Homes is a thriving Suffolk-based housebuilder which prides itself on its no compromise approach to design and build quality.
Hopkins Homes delivers a substantial number of houses to meet the region’s housing shortage, yet each property continues to be sympathetically designed to reflect the architecture and character of the local area whilst still offering the convenience and energy efficiency expected of a new build home.
“There is no doubting the need to build new houses to help solve the country’s housing crisis. However, we believe that housebuilders have a responsibility that goes beyond simply providing new homes”, says Development Director, Simon Bryan. “It has always been a challenge, but we use our extensive local knowledge to design developments which reflect the character of their setting”.
However, the Planning process is a growing frustration:
“We have always recognised the importance of working with and listening to communities and stakeholders to explore local views on issues, for example on drainage, travel planning, wildlife and archaeology to name a few, and worked to ameliorate these concerns prior to submitting our application. But planning has become increasingly more bureaucratic, involving a large number of consultees who have growing influence. The expansive range of parties involved in the decision process is only creating significant delays and cost without improving the process. Ultimately it delays the rate at which new homes can be delivered.”
He confirms that some local authorities don’t always appear to understand the benefits which quality, sustainable, new housing can bring to their local economies. Good housing helps to attract new investment, creating thriving communities.
“Most authorities do not have site allocations or an adopted Local Plan. Even when land has the benefit of an outline planning consent, it often requires a high level of pre-application work, demanding more public consultation, exhibitions and more meetings with planning officers. Typically, surface water drainage would be addressed by our engineers as part of an application, but we are now finding some flood authorities are taking an extreme view requiring additional and unnecessary requirements to be met.
“As a result, the level of up-front costs incurred before submitting an application have significantly increased. To prepare and submit an application of a reasonably sized development can regularly cost around £150,000.”
Iain Jamie, the firm’s Land Director, interjects:
“From the time we identify a piece of land, it could be two or three years before we start on site because of the growing bureaucracy we have to contend with. It is only in the final stages of a project that we realise the profit on our original investment.
“Planning should be determined within 13 weeks, but that’s far from reality. It frequently takes a year just to get our application to a planning committee. Even at that stage, some councillors can disregard data from statutory consultees, and even overrule officer recommendations for approval.
“Section 106 obligations should then be a formality, but it can take months to reach agreement after planning consent has been granted.
“Despite the introduction of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which was supposed to simplify and speed up matters, there is still a tendency to see developers as a cash cow, by making unreasonable demands for local amenities or infrastructure which are too often unrelated to a new housing development.
“This is not conducive to making things happen, leading to unnecessary delays and erroneous accusations of ‘land banking’ because sites cannot be developed without agreement, whilst adding to the pressure on housing.”
From the beginning of October, local planning authorities are no longer permitted to impose pre-commencement conditions. Nevertheless, both directors suggest that, to reduce frustrations and delays, the Government should consider introducing measures to enforce timescales, and authorities should beef up their resources, or perhaps share specific expertise with others to speed up the process.
“Whilst we are fully appreciative of the reduced resources available at many Local Authorities, we are not seeing the same quality in planning service that was evident just a decade ago as there is often a lack of proper management of the application experience process. Furthermore we feel that senior officers should be empowered further to issue decisions, when applications are fully compliant with local and national policies.”
The company prides itself on developing sites which offer a good balance and variety of traditionally built new homes suitable for different types of home buyer, from first time buyers on Help to Buy, to families and downsizers, with two thirds of sites providing bungalows, which are in high demand. “There is definitely a trend for low maintenance, energy-efficient, single storey properties in locations which are easily accessible to public and private amenities.” Some sites offer shared equity homes that are sold at a discount to open market value, which are only available to ‘qualified’ buyers who have local connections and salaries below certain thresholds.
Arguing against the questionable leasehold practices now offered by some developers and management companies, Iain confirms, “We have never sold leasehold ‘houses’, and the ground rents for our leasehold apartments do not exceed 0.1 per cent of the value of the property, giving buyers security that this is fixed for 25 years and then only increasing in line with inflation.”
Increasingly, resident management companies control the communal areas on their completed sites, in the absence of local authorities agreeing to adopt them. “This approach gives buyers comfort, with every householder becoming a shareholder in their community, controlling their environment and the costs incurred. It also brings added responsibility to sustaining high standards”, explains Iain.
To maximise efficiency, the company uses subcontractors for on-site construction, closely monitored by their own management team. “Getting good quality tradespeople is an increasing challenge, and we are aware that some of our subcontractors are going overseas to recruit”, adds Simon.
“In the UK, the building industry isn’t recognised as a profession, yet more young people should be encouraged to learn trades, from plumbing to carpentry, brickwork to plastering, and landscaping. These are world-class skills, paying good salaries, yet all the emphasis is on academic careers, which can leave students in debt, and don’t necessarily bring the same financial rewards over a lifetime of working.”
Meeting with Hopkins Homes is yet another indication that, instead of interfering in what works well, in the interests of taxpayers and the economy, Government and local authorities should reduce bureaucracy – and actually listen to business.