Award Delivery, Not Planning Permissions

The announcement by think tank Civitas that developers are to blame for not turning a sufficient number of planning consents into bricks and mortar is both depressing and predictable, as much for the inability of the development industry to rid these misnomers as the article itself.

No one would doubt that local authorities are stretched, and that many departments are performing superbly against a backdrop of budget cuts.  We know this at first hand, and if I’m bribed enough, I’ll put their names up in lights so that they can get due recognition.

However, the fact of the matter is that we have a system that awards planning permissions and not delivery.  Authorities are judged on their performance in determining quantity, and not quality of permissions, so those household applications for new loft conversions don’t half polish up the performance figures. But more pertinently, once applications have been through the prescribed application cycle, officers are obliged to prioritise the next batch in the system, rather than see projects through to completion. So the myriad of pre-commencement conditions takes an age to discharge, not least because of the docile mindset of statutory consultees that shotgun the system.

Legal agreements, particularly relating to highway issues, gather dust during the drafting stage. I know from current experience of an application granted 18 months ago that is still stuck in the purgatory of pre-commencement. Our client is going puce with rage – and ironically, they get the blame for non-performance. There is literally nothing more that they can do within the confines of the system.

However, I do take heart from the publication this week of the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, which is the Government’s acknowledgment of the need to curb the relentless tide of pre-commencement conditions, which in part, is the bi-product of one of my ever-bashful colleague’s engagement with Treasury and CLG officials during the course of last year. Jamie Sullivan, one of Iceni’s associates, undertook a secondment to HM Treasury, and ambushed them with a number of ideas that we had – influenced by consultation with our clients – to rid some of the gremlins in the system that well-meaning think tanks don’t write reports on. Pre-commencement was just one of them. Look out for the other 426 in due course.

From Brexit to Devolution

  • So, Brexit? Whichever way you voted, there is no doubt that we are in a new world order. Whether that is a bigger or smaller one, safer or more fragile, only time will tell. But what is certain is that if we as a nation are to stand on our own two feet, we need to have a plan, and we need to get on with it.

    Quite understandably, what has largely been overlooked in the past week or so is the recent publication by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) of ‘Blueprint for a Great North Plan’; which as the name suggests, outlines ideas on how to make the most of devolved power in the North of England The report makes a number of recommendations, chief amongst them being the following:

  • It should be large-scale and long-term;
  • It shouldn’t be a statutory document, but it should have enough traction to secure buy-in from decision makers;
  • It should be ambitious, and look to at least 2050 (so that’s two long-term references in one series of recommendations);
  • It should be supported by clear, concrete steps over both the short and medium term;
  • It should be sufficiently dynamic to ride above short term changes at the national and local political level, and it should be collaborative;
  • It should be a document that secures ownership from a variety of stakeholders, and a document that people return to in a variety of different fields;
  • It must be inclusive, and speak for the differing, but complementary parts of the Northern Region, be it city dwellers or country workers; and
  • It should be driven by the relative importance of different places and different objectives, and not fall into the ‘political correctness’ trap of giving equal air time to all.

    Those of you that have read my blog before will know that Iceni called for the production of a National Plan prior to the last General Election. We did that in full knowledge of the fact that the Conservative Party has no appetite for even loosely stitched strategic planning, and of course, there is a tendency to wonder whether there is any value in making such suggestions when the status quo looks to play out regardless for the lifetime of a Parliamentary programme.

    Well, the status quo has well and truly changed. We presently have no established economic plan, and no timetable for our departure from Europe. We have a lame-duck Prime Minister, in-fighting within the Conservative Party, open revolt amongst the principal opposition party, fresh calls for Scottish independence, nervousness over the future of Northern Ireland, and perhaps most surprisingly, deep divisions between Londoners and its immediate south-eastern, western, and East Anglian neighbours. There is diminishing prospects of delivering any of the major infrastructure decisions this country needs for the next couple of years (minimum), be that airport expansion, the choice and location of energy projects, or a decision on the Lower Thames Crossing. Instead, we will spend our time speculating on when to trigger Article 50 and how best to avoid a heavy hand from our erstwhile European partners who face a backlash through the French and German elections if they are seen to treat the UK too meekly in our divorce proceedings.

    Part of Government clearly needs to focus on how we entangle ourselves from Europe. The jingoism of the past couple of months has already died away, and the sombre faces of even the Brexit heavyweights demonstrate how important it is to knuckle down, and to get the best outcome for the country. But we also need to work out how to bridge the deep divides that clearly exist across the UK.

    I fully concur with the blueprint for the North laid down by the IPPR and the RTPI; my only beef is that it doesn’t go far enough. We need a plan for the country as a whole. Can it be the case that Londoners have more in common with people from Dumfries than Reigate? Do we really mean we only want foreigners to work in our hospitals and universities, and if so, do we expect people from Hartlepool and Powys to come to London to clean our toilets, empty our bins and serve us our coffee? Or do we have a plan to keep them in full, worthwhile employment without migration (as opposed to immigration). How do we promote the virtues of large swathes of the country in a post-industrial landscape when we rely on a foot-loose foreign car industry to keep people busy, and where the immediate market place has just become less accessible to them? Is the height of our ambition to see people working in call centres on remediated steel production plants? Why put a call centre in the UK at all? Ireland speak English and are both in Europe and land-tied to the UK.

    To my mind, in order to have a Northern Plan, one needs a National Plan. The leaders of the North would communicate with the leaders of the South West, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the South East, Midlands, East Anglia, Wales and Greater London. We would work out what it means to be British. We would start to build bridges, and not just of the Lower Thames Crossing variety. We would deliver a blueprint for short, medium and long term action and goals across the Country.

    The blueprint for the North is a response to those promoting the virtues of a Northern Powerhouse, and the issues and opportunities that are presently emerging. The recommendations could just as equally work for a National Plan. My frustration lies in the lack of vision and ambition for the Country as a whole – not those promoting the virtues of the North. I sincerely hope that whoever becomes the next Prime Minister, and equally the Leader of the Opposition, will start to engage in these issues before the whiff of revolution that hangs in the air is replaced by stale despondency. As the last week has proven, change can happen, and quickly. Why not so with a National Plan?

Why the devolution of business rates might not be brilliant news for housing delivery…

The Queen’s Speech contained details of the Government’s intention to devolve the full £26bn of local business rates income to councils, and on the face of it, this is a good thing.  Authorities with directly elected mayors will be able to use the revenue to fund infrastructure projects, and there’s the potential for local authorities to also plan more proactively for new forms of employment space.  It might even encourage some authorities to impose Article 4 directions to protect the existing stock of offices that continue to be viable, but under pressure to be released for residential conversions.

However, there could be a sting in the tail.  Cash-strapped authorities could face the dilemma of wanting to see under-utilised employment sites redeveloped for residential, but also looking to preserve their existing income stream.  And of course, business rates do not simply apply to the B class employment generating uses; a potentially fertile stock of future housing is locked up in 1980s retail parks that are reaching the end of their shelf life.  They are often situated in excellent locations for residential redevelopment, close to existing residential neighbourhoods and public transport, without carrying the policy stigma of ‘loss of employment’ associated with their B Class cousins higher up the employment hierarchy (which isn’t to be endorsed, but is a fact of life south of Peterborough).

Developers will need to be alive to the practical implications of this issue, and where possible, seek to make provision for the retention of some form of employment use when promoting redevelopment.  Whilst the retention of business rates is not in isolation a planning issue, it could nevertheless influence the thinking of decision makers when considering residential proposals on former ‘employment’ sites.

Laying the housing crisis bare… sort of

There’s a reason the expression ‘money makes the world go round’ works, but the economist’s version ‘hypothetical cost values encourage upwards growth’ doesn’t. Take up of an astonishing story by the broadsheets (and not the red tops) exemplifies why…

Last week (26 April 2016) the Financial Times published an article that was based on the research of social policy think-think, Resolution Foundation. The think-tank’s new findings offer up some hard-hitting evidence concluding that rising housing costs have had the same impact on disposable income as adding 10 pence to the basic rate of income tax. The news that, “in 1995 the average two-income household with one child spent 17 per cent of their income on housing costs, by 2015 that had risen to 21 per cent… equating to £1,500 a year or 10p on the basic income tax rate” paints the current housing crisis in a stark and relatable light, one which arguably we have yet to be exposed to.

It is somewhat remarkable that one of the most revealing pieces of evidence produced of late to demonstrate that spiralling housing costs are having a direct and detrimental impact on the average 20-something renter (and beyond), is tucked away in the Financial Times and Telegraph.

There is no doubt now that, as a nation, we acknowledge the housing crisis as an accelerating socio-economic disaster. Politicians speak of it often, with vague and forgettable promises of increased housebuilding dripping habitually through the media (the London mayoral campaign as a recent testament to this). Actually, in a perverse way, the amount of coverage the housing shortage receives is enabling a normalising effect to take hold. The fact that we have all come to accept it is a crisis is one thing. Whether this new evidence will mean there is greater incentive for change is another.

The housing crisis is a threat that we all recognise and, for the most part, are fearful of. Yet it has been, and continues to be, accepted by the multitudes, with no far-reaching steps taken to combat it and limited effective policy implemented with conviction by our political leaders. In the first instance, what is needed to rectify any trend towards apathy by the general public, to encourage decisive action and to rally politicians to substantially bolster housebuilding numbers, is for people to understand actual, cold facts. Facts, like the ones outlined in the Financial Times, that they can relate to and which get them where it hurts most… in the pocket.

For too long the housing shortage has been explained via ‘implicit’ and ‘notional’ cost values, described by numbers which have no actual existence. With microeconomics not being renowned for being particularly accessible, the Resolution Foundation’s conclusions are refreshing. This sort of analysis, which focuses on the ‘real’ cost of the housing crisis and which talks about the genuine loss of people’s earnings, is needed if we wish to incite a national sense of urgency, to further encourage politicians and tackle the nationwide housing shortage.

If ‘money talks’ then it should be used to speak to those that hold the power of change, those who determine national appetite and can influence policy. That’s me, you and the rest of the 60 million here.

New Mayor must move beyond the status quo

This is a copy of a letter first published in Property Week, 04 March 2016

It was fantastic to see you focusing on housing in your coverage of the recent LandAid Mayoral Debate (‘Battle for Mayor of London heats up’, 24 February) – and rightly so when one stops to consider the challenges facing our Capital. However, it is also frustrating that all of the candidates again refused to look beyond the status quo in terms of the options available for delivering both an uptake in housing numbers, and indeed a choice of means of housing.

Sweating public assets, as Sadiq Khan suggests, or Zac Goldsmith’s focus on regenerating housing estates, are both worthy policies, but they will not go far enough to build the level and breadth of homes that Londoners need.  Moreover, they are already being relied upon by boroughs to meet their housing targets.

Inevitably, not all families will want to live in apartment blocks. Sadiq Khan was right to point out that families often want a house with a garden – the very accommodation that both main candidates are fortunate to call home.  But they are masquerading the public to suggest that these homes will be provided through a sole reliance on brownfield land within the tightly constrained urban fabric of London.  If this debate were to be about planning and not politics, the laudable objective of delivering an urban renaissance on brownfield land would be complemented by a careful assessment of the settlement limits of the Capital.  This does not mean concreting over our countryside; however, it does mean adopting a managed, sustainable release of land. A poll taken by Property Week last year (‘Open up the Green Belt to housebuilding, 4 September) demonstrates that 74% of the industry are in agreement on this point, which may not make for great political capital, but it does reflect the stark reality of the situation.

The next mayor will have to face up to four big, interlinked challenges when it comes to a housing strategy for London.  Firstly, he will need to convince communities and skyline protectionists that tall buildings are an inevitable part of London’s future – and not just in Central London.  Secondly, he will have to work with the London boroughs to deliver a managed release of employment land for housing, and tackle the resultant implications on employment dispersal around the Capital.  Thirdly, he will be required to go on the mother of all charm offensives to convince outlying authorities within the South East, East Anglia (and probably further afield) to accommodate some of London’s housing requirement, at a time when they are struggling to meet their own needs.  And fourthly, he will have to decide whether or not to grapple with the thorny topic of London’s Green Belt.  Sticking to the current rhetoric will set London on a course of a continued under-supply of housing, house-price and rent inflation, and a virtual reliance on flatted developments, with the resultant implications on the ability to deliver family accommodation.  There has never been a more crucial time for London’s Mayor to display true leadership on what London needs, rather than what focus groups tell him is palatable to say.

Ian Anderson, Executive Director, Iceni Projects

Making the Thames Gateway Twice the Sum of its Parts

When I was at college in Oxford in the early to mid ’90s, Headington was dominated by two landmarks – the polytechnic (which had a Doctor Who-style regeneration into Brookes University whilst I was there, and partially explains why an 8ft ‘Oxford Polytechnic’ sign ended up on the wall of my friends house one night*) and Oxford United’s football ground – The Manor.

The Manor was an antiquated, but atmospheric place, and we used to stand behind one of the goals and watch Oxford mainly lose (unless it was the Cup, when they were capable of causing the odd upset). This didn’t really bother the hardy fans, who were very good at amusing themselves. My favourite ditty was when the left hand side of the stand I was in sang to their right hand neighbours, ‘we are the left side, we are the left side, we are the left side ‘London Road!’  The repost was inevitably – and where I was standing – that we were indeed the right side  ‘London Road.  For a stand that held no more than about 1,000 people, it didn’t strike me as crucial to differentiate oneself, but of course the camaraderie and banter was as much about togetherness as separation.

Which brings me in a convoluted, and some might say parochial, route to the proposed Lower Thames Crossing. Which is a bit like the current route to get anywhere east of say Port Tilbury to east of Gravesham.

The national press has hardly bothered with the Government’s (via Highways England) announcement on the consultation of the proposed route for the Lower Thames Crossing (a point I come back to later), and it has been left to the local Essex and Kent media outlets to pick up on the respective pros and cons of Option 3 versus Options 2 and 4. All three scenarios would see a recessed tunnel stretch from the banks of the Thames in Higham, Kent, to open land situated between Tilbury and East Tilbury in Essex. Perhaps inevitably, those closest to the proposed siting of the crossing are more objectionable to it, whereas Essex and Kent county councils are proponents of the project.

A Lower Thames Crossing has the potential to transform the lives of millions, and at circa £7Bn, is as major a piece of infrastructure costing seven times the amount of the Northern Line extension. Yet for whatever reason, it has failed to catch the publics imagination to date. It is absolutely right to highlight that the Lower Thames Crossing will profoundly change distribution patterns, commuter flows, and relieve pressure on the existing Dartford Crossing/QE2 Bridge for the benefit of the wider south east. What has yet to be articulated is the potential shot in the arm a Lower Thames Crossing could have for the Thames Gateway as a sub-region, and those communities that reside within it.

For those of you that have consigned your Thames Gateway Forum delegate lists and badges to the annals of history (I.e. the rubbish bin), it’s easy to forget that the Thames Gateway is still a national priority zone for regeneration.  Back in the mid naughties, and with the context of regional planning policy to assist, many well meaning public and private sector bodies stood on their soap boxes to claim the virtues of growth and regeneration, in a corridor stretching from Docklands to Southend and the Isle of Grain. It was, of course, always necessary to signpost a northern and southern shore outpost, because it was physically impossible to get between the two locations, other than travelling all the way back to the Dartford Crossing – or via a barge.

Here lies the missing part of the discussion about the Lower Thames Crossing.  A tunnel has the potential to unite both sides of the Thames Gateway in a way that is not possible east of Dartford at present. Too many locations on both the north and southern side of the Thames have only half a catchment; with the potential of locations such as Gravesend disappearing into the sea. A single crossing will not eradicate the isolated characteristics of all outer lying areas, but it has the potential to place residents of Kent into the catchment zone of employment centres such as Port Tilbury and DP World London Gateway in a time frame presently unimaginable. And it has recreational value to boot. The Mucking nature reserve to the east of East Tilbury is a fantastic asset that should benefit a wider population, likewise the forts of Tilbury and East Tilbury, and both the Kent and Essex estuary shorelines. I am not a fan of the Terry Farrell-conceived Thames Gateway Park, because I think the name is misleading; the Thames Gateway should clearly be a hotbed of employment opportunities and housing sites, and to adopt the moniker of park is, in my opinion, misleading to the public, who rightly could assume from the name that the greater emphasis should be on retention of undeveloped land. However, there is no doubt that a case exists for a Thames Gateway masterplan, that nits together the existing assets of both the northern and southern sub-areas, and thinks strategically about how a 21st century river crossing could accelerate further opportunities for regeneration and change.

The Thames Gateway won’t have the luxury of a Doctor Who-style regeneration; it is gong to take time, and it probably requires a 30 year commitment from national and local politicians.  All players need to recognise the value of maintaining local distinction whilst pushing for a common cause – for the first time ever, one Thames Gateway rather than an Essex version and a Kent version. There is nothing wrong with Essexonians chatting that they are the north side of the Thames, or for their counterparts in Kent to remind them of their geographical presence to the south.  What is surely crucial though, is for both to unite and to hone the virtues of being to the east side of London, and to taking full advantage of what a crossing can mean to local communities as well as the national imperative.

* My partner in crime, and the tenant-owner of the wall in question, is now head of planning at a large council.  Under duress, he will say he had nothing to do with it.  But he knows…

Sustainable what?

Bearing in mind the NPPF waxes lyrical about the presumption in favour of sustainable development, and the ‘golden thread’ of sustainability that runs through planning, it might appear crass to question what is meant by sustainable development. But I’ll do it anyway.

Last year I was preparing for an appeal.  I was reading through various planning committee reports and reviewing the well meaning, but ad-hoc analysis undertaken by the respective planning officers.  They were inconsistent.  They were unsubstantiated.  They were absolutely open to scrutiny.  I looked at my own analysis.  I felt it was robust and capable of defence under cross-examination, but I was conscious that along with the planning inspector that would ultimately determine the appeal, all of the professional planners involved in the process would be applying their own interpretation to what is meant by the term sustainable development, and in turn, the presumption to be applied to the same. God help any members of the community looking on from the gallery.

One might initially say, so what? Well to my mind, it matters a great deal.  The NPPF sets out to increase the pace and volume of development, albeit with the laudable caveat that it should be the right kind of development – sustainable development.  The NPPF identifies the three strands of sustainable development – economic, social, and environmental, and references to these categories, and sustainable development in general, courses through the NPPF. But ultimately, it doesn’t say what it is, or at what point (or level) the presumption is triggered.  Is it about carbon neutral development? Is it about being close to public transport? Can you be sustainable if you satisfy one of these credentials but not the other two?

Once the dust had settled on my appeal, I got to thinking.  What if there was a criteria to sit alongside the NPPF that all practitioners, stakeholders, and the public at large could use as a yardstick to appraise planning proposals (development plan submissions and applications alike)? Would it be so difficult to, say, rate the economic, social, and environmental components of a scheme, to bind the complex and extensive planning submission documents into a single rating system, and to then provide a blended overall outcome?

I’m pleased to say that I was not alone in thinking that this could be a good thing.  With the wise counsel of Nick Raynsford, the former Labour Housing Minister, Iceni are in the process of setting up a Sustainable Development Commission, the purpose of which will be to scrutinise those elements, their applicability and the weight of significance, to be applied to planning proposals. We are presently formalising the membership of the Commission, but at the time of writing we already have the commitment of a number of eminent people, who are well known in their day-jobs, and have generously agreed to spend their own time scrutinising and developing our initial ideas. These include Shaun Spiers (Chief Executive, CPRE), Sue Smith (Joint Chief Executive, Cherwell District Council and South Northamptonshire Council), Stephen Ashworth (Partner, Dentons) and Janet Askew (RTPI President, 2015).  We are looking to finalise the involvement of two developers (one with a specific interest in housing), and a planning inspector, which will provide an excellent cross-section of interests in planning and development.

What would I like to see come out of this process? Ideally, for all practitioners to be in a position to apply the same, easily understood criteria to all projects, so that there is consistency in decision making, and a real understanding of what constitutes sustainable development. Time will tell as to whether we can achieve this, but Iceni will certainly be leading from the front, and will apply a weighting system to the projects we work on – what we have dubbed a Sustainable Development Scorecard – to guide our clients into delivering the best possible proposals, that can equally provide the best possible community outcomes from the same.

Large numbers in our society still have very little understanding of who funds the improvements in transport infrastructure, health, education, community facilities and affordable housing, to name but a few.  I think a Scorecard – and the principles underpinning it – can help to present these facts in a lucid fashion. Equally, I think we do need a tool that local planning authorities and communities can apply to hold developers – and development – to account.  Providing investment in a new water treatment works and flood protection should be worthy of recognition, and may well secure a credit along the way to justifying the sustainable development credentials of a scheme. Equally, the erosion of important agricultural land has the potential to mark down a proposal. A Scorecard system would allow supporters and objectors alike to rate the credentials of any given project.

It’s important to say that Iceni are not seeking to claim ownership of Sustainable Development.  The objective is borne out of the NPPF, and our proposals for a Scorecard will be signposted at all stages back to the NPPF. Others may look to devise an alternative criteria, or seek to apply a more detailed layering to the analysis, which would be a positive outcome of this process, and one to be welcomed.

As a final comment, I sincerely hope the outputs of the Commission – and how Iceni would apply a Scorecard – will be a tool that is accessible to all, and not simply sustainability consultants on the margins of projects.  Planning is not rocket-science, but it is all-consuming; it affects all of our lives, and we all have a point of view.  The major benefit of the NPPF is that it has made planning policy easy to find, and in the main (objectively assessed need discussions aside) relatively easy to understand.  That is a very solid objective, and sustainable development, being a fundamental objective of the NPPF, needs to be kept firmly in the centre ground of planning and decision making.