The Real Housing Blockers are the Gatekeepers at Local Planning Authorities

Councils should be given powers to charge council tax or other fees on unnecessarily delayed building of permissions.  So says South East England Councils (SEEC) in its new report Unlock the Housing Blockers.

You have to admire the front of authorities at times.  There are astonishingly few councils in the south east who can genuinely claim that they are fit for purpose when it comes to housing delivery. This is a result of political obfuscation and indecision, lack of officer resource and core skills, and niggles in the planning system.

So what better way to divert attention than to blame the housing industry for blocking housing delivery? Let’s assume for a moment that the SEEC are right; that one or two developers throttle delivery rates to maximise the return on their investment.  Consider the justification for such an outcome.  The principal issue is certainty of land supply, and certainty of income.  Housebuilders of all scales rely on their workforce, and in particular their construction supply teams.  Maintaining a consistent team of skilled labour requires a steady supply of projects.  The issue here is that no company would employ people without an ability to utilise them, to deliver sufficient returns to generate greater profits than costs.  Working a team to their maximum utilisation only works if the employer can guarantee that another project will be waiting for them once the current instruction comes to a close.  Otherwise, they will all be looking for other jobs.

Feeding that conundrum into the world of land and planning highlights an obvious tension.  Local authorities continue to fail to deliver robust development plans with sound housing allocations.  As of January 2017, a full 70 per cent of local authorities in the South East remain without an up-to-date development plan. That is bad news for homeowners and home renters, but it’s also bad news for developers. They are being starved of oxygen to keep their businesses in rude health, to enable them to plan for growth, to employ additional people, and to increase the volume of housing development – all of which support the UK’s economic growth.  Developers are often obliged to track the pace of developments, and the number of teams working on them. This isn’t because they don’t want to build more quickly – and thereby improve the potential of maximising returns – but through a limited supply of future sites.

I have said on more than one occasion that strategic land promoters and the housebuilding industry suffer from appalling PR (ultimately their own fault), and that we should more readily equate housing supply to an infrastructure pipeline in just the same way as we view gas or oil.  A landbank in that context is a good thing.  It provides greater certainty of delivery, and will actually increase the flow rate of growth, and all parties in the supply chain gain greater confidence from its existence.

Let me put this into context.  Iceni undertook some research into South Essex recently (not strictly covered by SEEC, but you’ll get the point), which sought to match how many of the circa 50,000 homes projected to be required in the sub-region could be referenced in any form of development plan – be that draft allocation or adopted plan.  We were unable to point to more than circa 3,000 plots.  Recognising that the majority of land required to deliver growth is presently zoned Green Belt, can anyone blame the respective land promoters and house builders for being cautious about bringing forward planning applications?  The minute they do, they are subject to claims of being opportunist, parasitic developers.

SEEC’s report is a great diversionary tool, but does little to address the underlying problems in housing delivery.  Development in the South East – particularly of the strategic land promotion flavour – is a long, hard slog.  It’s expensive, uncertain, and bedevilled by political opportunism.

Developers are not altruistic, and we do not have a benevolent public sector that is about to return us to the housebuilding rates last seen in the 1970s.  Developers have shareholders that expect returns (it is no great leap of imagination to understand the pressures that this brings to bear – we all have shareholders too, by way of our pensions).

The system we have has been fine-tuned by political short-termism, local authority budget cuts, and 20-plus years of NIMBYism.  Adopt some development plans, and housing delivery will materially rise.  The pendulum swings back– the real onus is on local authorities to unlock the housing blockage, not developers.

A Tale of Three Cities

Which of our major cities has the greatest projected requirement to accommodate homes and jobs over the next 20 plus years? It will come as no great surprise that the answer is London.

Taking population growth as the principal driver, the Capital is required to accommodate twice as many people as presently reside in Manchester by 2024[1].

Yet, whereas Manchester has recently announced plans to release up to 4,900 hectares of Green Belt land to accommodate sustainable patterns of growth to sit alongside ambitious urban regeneration plans[2], London has resolutely refused to consider incursions into its hinterland. Why is that, and how can it be justified? The answer to the former is a mix of politics and due process. The answer to the latter is that it can – provided one backs the stick, rather than the carrot, approach to spatial planning.

There is presently much focus on the Northern Powerhouse and the ‘Midland Engine Room’, especially with the emergence of combined authorities for both Greater Manchester the West Midlands.

Both are expected to see the appointment of an elected mayor within the next 6 months, and devolved power, together with a spatial strategy for the region, by 2018. Yet the reality is that even without devolution, Manchester and Birmingham, at a planning level, are able to exert power and authority beyond London’s wildest dreams.

London is an amalgam of 32 London boroughs, with an elected mayor – and the Greater London Authority – sat above it, but the reality is that the Mayor cannot dictate how it wants the Capital to evolve.  It can cajole, persuade, set strategic policies and impose mayoral development corporations, but it cannot dictate anywhere like as much as its city rivals. The reality is that if a developer wants to get things done in Westminster or Wandsworth, Camden or Croydon, the first port of call is to the respective chief executive, head of planning and leader of the borough council, and typically only after that, to the GLA.

Compare that with Manchester and Birmingham: both cities have council buildings that pay homage to the might of municipal power, and there are a relatively small number of power-brokers to engage with. Can you imagine being a chief executive for the whole of London and having the clout of a Sir Howard Bernstein or Mark Rogers, never mind a politician? So the reality is that whilst London remains in its existing construct, Sadiq Khan, as the incumbent of City Hall, cannot dictate spatial change as he conceivably might wish for.

The other major distinction is what happens on London’s boundaries. Is the Mayor going to put himself up as the one to call for a review of London’s Green Belt, or is he more likely to await the respective outcome of the outer London boroughs local plan reviews, and their assessment of how to meet their objectively assessed need for housing? Recognising that much of outer London is blue, why not borrow from the erstwhile Tory repertoire of localism, and let those decisions come from within?

If I was a red mayor I think I would be tempted to do just that (and back Gatwick’s growth aspirations whilst I’m at it). Couple this with the other major distinction between London and Manchester and Birmingham: London doesn’t have an agreed strategy with its neighbours in the home counties as to how to accommodate its rapidly-increasing population, and the accompanying need for homes, transport, infrastructure and jobs.  So in the part of the country with the greatest requirement for joined-up politics and planning, there is the least.

And that is why London is likely to adopt a stick approach to spatial planning, in spite of Mayor Khan’s pronouncements on delivering an increase in housebuilding and affordable housing. London is going to get busier, pricier, and less accessible to large swathes of people who have historically considered themselves as having a right to reside within the Capital. The Mayor will continue to push for densification on brownfield sites, and better use of publicly-owned land, because in reality, there is very little else he can say or do, either from a planning or political perspective. Those residential schemes, office developments, and transport improvement projects that do emerge will be eye wateringly expensive, and serve high net-worth land owners and developers and the only market that can afford to occupy them; the comparatively wealthy resident, and the multinational corporation. That is not to denigrate any of these parties; it is simply stating the economic facts of life. A landowner is not going to sell for a price below what a site is worth, a developer is not going to build without seeking a reasonable return on investment, and a bank is not going to lend money to a purchaser or occupier if they cannot afford the terms.

London’s planning and political straightjacket potentially plays into the hands of Manchester and Birmingham. Whereas London regards any reference to Green Belt review as a sign of weakness, Manchester confidently strides out on the international stage, with the support of its 10 partnering authorities, and makes the rational case for why it needs to look at both its urban fringe as well as brownfield assets to deliver a balanced, sustainable city region.

The distinction between London and Manchester has been put into sharp context for me, personally, over the past few weeks and months by two events – one macro, and one micro.  Iceni opened an office in Manchester in November 2016,, and as part of our due diligence, we have spent time speaking to various stakeholders and commentators. We have interviewed people, and taken office space in the city, and we have looked into residential property prices. In a nutshell, this has proven that salaries are not significantly below those in London (at least in planning and related consultancies), business start-up costs are a fraction of those in the Capital, and the cost of residential property would make even the most humble of home owner fortunate enough to get onto the London property ladder before 2005 blush.

Conversely, a recent BBC documentary, No Place to Call Home, highlighted the plight of Londoners living within Barking and Dagenham, described as London’s most affordable borough, and the difficulty for people on minimum incomes to get any kind of accommodation, be it council-owned, or privately rented (home ownership is not even on the radar).  This struck a chord, as Iceni has worked on a great number of residential projects within Barking and Dagenham over recent years, including directly for the authority, which when implemented, will help to transform the profile and status of the borough.  But as the Leader of the Council himself noted, the Council simply cannot cater for the requirements of its most vulnerable residents.

The question is not will people move out of London to Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, and other parts of the country, but when. Graduates will eventually decide that paying 70% of their take-home salary on rent is not the most sustainable way of addressing £50,000 of university debts – and what’s more, the vast majority will probably choose to put down roots and stay there. Minimum wage earners, by virtue of stick if not carrot, will be forced to move to more affordable parts of the country, save they should choose to ‘sofa-surf’ their way through their 20’s and 30’s. A hundred years ago – maybe even 30 years ago – we probably wouldn’t have blinked at the idea of economic migration, and indeed, enterprise zones and new towns were designed to do just that.  But in today’s age, it grates the social conscience to watch both the plight of Londoners documented by the BBC and to be aware of the challenges facing university leavers.  London’s loss needs to be made a gain for other parts of the country, and that is why the approach taken by Manchester and Birmingham is so vital for us all.

[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS), Subnational population projections for England:2014-based projections, (May 2016).

[2] Joint Greater Manchester Combined Authority and AGMA Executive Board, Greater Manchester Spatial Framework – Draft for Consultation, (October 2016).

This week Theresa May marked her 100th day in power

We’ve seen already a very clear departure from the Cameron/Osborne way of government, including on policy and approach.

May has confidently positioned herself as a Prime Minister that advocates ‘substance over style’. She has already broken away from several policy agendas and although the political and economic landscape continues to be dominated by Brexit, there are still some issues that refuse to go away regardless of who is at the top.

Airport expansion

The Prime Minister was accused of dithering over a new runway for London and the south east after it was announced this week that a final decision will not be revealed for a further 18 months. She has shown before (Hinkley Point) she is not afraid to take her time and make the right call.

This move to delay a Heathrow decision is a tad surprising. However, could it be that May is simply trying to minimise the scope for judicial review by allowing for this extended consultation period? If so, delaying the final decision at this stage could actually speed up the overall process, whilst simultaneously reaffirming support for the choice of Heathrow over Gatwick.

Let’s hope a decision is made sooner rather than later. We need to get going on investing in and building new and much-needed infrastructure.

Northern Powerhouse

May’s stance on devolution in England, and in particular on Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, was initially cloudy. She has not taken to the Northern Powerhouse push with as much enthusiasm previously shown by Osborne – and given that the project was the preceding chancellor’s brainchild, this is perhaps unsurprising.

This ‘wobble’ on the Northern Powerhouse may not have just been about May wishing to distance herself from Osborne’s legacy. Her announcement in August of a national ‘industrial strategy’ sought to ensure future focus is not just centred on the north-west – a seemingly sensible move given that, following the financial crisis, areas of decline include Northern Ireland and the south-west. The blueprint is in place, May will now need to ensure the details are worked up to the advantage of key UK cities like Manchester.

House building

During the short-lived Conservative leadership contest, May placed housebuilding at the forefront of her economic policy agenda. Fortunately, May has not side-stepped the issue. The announcement of an injection of extra cash into the £3bn Home Building Fund is to be applauded, as is the continued rhetoric by May’s administration on the necessity to build more homes.

Yes, the Conservatives are still shackled to the party ideology of protecting the Green Belt but, under May’s premiership, there seems to be a subtle departure from unequivocally adhering to the NIMBY stance.

The desire to resolve the housing crisis is undoubtedly there. However, May now needs to ensure that joined-up thinking between national government, local government and the property industry is achieved and more radical solutions are found to ensure the supply of new homes can match up to demand.


Brexit is undoubtedly the topic that will define a generation and will ultimately determine how May’s time in power will be remembered. It is clearly, and rightly, a priority for the government to strike a befitting deal for the UK.

However, May now needs to work out how to bridge the deep divides that so clearly exist across the UK – as well as a Brexit Plan May’s government should also look at implementing a National Plan. A National Plan will ensure the leaders of the south-east communicate with the leaders of Scotland, the north west, the Midlands etc., it will bring about investment to our cities outside of London and will, importantly in this post-Brexit climate, encourage UK-wide cohesion and vision.

This article originally appeared in City AM.

A bridge (not) too far…

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not instructed to represent the promoters of the Garden Bridge. I don’t have shares in an urban gardening company, a bridge engineering practice, real estate on the Embankment, or even a back-catalogue of Absolutely Fabulous. I have a healthy respect for Gurkhas, but I wouldn’t necessary cross the Thames to say as much.

What I do have is a recent passport stamp from a visit to New York; evidence of a recent summer holiday stop-over in Manhattan. There were two outstanding highlights for family Anderson; firstly, dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where I got involved in a passingly decent version of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ with Connie from Seattle, who was ‘in between’ Broadway shows, and was wasted serving burgers and chips. My contribution was principally confined to shaking, as opposed to singing, but despite my youngest thinking I was having a minor seizure, I’m pretty sure my fellow diners credited me with helping Connie through some of the trickier elements of the verse – especially the rap.

The second highlight (and there wasn’t an alcoholic drink in sight) was the High Line. The High Line probably now needs no introduction, so I will simply say that it is the greatest, coolest thing presently in Manhattan. Where its structure once blighted large tracts of the City, with its crude, elevated railway infrastructure disrupting streets, sight lines, and causing noise and vibration, it now brings vitality, interest, and people to everything it touches. It is an ecological breath of fresh air in the steaming metropolis that really does never sleep (London still does). It’s 1.5 miles in length, and perhaps more pertinently, it’s 15 metres in width. The structure is teeming with a smorgasbord of hard and soft landscaping; a linear Chelsea garden show if you will, albeit all-year round. It’s free to visit, to frequent and enjoy. Landowners and occupiers who once looked on their lot as grey, sterile and third-rate, now have the best seats in the house. It is an asset that New Yorkers are rightly proud of.

Which brings me to the Garden Bridge. Somehow, this imaginative, compelling proposal has become tainted, caught up in local borough politics, and the source of angst from others, notably the Architects Journal. I will let those with more than a civic interest in the project defend or justify the procurement strategy, other than to say that at a projected cost of £175 million, with private contributions limiting the state’s investment to £60 million, this looks to be an absolute no-brainer. People have said that it will do for the northern Embankment what the Millenium Bridge did for the Southbank, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice. It will be an experience all of itself, as well as providing improved access for pedestrians, be a focal point for tourists, and be a unique way to cross the Thames. Granted, it’s not the re-use of an elevated railway line, but the High Line is something to be inspired by – not to mimic. I am convinced that the Garden Bridge can have the same transformational effect as what has taken place across the pond. Now all we need is to come up with our own version of Ellen’s…

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.