I see Tesco are the latest party to be pilloried for land banking. Apparently they have enough land to deliver 15,000 homes. Never mind that they are the largest national food retailer and have obligations to their shareholders to deliver continued growth, which is good for the City, good for the economy, and good for job creation. Also, never mind that many of the sites they own are in use – temporary or otherwise – for other purposes, and they are in any event scattered around the country, represented by 310 separate sites. Crudely speaking, that means that each site might deliver something like 48 residential dwellings; hardly ground breaking.
Why should Tesco give up its land? It’s not Tesco’s responsibility to deliver sufficient sites for housing. Tesco has done (along with Sainsbury’s and others) what any business of its scale would do; it’s put in place a pipeline of future sites. That’s what responsible, successful businesses do. That’s what energy companies do. Can you imagine BP turning round and saying sorry, we haven’t got any oil left?! There would be anarchy.
The planning answer is to make appropriate incursions into greenfield land around the edges of London and other major settlements, but there’s more chance of Ipswich winning the FA Cup and getting promoted to the Premier League than the Government saying that, certainly this side of the General Election. So I’ll put forward a more pragmatic sticking plaster. When I started out in planning I spent the majority of my time trying to get planning permission for retail parks and stand alone retail units for a whole plethora of DIY, electrical, carpet, furniture, sports, and pet operators. And the majority have now disappeared, or at least retracted and merged with one another. The net effect is lots of underutilised retail parks and retail units in urban locations, on good transport routes. If the asset managers of those units and parks raise their heads above the parapet, they may just find that products such as PRS, which can deliver an ongoing return (as opposed to a once-only cheque for conventional residential) might just work. It’s why student accommodation is attractive to funds. It keeps on earning.
There’s little point spouting ‘use it or lose it’ headlines. Sticks rarely work as well as carrots. The Government could introduce a permitted development right that allows all out of centre retail parks to be utilised for PRS without planning permission, or akin to an old-style enterprise zone designation. That’s less damaging than the loss of offices, and it would also deliver the aesthetic benefits of replacing some seriously ugly monstrosities that I was partially responsible for getting built in the 1990s. Surely that’s better than trying to intervene in the running of a business that’s not even involved in house building, and has no responsibility to do so?