For Planning Reform, Timing is Everything

Extract from Property Week, 26 June 2015
Ian Anderson, Executive Director at Iceni Projects: 

Editor: Your recent column points to a well-established concern in the industry – the failure to grasp the planning ‘nettle’ by political parties too focussed on ‘aspirational’ yet ineffective demand-side policies, like the much maligned Right-To-Buy rehash. Unfortunately for this government time is running out and, unless the supply crisis is addressed immediately, this issue will define General Election 2020. Politics can no longer afford to skirt around the problem.

Yet we must be careful not to mistake planning reform with dumbing down the system. The last government went to great pains to overhaul a bloated regulatory framework. Think what you will about the NPPF, which is not perfect, but planning needs some degree of consistency and the framework offers that. Instead, let’s build on its basic principles and financially incentivise Councils to put development plans in place. As we’ve seen, waving a stick doesn’t work if you’ve already experienced the chopping block, and it’s time we ensured Local Authorities – all of which have been cut to ribbons – feel the benefit of proper planning.

The main message to politicians is not an easy one for them to hear – planning is better off without them.

On a national level, Secretary of State call-ins are unnecessary and Greg Clark should instead put more faith in his planning inspectorate to get the job done. On a local level, annual council elections are leading to delays as Local Authorities shut down for purdah and developers hold off submitting applications for fear of being caught up in the campaign period. Let’s have a five year election cycle instead.

Five years may feel a long way away but for planning, and this government, time is already of the essence.

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35 days and counting…

The General Election already seems a long time ago. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed that we haven’t already seen a raft of commitments to infrastructure projects, as I thought the Government would act decisively in this respect.

The focus has so far been on reaffirming the commitment to the inception of a Northern Powerhouse; the basis of which still puzzles me. I know I sound like a scratched record, but what is it? What does it mean for the rest of the Country? Part of me hopes that another region comes forward and promotes exactly the same message as that which is emerging out of Greater Manchester – not because I wish to denigrate what the Mancunians are doing, but to prove the point that there needs to be a national plan for regions to work to, to ensure communication, compatibility, and productivity of output. That’s what a business would do; why is running a country any different?

Conversely, what has stubbornly refused to go away is the Government’s seemingly firm commitment to the sale of homes owned by housing associations. The FT’s article of the 14th June highlights the likely shortfall in value that will be created by such a move, but also provides an interesting insight from political heavyweight Ken Clarke, who either believes – or is a disciple to collective responsibility – that the initiative is a good thing: “Housing associations are the biggest private landlords in the country,” he said. “We need to get them selling those homes and building new ones with the proceeds.”

I think Ken Clarke is completely wrong on this. In an age when every commentator is briefing a generation of would-be home owners that they’d better realign their aspirations and get used to renting, it’s as important to focus on the management and protection of rented accommodation, and why it can meet modern lifestyles, as it is to change the tenure. That is, after all, part of the attraction of PRS. Housing associations are the most experienced sector of the housing market in looking after the interests of tenants. Equally, I only need to look at Iceni’s forward order book to see that they are behind some of our most ambitious and exciting projects – from wholesale estate renewal, to mixed use developments and custom build housing.

The unilateral sale of housing association accommodation should be kicked into touch, and the Government should redouble its focus on announcing coordinated infrastructure projects before its honeymoon is well and truly over.