The industry’s tacit disagreement with the Government doesn’t go far enough.

Property Week’s recent opinion poll on the merits of releasing Green Belt land for housing (04 September 2015) was – not surprisingly – thought provoking.

The industry has been calling for a revised position on the Green Belt for years. The poll serves as a useful reminder of a growing disparity between realistic solutions to the housing crisis and Government policy.

74 per cent of Property Week’s respondents suggested restrictions should be relaxed to some degree. I would suggest this doesn’t go far enough. The factors restricting development delivery in this country are as much about perception as they are policy. Any relaxation of rules should be accompanied with an honest message about why certain areas of land are suitable for development – because the social, economic and moral arguments for housing our population far outweigh the often limited environmental value of many of these sites. Likewise, this has to be about a long-term approach. We need to recognise that any relaxation will be a short-term realignment before looking ahead to how we can plan more productively in the future.

To the 46 per cent of Property Week’s readers that feel there should be penalties for councils that fail to deliver the required number of homes, I say caution is required. Under-resourced councils have been left out in the cold for far too long and a more conciliatory approach is necessary. By all means let’s flag up those cynical authorities making no effort to get a plan in place. But let’s also look to incentivise and reward local authorities, either financially or through other means, to ensure they also see the benefit of a positive approach to development.

I am not convinced that the Government is best placed to pick the right areas for growth, or to commission and build homes. This is a crisis of decision making and perception. By all means impose direction – we need it – but empower Local Authorities to deliver it.

Finally, and most importantly, let’s stop referring to this as ‘the Green Belt debate’ – this simply polarises the discussion around ‘green’ or ‘not green’, playing into the hands of misinformed NIMBYs. This is about finding a long-term solution to housing our population and we can’t afford to get distracted from that.

The laws of unintended consequences…

Iceni Projects has looked into the possible repercussions of the Government’s announcement last week by Planning Minister Brandon Lewis that planning authorities in England must produce post-NPPF local plans by early 2017 or face intervention.

Recent research carried out by Iceni Projects has found that only 125 of 330 local authorities in England (38%) have adopted their Local Plans since the publication of the NPPF (information gathered April – July 2015), which underpins why the Government has felt compelled to comment on this matter.

However, the danger is that in trying to right a wrong, further damage may be committed to the plan making process.  Communities Secretary of State, Greg Clark, has voiced concern that some Inspectors are taking too tough a line on emerging development plans, stating that “there is a real value in getting a local plan in place at the soonest opportunity, even if it has some shortcomings which are not critical to the whole plan. … it is critical that inspectors approach examination from the perspective of working pragmatically with councils towards achieving a sound local plan.”

Greg Clark’s statement is laudable in principle, but clearly it depends on the scale and breadth of the unsound element of the plan.

We have already seen Greg Clark call in the submitted Maldon Local Plan after lobbying from the Leader of the Council, despite the Inspector concluding that ‘all the Plan’s housing policies are fundamentally unsound because the Plan does not identify and meet objectively assessed housing needs and it is not based on adequate, up-to-date and relevant evidence.’

We will need to wait to see the outcome of the Maldon examination, and to what extent Clark will move away from the Inspector’s findings.  Common sense might suggest that in a case such as Maldon, all bar the housing policies of the plan could be adopted and relied upon for decision making purposes.  However, the devil is inevitably in the detail.  For example, what would this mean for the principles of sustainable development, and the drive for mixed-use communities, including ‘sound’ employment and community elements, but ‘unsound’ housing?  Conversely, will Clarke allow local planning authorities to adopt development plans with sub-standard housing policies for the sake of a bad plan being better than no plan at all?  Whilst this may appear an appropriately pragmatic response, it will not be the low-hanging fruit that will be prejudiced from development – such as urban brownfield sites – which arguably need no plan at all to materialise.  Rather, it will be the greenfield sites – the very sites that local authorities gain little political mileage in identifying, but are crucial to meeting objectively assessed need – that will perish.  If the pressure is released to identify fully objectively assessed housing need, it will take even longer for a fully sound plan to materialise, to the detriment of housing delivery as a whole.

Iceni Projects will continue to monitor the situation, and will provide further analysis in due course.

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.

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.

Things Can Only Get Better…

So, the dust is beginning to settle on the shock Election outcome, and the Westminster/media village has gone into introspective mode as to firstly, what went wrong (for Labour and the pollsters), secondly, how long it will be before the Tories shoot themselves in the foot, and thirdly, how the Labour party re-invents itself.

In respect of the latter, the inevitable left-right debate has begun.  The ghost of Blair has walked across the threshold of Brewers Green, and there are as many people advocating a reinvention of New Labour as those disowning it.  How does a party appeal to both an affluent metropolitan middle class and the working class northern voters that were the bedrock of the party?  How does it appeal to Scottish voters without alienating entrepreneurs and business leaders in the South?

I’m glad I only have to reflect on this as a member of the voting electorate, but it does strike me that those closest to the coal face are often the last to feel the heat of the fire.  Surely what united the country in the lead up to Blair’s landslide victory of 1997 and the march of the SNP in Scotland since 2010 (and culminating in Friday’s decisive victory north of the border) was a positive vision for the future rather than tribal party politics or the carefully crafted profiling of its candidates.  The Election was always going to be for the Tories to lose and others to win, which is why they can feel vindicated in investing in the mantra of Linton Crosby that the only message that mattered was the economy, but for everyone else, there needed to be a positive alternative.  The SNP did that with aplomb, putting fire in the bellies of Edinburgh bankers and Highland farmers to boot, convincing the masses that Scotland could stand confidently in a modern world, that it had a long term plan for the Country, and that it could be progressive rather than reactive.  Labour didn’t do that.  It painted those that have achieved as somehow villainous, rather than encouraging others to match them.  It boiled down the Country’s challenges as being little more than a one-issue focus on the NHS.  It made a mansion tax a greater priority than properly dissecting how to build greater levels of family housing and to get house price inflation under control.  It poured scorn on High Speed 2 without explaining how it would re-position the rest of the Country to see London as complementary to it, rather than a dominant, benevolent, distant relative that could offer a financial hand out.  And fundamentally, it said what was broken with the country without ever really telling us what could be great about it – and how it would achieve this.

Election results in my adult life suggest that we British are a pretty malleable lot, who will listen, and form a view on what is presented to them at the time, rather than putting the same ‘x’ in the ballot box every four or five years.  We’re inherently centre ground, passive, secular, apolitical, and whilst we’re cynical, we’d rather believe that we can stand as a proud, inclusive nation, than one that is broken and worth giving up on (which would help to explain why the SNP lost a referendum but ‘won’ an Election).  America didn’t vote for Barrack Obama because he is black, any more than we voted for Margaret Thatcher because she was a woman; it was because they stood for progress and change, and people believed they could muster it.  Labour are deluding themselves if they think the country will vote for Dan Jarvis because he’s an ex-soldier with an interesting back-story or Liz Kendall because she represents Leicester West rather than Hampstead & Kilburn.  Londoners, Scots, Welsh, Northerners, Irish and Westerners voted for Labour under Blair in their droves, because they believed he would make Britain better.  If 2015 has a whiff of 1992 about it, politicians of all parties must surely consider what followed in 1997.  That in itself will hopefully keep the Government facing forward, and for Labour to properly reflect on what it needs to focus on before launching into another leadership campaign.

My Alternative Manifesto

So, we are now well down the road to the General Election on May 7th. Paxman remains the big winner from the Leadership debates, and is princely placed to take over from Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. Conversely, Clarkson is the bookies favourite to be the new warm up act on The Great British Bake-Off. Electric stuff.

As the main parties launch their manifestos, I’ve been thinking about the kind of policies that I would like to see debated from a planning and development viewpoint. I’ve shared them with colleagues, and remarkably, they’ve not told me I’m mad, to the extent that they’ve taken out the swear words and refined a good few of them so that they are fit for public consumption. So literally as a starter for ten, here’s a few thoughts for change. I’d welcome your thoughts.

To view my alternative manifesto, please click here.

Don’t Blame the NPPF

Planning Resource (7th April) carried an interesting story regarding developer pessimism over the impact of the NPPF on planning processes, and in particular, the impact on home building. In the same article, it is reported that the majority of respondents have greater confidence in a future Conservative administration making a positive, material impact on the same issues than any other party.

This throws up some interesting paradoxes, and all the more so because those being interviewed were from house building companies and housing associations, so people that know a thing or two about on-the-ground delivery.

It was the Coalition that introduced the NPPF, and so whilst it would not be right to solely place the credit (or blame) at the door of the Conservatives, they have undoubtedly had a greater influence on its inception than the Lib Dems, and certainly more so than the collective opposition. So although most people interviewed think the NPPF has not worked, they are nonetheless more receptive to the Conservatives continuing at the helm of planning than any other.

Why is that? It would be wrong to say what individuals privately felt. However, it may be argued that the NPPF – and the professional practitioners that led its drafting – came up with a perfectly sound planning organ to lead development in the 21st Century. What has undoubtedly undermined its operation can be broken into three parts: political intervention, funding, and speed of change.

Firstly, there is nothing like an unexpected Secretary of State decision, or ministerial statement of ‘clarification’, to completely destabilise planning decision making, developer investment, and ultimately development implementation. Within this context, I would include tinkering with permitted development rights and unilateral changes to the NPPG.

Secondly, seismic changes to planning at a national level are inevitably felt most locally, and in particular, both those local authorities struggling to introduce a new style development plan that complies with the objectives of the NPPF whilst at the same time, responding to swinging budget cuts, which in many instances have ripped the heart out of many council planning departments. Teams that have evolved organically, with depths of experience of local communities, geographical areas, and planning, have been badly damaged.

Thirdly, the resultant impact of change borne by the NPPF, and the difficulties of responding to change within an era of austerity, has resulted in frustration from Government, the development industry and local communities, essentially at the speed of implementation of the NPPF. Ironically, the desire for change is partly to blame for the pace of change.

So why are developers apparently willing to give the Conservatives a further five years? I suspect in part, this is because there has been enough change to last anyone for a good while yet, and that now is the time to bed in foregoing events. Equally, there is typically a sense that planning is a subject for Governments to grow into, and that a second Conservative-led administration would be capable of taking a more balanced view about the role of planning, and where the fault lines lie than a new regime.