Reflections from our recent roundtable
The consultation on proposed NPPF changes coincided, fortuitously, with our recent roundtable breakfast gathering, where we met with colleagues from across the housing industry. It was no surprise, therefore, that the discussion focused on what implications the proposed NPPF changes might have and asking ourselves what the future of housing delivery might look like.
What’s happened to ‘Brand Planning’?
If planning was articulated as a brand, the 2012 brand guidelines may have been known as the ‘growth agenda’. Now, Brand Planning is undergoing something of an identity crisis. As we’ve previously said, the latest proposed changes to the NPPF mark a distinct shift in brand from that which was launched in 2012. To illustrate this, we only have to look at the latest raft of proposed changes:
Out of the 50 changes proposed, only one could be said to be supportive of new development. – Sam Stafford, HBF
The remaining 49 will arguably make it harder to get stuff built. It’s a far cry from the bold 2012 NPPF, where its proponent, then Planning Minister Greg Clark, asserted that the synonym to sustainable development was growth. Now, the government has dropped this narrative. What is planning’s new brand? Perhaps it’s a step too far to call the draft NPPF ‘anti-development’, but it certainly isn’t synonymous with growth anymore.
Brace yourselves for more uncertainty and stagnation
The biggest barriers to housebuilders – of any scale, but particularly SME housebuilders has got to be government policy. And, the risks associated with planning, which don’t get any easier. – Nick Graham, Peel L&P
With delays in the planning system well-documented, not least by us, the proposed changes to calculating housing need and the emphasis on increased protection to Green Belt land will only further fuel the uncertainty felt by the industry making it harder to secure housing where it’s needed.
At least 38 local authorities have shelved or put on hold local plans as a result of confusion felt due to the government’s continual tinkering with the direction of travel. The immediate effect is clear: it will take longer to get plans in place. In the interim, housebuilders are labelled ‘speculative’ and encounter resistance at every stage.
For SMEs the pressure is even greater. One refusal on an allocated site might represent a quarter or half of an SME’s predicted annual turnover. You can soon see how these changes will affect the bottom line for housebuilders. And as much as MPs deride developers for being profit-driven, we do need housebuilders to stay in business and keep building houses. Because, as Greg Clark said himself: the alternative to growth is stagnation.
What’s the alternative to releasing Green Belt land?
We’ve made our position clear on how resetting public understanding of the Green Belt is key to delivering housing. But if the government is set on maintaining the Green Belt ‘status quo’ then ministers must ask themselves: what’s the alternative? How will we build sufficient houses when our urban areas are tightening their belts and our rural areas are a no-go?
More must be done. If the government really wants to encourage SMEs, it must make it easier for them to acquire elements of strategic sites, strengthen financial support, remove unnecessary policy hurdles and simplify the planning system.
If strategic housing sites are stuck in the system and people simply cannot gain access to housing that they want (and can afford), then perhaps self-build is part of the answer.
Hugr Homes is seeking to be part of the solution: by securing site-wide outline consents and selling off plots to individuals. They devise a design guide with the LPA that individual ‘self-builders’ adhere to, removing the need to secure further planning permission.
Or perhaps building your own Huf Haus is the answer. Customer testimonies are compelling, and with the pre-fab approach offering certainty on delivery timeframes and cost, it’s a tempting prospect. Of course, a Huf Haus still needs land, and it still needs planning permission.
Self-build may seem to be the preserve of the wealthy, but Joe Higginson disagrees:
It’s actually not as expensive as you might think; it’s more a question of mindset. There are a lot of people out there who want to do it, but think it requires more effort and vision. In our experience, the process can run really smoothly. – Joe Higginson, Hugr Homes
For the self-build sector to become more mainstream, with delivery in greater numbers, it will require more policy support, though this is yet another burden being placed upon our already stretched planning officers.
There is guidance, but it’s not particularly accessible for the average entrepreneurial house hunter, and the process of joining self-build registers at the local level is reported to be arduous. At the national level, at least, there is a clear appetite and encouraging signs of progress: recent changes within the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill seeking to address hurdles have been welcomed by the self-build industry.
David Hodgson, Development Director at Miller Developments, reflected on how developers can help move things forward:
House builders and land promotors must become more creative in delivering a greater mix of housing tenures and making room for SME and self-build elements on strategic sites to encourage a wider overall mix. – David Hodgson, Miller Developments
We need reliable pre-app advice and simple outline applications
Whatever shape housing delivery takes in the future, one thing was agreed on between all our guests: to reduce the huge risks that developers (whether large or small) take on, we must have a reliable pre-application advice service that doesn’t change when an application is submitted. The problem was illustrated perfectly at a recent scheme:
When our initial pre-app advice on highways was reversed, we had to put the application on hold to prepare six months of traffic modelling. Now our original bat surveys are out of date and we’ve missed the survey window. I predict more delays in 2023. – Kenton Whitaker, Edgefold Homes.
It would benefit everyone to simplify the pre-application process and agree what three to four critical issues need to be addressed with a particular submission.
And why not simplify outline applications to establish the principle of a development with a red line plan, form and relevant ‘fit for purpose’ planning justification rather than require a full suite of validation documents at this early stage. With our over-stretched local planning officers, a simpler outline application process would ease the load considerably and deliver quicker decisions.
Ultimately, we need LPAs to make bold and visionary decisions (whether that’s supporting unpopular housing proposals or seeing the potential of self-build).
We desperately need more planners, better training of elected officials and better-quality decisions. And for that, we need better funding from central government to help keep brilliant planners within the public sector.
But it’s more than funding. There’s no doubt about it: planning has got an image problem and we’re not seeing enough young people enter the profession through universities. Just last month Herriot-Watt University announced that it was closing its RTPI-accredited undergraduate course due to lack of interest.
How do we attract the right calibre of people? It all comes down to how planning as a profession is marketed.
‘Brand Planning’ used to be about delivering sustainable growth, securing positive change for the benefit of the economy, society and the environment.
Now? Well, it certainly feels less clear.
Prospective planners of the future might well be asking themselves: is this still a role where I can make a positive difference to place making?
After all, that’s why we all went into the profession.