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What is the Government doing about planning and are we any closer to solving the housing crisis?

Blog 18 10 21 are we any closer to solving the housing crisis hero

Unsurprisingly it would appear that the Government is going to shy away from the big reforms in planning that was previously promised.

Established after World War II, planning, is a nationalisation of development rights allowing government to control the building process through a political process; this has been ideologically challenged by some in Parliament in recent years -  which has been welcomed by our developer clients. In other countries there’s a preference for “zoning areas” or “growth areas” where one, in principle, can go ahead and build. This concept was at the heart of Boris Johnson’s attempt at reform with his “build, build, build” policy in July 2020, framed as a “developers charter” by opposition parties.

The crux of the issue, is the involvement of local politics and its impact on housing construction and development. Robert Jennick promised “reviews” encouraging fear and speculation amongst backbenchers of over-development, loss of the greenbelt and the abandonment of Conservative votes.

Planning is being weaponised in politics

Michael Gove has now replaced Robert Jennick as housing minister with the new title of Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and with this change, the pause button has been firmly held down on planning reform whilst backbenchers are placated. The next Government White paper looks to be far from the “radical review” promised.

Boris Johnson’s address to the Conservative conference talked of no more building on green fields, a clear response to the loss of the recent by-election defeat to the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham in June and a nod to the Tory vote in the south feeling the pressure of much needed development of greenfield sites.

This is not what the housebuilding industry needs right now if we are going to meet housing demand, instead it is a populist nod towards the Tory backbenches.

The Conservatives’ June defeat to Liberals is likely to have a lasting impact. The Liberal Democrat campaign was of anti-development, primed by the impact to locals of HS2, an ‘anti-build’ ticket,  Leader Ed Davey now says his party is the main threat to the “blue-wall” constituencies across the UK. If that’s true, Sir Keir Starmer’s speech at the Labour Party Conference did little to convince otherwise.

Rumours from the Tory party conference include that Gove’s approach might be one of a beefing up of neighbourhood planning, an idea that could fill the development industry with fear. Imagine the neighbourhood plan being the be-all-and-end-all of the development plan? Gove is apparently a believer that the housing crisis is not a supply issue, but a demand issue caused by cheap finance. What it actually is, is bit of both. However we really haven’t been building enough houses for decades and never has there been a more successful “brand” than the greenbelt: preventing the natural expansion of urban settlements as the number of households increase and the population ages.

We, along with many of our clients, would like to see the Conservatives using this opportunity to bring in the wide-spread planning reform – and investment into the system - that is so needed. But that isn’t looking likely.

Planning for levelling up

Last month, I attended virtually the Create Streets Foundation launch of the No Place Left Behind Report, the Commission into Community Placemaking. It seeks to identify and develop policy that enables regenerative development. It aims to ensure the Government’s levelling up agenda is deliverable and meaningful.

The report recognising some of the hidden barriers in community development and the need for a different infrastructure around community support and community assets. While we heard that the Government appears to understand the concepts to come out of these findings, that local communities need to be trusted to make their own decisions. It seems equally clear that it is not intending to do the one single thing our clients are most wanting to see: simplified planning, particularly on mixed-use schemes, and suitably resourced planning departments for local authorities.

The Government believes there’s no quick fix to the planning issue, it’s a journey that will take five to ten years because they’re worried about rocking the political boat. That boat has already had a warning shot fired across it with the aforementioned by-election defeat.

One quick win now would be to invest in local authorities planning departments, so that they can handle the volume and variety of applications that are coming through to enable the country to start to build back better.

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About the authors: 
Matthew Earnshaw is a senior surveyor in the residential department at Colliers. He works with landowners and developers to buy and sell plots for residential and mixed-use development. His clients include Canada Life, Inland Homes, Mid Sussex District Council, Taylor Wimpey, Q Developments and GM London.

Andrew McNab is an experienced planning consultant who works for a broad spectrum of commercial clients across retail, leisure and residential across the UK. As both a Chartered Town Planner and Surveyor he advises on planning inquiries, applications and appeals. His clients include Abrdn, Mactaggart & Mickel and Canada Life.