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Guest Blog: Overhaul the Planning Process!

By Jonathan Pearson, director at Residentially Chartered Surveyors

Figures by the British Property Federation suggest that housing targets have increased by 50 per cent since 2010, to 300,000 a year, despite spending on the English planning system being cut by more than half over the same period.

From my work with social housing associations across the UK over many years, I’ve witnessed the impact of this disparity on delivering an essential supply of homes for the people in our society who need them most but are often left without a say in the planning process. That is to say anyone who requires a new home better suited to the needs, whether it be due to their family, age, or a disability.

What’s worse, this situation seems to have only worsened as a result of pandemic, with already under-resourced planning departments having had to work through a backlog of applications that has ended up adding yet more delays to the UK’s slow and cumbersome planning process.

There’s no doubt that well-resourced planning departments are an invaluable asset, with the officers who process applications and recommend them for approval or refusal, considering projects on their merits and their merits alone, thanks to understanding the housing needs of the wider area.

This means they can provide essential counsel to often less experienced and qualified local councillors who may be more inclined to look at a scheme on an individual basis or please the population that keeps them voted in, rather than consider what might be best in the long-term. Therefore, they are also more likely to reject more inventive but unpopular applications that could bring in new kinds of homes or residents.

But prosperous and vibrant communities need a breadth of tenures and a cross-section of people, income streams, political views and age groups, who will spend money on different things and in different ways. And they need environments that support growth and reflect fast-changing consumer behaviours, to encourage people to spend their time and money locally rather than away from the area. In short, local areas need to thrive to survive and without this, they are simply not sustainable.

As a result, we need to see a more diverse make-up of local councillors, who better reflect the needs of the community, as well as educated planning officers with an eye on the bigger picture being given greater autonomy within the whole process. But there simply aren’t enough experienced planners within local authorities to go around in the first place, due to the cuts being made and as more jump ship for the more favourable conditions and pay of the private sector.

And these inefficiencies and delays are proving a real barrier to housing associations when it comes to their vital work in supporting communities and growing places, no matter what region, local authority, or political leaning a council has.

To put it simply, the time it takes from the inception of a scheme to the delivery of much-needed housing is causing greater uncertainty, cost and risk to every developer. They are just not able to forecast accurately when their projects can progress and the more of this uncertainty there is, the more opportunity that exists for schemes not to happen at all.

The majority of the housing market is market-owned, so social housing can never be in a position to lead the market, but it desperately needs the market to be fluid and well-resourced. With demand vastly outstripping the current supply, providers do of course need to take the stock they are offered, but if it is less suited to their residents’ needs, it doesn’t let so well, there is a higher turnaround, transient tenancies, and ultimately, unhappy and disadvantaged social housing tenants.

Whereas the more suited homes are, the more the rest of the industry will benefit. Ultimately social housing providers are well-funded, with access to cheaper finance than the market in general, because their covenants are so strong, proven, reliable and consistent. So when their tenants are happy, housing associations are happy, and this means they are able to do more, spend more and pay more, making them stronger partners and able to collaborate a lot more closely with private developers.

With social housing a key part of the development process of almost every medium housing scheme upwards in the country, affordable housing providers should certainly be seen as key partners within joint ventures or more collaborative work that will better support schemes to get round some of the planning obstacles currently in their way.

Even just by private developers engaging with social housing providers sooner in terms of what accommodation and amenities they need, this means they can make better use of the available funding and their own finances, making planned schemes more efficient and likely to achieve planning much quicker and easier.

Planning is certainly better than it was 50 or 60 years ago in considering local needs. We don’t just build hundreds of houses with a small recreation space and nothing else. There is also community space, extra parking, schools, retail and leisure or whatever else is that is important to the local area and community. And the renewed focused use on regenerating brownfield land for residential property is a great opportunity to meet the country’s growing housing need.

Ultimately though, the process is just too slow and not agile enough to respond to market dynamics, and the potential that exists can only be realised by overhauling the process and remove some of the current challenges and obstacles in the way. If it was quicker, and private developers engaged with affordable housing providers earlier, people who need new homes the most would get them sooner.

It’s time to give planning authorities and social housing providers greater resources and scope so that we can start to build a stronger, dynamic and more flexible planning system.