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03/05/2016

Lost in the planning maze

Maze

What do property developers think of the planning system – and planners? There’s only one way to find out – we sent Martha Harris to ask the awkward questions

As we discover elsewhere in the May issue of The Planner, the cultural divide between planners and developers is alive and well – but it may not be as black and white as you think.

After all, it’s easy for planners to characterise the property development industry as a hungry machine driven by an unquenchable desire for profit.
But as developers handling other people’s money, they have to pay great regard to economics. Their experiences of the system itself are likely to be rather different from their counterparts on the other side of planning’s fence.

When we asked developers for their thoughts on the planning system, there was plenty of reasoned criticism of the system – notably its lack of resources. There was also acknowledgement of the need for a system that balances the various interests at play within the built environment, and respect for the often-difficult job that planners themselves undertake.

Here are five ways in which developers feel the planning system delays their journey and leads them towards dead ends – and some suggestions for how to escape from planning’s maze of regulations and procedures.

1. A LACK OF RESOURCES IN PLANNING

 

We know from planners that lack of resources is a serious impediment to doing their jobs, with planning departments having experienced funding cuts of more than 40 per cent – and more on the way. Developers feel it, too.


“There is such a goodwill among many people within the planning system to deliver the types of housing that are needed, with the kind of public realm that communities require,” says Lucian Smithers, sales and marketing director of Pocket. “But there is often just not that resource available to cope with innovation. The planner’s role in defining what happens in placemaking within local authorities has been somewhat diminished,” he adds.

Richard Upton, deputy CEO at U+I, agrees: “The biggest barrier we face within the planning system is the lack of suitable resource to ensure that place and contextual urban design (which are critical to transformational regeneration) can be managed. And managed beautifully.”

Possibly related to lack of resources are the differing performance levels across local authorities. Richard Alden, head of commercial property at the National Grid, cites this as the main issue within the planning system. “[In terms of] consistency of performance across local authorities, quality is so variable both in terms of officers and members,” he observes.

2. LACK OF TRUST BETWEEN LOCAL AUTHORITIES AND DEVELOPERS

 

“[There is a] general and understandable expectation that developers are greedy, self-centred, self-opinionated and unrepresentative,” says Upton. “So the barriers come up too early in communication.”

Smithers agrees: “Local authorities at every level are nervous about doing something wrong as they have either first-hand experience or knowledge of developers taking advantage, and the local authority being held up as an example of wrongdoing,” he explains.

As a result, obtaining necessary information from local authorities can be difficult – something our developers suggest can be remedied through relationship building and greater collaboration on joint ventures.

Alden, however, notes that if it’s in the council’s interest to do so, they will communicate well. “Our experience is that local authorities have been very helpful, though as [we are] a large-scale owner of brownfield land across the UK, they are incentivised to engage!”

Where interests coincide, and where development helps local authorities fulfil specific policy goals, it seems the barriers between private and public sectors may fall.


Lucian Smithers

 

Lucian Smithers is director of sales and marketing and London-based housing developer Pocket

"The biggest barrier we face within the planning system is the ability for planning departments, certainly in London, to have the time and resource to cope with innovation. The challenge time and again is having to open up to the detail of the planning regulations and show where we fit in, and where we believe our added value is in social terms... Read Lucian's full response


Richard Alden

 

Richard Alden is head of commercial property at National Grid

"There needs to be a fundamental shift in the mentality of our country, where most communities fear change of any description, and many developers and local authorities lack imagination in meeting the needs of the community. I think the planning system provides the opportunities for this to happen, but in reality very few organisations are taking advantage of it... Read Richard's full response

 


Richard Upton

 

Richard Upton is deputy chief executive of property regeneration company U+I

“The planning system is drowning in a tsunami of short-term market-driven investment and a race to deliver housing units at any cost, with financial inducements for local burghers to consent housing numbers. So the system is twisted by a complete denial of the truth of the scale of the problem... Read Richard's full response

 


Paul Campbell

 

Paul Campbell is joint managing director at strategic land promoter Richborough Estates

“The planning system is still fairly negative, with permission commonly being granted by LPAs only when there’s nothing left to be able to refuse it on. It is possible for a developer and a local community to engage proactively with positive results, but it takes strong and pragmatic local leadership… Read Paul’s full response

 

 


3. COMPLEXITY AND BUREAUCRACY

 

Finding a route through planning’s maze of procedure and policy seems to be the most common complaint by developers. When your aim is to complete a project quickly and cost-efficiently any delay is understandably galling, and the process must seem full of wrong turns and dead ends.

Paul Campbell, joint-MD at Richborough Estates, cites producing plans in city regions that are constrained by green belt as a key barrier in the system – and not necessarily for the obvious reasons.

“Duty to cooperate can sometimes be a blunt instrument and there can be a tendency for green belt authorities to duck their responsibility by dragging their feet on plan-making,” he says.

Pocket’s Smithers cannot understand why small-scale development should be subject to a similar degree of complexity as the big projects.

“A lot of that is down to the level of complexity and the level of risk that is inherent in the planning system,” says Smithers. “You are never going to improve that situation unless we find a way of simplifying smaller sites that are delivering more community-friendly typologies, and helping planners to resource themselves effectively to deliver these.”

This leads also to an unfair distribution of limited resources. Inevitably, planning authorities are going to push resources towards bigger schemes – particularly if smaller ones are also resource intensive but offer less ‘reward’.

Smithers also questions the time associated with certain elements of the planning process that delay development. “From start to finish, the whole process of gaining planning permission tends to take 16 weeks. Why then does it take on average 22 weeks to get the simplest type of Section 106 agreement you could possibly imagine?”

He notes that all 33 London boroughs have their own approach to negotiating planning gain. Why not adopt a standard approach, he asks? Fair questions.

4. THE POLITICS OF PLANNING

 

Politics is, understandably, a big hurdle – and particularly at local level. Playing to a parochial crowd is not uncommon, and can be deeply frustrating.

“All too often, members on planning committees are unduly influenced by the vociferous minority who wish to block development, with officers’ professional advice often ignored without any sound reason,” says Campbell.

“Positive developer and community interaction takes strong and pragmatic local leadership and the right attitude from developer and promoter,” he adds.
Perhaps lessons can be learnt from elsewhere.

“We could learn from the Dutch and German systems where they allocate land much more strategically at a local level and housing isn’t used as the political football it is in the UK,” says Smithers.

5. FEAR OF DEVELOPMENT

 

This brings us to fear of change. What seems to drive local resistance to development – particularly housing development – is a suspicion of the new.

This holds even if the status quo is creaking under the pressure of demographic change and economic stress. Can resistance to change be overcome?

“There needs to be a fundamental shift in the mentality of our country, where most communities fear change of any description, and many developers and local authorities lack imagination in meeting the needs of the community,” says Alden.

One way to achieve this may be to recast development as ‘placemaking’ – a friendlier phrase that evokes a more inviting image of the outcome. The idea of placemaking, however, is “too far down the food chain”, says Upton. Yet it is “pivotal to long-term productivity and wellbeing”.

Campbell notes that the planning system is “still fairly negative, with permission commonly being granted by LPAs only when there’s nothing left to be able to refuse it on”.

CAN WE FIX IT? YES, WE CAN

 

Despite their grievances, our developers said there were many elements of the planning system that they respect, admire, and wouldn’t change. Its ability to foster open debate, discussion and innovation was celebrated, as was the commitment and professionalism of planners themselves.

The necessity of the planning system as the first line of defence against the “greedy average” of developers was also raised.

Upton’s view is that the system is somewhat lopsided. “[It is] imperfect, sometimes quite irrational, quirky and British in character,” he says. “Perfect.”

So what would make the planning system work better for investors, developers and builders?

Richard Alden says that a greater variety of design needs to be encouraged to avoid “mono-developments”, with a need to perhaps look towards allocating more self-build plots.

A need for greater realism within the planning system is also called for, says Upton. “The planning system is drowning in a tsunami of short-term, market-driven investment and a race to deliver housing units at any cost, with financial inducements for local burghers to consent to housing numbers. So the system is twisted by a complete denial of the truth of the scale of the problem.”

Smithers calls for a move away from a limiting level of bureaucracy, where innovation is hampered by a complex system within which each move forward results in “half a ton of paperwork”.

“We have to reach a much more collaborative environment.”

A PERFECT WORLD

 

Does a developer’s planning utopia exist? Our contributors agree that, as yet, there is no system in the world that has got it entirely right. But in a perfect world, what planning needs is vision from the country’s decision-makers, says Upton.

“If we could have 15 years of a real leadership at the very top – a great Secretary of State for the Environment who is a visionary, with huge ambition and the strength of character to deliver real planning change fit for the socio-economic, demographic and cultural phenomena we face on this island.
Someone who has wisdom and strength to sort the housing and infrastructure issues for the next 100 years rather than tinkering meekly for a few years in office.” 

 


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