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16/03/2018

Planners get blamed for the housing shortfall: The song remains the same

Words:

Slow build-out rates on sites with permission cannot be put at the door of planners, says Chris Shepley

Developers are having it all their own way, the planners are far too soft, the system is rigged against ordinary people. Those are frequent responses from members of the public to the consultation on the Raynsford Review of planning (I’m on his team).

Meanwhile, developers argue the opposite, and foremost among these are the major housebuilders. I have endured their complaints throughout my professional life, but I’m not cowed.

They have recently been taking careful aim and shooting themselves in the foot – an enterprise that is proving effective and, 
I would venture, renders them substantially less popular 
than we are.

Persimmon’s contribution is to give its chief executive a reported bonus of £110 million (with half a billion going to senior staff). [Sorry - have I entered a parallel universe? Ed.] This rather puts into the shade a number of well-publicised government initiatives, such as the Estate Regeneration Fund (£60 million in 2018/19), the Planning Delivery Fund (£25 million) or the ‘Northern Forest’ (£5.7 million). 

“Planning permission has been granted for an alleged 600,000+ homes, but these are not being built”

It is also, I would have thought, going to make it tricky for Persimmon to argue that it can’t afford the odd affordable house on its developments. Something already looking shaky, as reported in this journal, in view of the substantial profits all the housebuilders have been making. (‘Through the loophole’, The Planner, January 2018).

More unpopularity has ensued following the creation of various imaginative schemes involving leaseholds, ground rents and management contributions. This has generated widespread complaints from surprised owners of new homes, who find themselves having to pay increasingly large sums to obscure companies for little or no apparent benefit – sometimes to the extent of rendering their houses unsaleable.

And then there is the question of land hoarding. Heads are ducked in housebuilding bunkers as incoming flak, from the government downwards, threatens serious damage. Planning permission has been granted for an alleged 600,000-plus homes, but these are not being built. It’s not a good look.

This has, of course, not prevented them from having a go at us again. A veritable whingeing festival continues over matters such as allegedly onerous conditions, or whatever other excuses can be invented.

All this makes me irritable, as the burden of this piece so far will have made plain. You can’t spend decades attacking the planner without provoking some kind of response. But because I’m a kind and generous person, I will accept that the failure to develop sites that have permission is not entirely the fault of the housebuilders. For example, consider the role of strategic land traders, tardy infrastructure providers, shortages of planners, surveyors and other professionals, and a shortage of skilled construction workers (even without Brexit).

And of course the market requires a dribble rather than a torrent of housing releases. But nonetheless the problem is such that the government itself, which has been generous to housebuilders in providing the planning changes they sought, is now putting them under the microscope. 

I don’t have space to mention design quality, build quality, or space standards, all of which leave a lot to be desired. Or at least I thought I didn’t. But I do conclude that, while we need these companies to succeed, they’re having a bad patch. And even with a following wind, they will never build the 300,000 homes a year the government wants.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and a former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland

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