RTPI NW Update
Housing in the North West: Delivering the Numbers
Tuesday 28th March 2017
The Innside Hotel in Manchester played host for this year’s timely conference on delivering housing numbers in the North West, just over a month after the publishing of the Housing White Paper. Chaired by Gary Halman of HOW Planning, the line-up of Steve Quartermain (DCLG), Chris Findley (GMCA), Chris Young (No5 Chambers), David Rudlin (Urbed), Jennie Daly (Taylor Wimpey), and Andrew Dixon (FMB) pulled in over 120 attendees.
Steve Quartermain, Chief Planner at DCLG kicked off the day by talking us through the issues that have contributed towards the broken housing market, which unsurprisingly have culminated in increasingly unaffordable housing. Whilst planning delays are regularly cited as the problem, it is clear to see from data over the past 7 years that there is a need to close the gap between units granted permission and new build completions.
Steve summarised the the themes behind the White Paper, emphasising the need for flexibility in Local Plans, stating “it doesn’t need to be the same plan everywhere”. It was refreshing to hear design listed as an important factor of a Local plan, as the Chief Planner explained the change it would have on public attitude if they thought a place was going to be well designed, leading to greater acceptance and applications getting through the system more quickly.
A standardised assessment for housing requirements is a welcome proposal from the White Paper, which Steve said will avoid Local Authorities going through the torture of an examination to then be at an appeal 3 months later defending their position yet again. It’s not all about Local Authorities however, with the White Paper representing a 2-way system (asks and offers) for industry and communities as well. When questioned by the Chair, Quartermain advised that the timescales for the key policies will be ‘soon’.
Next up, Chris Findley, Assistant Director of Planning and Housing at Salford City Council and Planning Lead at the GMCA discussed the issues around Planning for Housing at the City Region level in the context of the housing market and the election of a Mayor of Greater Manchester. All ten Local Authorities will need to agree the GMSF for it to move forward, which may take some tweaking according to Chris, who admitted a key challenge is how to get growth to work in weaker market areas. Initial findings from the recent consultation show that the Plan it is not ambitious enough for developers, but too ambitious for local people.
Chris was keen to disprove the opinion that it’s all about Green Belt, stating that whilst 90% of the 25,000 representations were related to Green Belt sites, 74% of the proposed land to be allocated in the GMSF is existing supply. Whilst the proposed reduction of Green Belt from 47% to 43% was a key issue raised in representations (and was to be subject to a public rally), Findley stated that if this wasn’t to be released then valued green spaces within urban areas would be looked at. Not wanting to focus entirely on the GMSF, Chris looked to the initiatives GMCA are putting in place in the shorter and medium term to combat low housing delivery rates and converting investor interest into real schemes, including the GM Housing Investment Fund and the GM Land Commission.
On to the first Q&A of the day, when questioned on his views on the build-out rates, Steve acknowledged that aside from practical issues such as the well-publicised skills shortage, it isn’t uniform and there are regional disparities. In response to Adrian Fisher (Cheshire East Council) raising the difficulties of brownfield development and the attraction of relative speed of greenfield development, Quartermain confirmed that DCLG are looking at broader funding for brownfield development which will hopefully help stimulate the market.
Following mid-morning coffee, Chris Young, Barrister at No 5 Chambers promised some controversial views on neighbourhood plans. Cutting through some key recovered SoS appeals and recent case law, Chris summarised that the latest swing of neighbourhood plan pendulum is pro-development. Calling for a change to legislation, Chris challenged that neighbourhood plans don’t have to consider the area’s OAN, however acknowledged that it would be difficult to apportion OAN to each parish. Overall, Young believes there is a need for better communication over what neighbourhood plans can and can’t do, especially considering the continuing pace with only 300 neighbourhood plans made but 3,000 areas designated.
David Rudlin, Director at Urbed gave an insight into his work revolving around designing a Garden City. Reflecting on England’s existing settlements, David explained how using Zipf’s Law of Cities, it is clear to see that England’s second tier cities are undersized. David explained how he was tasked with creating a bold vision for Wisbech, a Cambridgeshire town which may be better known as the home of Thomas the Tank Engine. Exploring the Garden Town concept, it was interesting to reflect on how implementing a new railway line and making Wisbech commutable to Cambridge would completely change the housing market. Alongside having a sensible policy on the Green Belt and the acceptance of ‘good planning’ not needing to pass the exceptions test, Rudlin recommended that we need a means of capturing land value, in a bid to end the tax payer paying for infrastructure that the developer can’t afford because of viability issues. Above all, David ended on the need to rediscover the art of building great places, with Edinburgh New Town as an example by using leaseholds and small scale developers.
Taking the post-lunch slot, Jennie Daly, UK Land & Planning Director at Taylor Wimpey shed some light on the perspective of the volume housebuilder. There are 5 constraints facing housebuilding, namely labour availability, planning delays, financing, materials and land availability. The severity of each of these fluctuate over time, with planning delays and materials being cited more often in 2016 than previously. Frustration at negative comments regarding landbanking was clear, as Jennie explained how it is necessary to develop a sustainable business, “you have to be able to say where you’re going to build next year”. Taylor Wimpey’s Behaviour is driven by history and mistakes made, meaning balancing risk across all acquired sites and increasing land banks if planning becomes stickier. Daly went on to conclude that whilst the cyclicality of the market can’t be avoided, the impact of the ‘convulsive’ stage can be reduced through better planning. When questioned by the chair on why there is a 50 units per annum ceiling for larger sites, Jennie clarified that lots of sites deliver more than 50. There are issues that will restrict capacity such as artificial barriers; market absorption and production capacity, but they will build to a sales rate. There is no such thing as a standard site.
Andrew Dixon, Head of Policy at the Federation of Masterbuilders discussed the issues facing small builders and the importance of helping small sites be brought forward, citing the planning application information requirements, the costs for which don’t seem to differ for single figure unit sites from those for 50-100 units. Agreeing with Jennie, Andrew sees the White Paper as a net positive, although it is not radical. The proposals to consider applicant’s delivery rates when determining an application would be a good move for SMEs, and Permission in Principle has the potential to rationalise the process for gaining permission on a small site.
It was certainly an interesting event to participate in with the benefit of an excellent array of speakers. The 2018 instalment already looks to be a must-attend with the next 12 months promising some key changes in the North West, including the election of the Greater Manchester Mayor and the possible adoption of the GMSF.
Report by Louisa Fielden, Graduate Planner at HOW Planning who sponsored the event.