Thames Tap’s Valley Voices have largely welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Build Build Build agenda – but there is caution and scepticism about what will emerge.
We asked our partners, representing widely differing areas of expertise in the property and construction sectors to give their perspectives on the package of measures in PM’s announcement on June 30, which the Government described as the most radical reforms to the planning system since the Second World War.
Karen Jones, partner and head of planning and environmental law for law firm Blandy & Blandy, said: “The Government has promised flexibility again but there are no signs that things will be radically different or more successful than its previous attempts to streamline and speed up the process.
“In recent years they have been tampering with a system, that could (and did) work very well when resourced, to its detriment and for political reasons.
“The office to residential Permitted Development (PD) rights clearly demonstrated how damaging this piecemeal tinkering could be.
“The Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2020 to allow upward extensions– which will take effect from August 1, may prove to have its own problems in practice.
“Positives from the speech may be the ‘repurposing’ proposals, as a review of the Use Classes Order to modernise this 1987 statutory instrument would be helpful and is overdue.
“Announcements of extra funding by way of the Brownfield Land Fund and Home Building Fund are welcomed but are not new, having been promised pre Covid-19.”
Steve Woodford, managing director for Haslams estate agent, said: “The Build Build Build mantra is great but I am a little cautious because we need quality as well as quantity.
“When PD rights were introduced to enable vacant offices to be converted to apartments, we saw the speculators move into the market and it’ll happen again.
“They delivered volume but their focus was on profit over quality and customer satisfaction. In the short term it was great for them and the economy but it did little to address the country’s underlying housing problems.
“Alongside the supply side initiatives announced, I would like to see something on the demand side to help first time buyers and to incentivise others to, perhaps, downsize or right size.
“The current cost of moving is so high that it deters older people and so they stay in their large homes rather than downsizing.
“We should be helping people move: enabling people to right size and getting our existing housing stock to work harder for us as well as building new.”
Andy Jansons, managing director of Jansons Property, said: “The decision to accelerate this much needed investment in infrastructure, schools and homes at this uncertain time, alongside proposals to reform the planning system, is to be welcomed.
“But it needs to act as a catalyst for change in the industry. As highlighted by the recent report by McKinsey the industry needs to modernise if it is to address the issues of low productivity, skills shortages and poor quality.
“This means investing in training and skills, digital technology and off-site manufacturing. So whilst the commitment to ‘Build Build Build’ is a good headline, it needs to come with conditions; ‘Build better, Build safer, Build smarter’.”
Renata Lovat Short, associate at Clark Holt commercial solicitors, said: “So, the UK’s planning control system (the Build, Build, Build of its day) was born in 1947, two years after the end of the World War Two, with regular tweaks along the way but, arguably, not enough for the creativity of capitalism.
“At the risk of sounding dramatic, the Covid-19 crisis feels like another ‘war reaction’ situation – another change point.
“Our planning system has long been calling for change. Change is good. Flexibility is good. Let the market and needs of local communities lead.
“Hopefully, the Government’s announcement last week to push through planning reform for residential developments and greater flexibility for high street changes of use (let’s face it – the high street needs a major rethink of purpose) will actually lead to reform that was already needed pre-Covid. Build, Build, Build -2020 – we await to see what that means exactly.”
Rob Allaway, managing director for DevComms, said: “Putting property and construction at the heart of the Government’s economic recovery strategy clearly has to be welcomed.
“Making it easier to recycle vacant buildings and sites will help local economies, although the loosening of planning restrictions is unlikely to be welcomed in all town halls.
“Delivering the growth needed in the Thames Valley clearly goes well beyond these policies and we await the publication of the Government’s Planning Policy Paper later this month.
“It will also be interesting to see if changes to planning will help the UK be at the forefront of a green revolution. Many of the local authorities across the Thames Valley have declared a climate emergency. Much of the political will to deliver growth at the local level will depend on how Government policy and funding can support councils and industry deliver a low carbon future.”
Andrew Squires, project director for Bulb Interiors, said: “Planning has been slow and painful for a long time and decisions often seem political rather than about societal, economic and environmental needs. As such it can be an easy target for the PM.
“The changes are planned to come through by September and there is a danger that those early to engage may be the less scrupulous in the development sector.
“Relaxing the planning requirements for a commercial building to be converted to residential creates a number of possible concerns.
“For example, just as some of the mid-grade retail stock becomes affordable for, say, a recently redundant but entrepreneurial independent fashion retailer to do something bold and different, those opportunities may be gone.
“You would like to think there will be clarification to follow before some town centres become dormitories.”
Laura Fitzgerald, associate director for transport planning consultancy, mode, said: “The Build Build Build statement is generally welcome news but there is reason to be cautious.
“Planning reform within months and a zonal planning system sound potentially exciting but, as ever, the devil will be in the detail.
“Furthermore, the £5 billion investment in infrastructure sounds impressive but in a population of 66 million it equates to around £75 per person. Even then, experience of previous Government announcements would suggest this may not necessarily be new money. It has, however, generated sufficient headlines.”
Mike Righton, managing partner at construction consultancy RLB, said: ‘‘From the PM’s Build, Build, Build speech, there seems to be a genuine change of emphasis – from construction being seen as a necessary inconvenience – to it being seen as a major economic enabler.
“Research shows that when properly planned, £1 spent in the construction sector generates £2.93 of activity in the wider economy.
“There does appear to be a real level of commitment to removing pointless controls, to make procurement go faster and to target government interventions where they will make the most difference, which strongly aligns with the value-based procurement approach set out in the Industry Recovery Plan.’’
Kate Dean, project director for Basing View and commercial for Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council, said: “As companies start to consider their future office needs and new trends emerge such as hub and spoke strategies, which enable businesses to reduce the numbers of employees commuting into London, Basing View is primed to provide new space with shovel-ready pre-let office opportunities and available drop-in office space.
“Construction is progressing well on the new Eli Lilly offices and demolition starts this month of Norden House, after we separated this application from the Neon redevelopment proposals, to enable the site to be ready as quickly as possible.
“We understand other developers are also getting ready to submit planning applications for office developments at Basing View and starting to procure construction contracts for refurbishments of existing office space.”
David Bainbridge, planning director for Savills, said: “Recent lockdown restrictions highlighted the complexity of the planning system, which alongside the development industry faced significant disruption to normal activity.
“The road to recovery for both sectors will, no doubt, be long and it is reassuring to see the Government react readily to this. Longer site opening hours and automatic extension of time for planning permissions due to lapse are both measures that will support ‘catch up’ in planning for development.
“Equally, the proposed White Paper looks set to simplify the planning process, with a possible move towards zonal planning, but at what cost to the plan-led system?”
See also: ‘Every year planning gets more complex‘.
Image by UK Prime Minister’s Office – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-in-downing-street-27-april-2020, OGL 3, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90402503
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