The planning system has been getting worse for years and shows no signs of reform, delegates heard at the latest UK Prop Social event.

Cliff Dare, chief operating officer and head of real estate at Harwell Campus, was responding to a question about whether the planning system is too focused on residential rather than commercial development.

Speaking to almost 100 people attending the online event online on Tuesday, June 30, as news was coming through of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Build Build Build programme, Mr Dare said: “Every year planning has got more complex, more expensive, longer, throughout my career.

“I have seen no on-the-ground evidence of planning reform at all. The private sector is pretty much to blame. All the good planners were nicked by the private sector over the last 15 years, coupled with the degrading of (local government) pensions and what have you.

“People are not of the requisite quality – sat in local authorities – to take decisions.

“I see no reform, I think the need for it is desperate and whilst we have never not got a consent we wanted at Harwell, it’s a journey that is unnecessarily torturous, in my opinion.”

The webinar, Catching The Business Park Bounce, chaired by UK Property Forums managing director Matthew Battle, looked at whether low density out-of-town parks would, in future, be favoured over more dense town centres.

Questions were submitted throughout the event. James Raven, chief executive of Arlington, responding to questions about the Government’s Build Build Build agenda and whether there is any hope of filling space at Thames Valley Park, indicated that the best parks will succeed.

He said: “This all flows through to quality – the best connected, best amenitised, best managed environments winning out and those that are ultimately more fragmented, not as well located, not as accessible, not as well amenitised, will continue to be a challenge.

He argued that allowing office space to become residential has led to a better supply/demand dynamic and as well as growth in both rents and levels of investment.

He added: “If you think where rents were 25 years ago, in real terms of office accommodation in our market, it is incredibly cheap.

“It’s so cheap to occupy and it’s only really the last three, four, five years that those dynamics have allowed the rental growth so I think that, ultimately, it’s going to take a while to flow through before anything can get off the ground. So I don’t see anything happening immediately.”

Earlier, Philip Campbell, MEPC commercial director who oversees Milton Park, said it was already moving towards less of a 9am-5pm park and more a 24/7 environment.

He added: “What I think is coming out of Covid is the acceleration of a lot of trends we were already seeing. I think the pace at which they come forward is going to increase – flexible leases, services will become more important and amenity is going to become more important.”

He said business park owners and managers are well placed to meet the new demands.

Mr Raven said Covid-19 illustrated to people that they didn’t always need to commute but he said offices are here to stay. Benefits of working in an office, he said, include opportunities to innovate, collaborate and build culture, brand and teamwork.

And he perceived one aspect of success in the Government’s approach to Covid-19.

He said: “The problem is the one thing the Government has done such a good job of is scaring the hell out of everyone on this that it is going to be quite difficult to unscare the hell out of everyone. It’s just going to take time.”

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Image (clockwise from top left): The full panel: Philip Campbell, Cliff Dare, Charles Rowton-Lee from Savills, James Raven and Matthew Battle (centre).

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