Planning matters

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Innovation in planning and construction…
Released in 1982 when I was 7 years old, Blade Runner established itself very quickly as a classic movie. It was based on Philip K Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Admittedly it was never one of my favourite movies, as I never really understood it, and found it very dark. Only as I’ve got older and watched it a few more times have I eventually understood the different layers to the story, the production, and the design of the film. I’ll be interested to see how Blade Runner 2049 compares to the original 35 years on. The movie’s affiliation with the North East is particularly strong given the futuristic cityscape at the beginning of the film, with its bright lights, industrial urban fabric and flames flickering in the sky – the Los Angeles of 2019 it portrays could easily be mistaken as the Wilton Chemical Plant. As Ridley Scott lived on Teesside it is clear the prominent skyline of the Tees Valley played an influential role in the setting of this futuristic classic. The underpinning basis of Blade Runner is: as robots evolve, at what stage do they become human; and as our lives become more and more computerised, at what stage do we start to become machines?  This conundrum of continued evolution of innovation and artificial intelligence clearly applies to the construction industry today. It is just over a year since Mark Farmer issued ‘Modernise or Die’, an 80-page report, setting out 10 recommendations to fundamentally change the way the construction industry operates, particularly in the delivery of housing where the UK is falling severely short – hence housing lying at the heart of Philip Hammond’s Budget last week. Among Farmer’s proposals were the need for major changes to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB); the creation of a new build housing pipeline; and a tax on clients that fail to innovate. There was nothing in the report which you would disagree with; more a confirmation of the issues that the construction sector has experienced over several years; and which acts as a useful barometer of the lack of progress that has been made.  To be genuinely successful in delivering the housing that is required not just across the North East, but the country as a whole, the private sector cannot achieve this on its own; it must enhance its ability to work in collaboration and partnership and share intelligence, technology and resources with other organisations. The Home Building Fund and Accelerated Construction Programme, coordinated by the HCA on behalf of the Government can assist as part of their aim is to exploit offsite construction methods to deliver up to 15,000 housing starts on surplus public sector land at a faster rate. The construction industry must also work with training and education providers, Universities and with the Government to radically transform how their workers, from those just entering the industry to those who are looking to retrain. As technology advances and the construction industry continues to evolve, then the upskilling of its workforce is going to be critical. Modern methods of construction and innovative ways of working are not going to be a genuine success unless we know where we are going to find the skills we need. To seize the opportunities presented by these emerging technologies, training programmes provided by higher and further education is going to be vital. Offsite modular construction provides significant benefits to projects that include shorter construction programmes, reduced costs, less waste and consistent quality as a factory setting allows for strict plant conditions. We are working in a time where if we are going to make real inroads in solving the multi-layered housing crisis, then we must really think outside of the box. Working with JP Fraser, the MD of Orca LGS Solutions Ltd, is an example of someone who doesn’t even see a box! Lichfields are currently assisting Orca in driving forward development opportunities to demonstrate genuinely innovative approaches to construction. JP’s passion and enthusiasm for wanting to do something different is unparalleled. As he summed up to me: The principle of successful modern methods of construction is about flexibility, partnership and collaboration. What I am looking to achieve through our developments is to demonstrate our potential to disrupt. Through design, technology and software I want to show how at a scale we can make a change and a difference. We are challenging the norm with a simple mobile manufacturing solution that can be delivered anywhere using local people. Through our developments I want to bring all the relevant players together to make a contribution – that includes Local Government, Local Authorities, Government Departments, Education, Registered Providers and Homes England. It’s not complicated – it’s a design-led, technology driven process that can be repeated over and over again, and as such can be so effective and successful because of its simplicity – that’s the beauty of it, we are doing more, better, with less. Having a development that has strong ties to the local college in close proximity is really important. It means we can provide the job opportunities to local students to learn about Light Gauge Steel (LGS) construction, and actually see the end product of their endeavours. The sense of achievement they get from having an influential role in building the houses, whilst learning and developing new skills is great to see. Supporting local young people means we are keeping the pound local through our schemes whilst training the construction workers of tomorrow. The projects Lichfields are supporting JP with in the North East will enable Orca LGS to showcase the added value modern methods of construction and innovation can generate for housing developments to local authorities, potential partners and politicians. It is not just the private sector that must evolve and not standstill. The public sector has an important role to play too – however, there continues to be a risk averse culture within local authorities that holds them back from making a difference. There is the overly used phrase ‘open for business’ by many local authorities I’ve worked with across the country, with an interest in wanting to do something different and innovative – but quite often being just at face value, with no true commitment to see things through. Instead when it comes to specific schemes and details local planning authorities tend rely on implementing ‘safe’ planning policies, or indeed use planning as a regulation tool rather than an opportunity to be brave, and to facilitate innovative development. We (public and private sector) all need to stand out from the crowd, whilst continuing to add value for our clients and customers. Innovative approaches like modern methods of construction must continue to be driven forward in order to increase the speed of delivery of providing homes people require and demand. If we continue to standstill and not challenge the norm we will not solve the national housing crisis we are faced with. It will be interesting to see how the development and construction industry grasps and embraces the opportunities innovation techniques can bring, and see these played out in the years to come. I wonder when I’m 74 in 2049 and I dust down the blue-ray disc of Blade Runner I will be living in a world where the buildings and streets are a representation and influence of the classic movie, proving it was ahead of its time? Image credit: ©The Blade Runner Partnership and/or The Ladd Company  

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Do or do not, there is no try…

Do or do not, there is no try…

Phil Jones 04 May 2017
In a recent conversation with one of my clients, he laid down a challenge for me to name a movie sequel that was better than the original. It’s a more difficult question to answer than you might think.   Gavin Barwell must have felt similar when Theresa May asked him to sort out the housing crisis.   When it finally arrived, the much-delayed Housing White Paper, titled Fixing our Broken Housing Market, had good intention but was surrounded by rumours of last minute edits and alterations.   Given the timing of its release, and with the local elections taking place today across the country, it is of no surprise that the version we have all submitted responses to the day before yesterday is a very politically astute document. It ended up saying something for everyone, and was all things to all men, or was it?   A notable absentee is the eagerly anticipated standardised approach for all local planning authorities to follow to determine their Objectively Assessed Housing Need – a vital methodology for calculating housing requirement, which could have huge implications for local authorities across the North East.   This methodology was supposed to be in the White Paper, and then it was supposed to be released during the consultation on the White Paper. The fact that we are still waiting suggests that the government are perhaps struggling to come up with a sequel that is better than the original! The White Paper does set out some positive steps, including the potential for planning departments to get additional resource through higher fees, pushing for better use of public sector land and working to get more SME housebuilders into the sector. However, a leading role in the White Paper is the Local Authority. There are certainly great expectations placed on local authorities to deliver more housing in their patch, with financial incentives in return on offer.   Indeed, there is great scope and opportunity for the local authorities to be more innovative in leading housing delivery. Currently the release of public sector land via estate and asset management plans is slow and onerous – and what does ‘best value’ really mean? Local Authorities need to remove the shackles and allow potential housing sites to come to the market much faster and free from restrictive processes and criteria. Local authorities could also look at supporting SME housebuilders (who are seen by Gavin Barwell as having a key supporting role to the national housebuilders) through financing the implementation of suitable housing sites.   As I mentioned, the White Paper is a politically astute document – and politics at the local authority level continues to be a significant issue that is holding housing delivery back. Planning Committees need to play a more proactive role in bringing suitable housing developments forward. On too many occasions suitable proposals are being refused by planning committees against recommendations for approval by their own officers, resulting in planning by appeal. Whilst ‘training’ for planning committee members does take place in more local authorities, I would like to see more stringent performance management measures introduced by local authorities to ensure their Members make sound decisions based on planning, not vote scoring. Where Councillors fail to make sound planning judgements they could be removed from planning committee for a period of time and given more training.     The White Paper confirms that planning application fees will be on the increase by 20% from July, which will generate additional income for local authorities. As an extra incentive for those authorities that proactively deliver housing then they could be able to charge an additional 20% on their fees. There are many of my private sector clients who regularly say to me that they would be happy to pay local authorities more for a planning application fee or for pre-app, as long as it guaranteed a better service. It’s a real pity that the public sector cannot provide the service the private sector expects in the first place; but with local authorities continuing to lose experienced planning officers who deal with applications in a pragmatic and positive way, is it really a surprise they are struggling to deal with major development proposals that are desperately needed quickly to address housing needs and demand?   More money coming into a local authority does not address that loss of experience; with the possibility of the local authority receiving extra finances I only see the Finance Director being the main beneficiary in order to cover the coffers across a number of Council departments to address the wider squeeze on public sector budgets.   It is vital that any extra revenue local authorities generate through planning applications it benefits not just the development management departments – the planning policy team is equally important, as the Local Plan is a pivotal platform for housing delivery. Unfortunately as our analysis shows the pace at which the Northern local authorities are finalising their respective local plan continues to be pedestrian at best.   Given the importance of early engagement between developers and the local planning authority, it is vital that each local authority has a recognised figurehead as a head of planning policy and head of development management. Demonstrating this leadership provides confidence to the development industry. However, it is alarming to note that 33% of North East local authorities do not have a Head of Planning Policy whose sole purpose is to get a sound Local Plan in place and successfully implement it. There is also a Head of Development Management missing in 25% of the region’s local authorities. It is vital that these vacancies are occupied with experienced, recognisable planners who can be the leading actor for the respective authority.     Talking of figureheads, not only is it the local elections today, but May the Fourth brings ‘A New Hope’ with a new Mayor for the Tees Valley. This strategic overview for a number of key policy areas is crucial to the success of a sub-region like the Tees Valley. Housing has a key role to play in delivering the national Industrial Strategy, and the Tees Valley must see housing as an essential component of infrastructure in the same way as transport, energy and higher education.   There have been several previous attempts at sub-regional working – even Tyne & Wear had a go in 1977 (the same year George Lucas brought Star Wars to the big screen for the first time) with the Tyne & Wear Development Plan – and it is a great shame that 7 North East authorities have continued to fail to reach a pragmatic solution to collaboration. With the potential of the Housing Infrastructure Fund on offer, prioritisation for housing and economic development beyond administrative boundaries is crucial to the wider benefit of the North East. Whilst the three authorities north of the Tyne continue to broker a deal, the silence from the authorities south of the Tyne is alarmingly deafening.   The Tees Valley however continue to make hay whilst the sun shines, and whilst it is not always easy to agree on the priorities across five local authority areas, I am sure with Sue Jeffrey, a former colleague of mine, as the Mayor, that the Force will Awaken, and the Tees Valley will continue to demonstrate to the Government how devolving powers locally can work.   Whilst collaboration across local authorities is important, collaboration between local authorities and the development industry is equally important. At Lichfields we have been working closely with the HBF to engage with local authorities across the North East to share intelligence on the issues both sectors face whilst both trying to bring housing forward. With the likes of Darlington, Northumberland and Sunderland this engagement has proved useful – but it has demonstrated that it must be the start of a continuous dialogue. We want other local authorities (officers and Members) to proactively engage. Through our work with the North East Chamber of Commerce on housing I would also advocate the establishment of a developers’ forum where the ties between the wider housing industry and local planning authorities are also strengthened.   Whilst progress has been made in bringing forward more housing, we must continue to do more. This can be achieved with the right policy and investment frameworks in place. It will be an interesting summer ahead to see the fallout from the Housing White Paper, and I hope the distraction of 8 June does not affect the momentum that has been generated in ensuring housing delivery and economic ambition is achieved through practical policies and proposals.     Image credit: LUCASFILM  

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