There are few topics that can command the same media attention as housing. One might think that the level of interest, scrutiny and desire to overcome the challenge would mean new reports and analysis would reflect how far the conversation should have come, with ‘nuance’ as the watchword. But, alas, it appears not.
One story that does the rounds every year or two is what the Local Government Association calls ‘unimplemented permissions’. In its latest iteration, the LGA claims that more than 400,000 homes have been granted permission but have been left unbuilt and that they are taking longer to build those homes too. The implication to this is threefold: 1. planning is not the problem in housing delivery; 2. housebuilders are likely to be landbanking; and 3. the government may need to take a more interventionist role.
But in the name of nuance – and before we rush to designing policy solutions – we should understand a bit more about the analysis.
The data the LGA uses is from Glenigan, a firm that provides planning data on all development in the UK. Importantly, Glenigan mostly tracks schemes through the planning system and have a network of stakeholders and partners but what they do not do is visit every site to see precisely how many have been built. Back in 2016 – the last time this analysis was undertaken and released – it meant that units on sites that were not fully complete would be classed as ‘unimplemented’ i.e. a site of 1,000 units that was 99% complete would have all units counted as ‘unimplemented’.
This year, they have estimated the number of ‘unimplemented units’ on site by using the median construction time of projects with similar characteristics (project size, type and region) completed in 2015/16 and 2016/17, assumed that no units were completed during the first 16 weeks of a project and that unit completions were evenly distributed across the remainder of the construction phase. This is certainly an improvement to the methodology – which is welcome – but the analysis still doesn’t highlight key considerations which are vital if we are to create useful and effective policy.
Our extensive analysis from 2017 on this topic drew two key conclusions. First, even if we set aside the specific and detailed issues the LGA has not considered, it is still a relatively small number of units considering three factors: 1. the number of homes built each year; 2. the length of time the different sizes of sites take to build out; and 3. the number of sites in the pipeline required to signal to investors that developers are worth investing in.
Secondly, given that differently-sized sites take different timescales to plan and build, and that every site has unique ‘build profile’ that extends into the future - i.e. not all units on site are built in the year they are granted permission – it is entirely understandable that there would be ‘unimplemented units’ and, indeed, in a period when output is increasing after a slump the ratio between permissions and dwellings completed each year will naturally increase.
Recognising this build-out profile, our analysis uses two different housebuilding scenarios to show that there needs to be a stock of units with permission to sustain housebuilding in the future and this stock would initially increase at a faster rate than supply in order build the pipeline necessary to match increased targets. With this in mind, our modelling showed that a stock of between 0.9 and 1.1 million units would be required to ramp up future housebuilding to hit 300,000 homes per year by the mid-2020s (Figure 1) – a target subsequently adopted by the Chancellor.
This leads one to conclude the LGA figure of 423,000 unimplemented units is a sign not of landbanking but of an urgent need for more permissions.
Figure 1: Trajectory of Permissions and Output
Source: Lichfields analysis
Image credit: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Empty buildings and spaces present opportunities, not only for use in the long-term but also in the short-term. In recent years, a diverse range and multitude of pop-ups and temporary (“meanwhile”) uses of vacant sites and buildings have emerged across UK towns and cities; the trend is especially apparent in London. To this end, the Draft New London Plan (published 29 November 2017) includes a policy which specifically encourages the London Boroughs to identify opportunities for the meanwhile use of sites for housing, ‘to make efficient use of land while it is awaiting longer-term development’.
On behalf of U+I, Lichfields recently secured planning permission for the temporary provision and use of 72 empty shipping containers on a site (the ‘Old Laundry Site’) adjacent to Shepherd’s Bush Market, in West London. The proposals will create affordable co-working space, with ancillary food and beverage pop-ups, and community space.
Proposals at Old Laundry Site
The scheme represents the inherent sustainability benefits of meanwhile uses, by bringing an abandoned, brownfield site back into use sooner rather than later. Also, the proposal characterises the social and economic advantages typically associated with meanwhile uses; new jobs will be created, the containers will provide affordable workspace for start-up businesses, the increased footfall will result in an improved economic outlook for neighbouring existing market traders, and the space will cater for community uses and events.
The proposals draw on the concept created by Boxpark, with sites in Shoreditch and Croydon. Boxpark also uses containers, to allow for flexibility and for growth in response to demand. Boxpark’s developments to date were specifically conceived as a way of delivering meanwhile uses to create short- to medium-term employment opportunities for the local community. Similar to the Old Laundry Site, workspace is affordable and retailers do not have lengthy and complicated leases.
Meanwhile uses can also provide a way of bringing life and activity to an area before permanent development. The temporary use of a site can smooth the transition for local communities, and give them a platform and voice to shape emerging development proposals. The attractiveness of a place for potential future tenants can also be enhanced. For example, the former BBC Television Centre, in White City is subject to comprehensive redevelopment proposals which will eventually result in the creation of a new mixed use, urban quarter. Whilst development has begun on part of the site, elsewhere a multi-storey car park is now being used as a temporary rooftop event space. Named ‘Pergola on the Roof’, the space has views over West London and includes restaurants, bars, music and seating. Who doesn’t love a rooftop bar? Incipio Group, who run the event space, describe their mission as being to “take unloved and unused spaces and turn them into unique, big and beautiful destinations”.
Left to right: Pergola on the Roof and Riverside Woodland Escape
Similarly, Albert Wharf in Fulham, located on the Thames, is due to be redeveloped for a residential-led mixed-use scheme in 2018. In the meantime, the space was transformed to a ‘beach venue’ with sand, palm trees and beach huts last summer. For the winter, a ‘riverside woodland escape’ was created, comprising lodges, igloos, curling and mini golf.
These spaces and the events held in them are vastly popular, probably as a result of their transient nature; people have a fear of missing out on experiencing a new, but soon-to-disappear venue. There is no time for the novelty to wear off. As a result, I’m sure we will continue to see new pop-ups and meanwhile uses in all manner of different locations, as the diverse social, economic and environmental advantages they offer are increasingly recognised.