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The Wheel of Blame spins round on Britain’s house-building crisis

Dan Di-Lieto 04 Feb 2016
At the start of every year the internet tends to be ablaze with new and exciting trends to look out for. When it comes to addressing the house building crisis you will struggle to find anyone who will tell you anything new or exciting about its causes - it is an ever-spinning wheel of blame. Whether the blame lands on the government, local authorities, the planning system or house builders depends on your view point and the phase of the moon in the political calendar.
Judging by recent articles online, the wheel of blame has landed firmly back on house builders who, depending on where you find your news, are sitting on sites for between 450,000 and 600,000 potential homes in unimplemented planning permissions. I have always found this criticism peculiar, partly as a result of my experience working with house builders (I have yet to meet one who doesn’t want planning  permission and to start on site a.s.a.p.) and also because it defies the simple logic that house builders primarily make money from building and selling houses.
Ultimately, housebuilders can only build at the rate a local market will support. Ignoring the debate about numbers and the methodology involved in calculating unimplemented permissions - which my colleague Joe Sarling has some strong views on - and the “use-it-or-lose-it” suggestion which politicians trot out every now and again (keep an eye out for it in the run-up to the London Mayoral elections), it seems sensible to take a step back and consider the causes of the backlog.
Recent research published by the Local Government Association (LGA) posits that the planning system is not a barrier to house building, citing the disparity between permissions being granted and houses being built, pointing instead to the lack of skills and its impact on recruitment in the construction industry. This approach ignores the fact that the granting of planning permission on a site does not immediately equate to new homes and in reality, it is far from it. The issuing of planning permission is rarely the start line for the building process, but rather the beginning of the marathon of discharging pre-commencement conditions. Whilst I would never describe the planning system as a barrier, I am in agreement with the Home Builders Federation who, whilst acknowledging improvements in the planning system, consider it to be “too slow, bureaucratic and expensive”.
In my experience in planning to date, the underlying issue is always ‘time’. Time is money and, in the words of Bob Dylan, “money doesn’t talk, it swears”.  Local authorities (LAs) never seem to have enough time or resources to dedicate to the application in hand and this means more time lost and fees incurred by house builders before they can build new homes. The impacts of budget cuts on planning departments are trickling down to the earliest stages of applications, with the timescales involved in acknowledging, validating and assigning cases seemingly ever-expanding. The most recent example of this was outlined in an email from a London Borough asking that applicants follow the Borough’s file naming conventions, or face the validation process being delayed by as much as 2 weeks. If such a minor issue can delay the issuing of permission for what is essentially almost one sixth of the determination period of a major housing application, what hope do developers have in securing timely permissions?
To borrow imagery from “Come Fly With Me”, the lack of resources in some authorities has meant the planning process, at times, resembles flying with a low budget airline. A prospective developer has to pay a premium - through enhanced pre-application services and entering into a planning performance agreement (PPA) to receive a service that was previously provided, or that is still being provided free of charge by less cash-strapped, under-resourced authorities. This is not a dig at planning authorities but an acknowledgement of the challenges they are facing with limited resources and an increasing number of planning applications. In this regard I’m very much in agreement with the recent recommendations of Sheffield University’s Dr Sarah Payne, particularly her suggestion that the number of LA planners should be proportionate to the housing need set out in the local plan.
Despite the various difficulties faced by all groups involved, the wheel of blame keeps spinning round and it is the constant shifting of blame that impacts on the delivery of housing just as much as any of the smaller issues. The rhetoric recently used by Cllr Peter Box (LGA housing spokesman) is just one example of this: “councils must have the power to invest in building new homes and to force developers to build homes more quickly”. In an environment where politicians, LAs, house builders and the general public all (hopefully) want the same thing, it seems peculiar that any one group should want to force the other to build homes. It is this absence of collaboration and compromise which is as much a cause of the housing crisis as a symptom of it.
I won’t pretend that I have a silver bullet for solving the housing crisis, and one shouldn’t believe any mayoral candidate that claims they do either, but my best experiences in residential planning have come when the various groups involved have been willing to work together on the basis of each other’s relative responsibilities and restrictions. For planning officers this means an appreciation of the economics and commercial requirements behind development proposals, for committee members an ability to look beyond the local impact of a scheme, and for house builders a recognition that LAs are under-resourced and require additional funding (through PPAs), which isn’t forthcoming from central government, to process larger or more complex applications. My utopian planning system is unlikely to ever come to fruition so, in the meantime, I would settle for all involved to step away from the wheel of blame and to start to work together proactively and collaboratively.