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
Tel Aviv is a Smart City. Built on the dunes of Mandate Palestine’s Mediterranean coast to the north of Jaffa, according to Patrick Geddes’s urban plan, it was initially planned as a Jewish suburb to Jaffa. Within twenty years of its existence, the neighbourhood was forced to adapt to absorb unprecedented waves of immigration of Jews feeling rising pressures in Eastern Europe. Tel Aviv’s growth was necessarily both haphazard and planned, with these characteristics still evident in the city’s built environment. In 2003 the city was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised for the historic core’s homogeneity of International Style buildings, and the integrity of Geddes’ urban plan.
As the antithesis of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is secular and liberal. The economy is prospering, the nightlife is lively, and the café and beach scene is busy. The municipal authorities encourage creativity, education and social and economic prosperity.
Underpinning each of these aims is a municipal agenda to achieve the 11th UN Sustainable Development Goal: Sustainable Cities and Communities. The City’s planning department aims to make Tel Aviv inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable through long term investment in local communities.
By adopting Smart City Principles, Tel Aviv’s municipality connects with its residents through technological advances. Residents have access to free Wi-Fi throughout the city, encouraging inhabitants to gain autonomy in managing and participating in internal municipal decisions. iView (the municipal GIS) enables residents, tourists and professionals to comment on the urban environment, fostering transparency, accessibility and active citizen engagement. Through DigiTel, a live app-based service, planning decisions can be observed and logged, present and future construction and renovation works are indicated as alerts, and citizens are offered information on local cultural events. That 60% of Tel Aviv’s residents are registered with the service is testament to the success of the municipality in changing the way residents engage with the urban environment.
As a Smart City, such strong civic involvement has the potential to transform the ways that heritage values and planning – too often seen as distant and unengaging – are communicated and experienced by residents.
While the ‘Smart London’ Plan strives to engage citizens, enable growth and work with businesses, there is little mention of ways in which the Plan envisages communicating heritage values to residents through new technologies. Perhaps London needs to take a lesson from Tel Aviv’s successes to promote ways in which internet and mobile communication can transform conventional interaction with cultural heritage. By using smartphones to create a streamlined network, civic interaction with historical and environmental resources and the urban environment would be apparent. Rather than having apps and email notifications specific only to museums, shops, and locations, if London were to take a holistic approach, users (residents, industry professionals, academics and students) could post and share comments and reviews on the built environment. This would strengthen wider, inclusive and sustainable civic participation and appreciation of London’s rich cultural heritage, changing the way individuals interact with the built environment.
Stella Fox is a Heritage Consultant based in our London office. She recently completed a research project on the twentieth century evolution of Tel Aviv.
 A Smart City is an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information and to manage its assets and resources efficiently
 This is a Mayoral initiative which seeks to promote digital collaboration between the Mayor and the London Boroughs