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The ambition is there, depending on where you look
This February marks 22 years since Sheffield’s flagship city centre apartment block, West One, received planning permission. Located in the trendy Devonshire Quarter and overlooking Devonshire Green with its skate park and the annual Tramlines music festival, West One is home for around 1,000 people in a 7 storey block. It was completed in 2005 as one of the first centrally located large apartment blocks in Sheffield marking its entry into the ‘urban renaissance’ era that was being promoted by Richard Rogers and the Urban Task Force at the time. Sheffield’s city centre population today is nearing 30,000. Students and young professionals make up a significant proportion, but the highly successful Kelham Island neighbourhood on the northern edge of the city centre has blossomed into an active, mixed community with flagship eco-housing led by Citu and others. The City Council is keen to deliver more housing like this in the city centre, motivated in large part, it seems, to resist Green Belt release. The Publication Draft Sheffield Plan that is out for consultation until 20th February articulates the City Council’s ambitions to achieve more centrally located housing. It comes off the back of the City Centre Strategic Vision that was endorsed by the City Council in March 2022 which talks about “resetting the City Centre by developing a strategy to re-purpose and improve vibrancy through the creation of new, distinctive neighbourhoods.” Ambitious? It’s been a bumpy road for Sheffield getting to this point: the Unitary Development was adopted in 1998 and the Core Strategy in 2009, so a new Local Plan is much needed, but the way in which the city should meet its housing need has been the focus of much debate over the years. The Publication Draft Sheffield Plan makes the case for rejecting the 35% uplift for urban centres because it would result in a housing growth figure that outpaced the anticipated level of jobs growth. At 2,090 dwellings per annum they are effectively proposing a shortfall of 15,061 dwellings over the plan period (2022 to 2039). This level of growth is borne out of the Council’s decision in January 2022 to reject the option to release Green Belt sites unless they are “sustainably located” and And since then, the Council may take comfort in having chosen its strategy ahead of the draft NPPF consultation which proposes a change to the way plans are examined: from meeting an area’s objectively assessed need “as a minimum” to, “as far as possible” as my colleague Edward Clarke’s recent blog explains. We certainly see the Council’s proposed approach on housing numbers to be keenly debated and heavily scrutinised as the draft Plan progresses. But where it lacks ambition in one area it more than makes up for it in another. The Publication Draft Sheffield Plan is ambitious for the city centre and redeveloping brownfield sites. It proposes c.18,465 new homes over the plan period in the City Centre comprising c.51% of the total proposed housing supply and 56% of the proposed housing allocations. The latest data in 2022[1] shows that the City Centre delivered 56% (996 dwellings) of the city’s gross dwelling completions. If they can maintain that level of delivery every year of the plan period then, in theory, they will achieve the desired numbers. However, of the 996 completions in 2020/21, only 7 were ‘houses’, the rest were apartments and student clusters. Clearly, housing delivery in the city centre will need to diversify if it is to meet the city’s housing need. Can it be delivered? There may be reasons to think that Sheffield can deliver the step change required to deliver. Significant change is already happening through the “Heart of the City 2” (HoC2) scheme, a major leisure, retail and residential redevelopment project due to be finished by 2024. It is the sequel to the highly successful Peace Gardens, Millennium Galleries and Winter Garden that were opened some twenty years ago (which still look fresh today). Also in the pipeline are works to Fargate (traditionally the main shopping street) and Castlegate using the Future High Streets Fund and Levelling Up Funds. If Sheffield can deliver the right housing offer in the city centre, then the contribution to the city centre’s regeneration is compelling, but a lot of hard work is required by all involved. We’ve written many times on this blog about the challenges of delivering new housing on brownfield sites, and most recently my colleague Simon Slatford reflected on the implications of the draft NPPF’s emphasis on increasing density in suburbia. In our experience, three core issues affect the deliverability of brownfield sites: ownership, land assembly (and de-risking sites) and location. In terms of ownership, the City Council does own some land in the city centre but it is not the dominant landowner. What it does own has been successfully marketed to the private sector in recent years which supports the case the Sheffield Plan is presenting. Prime examples include the refurbishment of Eye Witness Works for apartments by Capital and Centric, and Kangaroo Works on Rockingham Street that was acquired by US investor Angelo Gordon and Ridgeback Group in 2019 for a 14 storey build-to-rent apartment block. Where the City Council lacks ownership, they are also doing what they can: playing the role of land assembler who can buy up sites, in some cases, and then put out to the market after public funding has ‘de-risked’ them by overcoming certain constraints, e.g. contamination, highways infrastructure and flood defences. The partnership with Homes England[2] is testament to that strategy. Where demand exists but the ability to meet that demand is missing, then public funds can be used to good effect. The third challenge to brownfield land assembly is getting the location right in relation to demand. There are locations in Sheffield City Centre where demand exists for the range of housing the council wants more of – the highly successful Kelham Island in the north of the city centre is the best example. But to what extent is that demand repeatable across the city centre to meet the scale of growth envisaged? Also, what will peak demand look like? How will they know when to look elsewhere to meet the city’s housing need? It is perhaps at that point that the case for non-city centre or greenfield sites will need to be heard. Sheffield may also be encouraged that city centre living remains in high demand post-covid. We expect that a large proportion of the growth will come from the Build to Rent (BtR) sector which, as we reported in our blog in April, is booming with the British Property Federation (BPF) research showing that the sector pipeline grew by another 8% in 2021. This growth was affirmed in October by the BPF in their latest report[3] showing 20% growth in BtR year-on-year in regional towns and cities (almost triple the pace of growth in London at 7%). And despite inflationary pressures developers are pressing on: the BPF reports that the pipeline for BtR remains strong with 22% year-on-year increase in the number of BtR homes in for planning in regional towns and cities. Sheffield is seeing some of this growth: there are at least 5 BtR schemes under construction in the city centre and at least another 7 in for planning at the time of writing. In addition, the BtR product is diversifying with Single Family Rental schemes emerging as a new sub-sector with the BPF reporting about 15,000 single family homes in the planning pipeline in England. If Sheffield is to meet its ambition of delivering city entre living at scale, then attracting this market will be key, but these are small numbers when looked at nationally. Testing times ahead Sheffield recognises the challenge and it is no stranger to using its resources to best effect, but demand and need are two different things and location is a significant factor in meeting both. When judged on market demand for where people want to live – to raise a family, have more outdoor amenity space and choice of schools – there may not be enough flexibility in the proposed distribution of housing, particularly if the brownfield sites can’t deliver. The current consultation on the Publication Draft Sheffield Plan will channel the debate as to whether the Council should place greater emphasis on the role that non-city centre, greenfield or even Green Belt sites can have in meeting the full extent of the City’s housing needs, both in terms of the overall numbers and, importantly, the range of house types. It is one that Lichfields is plugged into with local knowledge and projects in the city. If you would like us to represent you in the debate, then do get in touch. The consultation on the Publication Draft Sheffield Plan runs until 20th February. [1] Sheffield Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessment, 2022 [2] [3]