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Mind the Gap – Letwin Review should take care to avoid policy overload

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The Letwin Review is considering why there is a significant gap between the number of planning permissions being granted and the number of homes built.

Initial findings are due to be published with the Chancellor’s Spring Statement 2018 in March (with the final report in the Autumn Budget).  There are a few things to think about before engaging in another orgy of Plan-Shaming and policy overload.

Apples and Pears

There is a need to be careful about how sites are looked at in the first phase of the Review:

  • Treating outline consents as if they are, or should be, immediately implementable is wrong. Outline consents can require significant work to reach detailed approval, let alone readiness for mobilisation and delivery.
  • Care is needed too, on what is treated as ‘delivery’.  Site mobilisation (for example enabling infrastructure) takes time and pre-dates construction of homes.

Defining what delivery and success look like is therefore important to avoid categorising sites that are being invested in – but have not yet yielded homes – as dormant. This will be significant in the context of the emerging Housing Delivery Test, which should be a fundamental part of the Local Plan system.

90% of percentages are wrong…

Various figures are bandied around on how many consents are ‘unimplemented’. Even adopting the higher level figure of 423,000 unimplemented homes with consent:

  • that is a tiny proportion of total supply – roughly 12-14 months of planning approvals
  • it illustrates the need for a deeper stock of permissions to achieve the heroic build out rates the Government is now committed to.

A Local Plan system which made more (and more detailed) site allocations, with clarity about infrastructure requirements, would make a big contribution to closing the gap between in principle approval for development and the detail needed for delivery. Likewise, a Local Plan system that sniffed and snuffed out unrealistic assumptions on delivery rates when trajectories are being examined would help ensure the right number of consents are granted in the first place to create the stock needed.

Diversification

Businesses will generally develop at the rate they are best able to achieve and which reflects the overarching price/demand relationship.  Rather than blaming the private sector for the speed it can – prudently –  build at, it would be more productive to look at how to achieve an increase in direct delivery (or directed delivery) by public bodies which have historically made up at least 100,000 of the gap to the Government’s 300,000 homes per year commitment.

In some cases that will involve more assertive use of land assembly and policy tools in a way that creates greater certainty about land values up front so that builders can build and sell more quickly.

Planning blame-fest?

Evidence from the sector on the non-Planning constraints to delivery is important.  Is there a skills gap, what will Brexit do to it and if Government is sponsoring Brexit how will it sponsor the solution?

From the frontline, a few of the  Planning matters that do slow things down are:

  • Length of time taken to deal with highways works agreements. The absence of a standard template agreement is a real blight on the development process.
    Constant reinvention of the wheel and imposition of poorly drafted and unreasonable requirements does have a real impact on the site mobilisation process. Government could sponsor a standard form and issue guidance recommending its use.
  • The bloat and general time-soak associated with unnecessary use of planning obligations. Our ‘speeding tickets’ blog flagged ways to speed things up without scarce Parliamentary time being needed.