While most in real estate ended 2019 more optimistically, it would be fair to say that the Conservative Party manifesto was slim when it came to the housing agenda.
It predictably reinforced the government’s commitment to deliver 300,000 new homes a year, but with little clarity on how it intends to do that.
Some policies proposed do not even provide solutions to our chronic undersupply of housing and ability to deliver new homes. Nowhere is that more evident than through its proposals for new localised design rules shaped by local residents, which seek to force local authorities to engage in even more extensive public consultation for new development.
Currently, residents rarely engage in support of planning applications; consultation is dominated by those vocal few who are opposed to change in their own ‘backyards’.
The pretext – to encourage the building of “more beautiful architecture” via greater community input – is certainly a heartening sentiment in a manifesto focused on winning votes. But developers and architects already seek to do this, acknowledging that community aspirations need to be reflected in the surrounding built environment.
The UK already has the most extensive community consultation process in Europe. Unfortunately, it results in schemes often being whittled down to the lowest common denominator of cost at the expense of scale and thus lose design merit.
It is inherently political with pressure on planning officers, qualified individuals who should be assessing design quality, scale and public realm within the context of overarching public benefit.
The real estate industry has a responsibility for quality development and there are many who do not recognise this. Those who do bring forward high architectural quality should be recognised by the planning officers and not thwarted by nimbyism and delays.
It is hard to see how deepening public consultation can co-exist alongside the long-standing Tory narrative seeking to simplify the planning system. It is already painfully slow, complex and obstructive. This will deter investors further, with fewer prepared to manage the cost of equity alongside planning risk in a process that often takes years to deliver positive outcomes.
Secretary of state for housing Robert Jenrick claims that local authority planning teams will undergo training to ensure they make the right decisions within this new framework. Such an approach is not only expensive and resource-intensive, but also overlooks the fact that such expertise already exists: in its case officers, town planners and architects. Public sector and consultancy expertise cannot be pushed to the sidelines by nimbyism.
Local planning departments are chronically under-resourced – how exactly will the time be found? According to the LGA, since 2010, planning departments have cut spending by 50%.
Jenrick’s extracurricular training is fine but what these departments need is hard funding to allow recruitment and talent retention in the public sector. We should not be resorting to local residents filling that role and curtailing development.
Now that the Tories have won their majority, I hope their manifesto can mature to provide proposals that address the inefficiencies of the planning system and enabling investment, with balanced appropriate consultation. Only then can we deliver new homes and public benefit that suits the majority – unencumbered by a highly vocal minority opposition.
Jo Cowen is chief executive of Jo Cowen Architects