If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail

Noel Meredith – Executive Director

[pull_quote]This famous saying, coined by American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, has been much used by politicians and business gurus for the last 250 years.[/pull_quote]

For many SME developers though, ‘Planning’ and ‘Fail’ can come together far too often even when a huge amount of effort, expense and prior preparation has been put in.

When talking to SME developers it seems that in the vast majority of cases, the planning stage of a development is often the most frustrating period of any project. Technical challenges may arise mid-build and buyers may be challenging, but nothing is quite as annoying to new home builders as irrational planning decisions, especially if the refusals go against the planning officers’ advice and the decision is later reversed on appeal.

Quite often it’s SME builders who get the thinnest edge of the wedge. Their bread and butter tends to be smaller, often brownfield sites and back gardens where they are taking pockets of unused land or derelict buildings and turning them into new homes, which is exactly what we need. And yet, it’s on these smaller, sometimes more difficult sites, where developers can come up against the most frustrating planning decisions.

Here is a case in point. We have a client who acquired former industrial land with planning for 11 homes. They cleared it and built a first phase of 7 attractive homes on it using the latest timber framed construction. No one could deny that the development vastly improved the area. When they came to submit a proposal to increase the number of houses from 4 to 6 on the remaining land, using similar density to the first phase, the application was rejected. Why? There was no justification. The planning officer supported the application. The homes weren’t crammed together and there were no access or highway issues. The committee simply decided that four homes would be better than six. There was no requirement for more public open space or a children’s play area on the additional land vacated by having two less homes. They seemed to refuse permission simply because they could.

If the developer accepted the decision and built just the four new homes, each home would have a slightly bigger garden, even though the gardens for six were already generous by modern standards. Of course, the developer hasn’t accepted the decision. They will now go to appeal and incur thousands of pounds in extra costs and interest and they may have to stop work on the site while they go through the appeal process. The Local Authority will have to commit more time and resource reappraising the application, and when the proposal is considered on appeal it will almost certainly win, because there was no good reason why it didn’t get approved in the first place. There will be six houses eventually. They will have taken six to nine months longer to complete, the planning office will have had an extra case to process and when the homes are completed, the developer will have incurred more costs and have a smaller margin. For no good reason.

And that’s really the beef most developers have with planning committees. They understand that sometimes there are good reasons, that it’s right for elected officials to have a say on the development which goes on in their local areas (as long as that doesn’t creep into NIMBYism) and that we need a robust and accountable planning system. What really annoys developers are irrational, unjustifiable decisions. What planning committees need are strong guidelines which say ‘you can reject proposals for these good reasons, but if you don’t have these good reasons, you can’t just reject them because you feel like it.’

Philip Hammond, Sajid Javid and Gavin Barwell could be about to provide just that. At the Conservative Party conference at the start of October, Hammond, the new Chancellor, Javid, the Communities Minister, and Barwell, the Housing Minister, [color_quote]revealed plans for a £5bn housing fund to include £3bn to help SME builders complete 25,000 new homes by 2020 and up to 225,000 in the longer term. The cash will be used to encourage smaller building firms to employ modern, faster building techniques to get more homes built more quickly.[/color_quote] However, probably more important than the cash, to most SME builders, is a pledge to overhaul planning regulations, particularly on brownfield sites.

Mr Javid has promised that the new housing building programme will breathe “new life back into our high streets” and “abandoned shopping centres” with a new “de facto” presumption in favour of housing on brownfield land in planning rules. Earlier this year, the Government announced that the permitted development right for the conversion of office to residential was to be extended beyond the original May 2016 deadline. These rights have been popular with developers and provided opportunities to create thousands of residential units and improve many urban areas, free from affordable housing obligations or other financial planning obligations. This latest announcement from the Communities Minister appears to suggest that the range of buildings which may be included within the scope of permitted development may be greatly increased or that a piece of new legislation will be introduced to simplify the planning process on brownfield sites. Either way, I, and many SME developers, very much hope that this conference promise becomes a real world reality.