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Message from the Conservative Party conference fringe: it is time for delivery

11 October 2017 Author: Stephen Wilkinson

'You cannot ask men to stand on their own two feet if you give them no ground to stand on.’ With the UK facing the some of the biggest post-war housing and planning challenges I was reminded of this quote from Ian Macleod, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, during this year’s Conservative Party conference.

Under their banner of ‘Building a country that works for everyone’ there was always a possibility that the major issues of planning for infrastructure and housing would become the elephant in the room. Thankfully, the RTPI, through three ‘fringe’ events, ensured that this wasn’t to be the case.

I was part of the panel at an event sponsored by the RTPI and Planning Portal which explored how well the planning system can deliver housing growth. There was broad agreement on many points, notably that the causes of the housing crisis are long standing, a result in part of the impact of quantitative easing, complexities of landownership and cuts of around £6bn since 2009 in the social housing grant.

Consensus to better resource planning departments

On the positives there was agreement that the White Paper provides a route map out of the existing problems, although there was criticism that the draft Objectively Assessed Need could exacerbate regional growth disparities with its methodology embedded in projections of recent population trends. This could frustrate the development of some northern cities where Councils are striving to combat population stasis and decline.

Trudi Elliott’s final point that ‘if you want to build more then government had to devolve more,’ presents a clear challenge for government which needs to think harder about delivery.

Underpinning this was consensus to better resource planning departments, and a need for a housing plan to be included in devolution deals to ensure that councils get building again to meet the deficit of around 100,000 units per year which the market hasn’t the capacity to complete. There was broad agreement that the market should be diversified with greater support for SMEs through including SME sites in permissions for large scale development.

The audience peppered the panel with questions and raised their concerns over the secrecy around viability studies and their use to inform affordable housing number, the integration of landscape, and how the Planning Inspectorate use land supply capacity in determining local appeals.

The event was chaired by John Howell MP and with Sarah Chilcot, Managing Director of the Planning Portal; Cllr Janet Clowes of Cheshire East; Melanie Leech Chief Executive of the British Property Federation; and Jane Healey Brown, Assistant Director of Arup.

Failure to take tough decisions on infrastrcuture

The second event addressed how the UK plans for major infrastructure. Speakers focused on the difficulties of planning and delivering from project inception through cost benefit analysis, highlighting the reluctance of politicians to commit to major projects. This failure to take tough decisions has resulted in the OECD highlighting that the UK spends the lowest amount of many developed countries.

It was organised by the RTPI and Institute for Government (IfG) was chaired by Bronwen Maddox, Director IfG with a panel comprising Trudi Elliott, CEO of RTPI; Grant Shapps MP; Professor Diane Coyle, University of Manchester; and Nick Davies, Research Manager for the IfG.

There was some dispute over the real potential of ‘land value capture’ to provide funding support given its speculative nature. There was agreement that government had to be clear on national priorities with a strong narrative to support the National Infrastructure Commission. The Development Consent Order process was acknowledged to work because it required formal upfront public engagement resulting in local ownership.

Trudi Elliott’s final point that ‘if you want to build more then government had to devolve more,’ presents a clear challenge for government which needs to think harder about delivery.

Finally, I was part of the panel for the third event which focussed on issues around Brexit and the sector:

  • the built environment market is set to grow to around £200bn by 2030
  • Brexit is probably exhausting Government time at the expense of equally pressing domestic matters such as the implementation of the Housing White Paper
  • need to protect the UK’s high environmental and professional standards which mark the country as a major exporter of professional expertise across the built environment sector, and
  • need for clarity from the Government in what it expects from the sector and greater support for SMEs through procurement to allow a broadening of their offer, with greater and better support for the private rented sector to provide good quality rental  homes for low and middle income people.

The event was chaired by Daniel Bond of the House Magazine and attended by Mary Robinson MP; Ben Derbyshire, President of RIBA; Charles Egbu Vice President of Chartered Institute of Building; and Hew Edgar, policy manager of RICS.

A lot more needs to be done

By the end of the conference the Government announced that a further £10bn would be spend on homes for sale with a further £2bn for council’s to support their build programmes. There was also a veiled threat from the Prime Minister on the need to get house builders delivering.  Whilst these measures are welcome, they should be set against the continued sale of around 20,000 council homes per year which exacerbates the crisis. 

A lot more needs to be done if more people are going to be able to afford the homes they want and, in Macleod’s words, ‘allowed to stand on their own two feet’.

Stephen Wilkinson

Stephen Wilkinson

Stephen Wilkinson MRTPI is President of the RTPI for 2017. Stephen is a Chartered town planner with considerable experience in planning and regeneration. He has worked for four London Boroughs and for the Audit Commission where he advised planning authorities on their management arrangements. He currently works for the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority and sits on several regeneration boards.