The National Assembly for Wales has launched an inquiry into barriers facing small house building firms. I recently appeared on behalf of RTPI Cymru in one of several oral sessions held by the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee to explore this issue in more detail.
Infrastructure provision is often more challenging across several smaller sites than a larger single site where the economies of scale work better.
Many small home build firms were impacted by the recession and the numbers have not returned to the levels they previously were. Small build firms have an important role in delivering housing across Wales; however, a skills shortage within the construction industry and access to finance have been major issues, highlighted in the Federation of Master Builders House Builders’ Survey 2018.
The extent to which the planning system actively facilitates small home building firms is one of the inquiry’s focuses. Some stakeholders commented that the complexity of the planning system in Wales and associated costs of obtaining permission has created challenges for the sector and prevented new entrants to the market.
While the planning system may be perceived by some as complex, it has a vital role in supporting small home builders. The Welsh Government has a legal duty to sustainable development and proposals must be assessed robustly through the planning system. It is important that technical evidence and pre-application community consultation is done in a proportionate manner to the development proposed. The principles of community engagement and environmental protection remain fundamental to the planning system and this was reiterated to Assembly members at the session.
RTPI Cymru research into rural housing delivery in Wales, published in early 2019, observed that small home building firms face challenges with borrowing finance for what are seen as riskier projects.
At the local level, non-statutory, community-led Place Plans have provided opportunities to bring smaller sites forward.
Other factors lie outside the planning system: a lack of skilled tradespeople in construction, increasing materials costs, performance issues with utility companies, the markets for buying and selling land and social housing in procurement practices. Infrastructure provision is often more challenging across several smaller sites than a larger single site where the economies of scale work better.
Through recent changes to the Welsh Government’s national planning policy (Planning Policy Wales) local planning authorities are now required to set a target for housing delivery on small sites and prepare a small sites register which identifies potential development sites.
These are welcome moves which seek to increase the range of providers and diversification in the housing market. As local planning authorities review their Local Development Plans, the registers and related evidence can be prepared to inform local policies and strategies. The Committee was keen to see delivery of small site registers in the future.
At the local level, non-statutory, community-led Place Plans have provided opportunities to bring smaller sites forward that may have typically been too small to allocate in an Local Development Plan. But progress with preparing Place Plans has varied across Wales. While there is great scope to increase their preparation across the country, this will need to be resourced appropriately.
Several local planning authorities are proactively engaging with small home build firms across Wales. Examples include Builders Breakfasts initiatives, the preparation of Supplementary Planning Guidance, and a Plot Shop Pilot in Rhondda Cynon Taf which not only promotes the sale of building plots but also addresses the full range of supporting matters to allow building to happen easily.
While these examples are encouraging and show the proactive approaches that are being undertaken individually, across Wales most small home build firms are unlikely to have access to the kind of specialist support that larger house builders are able to rely on.
A recommendation by RTPI Cymru was to establish a form of a planning advisory service for small builders which might represent a key step in giving small builders the confidence to bring schemes forward.
The precise funding details and membership would need to be agreed, but the principle of an advice forum would help with support and advice, giving smaller builders the confidence to bring schemes forward.
My committee panel experience was very interesting and has helped to ensure that the views of members were represented in the constructive discussions. I look forward to the final report and recommendations from the Assembly.
Ian Stevens MRTPI is a Planning Policy Specialist at Telford & Wrekin Council and a member of the RTPI Cymru Policy and Research Forum.