Three ways to solve the UK housing crisis...

Helena Forrow
7 min read

... and boost urban regeneration, according to planners, architects, and developers

It’s no secret that the UK has a serious shortage of housing, and the government
is struggling to meet demand. The new plans for developing the Oxford-
Cambridge Arc sound great, but will they come to fruition in a timely manner?
Top minds from Bidwells, Perkins&Will, and Blackstock came up with their wish-
list for policies the government and local authorities could implement in order to
see the Arc become the sustainable, knowledge-industry led powerhouse they
envision, and to recreate that success nationally. In this article we will take a
look at some of what they proposed with in their ‘Radical Regeneration
Manifesto’ back in 2019, and how these ideas are faring two years later.

1) PDR+ for Brownfield sites, and scrap planning use classes
Making it easier to redevelop brownfield sites, including change of use, sounds
like a no-brainer. The Manifesto suggested giving selected brownfield sites
permitted development rights, as long as infrastructure funding was fast-tracked
for the same areas. Doing away with use classes is also suggested as a way to
encourage ‘placemaking’ developments that include office, scientific, retail,
cultural, and residential premises. Planning permission could be granted for a
site as a whole, with one developer handling all the entire site based on a plan
with minimum percentages for residential, business, and other uses, thereby
preventing the usual pattern of business space developers and residential
developers waiting for each other to start, and retail and leisure waiting for both!
This removal of some of the uncertainty and intricacy of the planning process
would make it easier for developers, especially SMEs, to get investment needed
to deliver projects.

In August 2020, the government published its ‘Planning for the Future’ white
paper, and addressed these as well as other ideas for reforming the
planning process. In fact, it seems very clear that the writers of Planning for the
Future recognised the very same concerns and areas for change as did the
writers of the Radical Manifesto. The Government did indeed change Permitted
Development regulations and how they apply to brownfield sites (and in the
latest budget £1.8 billion is allocated to building 160,000 homes on brownfield),
and while they did not scrap use classes altogether, they did make changes that
mean, for example, redeveloping high-street retail spaces into housing is much
easier. However, a report the Housing, Communities and Local Government
Committee put out in July 2021 raises concerns that the housing built under
Permitted Development is exempt from Section 106 agreements and the
Community Infrastructure Levy, and the rather wishy-washy proposal in the
white paper to “look to extend the scope of the consolidated Infrastructure Levy
and remove exemptions from it to capture changes of use through permitted
development rights”i has so far gone no further than ‘looking’. They also note
that the new PDR regime and the change of use class are in contradiction with
other principles in the white paper such as increasing focus on plan-led
development, and the role of local authorities and community engagement in
place-making. Other problems with the new PDR and use class rules include the
potential damage to high streets with ground floor retail space and even medical
space being unprotected, out of town office space being converted to housing
without any infrastructure – and in some cases, without any windows - and
development of simply poor-quality, unsustainable housing that is not a long-
term solution to the housing crisis. It seems like the success of this idea has
been close, but no cigar.

2) Simplify how planning decisions are made
The manifesto suggests that planning committees are a major barrier to
developments due to their decisions being policy based and made case by case
“according to the whims and wants of a small subset of the community”ii.
Instead, a clear and universal set of ‘golden rules’ could be devised, which if a
development is shown to follow, permission is granted. Streamline the whole
process so once an area for development is available, developers know exactly
what they can do with it, and how soon they can start. This will mean more
investment as there will be less risk, and give SME developers a chance to pick
up more of the work of providing housing for the nation, as in the current system
they are often faced with too much expense, possibly all for nothing, just during
the planning permission stage. A very interesting idea put forward in the
manifesto relating to planning committees themselves, is that they are too often
made up of people representing a select group of vested interests, and the way
to counteract this would be to create a kind of ‘planning committee jury duty’, in
which a certain percentage of each committee would be drawn from a pool of
local people, especially those in younger age groups who may take a more long-
sighted and up to date view of what is needed in their areas.

The government white paper recognises this same problem of the impenetrable
planning permission process driving up risk and cost and driving down
innovation. Furthermore, these committees often get it wrong – more than a
third of decisions on major applications are overturned on appeal. The high risk
means only those investors and companies with resources large enough to
shoulder delays and disappointments can manage the process. Discretionary
planning permission is clearly not the way to go about things. Everything is
unclear and uncertain, and leads to very slow, unimaginative, and unfair
outcomes – and simply not enough houses being built. The white paper proposes
that once a Local Plan has identified an area of land suitable for growth or
renewal, permission or at least presumption in favour of permission for
development is effectively granted, with more detail to be settled in accordance
with a clear set of nationally standardised requirements and any site-specific
technical issues. An exception to the rule would be for proposals for
developments that are different to the Plan, in which case planning application
would be made. Another proposal for mitigating some of the risk involved in the
planning permission application process is for application fees to be refunded in
the case of decisions made late or refusals overturned on appeal. It seems that
the government have taken on board some of the suggestions – though not the
jury idea. They do mention the need to get younger people engaged in the Local
Plan stage, which brings us to our next topic:

3) Use a computer!
If we have a standardised set of rules to get permission to build in areas selected
by a Local Plan, the real area where we need community engagement is during
the earliest stages of creating the Local Plan. One of the major points in the
Radical Regeneration Manifesto is that we need communities to understand the
benefits of new developments, and for the sections of the community that will be
benefitted most directly to be reached early on and have their voices heard over
the few ‘nimbys’ that tend to hold things up. The main group that is worst
affected by housing shortage is younger people, and the Manifesto posits that
the best way to reach them is digitally, through massive social media
engagement during the earliest planning stage, and a digital-first planning
platform that allows anyone to participate at any time. Among other things the
younger generations tend to care about are environmental sustainability and
well-being. The Manifesto makes the point that simply making it law that all
developments must be net-zero and follow PassivHaus design principles, as well
as including a quantifiable measure of well-being (accessibility of active travel to
leisure and work, community space, etc) into the criteria that must be met by
developers, would go a long way towards removing objections from residents at
the planning stage.

The second area that needs a massive digital overhaul is the entire planning
permission application process itself. Of course if the Local Plan making process
is simplified, and the conditions for approval are clarified, standardised, and
codified, this could then be used to create a national online planning portal. Land
that has been designated for development in Local Plans can be shown on a
map, with exactly what kind of development is allowed there, and developers
can easily access this knowing that if they submit plans which meet the
permission criteria, they can assume that permission will indeed be granted. A
fully digital Land Registry and single online application system for planning
permission with clear standardised criteria for developers rather than inscrutable
case by case decisions at every stage will massively decrease the delay between
Local Plans being created, and those developments and housing being delivered.
The government’s white paper Planning for the Future does recognise the
outdatedness of its systems and the need for better digitisation. Too much of the
process relies on individual human local authority officials, and someone falling
ill or changing jobs is one of the major causes of delays for developments. They
also recognise that making the early stages of creating Local Plans digitally
accessible would increase engagement make the process more democratic.
Clear maps, visualisations, and data, with a simple way for members of the
community to give their views should all be made part of the online process of
making Local Plans. This writer has been invited to take part in consultations
over Local Plans on various social media platforms, but is unsure whether others
in the same demographic who do not regularly search for news on the topic are
receiving the same adverts. When the writers of the Manifesto were pressing the
need for full digitisation back in 2019, they could not have foreseen how starkly
the pandemic would have thrown this need into relief, but this is brought up in
the white paper. Digitising the entire planning process from presenting
geographical data, to initial consultations on Local Plans, to submitting and
managing permission applications is an enormous task, but one that needs doing
properly from the ground up, rather than by small tweaks to existing systems. To
this end, in November 2019 the Housing Minister unveiled the new PropTech
Innovation Council, and the Autumn 2021 Budget allocated £65 million of
investment to support the digitisation of the planning system.

Overall, it seems the government have been taking on board some of what
planning and property experts have been saying, but there is still a long struggle
to go before much of the ideas are implemented. They seem willing to take
advice that suits them but perhaps have cherry picked somewhat – the idea of
making all developments net-zero by law is certainly not part of the white paper,
though some lip service is paid to “our drive towards net-zero by 2050”. It
remains to be seen whether the government’s values and competencies live up
to those in the ideal world presented by the ‘Radical Regeneration Manifesto’. In
the meantime, the housing crisis is still in full swing.

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