Whilst the Brexit fiasco continues, the ongoing crisis in housing the UK’s population fails to receive adequate government focus or funding.
The National Health Service has a new ten-year plan which will inevitably have priority finance, as will education and policing as they are more newsworthy vote winners. Is it just funding or head-in-the-sand lack of understanding the roots of the crisis, even those within government’s control? The urgent delivery of sufficient, appropriate affordable and market housing for the wellbeing and pride of our population is a decades’ long problem needing action and remedy. If we are sick, accurate medical diagnosis of our illness is fundamental to curing the malaise. Without diagnostic understanding, prescription for cure is merely palliative, empty ministerial words. Nothing improves housing delivery from one government to the next.
The planning system in the UK is broken. It is under resourced, under skilled, underpaid and over bureaucratic. It is negatively preventative of sound long term planning. Democratic re-election becomes the priority over the future forward delivery of the housing and urban places that society deserves. Planning is the department of “Retaining the Status Quo”. The crisis cannot be solved by the obstruction of sound prescription. The planning system requires root and branch overhaul; more funding for greater resource and expertise if proactive solutions are to be found. The current procedures and policies are inefficient, obstructive, often contradictory and are a key part of the problem. It is rare good fortune to encounter knowledgeable experienced development and conservation officers. When positive dialogue happens, the process and outcome is infinitely better for all. Conversation brings results. It should be the expectation and intention of all involved.
Why do planning applications frequently take years to resolve? The pre-application process was brought in to formalise and pay for the essential discussion of initial ideas, options and priorities for both the local authority and site owner / developer to agree acceptable solutions. Now, lack of resources and often, pure arrogant obstinacy from some Local Authorities require pre-application submissions to resemble what was once a full detailed application. This defeats the object, increases the costs and delays the process it was intended to assist. There are too many cases where, having paid the fee, made the submission and held the meeting, the written response takes months to arrive. This is not good enough in the real world. Regrettably, with some councils, there seems little point in using the pre-app process; better to submit the full application and get on with the battle. Here is the issue; it shouldn’t be a battle. All involved should be engaging to diagnose and hence, solve the problem. If a site has redevelopment potential or an existing building has scope for reinvention, then what is the best outcome for all concerned? It is unlikely to be a 4-year obstacle course littered with cost, risk and uncertainty. That does make the planning system seem like a perpetual Brexit saga.
One major factor impacting on the high cost of housing in the UK is the degree of risk that resides with the huge expense of preparing a full planning application. The number and scope of supplemental expert reports has in recent years grown exponentially. Architects drawings illustrating layout, scale, massing, materials and uses are of course essential to describe a proposal. This is not enough. If a scheme is large, then an Environmental Impact Assessment will be required; a transport plan and highways report to justify the proposal. If the scheme is smaller, it will still require an Environmental Performance Assessment, sustainable drainage proposals, noise reports, daylight & sunlight calculations, flood risk assessment (even if the site is on top of a hill), structural and services engineers’ reports and a construction management plan. Then, of course, there is the ecological survey, the arboricultural survey, the landscape design, refuse storage and collection strategy. Archaeology, heritage, conservation area reports and townscape analysis will be of varying relevance. The applicant will be expected to have consulted the local crime prevention officer regarding “Secured by Design” and submit a “Statement of Community Engagement” to show that local consultation and councillor dialogue has taken place. This all has to be drawn together by the planning consultant who has to aim to illustrate how all of the above complies as benignly as possible with the reams of Council policies (some of which will be contradictory).
The list of supplemental reports has become endless and few local authorities have sufficient expertise to fully review the detailed information contained within these reams of costly expert reports. Thus, they become mere box ticking exercises. Any of the required reports would be better dealt with under building regulations, and other elements controlled through planning conditions. The process needs to be overhauled with the objective of clarity and simplicity.
It needs to be valued and resourcing increased. It needs to be less subjective, more positive and predictive. When risk is reduced, funding is more available and less costly, whatever the project. Uncertainty and risk inherent in the planning system are the enemies of solutions to the housing crisis.