Jonathan Pearson 27 June 2022

Social housing providers still need more support to tackle planning delay

Social housing providers still need more support to tackle planning delay image

Previously-announced plans to overhaul England’s planning system have been dropped by the Government.

Despite recognising the need to build more new homes in the right places, the Regeneration and Levelling-up Bill, announced last month, did not include the ambitious planning reform measures first proposed by the then housing secretary Robert Jenrick, two years ago. And some argue the new proposals, such as simplifying the process by which local authorities devise their development plans, do not go far enough in supporting developers to build sufficient new housing.

His successor Michael Gove has even cast doubt on a 2019 Conservative pledge to plug the housing gap by building 300,000 new homes a year, arguing that chasing a statistical target could result in houses in the wrong locations and without the right infrastructure.

Michael Gove is totally right that for the Government’s levelling-up agenda to succeed, it needs to properly address the needs of communities up and down the UK where there are just not enough homes for the local population. And we can’t simply return to the post-war planning standards of 50 or 60 years ago when hundreds of houses were built with only a small recreation space and nothing else. They also need community space, extra parking, schools, retail and leisure or whatever else is that is important to the local area and community.

But none of that will be achievable unless the Government, local authorities and the private sector work together to help housing associations tackle the country’s slow and cumbersome planning process which is currently preventing them from adequately responding to housing need, supporting communities and growing places. Some of the social housing providers I work with now say that it can now take as a long as two years for their plans to go through planning. The longer they are forced to wait, the more they are at risk of missing funding deadlines or unable to keep up with rising construction costs, so developments may not even be viable by the time planning permission is granted. This is only helping to create a more unequal society as too many people are left for too long with homes that simply don't meet their needs or worse, without a home at all.

A major contributor to these delays is the huge backlogs of applications, exacerbated by the pandemic, but caused by extensive budget cuts to local planning departments where there is now a dearth of experienced planning officers. A valuable resource, they help to push through applications and provide invaluable advice to less qualified local councillors who may not be as able to see the benefits that new developments could bring to their area and communities.

Ideally, we need more educated planning officers and they should be given greater autonomy across the whole process. We also need a more diverse make-up of local councillors too, who better reflect and understand the needs of their local communities when it comes to voting in new developments. Councillors who understand that local areas need to thrive in order to survive, with a wide range of tenures and a cross-section of people, income streams, political views and age groups, who will spend money on different things and in different ways.

I believe private housing developers have a crucial role to play, as well. Social housing will never lead the housing market and with the demand far exceeding the current supply, providers are being forced to take what's on offer. But if it doesn't meet the needs of their residents, it won’t rent as well, with higher turnovers, temporary tenancies and ultimately, disadvantaged tenants.

If the private sector is prepared to engage with affordable housing providers much earlier in the planning process, they will be able to more adequately prepare and make better use of their income This will allow them to develop better homes for a wider range of people which will likely achieve planning much faster and easier, bypassing some of the obstacles currently in their way. This in turn will also make them stronger partners for private developers who can then make use of the funding and the finance they often have access to.

It’s just so important that we look to this kind of partnership working, as well as well-funded and fully resourced planning departments, to help social housing providers deliver more homes, and faster.

Without it, any proposals to level-up the UK are under jeopardy.

Jonathan Pearson is a director at Residentially Chartered Surveyors

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