Developers called for lighter regulation, more clarity and better funding for the planning system, to help them produce more homes for London.
Speaking on a panel at the RESI conference, representatives of the housebuilding and investment community called for a simpler set of rules, and less meddling. There was also criticism that the Treasury tax grab of the last two years has upset the progress of private sector delivery in the capital.
Conference moderator, BBC home editor Mark Easton, asked panellists for their solutions to the London conundrum, noting: “The cost of housing is becoming a threat to London’s future.”
Berkeley’s Tony Pidgely said the issues are around additionality and affordability. He called on the planning system to help private developers by speeding up the approval process, and for less government intervention: “Let the market take care of it.”
Supporting Pidgely’s view on legislation was Bruce Ritchie of Residential Land, who repeated his criticism of former chancellor Osborne’s stamp duty hikes. “What is clear to me, is that less is more, as far as politics is concerned.” He called for a retraction of taxes: “What we want to see, is all this money going into housing.”
“There could be more ways we could work together better,” said Argent’s Robert Evans. “If we are going to crack the numbers, we’re going to have to find a better way.”
And Mark Lebihan, chief operating officer of developer Hadley Property Group, called for greater consistency. “You just don’t know where you are from borough to borough – the GLA has a greater role to play.” And he added: “The way public land is brought to the market is slow and cumbersome.”
Pidgely made an impassioned plea for government policy to be more inclusive, in order to create sustainable communities. At Kidbrooke, he said Berkeley had taken on a sink estate and tried to do something with it, but the job was too much. “We thought we could rebrand it, we couldn’t.” Instead, the 34 year old estate had to be flattened, its problem families dispersed.
And in this regard, he worried about the 50% affordable housing target, and how it is implemented, praising the leader of Greenwich borough for his input on schemes.
While acknowledging the pair were some distance apart on political outlook – “he is so far Left, I couldn’t see him sometimes” – he noted: “He worked out early on that 50% affordable doesn’t build communities. This is a society argument, and the government needs to get this. Let’s get the balance of communities right.” He said the tenure blind approach taken at Kidbrooke was the right one to ensure a mix of residents, who could all feel part of a community. His own preference was for a policy target of 30% affordable housing, plus an extra care provision.
He was also critical of a stripped down local government that has insufficient resources to handle planning and legal agreements. In Kingston, he said a site approved in January had yet to agree its section 106 agreement, and that was largely down to a lack of staff at the authority. “The Treasury needs to deal with this – Kingston has a solicitor that works one day a month.”
At Argent, Evans was not against the principle of affordable homes, but had issues with how it is to be delivered. “We need to have a decent amount of affordable housing – at King’s Cross, there’s nine different types of affordable housing. But one of the issues is there’s a whole industry of viability experts, who are trying to knock back affordable housing. There has to be some policy response here.” He was equally critical of the Community Infrastructure Levy, which it currently the subject of an industry-wide consultation. “I don’t think CIL works, I think frankly they should scrap it.” One major concern for Argent was that CIL meant money was drawn into a central pot, rather than dedicated to supporting the immediate area around new developments.
Evans revealed that Argent’s new joint venture project at Brent Cross, with US partner Related, will include build to rent as a key component of the development.
Pidgely also made comments on the skills shortage and the industry’s growing move towards modular construction. He said Berkeley had built some modular homes, which are being tested by residents on selected developments, to refine any design issues ahead of a greater roll-out. In future, he predicted 20% of Berkeley’s output would be modular, built in the company’s own factory.
LPA Perspective: The developers were united in their calls for a clearer, more streamlined or at least more efficient planning system. They want consistency, so that they can plan ahead. James Murray, who followed them onto the stage, revealed he is already working on solutions to some of their gripes.
But what they did not do, was promise to deliver more homes, much more quickly. That cannot happen, as Pidgely asserted, with the private sector working on its own. Public bodies, in their many forms, will need to play a bigger role, if London’s housing starts are to crank up to anywhere near the figures needed.
Pidgely’s comments on community were interesting. As a company that has clearly been closely related with regenerating one of London’s several sink public housing estates, his argument appeared to be more than just developer spin. None of us wish to have the desolate ghettos of previous decades recreated, due to an aggressive affordable housing policy that simply recreates fresh enclaves of housing for the poor.
Picture credit – Property Week