High Street, Housing, Headaches and Hunger

With the UK Government under fire for “stop-start planning reform” and local authorities taking ever longer to process development applications, Bexley Beaumont Partner Pritpal Swarn writes that clarity is increasingly needed by public, councils and developers alike.

As much as some of us may dislike things being too predictable, I reckon that we all love a little bit of certainty in our lives.

Sadly, it seems that there are few things which we can anticipate with any clarity, apart from - according to the American businessman, inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin - death and taxes.

Ironically, planning is one of the things which many sections of the UK currently feel least able to plan for.

The tone of planning and development in the UK is determined by the Government in the form of a National Planning Policy. It sets out a series of obligations for local authorities up and down the country.

However, councils might be forgiven for regarding the last several months as not being terribly helpful.

In late July, it was suggested that the Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, wanted to change planning laws to allow for - among other things - the conversion of vacant shops into houses (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/jul/23/gove-to-relax-rules-in-england-to-allow-more-shops-to-be-converted-into-homes).

Just 24 hours later, the Prime Minister boasted that the Conservatives would meet their target of building one million new homes over the lifetime of the current parliament (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/we-will-build-1-million-new-homes-says-prime-minister).

The two statements might appear to be slightly different perspectives on a shared vision.

Yet given that they were followed by the start of a three-month consultation about changing the way in which local plans should be drawn up (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/plan-making-reforms-consultation-on-implementation/levelling-up-and-regeneration-bill-consultation-on-implementation-of-plan-making-reforms#scope-of-the-consultation), some individuals were left wondering what that vision might be.

Were, for instance, the proposals a rapid response to a highly critical report produced by MPs only a fortnight before?

The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee accused ministers of a "stop-start planning reform", made up of "differing proposals for national planning policy reform since 2019, which has resulted in uncertainty among local authorities and other key stakeholders" (https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/40872/documents/199083/default/).

The situation, the Committee continued, had led to "58 local authorities stalling, delaying, or withdrawing their local plans to deliver housing".

There is no lack of a common appreciation of the acute housing shortage.

In fact, the Committee characterised the UK's housing sector as being "hungry for clarity, consistency and certainty" about the Government’s national planning policy.

These considerations are not about the finessing of red tape. As one comprehensive academic study published in February concluded, planning has "important implications for the health, well-being, and social cohesion of neighbourhoods" (https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-023-15179-9).

It is one reason why every step of the planning process - from the application process through to people moving into newly-built homes - must be dealt with properly.

Yet the same document calculated that spending on planning and development services within local authorities had reduced in real terms by a staggering 42 per cent between 2009 and 2018.

Those findings were reinforced by the Royal Town Planning Institute, which described how one-quarter of planners had left the public sector between 2013 and 2020 (https://www.rtpi.org.uk/policy-and-research/interim-state-of-the-profession-2023/).

The Institute added that 82 per cent of local councils wanting to recruit individuals to process planning applications over the course of the last year had experienced difficulties in doing so.

It has meant that the planning process is taking far longer than it should, which only adds to the current problems.

For instance, the initial phase of that process - the validation of applications - should take no longer than a week under normal circumstances. In various places, it is taking several months at the moment.

I am aware that - in a parallel of what happens within the National Health Service (NHS) - some authorities have resorted to hiring planning professional consultants from the private sector to help deal with clearing the backlog.

In the meantime, the issue of what local areas look like remains unresolved.

For a country famously characterised by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte as "a nation of shopkeepers", the state of the high street has troubled the Government for some time.

More than a decade ago, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, brought in the retail guru Mary Portas to conduct a review.

Without urgent action, she believed, high streets as we have known them would "disappear forever" (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2011/dec/13/portas-high-streets-disapper).

Since then, Ordnance Survey - Britain's national mapping agency - has revealed that more than 9,000 retail outlets have vanished from high streets in just three years (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-63799670).

It could be argued that Michael Gove's proposals will only hasten the demise of the high street by plugging vacant shops with houses.

Will those plans help resolve the housing crisis or further change the demographic of our towns and cities, removing traditional amenities from the many local residents for whom out-of-town shopping is not an easy option?

From my conversations with clients across the country, what is definitely required is - that word again - certainty.

A clear and consistent programme to assess and then deliver the UK's requirements in both housing and commercial facilities would offer a much-needed chance to progress without frustrating the public, planning authorities and the developers upon whom both rely.

To discuss any of the above further, please feel free to contact Pritpal: pritpalswarn@bexleybeaumont.com  |  07884 447114