We now find ourselves experiencing a mix of weird dreams, unsettled nights, gorgeous weather, home working, home schooling, social distancing, fear for our loved ones and friends and total uncertainty over the future.
So, I thought I’d write a blog as a planning and development professional, about what I think should be happening now and what I think might happen in the near future as a result of lockdown.
Clearly, we’ve never really ‘been here’ before. No past economic recession can be compared with this one, and each is caused by a unique set of (usually) economic triggers. Whilst previous SARS/MERS/Foot and Mouth outbreaks have had different impacts on life and economics as we know it, our development industry has remained relatively unscathed. Not so now.
As a planner and surveyor, my focus now is keeping our team busy and doing everything we can to ensure our clients are in the best place they can be when lockdown eases.
I don’t think we are expecting the world to go back to normal. However, people will still need homes, commercial occupiers will still need factories and warehouses and offices. I also (sadly) expect there to be a further growth in the amount of affordable housing required, of all sizes and tenures, as household incomes drop substantially for many people. We also predict an increase in viability concerns by a number of developers keen to ensure they don’t bankrupt themselves as they go back to sites and deliver their product to a very different marketplace.
Given the widespread mothballing of many residential development sites, one could argue that supply may remain roughly the same as demand (i.e. both may fall in unison), but that does not take account of the economic personal fallout for homebuyers and uncertain organizational future for many commercial occupiers. If the lockdown continues into the summer, with a very limited relaxation on movements and commercial activity, it is clear that the V-shaped ‘bounceback’ that has been touted by some probably won’t happen.
The national annual housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes won’t be achieved, that’s for certain. With housebuilding grinding to a halt, it will clearly hamper the government’s efforts to deliver homes. However, I also consider that housebuilding and commercial development will be one of the means we use to crawl out of this.
The construction sector contributes £117 billion to the UK economy* which is 6% of total economic output. There were 2.4 million people employed in the construction industry as at December 2019 in around 300,000 businesses. The way these next few months pan out will be instrumental in how deeply (and permanently) our industry is affected.
My view is that this should continue apace. Living in a plan-led system as we do, the development plan is the starting point for developers introducing new proposals and an up to date plan gives certainty to everyone. Plan-making is the long-term constant of planning that exists whether there is feast or famine. It is also the process by which development sites are chosen and delivered, and the process by which we can make a big difference to housing and employment land supply. Whilst the Inspectorate have issued guidance on delaying Examinations in Public for the time being, it is only a matter of time before these processes will start up again. Continuing to engage in this process is really important and something we are doing on behalf of a number of developers, large and small throughout the country.
As a side note, it is almost inevitable that a drop in delivery of housing will impact on housing land supply. However, whilst some may see this as an opportunity, I don’t expect the government to use the coronavirus punitively at appeal, unless it’s an authority with an ageing development plan or supply issues which were perhaps looking dodgy before this happened.
During the 2008 recession, some local authorities used the downturn as an excuse for their poor housing land supply at inquiry. However, poor economic performance is never an excuse to resist handing our planning permissions: for one thing it artificially suppresses competition in land markets and hampers the delivery of much needed affordable housing. How much coronavirus impacts on delivering the national housing target, we won’t know. But the planning system should not be a barrier to at least getting the permissions in place for the construction industry to start its recovery.
Applications and Appeals
Given the length of time the average planning application is taking (and based on our experiences), I would plan way beyond the statutory determination timescales if you don’t want to be disappointed.
Some Councils have responded quickly and are trying their best to ensure the coronavirus doesn’t scupper decision making, by arranging innovative alternatives to the normal committee process. Others are still playing catch-up and struggling with resource issues – sometimes as a result of the virus hitting staffing.
Either way if you were about to submit your application – do it now but expect to have to be patient. We will never have ‘this’ time again to at least establish the principle for so many sites out there, and ready ourselves for a start on site: getting conditions discharged, variations or amendments agreed and s106 agreements in place or renegotiated. Consequently, if you have a site that was only marginally viable before the coronavirus, then it is likely you’ll want advice on whether to look at it again – and we can help you with this.
In terms of appeals, we are still actively submitting these for various clients, and for written representations, hearings and inquiries. The Inspectorate have issued a statement where they have ‘postponed all casework events in the near future including site visits, hearings and inquiries’, but arguably, if you have to appeal – it would be best to get into the queue now. You can always ask us about alternative parallel ‘free go’ applications which could be negotiated in the meantime and we’re happy to provide you with an opinion on this.
So, RCA are very much ‘making hay while the sun shines’ for all of our clients, and busy negotiating positions for them that will mean they can get on with their projects as soon as humanly possible.
If we can help you negotiate, or indeed renegotiate your planning permissions, give advice on appeals, undertake valuations or give advice on development viability please give us a call.
Sian Griffiths, Planning Director: 07934458382
Rob Csondor, Managing Director, Development and Valuation: 07999756350
*Construction Industry: Statistics and Policy Briefing Paper (December 2019)