Chelgate Local Newsletter – June 2020
This month we bring you news on the St Albans Local Plan, new government-appointed chief planner, projections on the housing and rental markets, COVID-19 and long-term strategic planning and much more…
Government appoints new chief planner
By Alia Khan, Consultant
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has appointed Joanna Averley as its new chief planner. She is the first female chief planner and assumes her post from September.
Averley joins Whitehall from the Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), where she was the deputy chief executive as well as design director at the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). She spent two years as head of urban design and integration at High Speed 2 Ltd. Before that, she worked for Transport for London, leading on the housing and planning programme Crossrail 2.
Christopher Pincher, the housing minister welcomed Averley to her post and tweeted that her ‘experience and fresh thinking will help to ensure the planning system delivers the homes we need, now and in the future’.
Commenting on her appointment, Averley said, “We have many challenges to address over the coming months and years – how we meet the needs of our communities in delivering good quality homes and neighbourhoods, underpinning the economy and jobs, delivering sustainable patterns of growth, addressing the climate crisis and adapting to the realities of the pandemic and its consequences, planning and planners have a vital role to play – a creative, proactive approach and long-term thinking will be at the heart of bringing positive change for all.”
Averley’s priorities appear to be closely aligned to those of Jack Airey, the recently appointed special adviser for homes and planning and the driving force behind the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBB). If any doubt existed on the likelihood of change to the planning system with beauty at the centre of it, the appointment of Averley and the pandemic have definitely confirmed that an inevitable change will occur and major reforms in the planning system are expected.
Housing and rental market demand surges in UK
By Alia Khan, Consultant
Following the Government’s announcement last month to reopen estate agents, data sets emerging from the industry show a significant release of pent-up demand in both the housing and rental market in the UK. Although this was to be expected, the level of interest is a surprise.
The Rental Market
Global property consultancy Knight Frank reports that the number of new prospective tenants was 4% above the five-year average in the week ending 30 May. But more notable was the number of valuation approvals for letting properties: in the week ending 6 June it saw the highest number on record, 19% above the five-year average.
Demand is further expected to strengthen as schools begin to reopen and universities begin to announce how they will be teaching their courses next academic year. Previously, uncertainty around schools and universities has caused tenants to delay moving.
The Housing Market
The housing market is also experiencing a growth in demand as record levels of offers have been accepted a month after lockdown restrictions were eased. Data from Zoopla shows that demand for housing at the start of June was 54% higher than at the start of March. The number of sales agreed, while lagging behind demand, have largely returned to last year’s levels. Evidence is also emerging that COVID-19 has created a boost in demand and produced a new cohort of buyers. It seems the pandemic has prompted many people to re-evaluating their living conditions looking more for houses with balconies, gardens and near outdoor spaces.
Property market activity had halted during the eight-week period between March and May due to the pandemic, but the recent surge has also prompted more sellers to enter the market. Knight Frank reports that supply has started to catch up with demand. As a result, prices have started getting firmer, with the average discount to asking price for exchanges outside London reduced to 2.6% since the market reopened, compared to 4% during lockdown. In London, the average discount has also narrowed to 3.9% from 6.4% since lockdown.
According to further emerging data, pent-up demand for new homes has also triggered a rise in the number of UK applicants registering their interest to buy homes. This will certainly have followed on as a result of the pandemic, which seems to have contributed to the stabilisation of house prices and many re-evaluating their current living conditions.
Demand has certainly risen in both the housing and rental market in the last month, but the question is whether the uptick will be sustained. The lockdown may have led many to revaluate their living conditions, but the uncertainty around employment and wider economy remains, which will ultimately lead to continued lender caution. The significant increase in interest in properties with outdoor spaces, if it continues, may also force the industry to rethink design in the future.
COVID-19 and long-term strategic planning
By Kasia Banaś, Account Director
It is clear by now that the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting effects on how we live, work and travel. What we don’t know yet, and probably won’t know for some time, is what exactly those changes will be. This has posed a significant challenge to strategic and long-term planning projects such as the Oxfordshire 2050 Plan and the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
At the last Oxfordshire Growth Board meeting, an extension to the Oxfordshire Plan 2050 timeline was requested and granted. The pandemic is expected to result in significant behavioural changes which will require adjustments to the overall strategy. The team will be looking at accommodating for more flexible working practices, higher demand for good broadband connections or decrease in car travel, to name just a few. However, the full effects of the pandemic on our lives will not be known for some time, months or perhaps even years. While some immediate reaction will have to take place, many aspects of the Plan will require a longer-term approach, resulting in a significant delay to the whole project.
This is however, seen by many as a chance to truly re-evaluate and future-proof the region’s strategic initiatives. To aid this, an open platform was launched to gather new ideas for the Oxfordshire Plan. Some of the themes that are being explored include sustainable communities and lifestyles, new ways of working, future transport and climate change.
Conservation campaigners are also taking the opportunity to help put nature at the heart of plans for up to a million new homes in what is known as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. Jeff Knott, RSPB Operations Director for Central England, said: “The importance of nature during the Coronavirus crisis and support for a green recovery have made the need for growth and development to help restore nature clearer than ever. This is a huge opportunity to do things differently. For the Oxford-Cambridge Arc to play its part in a green recovery it needs to have world leading ambitions to increase nature that match and underpin its aspirations for economic growth.”
Ideas which not long ago were considered as radical are quickly becoming a part of the new, post-COVID-19 normal and strategic projects such as Oxfordshire Plan 2050 and the Oxford Cambridge Arc will be an enormous opportunity to take a policy-led approach to adapting to future challenges.
Will Brentwood go the same way as North Essex?
By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property
Is the Brentwood Borough Council (BBC) local plan going to go down the same path as others where there is a reliance on garden communities for a large proportion of housing numbers?
BBC submitted its local plan in March and the inspectors have already come back with a list of questions for the council, so many questions that the letter ran to 15 pages. Inspectors Yvonne Wright and Mike Worden have acknowledged that some of their questions will result in the council having to undertake additional work, so they have left the timetable for responses open for them to respond.
The council recently decided to move more numbers away from the existing settlements to Dunton Hills, a garden village being promoted by CEG to the east of the district. Neighbouring Basildon Council is not happy with the 2,750 new homes to be built right on the border citing a lack of transparency from BBC, and a good way to meet housing needs without incurring voter hostility.
Essex County Council is also not happy with BBC. It has issues with the transport evidence over Dunton Hills and the Brentwood Enterprise Park. It is also concerned about the funding of transport mitigation measures looking for these to be fully funded by the developers, so it does not have to pick up the tab.
Looking at other recent decisions across the south east could mean that the Brentwood local plan could be doomed. Other councils which have relied upon garden communities for a significant number of new homes have seen their plans fail mainly on viability and deliverability grounds. This is especially so where garden communities are not part of an existing community – the inspectors for the North Essex Authorities local plan (Braintree, Colchester and Tendring) identified the two standalone garden communities (west of Braintree and west of Colchester) as not being viable or deliverable whereas the Tendring garden community which is shared with Colchester and an eastern extension of the town was seen as both deliverable and viable.
Uttlesford has withdrawn its plan with the inspector suggesting that at least one of its three garden communities was a step too far and even if all three were progressed they still would not make a significant contribution to the 5YLS during the plan period. The Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, however, has not incurred any criticism from inspectors in the three districts it covers as all the proposed developments will be part of an existing town.
It is clear the inspectors have serious concerns about the BBC local plan, but they are trying to work with the council to resolve the issues via modifications. Whether the garden community is the showstopper remains to be seen, but resolving the issues raised by Basildon and ECC about infrastructure would be steps in the right direction.
The future of the car
By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property
The future of the car has been debated ad infinitum in recent years but the pandemic has perhaps added a new dimension. As new homes and communities being designed now will have to serve its residents for decades to come, should we be looking again at the role of the car?
People have been wedded to their motor cars for years. The relative reduction of the costs of owning and running a car led to an explosion in car ownership. According to the RAC Foundation, car ownership in the UK has risen from 19 million in 1971 to 31 million by 2007. Figures for 2019 show over 40 million cars and vans on the road.
This growth led, in turn, to cars being a major consideration in the design of homes and communities. But more latterly, with the recognition of global warming and the health impacts of pollution, how to reduce reliance on the car and car usage.
The new garden communities around the country provide a blank canvass to try and do this. The Harlow and Gilston Garden Town a case in hand where the evolving strategy is to encourage 60 per cent of all journeys from the new developments to be by sustainable means, and for 50 per cent of journeys from the existing communities to be the same (from a base of around 30 per cent).
The onset of the pandemic could impact this anticipated trend further, but from a different perspective. Whereas in the past travel was seen as a given – we all have to travel to work, travel for business, go shopping and so on, the onset of the pandemic has shown to everyone that this may not be the case – many people have been forced to work from home, to have virtual meetings and do their shopping online for delivery. Most have been surprised how easy the technology is to use and how reliable. Time will tell just how much of this will continue after the pandemic has passed but it is clear that at least some will and perhaps we should be looking now at the design of our homes and communities.
There are interesting times ahead – the imminent ban on petrol and diesel cars, the reduced travel needs brought on by the pandemic, the increasing calls to less car usage for environmental and pollution grounds, are all culminating into a ‘perfect storm’ for the future of the car.
But any changes for the better will need to be introduced gradually. The sudden banning of cars and forcing everyone to walk or cycle is simply not going to work. It would be a big mistake to try and coerce residents as they will simply rebel and little will be achieved. Similarly, setting the bar too high will lead to people thinking the targets are unattainable and do not apply to them. People need to be taken on a journey with small incremental steps that can easily be taken. Over time, the big target will get closer and closer until it is achieved. Perhaps the pandemic is helping us along that path.
The car is going to remain a key part of our lives for some years to come, but the homes and communities being built now need to not just meet needs to today but also be flexible to accommodate needs for tomorrow and for decades to come.
Is the Government going to change planning again?
By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property
Everyone complains about the planning system: developers and planners complain because it is too long, complicated and has uncertainty; residents complain because their voices are never heard or taken into account; councillors complain that developers always try and avoid S106 of affordable targets; environmentalists complain that not enough is done for sustainability and that we are concreting over swathes of countryside; Government complains that developers are not building fast enough, as do those on housing waiting lists, and that there are not enough affordable homes, and that affordable actually does not mean affordable; and we can go on and on.
Complaints about the system are not new, which is why planning in this country is in perpetual reform by successive governments with none actually finding the ideal solution.
The current government is all about increasing the numbers of houses built. It recognises the housing crisis; that we have not been building enough houses for decades which has led to market instability, perpetual increasing process, and significant homelessness in various forms. It has set a target of 300,000 homes per annum by the mid-2020s.
The current Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, has stated that he wants a ‘first principles’ rethink of the planning system. There has been speculation that this could include ‘zoning’, adapting the NSIP DCO system for use with 1000+ residential schemes, or the greater use of development corporations.
All these proposals aim to streamline and speed up applications, but they all remove decision-making from local councils. This derogation of democracy will not go down well with councils which view planning as a key function – councillors already complain that planning law puts far too much of a straightjacket on the decisions they have to make but to, in effect, take the decision making process away from them entirely will not get a good response.
Similarly, local residents will not take kindly to having their democracy eroded. They too feel that decisions are made without their views being considered but at least they have had the opportunity to make their views known and to lobby their local councillor about it.
The Government surely also understands that much of the development is in the ’blue belt’ where Conservatives are in control and where development is not popular – by bulldozing through projects using the blunt instruments of DCO, zoning or development corporations is not going to go down at all well with its supporters.
It is possible, if not likely, that the Government is doing an element of market testing here – running various proverbial ‘flags’ up the flagpole to see what the reactions are.
Although we all want to see a better, more streamlined planning system, that must not be at the expense of detail or local democracy.
What’s new with St Albans’s Local Plan
By Kasia Banaś, Account Director
In the latest developments of the St Albans’s Local Plan saga, the Council is proposing to resolve the outstanding issues through major modifications rather than withdrawing the Plan and starting anew.
A draft letter to the inspectors, recently presented at the Council’s Planning Policy Committee, concludes that all of the soundness issues are matters which can be resolved through the examination process; and that the continuation of the EiP is the only reasonable approach in order to allow the adoption of a new plan as quickly as possible.
The Council hopes the inspectors will accept these proposals. It also accepts that main modifications will include having to find a further 1,650 new homes as the Park Street Village broad location. It will resurrect the Railfreight interchange. There will also be a new review of the green belt so the existing large sites in the Plan will be scrutinised again.
The Council has published two draft timetables: one to prepare a modified local plan and another a completely new plan. The former will result in adoption in spring 2022 and the latter adoption by the end of 2023, just making the Secretary of State’s deadline.
Despite it being an ‘inherited’ Local Plan, the current LibDem administration has been working cross-party to find a workable solution to salvage the Plan. There are, however, local elections next May which could politicise the process, especially with SADC being a marginal council with a minority administration.
Ultimately, the fate of the Plan lies in the hands of the inspectors who are yet to respond to the Council’s letter. There is also a risk of MHCLG intervention as SADC has the second-oldest local plan in the country, and is already on the government’s ‘naughty’ list.
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