Diary of a Sutton Councillor

London Resi Conference: Who are we building homes for?

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Yesterday I attended the London Resi Conference where housing developers, investors, land managers, the GLA and other industry professionals gathered to discuss how to deliver housing to address the shortfall of provision in London.

I gained some useful insights into the issues faced and forecasted growth areas.

However the ‘Bright Young Things’ ideas session left me with a heavy heart. We had the usual railing against the planning system and stories of local councillors playing politics because of their ‘nimby’ residents. The proposed solution was to take major planning decisions out of the hands of local authorities and have them all decided by the Mayor’s office. The belief that this would take the politics out of the equation and see speedier resolutions of applications was naive to say the least! The certainty is that there would be less transparency and democracy.

But most of all this debate made me want to shout, ‘Who do you think you are building these homes for?’ Those local people who often object to developments in their area are also the families who would like to be able to afford a larger home, the young adults looking to move out of the family home, or older couples looking to downsize. And often the reason they object is because of the poor offer these developments will make to their area.

We have the simple problem of trying to use a system that relies on the private sector to deliver the housing that is needed in the capital. That housing won’t be provided if there is not a profit to be made on the development. However the type of housing that local people want for their area, together with the investment in the infrastructure necessary to support that development, does not produce the dividends that drive investors. That is why we see the endless pressure to build as densely as possible, and battles over s106 contributions and affordable housing. Indeed one of the bright young things wanted the space standards relaxed so they could build even smaller homes. Are we really proposing to house the next generation in cupboard-sized apartments akin to some of the worst examples seen in Japan? And when those new homes are built, they are unaffordable for local people, so they are sold to better-off commuters who may well spend all day in central London and contribute little to the local economy.

All local councils, local planners and local people want is good quality development that works for their area. Felicie, one of the more progressive thinking Bright Young Things captured it well, suggesting that the offer needs to be quality spaces designed around people and their needs. She talked of flats that would be suitable for families if they were well thought out, and suitably located near the facilities that families require.

A couple of examples of the issues drawn from my area:

A large residential development specially designed for older people was proposed for a site. We thought that it was too large and overbearing for the site, especially compared to what it was replacing, and that there would be objections from the locals. In fact there was widespread support for it because, as lots of residents said, they aspired to live there once they retired. It was an attractive offer.

On the other hand we have a legacy of a large housing development of over 600 properties in a self-contained area in Worcester Park. This development has no inter-relationship with the surrounding buildings or community either physically or in design terms. It has placed considerable strain on the local transport network clogging up a key through route, and created discord and disharmony. This estate and its attendant problems are now a permanent part of the landscape, but the investors will no doubt be long gone having made their money and it is the local council and residents left to deal with the consequences, out of taxpayers’ funds.

To bridge the discordant priorities we need public investment. In Sutton we are showing our willingness to do this by setting up a council-owned housing development company which will allow the local authority to take advantage of preferential borrowing rates to invest in the housing market across all tenures. We will need to work with private partners but our stake will enable us to have more say over design and standards. And for our partners our investment will de-risk projects and provide the wriggle room to be more flexible about affordable housing and densities.

My top tips for developers are to seek early engagement with the council and residents, and be willing to flex their plans in line with feedback from all parties. People understandably object to having things ‘done’ to them. Allowing them to be involved in the process and shape the plans not only assuage the fear factor, it also leads to better developments. Think about place making, not just unit numbers. Resident engagement may be time-consuming, but if the result is a first time granting of planning permission it saves costs that might otherwise be incurred in redrafting and resubmitting plans and fighting an appeal, never mind the costs associated with delayed construction and twitchy investors.

I would also like to see a change of attitude towards CIL and s106 contributions. Both of these ‘taxes’ have the aim of ensuring investment in the local infrastructure to support a new development. That investment can be for education and health facilities, transport infrastructure or public realm improvements. All of which increase the attractiveness of the development to potential buyers/tenants. And a development that enhances an area ensures that local property values remain buoyant.

We have positive testimony from partners who have worked with us in this way: CNM Estates, Subsea 7, Affinity Sutton, Schroders.

And finally a defence of local planning officers who took a bit of a hit in the conference debates. These are professionally qualified, highly skilled people, who are under-resourced and underpaid. They work to nationally-set time scales for dealing with planning applications, and are only allowed to recover costs at rates also set nationally. Rates that do not actually cover the cost of the planning service. In their work they are pitted against highly rewarded asset managers, architects, planning lawyers and transport consultants whose job is to make money for their investment backers. Most planning officers want to see quality developments in their area as much as residents, and delays are frequently more about staff shortages or lack of resources than the obstructive mentality they are frequently portrayed as having.

In Sutton we have a pro-growth agenda, Opportunity Sutton. We welcome new development to deliver the housing and economic growth our borough needs. Our ask is for good quality, sustainable design that works with the local area, and reflects our residents’ needs and aspirations. To help we aim to work in a joined up way across services to facilitate progress through the planning process and are investing in improving our planning service offer. We are refreshing our Local Plan to make it simpler and clearer for developers to understand what our vision for the borough is, and what our expectations are, whilst leaving room for innovation and quality.

And in line with another issue raised at the conference, we have brought businesses together with training providers so there is an understanding of the skills gaps and as a result many more construction training courses are being provided by our local colleges, and school children are being encouraged to look at careers in the construction industry.

It was interesting to hear Tim Craine of Molior London talk about feeling the need to be a bit more ‘socially conscious’, in particular when negotiating affordable housing. This was refreshing, and perhaps another way of thinking about it is to understand that we are building the homes, and the London, both for ourselves, and for our children. If we want people to work in the city then we need to provide the housing for those people. And everyone wants to live in a nice home that meets their needs where they can feel part of a community and have access to the services they need. I don’t know of many people who aspire to rent a cupboard.

Sutton Point, CNM Estates

 

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March 19, 2015 - Posted by | Opinion | , , , , ,

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