3 minute read
Planning and politics – time for our politicians to ‘be more real estate’
07 Dec 2023
There’s a lot of noise about planning and the planning system just now. Political leaders are jockeying for position on who can promise to do more on housebuilding, making the planning process ‘fit for purpose’, and enabling the economy. This is so important but I continue to hear commentary that sounds more like a rugby coach or football manager reeling off a list of ifs, buts and maybes – the reasons things don’t work, how close things were to being different, the explanation for the unintended outcome.
Ashfield Land has been in business for 30 years so we’ve seen development cycles and politicians come and go, albeit the recent pace of change for the housing and planning minister is somewhat unprecedented!
Reviewing the Autumn Statement, the pledges made during party conference season and scanning the horizon to see who is promising and saying what about planning and development as we get closer to the General Election, this is my assessment:
We have been talking about a lack of resources in Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) for years and the consequences of under-invested council planning teams – Mr Gove may have an ‘Avengers Assemble’ style supersquad of planners but that is not a long term solution. We surely must grasp the nettle on this.
Local plans need help – we see councils across the country struggling or being unwilling to put plans in place but nothing effective being done to address the challenge or to provide any real consequences for not doing so. No plan = no meaningful progress. We all know things are so much better and clearer when there is a framework within which we can bring forward the things we are good at and that are needed. We’ve got to get the balance between local and strategic planning – and national ambition – right. The industry can then deliver on what we are best at, namely bringing investment forward and making things happen.
I remember the 2008 Planning Act coming in and the innovation that it heralded at the time, and not just in respect of consenting Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). We’re nudging 2024 now. How about some more innovation? I listen to what the Labour party are saying, and credit to the then Labour government of 2008 for what they did at that time, but I’m not won over that we have the right blend of progressive and reforming policy ideas coming forward in a way that is also workable.
And what of the view that housing is going to be a dominating issue at the General Election ballot box next year? I’ve heard that at many elections and the reality is voters will prioritise the economy, health and education every time. Maybe it will be different this cycle. But the cynic in me says we will get lots of noise between now and voting about political parties addressing home ownership, affordability and accessibility, and then, post election, it will taper off.
Pulling it all together, land is land and is permanent. Uses can change but the fact of trying to optimise land use is constant. Politicians, as the famous Robin Day and John Nott interview reminds us, are ‘here today and gone tomorrow’. So this is the conundrum. Balancing what we as a nation need for decades against a political cycle of five years and a political imperative to chase headlines and polls on an almost daily basis.
Is it too naïve to ask our next government to be serious about taking the long view? I don’t think so. Post pandemic and at a time of real jeapardy for the nation in terms of our economy and living standards, I think it’s absolutely right for all of us who work in land and development – and who appraise everything we do against long-term value creation – to ask our politicians to ‘be a bit more real estate’. To get their heads up and look to a further horizon. To think not about tomorrow but to think in decades.
That’s my perspective. Let’s see what we can achieve together. It’s certainly time to do things differently and better.