How to build communities

By Jonathan Werran | 05 October 2021
  • Jonathan Werran

There is perhaps no greater issue driving division in British politics than the serious gap between aspirations for home ownership and the malign effects of constrained supply. This situation, in which we don’t build or supply enough affordable homes in places where people not only just wish, but need to live, is the unhappy reality for a younger generation seemingly permanently priced out of the housing market.

So if we are to turn the tide of the times, and render a more rational housing market, one broadened with a wider affordable mix of property types and tenures, we are going to have to face down and overcome, with a sense of creativity and optimism, all that makes the current system broken.

Reform will require a far better approach to managing the plurality of interests involved, with both greater rights and increased responsibilities placed on councils, developers and communities. It requires a robust understanding in central government of the necessity of community involvement, and a broad understanding in place of how best to maximise the value of development for everyone involved.

This means certain, precise action in central government as part of planning reform and a suite of measures to better tie together the interests of stakeholders at the local level.

Localis’ contribution to the debate is released this week. Building Communities – planning for a clean and good growth future is based on the premise that each actor – central government, our councils, our communities and developers – will have their part to play in reforming the planning process. Success in this context means a planning system that finally delivers at the required pace and scale new developments that are both wanted and attainable and which match their local culture, economy and environment.

This means we need a long-term approach to how we invest in placemaking that puts the needs of communities first. Ministers and officials are keen to stress that in levelling up there should be no false dichotomy between investment in place and people. And on the understanding that our lives and our environments are not two separate things. How should Michael Gove as the new secretary of state at the rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) go about this?

Our contention is that, Spending Review notwithstanding, central government should resource a Capacity Fund for neighbourhood planning and a separate Carbon Offsetting fund to ensure clean growth remains viable.

Michael Gove will remember the coalition mantra that transparency is the best disinfectant. When it comes to planning, greater transparency will restore local trust in the planning process.

Residents require better digital notification through a streamlined portal giving access to development plans and decisions for their area, in their entirety and in one place. In a test carried out in May for this research, Localis found that 98% of councils do not have any easily accessible portal explaining the development plans in local areas in any kind of holistic way – many only had a list of PDF versions of individual planning notices, often very hard to find on the website.

Having live documents that are interactive, mapped, and accessible to everyone would be a good way of breaking down silos and complexity within the local plan-making process. Doing so would enable anyone who views them, from planning professionals to local residents, to look at a council database and easily see what proposals are live regarding infrastructure improvements or new developments. This would be more favourable than the current situation where decisions are made available one at a time and often in a manner that is not immediately apparent to residents.

For their part, councils should work with their communities to support popular local design codes, capture social value uplift from development and protect vital cultural assets – such as those that support the high street.

Housebuilders and developers should make productivity deals in areas where they are building new homes to make greater use of their resources to increase local skills and wages. We argue it would be wise of the Government to amend the Infrastructure Levy so it is paid at the point of commencement on site and to include a ring-fenced proportion for affordable housing provision.

And with an eye to levelling up as a means for delivery as much as a slogan, the DLUHC should acknowledge the need for a regional approach to new building – from garden cities in the South East to greater vertical development in major cities – through the creation of new boards for regional spatial planning.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive of Localis


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