Reputation will be key as Gove scraps housing targets
By David Scane
In a move designed to stave off a Tory rebellion estimated to be 100 MPs strong, the government announced overnight that it would be softening its approach towards housing targets. A much-maligned instrument, they will in future become ‘advisory’ and more of a ‘starting point’ as part of an effort to get local communities to back new homes in their area; the government will also ‘consult on how they can better take account of local density.’
On a recent Tuesday afternoon in a community centre in the south of England, I joined colleagues to discuss plans for new homes with residents.
Over the course of four hours, around 50 people came through the door to speak with the team, review our exhibition materials and leave their comments.
For those, like me, who are veterans of these events, you become familiar with the same points being made time and again – “there aren't enough school places (or GP appointments)” ,“we’ve had enough new homes”, “there’s no need for any more”.
These conversations are repeated up and down the country, week in week out whenever and wherever new homes are proposed. Those who make these arguments aren’t bad people and they often have legitimate concerns about the impact that new development will have on their communities. Depending on the size of the proposed development, there may be an opportunity to deliver certain bits of critical infrastructure like a new school, a health centre or even a new station. However, in most cases, the benefits of development (CIL, New Homes Bonus, GVA) go unnoticed and unheralded. New residents of these properties are seen as ‘newcomers’, arriving from outside of the community bringing only problems with them.
It is because these problems seem insurmountable that the solution seems equally straightforward – don’t build any more homes (well, at least not here anyway). Politicians of all colours have long railed against “unsustainable” housing targets, calling for them to be scrapped, while having their hands tied in the process.
For a while, the clamour has been growing for Michael Gove to amend the Levelling Up Bill to scrap the hated targets. Until recently, it seemed that he might hold firm, however, in the face of a likely humiliating Conservative rebellion, he has relented and given in to pressure to scrap mandatory targets.
The backers of the amendment say that it will improve development in this country by getting buy-in from communities, deliver infrastructure alongside housing and create more ‘beautiful’ new homes. Local authorities, which can demonstrate that new housing would have a detrimental impact on the character of an area will be able to pursue lower housebuilding targets.
Critics of the plan argue that housing targets are the only thing holding local authorities’ feet to the fire when it comes to approving new homes. They say that the test of ‘impact on character’ is overly subjective and open to wide interpretation as to what constitutes ‘harm’ and will be used to oppose new homes being built.
Whatever the reality of what comes next, one thing is clear – developers will need to be ready to react to these new challenges to ensure they can continue to deliver much needed new homes.
So how should the industry respond to these new challenges? Here are 5 suggestions for developers to bear in mind:
- Reputation is key: Reputation is important when it comes to determining planning applications and is likely to be even more so under the new system. Developers need to be conscious of the impact of their actions throughout the whole process, from land acquisition to sales and marketing. Our SEC Newgate ESG Monitor revealed that the public want companies to go even further on sustainability. If you develop a negative reputation, local politicians will not be lining up to support your plans, particularly if they are on greenfield land.
- Build your messaging: Most developers will have a solid track record to rely on, but rarely make use of the wealth of case studies available to them. Build insight from these case studies into your messaging to show the positive side of your developments. This could include polling local communities around completed development sites 5-10 years post completion to help remove the fear factor from local communities towards your proposed developments.
- Engage early, engage often: There is often a feeling that plans need to be fixed before taking them to a local community, for fear of generating opposition or unrealistic expectations. Developers should engage early, setting out the key parameters of a site, and maintain regular contact with key stakeholders throughout the process to show a genuine consultative approach.
- Be flexible: Flexibility will likely be key under the new system. The test of ‘character’ is going to mean that developers will have to be ready to adapt designs and layouts to avoid a refusal and show genuine attempts have been made to incorporate local style guides.
- Remain alert: Politics can be fickle. All it takes is a by-election here or there to change the control of a Council and with it the whole direction of housing policy. The new system is likely to result in more uncertainty in local planning decisions, so developers will need to remain alert to these changes of dynamic to an even greater extent than before.