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Stagnation Or Innovation? It’s Time For Regulators To Decide.
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They say that necessity is the mother of innovation. With the housing crisis sitting stubbornly at the top of the political agenda for months now, countless think tank studies, business manifestos and government reports all point to one conclusion: the UK needs more housing, and this needs to happen sooner rather than later.
The start of September saw the coveted £250,000 Wolf son economics prize go to David Rudi in, an urban designer, for his plan to expand 40 UK towns and cities with ‘garden city’ extensions. From one side came high praise, that it was an innovative and viable plan, a bold and daring solution to the housing crisis – from the other, outcry that it was simply nothing more than urban sprawl. Indeed, Brandon Lewis rejected the plans saying that the Government would have nothing to do with it. The principal objections to the plan stemmed from the proposed expansion into the green belt, attracting fierce criticism from Lord Rogers of Riverside and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
We should take note here, as this episode epitomizes one of the most prominent issues of the housing crisis today: as a nation we all agree that we need more housing, but there is no common view of the solution. How, against such a complex political, social and regulatory backdrop, can we free up the land which the nation so desperately needs for development? How can we promote innovation in the face of regulation?
Less than 10 per cent of UK land is developed, yet the availability of ‘shovel ready’ land still remains at a premium for house builders for several reasons. The CBI recently released ‘Housing Britain’, a manifesto report that demands the construction of 240,000 homes each year within a decade. In it they question why, as a nation, we are protecting green belt areas at the expense of meeting our housing needs. There needs to be a debate regarding the purpose and need for the greenbelt, after all, the metropolitan greenbelt was designated in 1935. A slightly more flexible greenbelt policy may be the way forward.
We cannot neglect efforts to encourage the development of our town’s and city’s brown field sites either. According to the National Land Use Database, in 2009 there was 5,756 hectares (an area twice the size of Leicester) of brown field land suitable for housing and owned by local authorities. It is estimated that this could accommodate 291,000 homes. The CBI argues that there is not currently enough of a pipeline of brown field sites to build on in urban areas however. We have heard a significant amount of talk coming out of Westminster regarding brown field regeneration, but so far we have not seen much progress. Giving local authorities greater incentives and authority to release unused land would certainly help, but the issue remains that there is often a lack of both investment and professional skills to coordinate the release of this land to private developers.
Despite efforts to streamline the planning process, legitimate developments are still coming undone at the planning stages. After buying land, developers must agree a number of issues with local authorities before securing planning, next fulfilling a list of "pre-commencement conditions" once outline permission is granted. The Home Builders Federation has estimated that around 185,000 developments are stuck at this point. Obtaining planning is an expensive business, and can often cut out small and middle sized developers.
So we find ourselves faced again with the earlier question: how can we promote innovation in the face of regulation?
As a UK land assembly specialist Lucent is currently working in partnership with Allerdale Borough Council in Cumbria to help bring housing development and other investment into the area. While the Council invests its surplus land and shares its knowledge of the needs of its communities, Lucent invests money and the professional skills of its team to liaise with potential developers to secure planning permission and potential purchasers for individual sites. By working in partnership, this method lowers the planning risk to the developer, and encourages a more efficient and entrepreneurial approach to land release from the local authority. Only eight months old, the partnership is already seeing fantastic results with confidence and interest in the model opening up new channels of business for both Lucent and Allerdale Borough Council.
The UK is in the midst of a crisis. Research from the National Housing Association recently revealed that parents’ hopes for their children’s futures are clouded by fears they will never afford their own home. Many believe that the main political parties are not doing enough to deal with the housing crisis.
Necessity is the mother of innovation, and the good news is that the UK has always had plenty of it. However we need government to recognise innovation when it sees it, and help it along.
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