Wednesday, 29 October 2014

If we're going to build enough homes 'speculative' cannot be a dirty word

It would be interesting to know (and perhaps I'll ask at my next public exhibition...) what winds our NIMBY friends up more. The prospect of the green fields over which they have enjoyed a view being used to house the next generation, or the prospect of 'speculative developers' benefiting from the process.
The phrase, speculative developer, is an emotive one and one that I imagine sub-editors quite like because it instantly invokes an image of someone in a pinstripe suit waving a fifty pound note around. Notwithstanding the plain and simple fact that people profit from the development process (and I do like to ask NIMBYs at exhibitions whether they would promote any land that they owned for development...) the two component words represent an amalgamation of two distinct players in the process.
The first word first. The dictionaries that I have just consulted define speculative in a number of ways, but common ones include 'a high risk of loss', and 'a venture undertaken on the chance of success, without a pre-existing contract'.
The promotion of land through the planning system is an expensive business. The work required to present a suitable, available and achievable urban extension at a local plan EIP (which might take a couple of years...), followed by the technical work required for an environment statement to support a planning application (which might take another year), in addition to liaison with all interested parties throughout both processes would probably require a budget of at least £250,000. If we were to add a public inquiry (and another year...) it would probably rise to £400,000.
Other definitions of speculative include 'to think about something and make guesses about it' and 'to form ideas or theories about something usually when there are many things not known about it'. Ten years on from the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act and two years on from the NPPF local plan coverage remains poor (and local plan's consistent with the NPPF is worse). The rhythmic swinging of the political pendulum contrives to make the promotion of land through the planning system a risky business as well.
The result of this cost and risk, directly or indirectly, is a planning system that simply does not allocate enough land, which contributes to situation whereby farmland can become fifty times more valuable upon the grant of planning permission (and that's in the North West, the multiple in the south is considerably higher).
Here then we need to draw the distinction between speculator and developer, for whilst both might be making guesses when many things are not known about an emerging local plan, the motivations are very different. 
A housebuilder promoting land through the planning system will, of course, benefit from some discount in open market land value at the point of purchase, but when taking on the landowner's cost and risk it is predominantly in exchange for the security of medium or long term supply, and when planning permission is granted and the purchase is confirmed, homes get built. When a land promoter takes on the landowner's cost it is solely to benefit from the uplift in land value, and when planning permission is granted the land has to be sold to a housebuilder before homes get built.
The rise of the former has grown in recent years, which reflects some fundamental issues with our land and planning systems, but it is also important to note that it is an essential activity. To consistently build 240,000 homes a year means planning permissions being consistently granted for at least 240,000 homes a year, and the housebuilding industry cannot account for such an amount alone.
For as long then as the time-consuming, uncertain and costly nature of the planning system make in accessible to all but the wealthiest landowners, the promotion of land will be a speculative process undertaken by either promoter or developer. Are our NIMBY friends self-aware enough to spot their role in making the system so time-consuming, uncertain and costly? I'll put that, and the distinction between promoter and developer, to them when I see them next, but I suspect that they won't care...

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