Should we tax un-built homes?

Last week, on the back of a report which showed how many housing plots had planning permission but haven’t been built-out, the Local Government Association (LGA) pushed for these un-built plots to be taxed in order to encourage the developers to speed-up production and delivery.

On the face of it this may sound nice but I don’t support this idea because it will have ‘unforeseen’ consequences which could (or I think will) actually end up with fewer homes being built. There are other ways in which we can get more homes built which are more direct and more certain of being effective.

Part of the problem is that too often ‘we’ are trying to solve the housing supply problem via a single idea, the magic bullet, or the killer-app, whereas there are a number of things we need to do (as I have outlined in previous posts). However, fundamentally, it is the political and economic philosophies we are being controlled by which are causing the problems which we have to deal with.

To be fair to the LGA, taxing undeveloped sites wasn’t the only thing they called for, some of which I have mentioned as being necessary in my earlier posts.

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Green Belt – forces us to address and not ignore problems

With the current ‘debate’ about the Green Belt in the UK, I thought it was interesting to see how the Green Belt was viewed in a book about business management and more specifically systems management, rather than by Town Planners or developers. I found this in ‘The Fifth Discipline – the art and practice of the learning organisation. Peter M Sence. Century Press. 1997’, pages 66-67.

‘Many European cities have avoided the problem of crime, entrenched poverty, and helplessness that affect so many American cities because they have forced themselves to face the balances that a healthy urban area must maintain. One way they have done this is by maintaining large “green belts” around the city that discourage the growth of suburbs and commuters who work in the city but live outside it. By contrast, many American cities have encouraged steady expansion of surrounding suburbs, continually enabling wealthier residents to move further from the city centre and its problems. (Impoverished areas today, such as Harlem in New York and Roxbury in Boston were originally upper-class suburbs)’.

We need to take account of the fact that this was written in the 1990s, and there has been somewhat of a renaissance in some inner cities, so that some areas which started off wealthy, went through a period of decline and poverty have now began to be recolonised by the well-off, with the poorer residents being pushed out. However, the basic premise still holds: having a Green Belt forces us to address issues and problems rather than just ignore them or leave the solving of problems to someone else.

Making it easy for the wealthy to leave behind the problems of a inner city, whilst still be able to exploit a city’s advantages (often without paying towards them) tends to make it easier for the better off (and the Government) to ignore the issues which caused the problems in the first place: a situation which is not healthy for society as a whole; it being widely recognised that segregated cities are not well functioning cities and can actually become dysfunctional. Allowing the reverse to happen, with the wealthy in the city and the less-wealthy in the suburbs, is just as wrong and also ignores the underlying. and integrated, problems which have to be addressed.

I am not saying that in specific areas and situations the Green Belt does not require rationalisation, and its existing borders must remain sacrosanct in every case, but the approach which some are advocating is ignoring the total system and thus not addressing the actual issues. I can’t help but agree that having a strong Green Belt policy may force ‘us’ to address issues and problems in an integrated and holistic way rather than just ignore them or leave the solving of these problems to someone else.

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Turning Offices into Homes – further relaxations announced

It seems to have been kept fairly quiet, but the Government’s temporary scheme of relaxing the requirements to turn office developments into residential, is to be made permanent.

Not only that, but the relaxation will be further extended by in future allowing demolition of existing office buildings and residential use to replace them without Planning Permission from the Local Planning Authority. At the moment this is only allowed by conversion and not demolition and replacement. There will be some limitations to this right but as yet these seem to be unspecified.

So, despite the rhetoric of wishing to see more Localism, and powers moving from Central to Local Government, this is yet another example of the opposite – the Government is removing the powers of Local Authorities to design and implement plans for their local area which are appropriate for the whole of their area of interest and responsibilities, and their local citizens as a whole.

Central Government is telling us that they want to give more power, responsibility and resources to Local Government, but then does stuff like this – taking away the ability of Local Government to make and implement integrated and holistic plans, based on evidence, of what their area as a whole requires.

One of the reasons why we in the UK have a Town and Country Planning System is to balance the needs (or desires) of the whole community against those of individual land and building owners and users. By coming out with policies such as this Central Government is undermining the whole Planning system – but perhaps that is the idea and intention.

Exactly how this will work in practice hasn’t yet been announced, but this is another worrying development in Government housing policy.

Finally, I must give thanks to the firm of Charles Russell Speechly for making me aware of these developments which come out of the Housing and Planning Bill which was announced in October 2015

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Housing issues and thoughts: small homes and off-site manufacturing

Just a few thoughts on housing prompted by an article I have just read on the building of new homes which raised some interesting, and worrying, points.

The UK is building the smallest new-homes in Europe (if not the developed world) and the point was raised of whether we should accept small (or even micro) homes as a trade off to building more homes from the pot of money which is available. In my view it is not just the size of the new homes we are building which is a problem, but the question of whether we are building homes which are capable of being extended (or indeed changed in any other way) in the future should the need arise.

But to stick to the size of homes point, we must not be pushed down the smaller homes route. As previously said, the UK already has the smallest new homes in Europe; and with the increase in the need (or expectation) to work from home, the last thing we need are homes which are too small to work from, and the people who live in them being excluded from job opportunities because they don’t have enough space for home working.

The article said that at recent housing conference someone mentioned the possibility of the UK creating ‘trailer parks’ as a means of addressing the homes shortage, but it was unclear whether this was a serious proposal or said in jest, although over coffee some delegates seemed to think this was a good idea. I said a few years ago (in passing rather than in a blog) that I can see the UK copying the USA with some, and an increasing number of, people being forced into trailer parks as their only means of having a roof over their head. And, like the USA, their occupiers being known as ‘Trailer Trash’. It is indeed worrying that some people seem to think that this is a good idea. This leads us down the road of further and more entrenched inequality in our society.

I am not convinced by the argument, which some are putting forward, for cutting the size of homes being built in order to save on building costs which then can be used to build a few more homes. Surely, any saving on build cost will end up going to bid up the land-price unless the site is being provided for free, and these free gifts must be few and far between.

Similarly I am not convinced that off-site, volumetric, fabrication and manufacturing is an answer to the price of new homes. The sales-price (or rent) of a home has nothing to do with how much it has cost to build that home – it is the market which decides the price not the cost of building the home. So, lower build costs (even if Modern Methods of Construction achieves a lower cost) will only be reflected in higher land-prices, not lower sales prices or rents.

However, off-site fabrication could well have a role to play in addressing the skills-shortage problem within the construction industry. After the Second World War the UK needed to build a large number of new schools very quickly in the context of labour and materials shortage, and pre-fabrication and standardisation was used to address these problems.

In all, I can’t help feeling that there is some worrying thinking going on in the housing industry. Perhaps desperate thinking is the result of desperate times.

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Tesco Site in Dartford. What will it be used for?

Now that it has been confirmed that a number of the abandoned Tesco development sites have been sold to the European investment fund managers Meyer Bergman, I thought I would say a little bit about one of these sites which is in Dartford town centre.

Firstly, it is going to be interesting to see how the Planners at Dartford Council deal with any approach to develop this large site should it be at odds with the current Planning Permission for a supermarket (along with some other uses on the upper floors including homes).

Dartford’s Core Strategy specifically identifies the ‘Tesco Site’ along and behind Lowfield Street as being for retail and or leisure use on the ground floor, with a mix of uses on upper floors that could include housing, office use and community facilities. The assumption behind the sale of these Tesco sites, which Tesco no longer need, is that they will now be used for housing instead of retail. So it is going to be interesting to see what Dartford Council and its Planners say about this, and whether they are prepared to just accept the use which new owners wish to see on the site, or whether they insist on their Core Strategy being implemented and Planning Policy keep to.

Nothing has changed in Planning terms as far as this site is concerned. Dartford’s population is still set to grow by 43% and needs the town centre to serve it with shops and leisure facilities. Additionally, Dartford’s Retail and Commercial Leisure Study (which says that the town centre’s convenience offer combined with comparison floorspace, including food, needs to be strengthened), is still valid.

Just because this site is no longer required by Tesco as a food store, this doesn’t mean that a food store on this site is not viable. Tesco pulled out of development not because there is no, or insufficient, demand in the centre of Dartford, but because Tesco has financial issues which mean that its investment’s have been cut back. It could be that other operators (such as Aldi) are interested in locating in the centre of Dartford and this site should be offered to these rather than the owners dictating what the use will be: after-all this is why we have a Planning System; to ensure that the wider community benefits from land use and not just the owners of land. The new owners of the Tesco site must not be allowed to prevent a competitor to Tesco from using this site.

Secondly, whatever development is proposed for Lowfield Street we also need to decide whether it is right to allow the developers to totally demolish the buildings which have been left empty there. It may be easier, and be more financially beneficial, for the owners and developers to have a clean sheet with the removal of these buildings but that doesn’t make it right or acceptable.

Although these buildings are not (as far as I know) Listed, some of them are characteristic of their time; provide a link and reminder of Dartford’s past, and are likely to be valued by the citizens of Dartford as a link with their past, and are intrinsic to providing a sense of place.

Additionally, keeping some of these buildings will help provide variety in the urban grain, as well as providing variety in the sort of accommodation available to businesses which could locate in the town centre. So, I hope that Dartford’s Planners at least think about which buildings should be kept, and consider urban design and place-making rather than allowing total demolition and replacement with solely modern design which could be anywhere rather than reflective of Dartford and its history.

I have included here photographs of some of these buildings.

Dartford November 2015 (6)

The Tesco site extends behind this now empty pub – there is plenty of room to re-develop and keep this building.

Dartford November 2015 (15)

Again, these is plenty of room for re-development behind these buildings without having to demolish them.

Dartford November 2015 (51)

(This pub is empty and is opposite the empty Tesco site, and thus not part of it. Its fortunes can’t have been helped by much of Lowfield Street being blighted for over 10 years).

In all, I am hopeful that Dartford Council will not allow the new owners of the Tesco site to change or ignore Dartford’s Planning policies, and just turn this valuable town centre site to predominately housing, when it has been established with evidence that what is required is a retail led mixed use development.

Dartford does not have an executive elected Mayor who can lead on negotiations with the new owners, but it does have a strong and charismatic Leader who, I think, may have had enough of promises from developers, and wants what is right for Dartford and its citizens rather than exclusively what is right for the balance sheet of the site owners.

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Does Soho need Regenerating?

I was watching a TV programme last night about Soho, and how some people are concerned about its character being changed by proposals to re-develop parts of it.

In this programme we heard a Development Manager from Derwent London saying that Soho needs Regenerating. Now I actually have a lot of time for Derwent, and generally like the things they do; but I am sorry but Regeneration is not the same as Development and I think that developers ought to have the courage of their convictions and describe redevelopment projects as development.

Soho does not need Regenerating – there are not lots of premises or buildings which are empty (due to lack of demand), nor is there a lack of demand from people and businesses wanting to locate there, and neither is there a lack of people visiting and using the area. So, in what way does it need Regenerating?

Now, it may be that alternative or more intensive uses, or different types of buildings, will bring in higher rents and capital values, but this is Re-development, it is not Regeneration, and calling it the latter confuses the two things when they are really two quite different things. We must stop using the term Regeneration when we are really doing Re-development. When there is a case for Re-development we need to have the courage to make the case for it to happen and not hide behind the use of the word Regeneration.

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Congestion Charge for M25 around Heathrow?

The Government’s National Infrastructure Plan 2014 (NIP14) says that M25 South West quadrant improvements are a priority for investment and talks about – ‘exploring options for tackling the extremely serious levels of congestion on the busiest road in Britain, making best use of all transport modes’.

So, having admitted that this south-west section of the M25 has congestion problems, will it be subject to the same solution to congestion as used at the Dartford Crossings – a congestion charge?

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