I came across a number of instances this week of Government’s inability to make its policies happen on the ground.
In the first example I did a quick straw poll of a large room full of local authority planners. I asked how many of them had read the Government’s guidance on collecting evidence for strategic housing market assessments in relation to custom build as they are required to do by the NPPF.
Not a single hand went up.
I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised as the entirety of planning guidance has just been rewritten while planning departments are coming under the twin pressures of the cuts and an increase in development activity. It’s just another example of how long it takes for big complex systems to change direction.
The industry on the other hand is ahead of the game. I visited the National Self Build Centre in Swindon and was interested to see that Buildstore, the independent financial advisors and great supporters of the self build sector had, entrepreneurially as is their way, already set up a Custom Build register.
The register is one of the key requirements of the government planning guidance and is closely related to the recently (re) announced Right to Build.
The Right to Build is still something of riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The consultation promised in the budget has yet to surface which may reflect the practical difficulties of living up to the Daily Mail headline at the time ‘New Right to Build to force councils to provide sites for self build’. On the Government web site the link from Nick Boles’ most recent speech is to Community Right to Build suggesting either a future face saving policy tactic or a frustrated IT nerd.
The policy ambition is commendable but, as is often the case, some dialogue with practitioners before announcement might make the policy making easier.
The politics of this are superficially attractive. A majority of the population want to build their own home. Government wants the public sector to give planning permission for more homes and to dispose of public land for housing.
As usual the devil is in the detail. Not every local authority has land or even the ability to zone other people’s land for Custom Build (particularly as this is not a separate use class).
Some local authorities are moving ahead with policies that allocate a % of sites for custom build but this inevitably ends up with small numbers of plots that are not viable for Custom Build which generally requires sites of at least 100 plots.
In the third example I went to the fantastic (re) launch of the Community Land Trust Fund in the Houses of Parliament (during the Queen’s Speech debate bizarrely) and then at the Brixton Green meanwhile space on Somerleyton Road in Brixton.
The fund has two parts, the first providing small (but welcome) start up grants of around £10,000 to twenty urban community land trusts and the second providing £2 million of loan finance in tranches of up to £350,000.
Nick Boles spoke openly of his lack of awareness of community land trusts when he became Planning Minister and of his admiration of the work they are doing. He said that he wanted every neighbourhood forum to set up a CLT and for CLTs to be able to be used to satisfy s106 obligations.
He might have added that public land owners should look to partner with CLTs before procuring development partners for public land disposals.
Both of these things are happening occasionally but I bear the scars from helping to negotiate these through the planning system. Without strong positive formal guidance from Government and education of the system local planning authorities regard these approaches as novel and contentious and there are loads of people for whom it is all too much like hard work.
Together with Community Right to Build and the various Neighbourhood Planning and Custom Build initiatives there is a package here that has the potential to transform attitudes towards new housing development in local communities from NIMBY to active community led development.
But the combination of the difficulty of changing the direction of the supertanker and the struggles Government has to implement its policies on the ground mean that change is inevitably slow.
Communication, branding and education is a critical element of this and often requires exemplars that people can kick the tyres on. So policy change in housing development needs a proof of concept project which will probably take at least a couple of years followed by the education of all the relevant professionals (through guidance, conferences, media etc.) and a large proportion of the public (probably through television, social media and the press) which will take five to ten years to complete.
Where ideas are being adapted from other countries (like Custom Build) it is possible to use those as precedents but their impact is less as they are perceived as not invented here.
So ministers with bright ideas need to have them very early in a parliament (or before) if they are going to see them realised and they need the policy to be consistently pursued by their successors post the inevitable reshuffles. They also need a very clear understanding of how to implement the policy combined with the ability to change direction on the delivery journey to achieve the goal when unforeseen obstacles appear. It seems to me that this is often where Government struggles with innovative ideas. They are nervous of failed experiments and lack the strategic, entrepreneurial, partnering and project management skills to work with industry to achieve delivery.
Custom Build and Community Led Development both had an early start and some good precedents but even then it is likely to be the next Government that sees them come to fruition.