Changing the Game or the Goalposts? Reflections on the RTPI debate on Housing

Neil Gray, Town Planning Partner with Rapleys LLP, shares his views on some rational or some radical ideas to help deliver new homes in Scotland discussed at a joint RTPI East of Scotland and RTPI South East Scotland Chapter event 

The recurring matter (and hashtag) we were all being reminded about was the expression “game changers”. To put a football fans’ analogy to things, this is like staring at defeat in the last minute of a crucial Cup tie, your prized striker long since sent off, your goalkeeper nursing an injury and your manager clasping his head in his hands. Then suddenly, the inspired substitute, “the game changer” graces the pitch, picks up the ball, runs, skips past four and slides the ball through to his (or her) team mate, who dispatches the ball into the back of the net – what a winner! Do we have a star substitute on the planning system bench? Does he or she have their boots tied ready for action? Or will the manager fail to make the tactics work, and we all lurch deeper into the housing crisis with another post-match interview with the “mibbees aye, mibbes naw explanation”? The housing delivery side of things is ever-so-slightly recovering, but I think we need to get the ‘game changers’ onto the pitch fast, and not wait instead for the goal posts to be changed.

RTPI Event 14Looking ahead is what planners do. Well, Craig McLaren had us look beyond the frenzied electioneering going on around the UK General Election, and asked us to look ahead to 2016 to the Scottish Parliamentary elections – What will be the game changers? What ideas? What inspiration? What winner might be splintering on the planning system substitutes bench to deliver the winning formula to get more homes built? My money is on two eye-catching approaches – for development plans it’s: put the big numbers for national housing requirement into a national spatial plan and leave them there – not leak into the local plan debate. For delivering on the ground, homes of quality need raw materials of quality and localisation – so the bricks and mortar if you like, accessible to all market players and earn more planning support if you use them. What links both these ideas together is vision and delivery – the big picture and the tools on the ground.

So, the goalpost on one side of the pitch:– development plans for housing. Housing output levels have dropped by over 40% since 2007 when the economic recession took hold. In 2012-13 there were nearly 13,000 and in 2013-14 there were nearly 14,000 new homes (built by private, housing association and local authority) in Scotland according to Shelter Scotland. If we look back to the SNP’s manifesto for the 2011 Scottish Elections the game plans then were for “6,000 new socially-rented houses each year”, go back even further, to 2007, ‘Firm Foundations’, the Scottish Government made its views on the importance of new housing clear here. That document highlighted the need to increase the rate of supply of new homes to 35,000 per year by 2015. We are now quite a long way off these well-meant plans and everyone needs a home. So what wisdom can we as a profession flag up to the future Scottish Government next – incidentally, should we also be asking for a dedicated Cabinet Secretary for Places (or similar) to make our next Parliament more effective to deliver these new homes? Craig McLaren suggested the game changers could be scouted from continental Europe, where the likes of Germany has driven an effective and colourful housing programme in its usual indomitable way – should our 2016 Government build infrastructure and de-risk sites, then attract builders in to put the homes up? This would be a pro-active approach, a sort of half-time team formation change, rather than a last minute substitute.

I think we can look across Europe to our continental neighbours, but we need to look at Scotland and how we plan – yes we have the National Planning Framework (NPF3) and yes we have Strategic Development Plans (well, for the denser populated areas) and ok, we have Local Development Plans (when they are prepared and adopted and stay up to date) – where sites for housing are identified and allocated, but some (the Community Growth Areas, the Strategic Land Allocations, the Core Development Areas have struggled to rise out of the ground to the scales planned). Should we not be looking up the hierarchy and plan for housing in the NPF? Other speakers, for example Stuart Salter of Geddes Consulting told us the delivery of housing (amongst other things) is a ‘numbers game’ (it is, there is no denying) but perhaps we leave the numbers (big numbers please) stuck onto the NPF3 (or its next replacement), ask the new Government to set the goalposts and leave them there and see how many new houses we can score between the sticks across Scotland? This is not so much a radical idea, it takes a leaf from ‘Firm Foundations’ as development planning for housing is too locally focused at present. At this critical time, planning could intervene to a greater extent. The national and strategic tiers could play a far greater role.

So what about the Goalposts on the other side of the pitch? The quality of the housing product. Bill Lindsay of Fife Council asked if we are building the right quality of houses that make places special – rather than be looking out towards anytown, anywhere. On a similar line of thought, Alan Spence of Lundin Homes, RTPI Event 15creators of locally planned, crafted and marketed homes in Fife believes small is beautiful – and he has a very strong point. To continue the theme, Alan’s homes are probably cup winners, but he rarely has the chance to play on a level pitch when diversity is being choked as strategic scale sites are earmarked along with the long list of needs for its successful delivery – so long in fact, the full-time whistle will blow and we really will be knocked out of the cup! Are we compromising the quality and individuality of new homes for so many people who want that, at the expense of delivering the numbers – and yet the numbers themselves aren’t being met effectively because we haven’t the infrastructure, a la the German model, to start with? The smaller developer is probably more malleable – vulnerable to market forces, vulnerable to planning system demands for developer contributions and all the other things that thoroughly reduce the vision, the excitement and the opportunity to really make a difference to our places of the future. Yes I like the idea of a 30 home (not “unit”) development each individually spec-ced by the happy, proud owner (be that the 940,000 would be owners currently in fuel poverty, or the 73,000 currently in overcrowded conditions or the 180,000 currently on local authority waiting lists).

Therefore, should malleability be made a material consideration in terms of the Planning Act in Scotland (or the UK for that matter) – in fact are our material considerations fit for purpose, and do they really help in these times of crisis? I think the logic that Alan was propositioning, that his products need local sawmilling, local brickworks, all local skills, materials and staples that perhaps went with the past – are genuine fair and reasonable material considerations of today to get things delivered on the ground. At the least, these supply chain factors could be set up as part of a co-operative a sort of local ‘feeder team’ and which demonstrates local sustainability – socially, economically and environmentally. That’s a real inspired game changer I would sign up to!

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