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Democracy is Key

14th May 2014

Tony Hutchinson on the vital role of democracy in the development process...

Chris Philip (Property Week, 18/4) makes some good points about the need to understand how the processes by which funding decisions are made and planning consents are granted.

Funding decisions have a complex underlying process - part careful assessment of risk and pricing that risk, but also part intuition or sentiment (the reduction of bank lending to residential development is driven by a mixture of both factors). What would support Chris’s point, however, is evidence that the investors he speaks about have the appetite to get involved in housing but are deterred by those things which Funding for Lending can help ameliorate.

For example, a build to let proposition that has clear risks (but risks which can be mitigated or managed, and has an underlying asset that produces long term returns), struggles to be funded without a significant decree of public sector support. What could a senior or mezzanine debt provider do to unlock this type of proposition and how could Funding for Lending make this more attractive to both the developer and funder?

Nevertheless, money is only one part of the blockage indentified by Chris; the planning process too is seen as impeding delivery and this where I have to disagree.

Managing the development of neighbourhoods for new homes or any other purpose will always be contentious and reducing scrutiny of the development process carries significant risk. Cutting back the protection afforded to Listed Buildings, or designating development zones for new homes where there is less scrutiny of projects and their consequences, may actually lead to more delays and cost. Furthermore, making it too easy to convert commercial space to homes may deprive new businesses of the space they need to develop.

It will always be the case that the well funded, articulate and well organised can sway debates about what is or is not acceptable. It becomes hard for officers to recommend or councillors to approve applications in the face of what may be a sectional but vociferous interest group or powerful institutions.

Tony Hutchinson

Tony Hutchinson

development director, housing and consultancy

There are no easy answers to this conundrum but reducing democratic scrutiny of decisions that impact on the quality of life for existing communities benefits no-one and simply transfers the problem to the courts. There will always be sites where vested interests conspire against development however the majority of cases simply require a more sophisticated approach than a complex appraisal and digitised images.

Fundamentally, an understanding of place making, which anticipates and responds to community concerns, delivers a well and sensitively designed scheme with tangible community benefits is the bedrock for a planning submission. Communities do take an active interest in their neighbourhoods and it is important to respect and respond to the concerns raised through consultation. This entails being willing to engage in debate, recognising that residents do have views and be able to provide relevant comment on schemes beyond superficial issues of appearance.

Adverse local comment makes it difficult for members to support planning applications, the dire consequences can be illustrated graphically in newsprint but the positive case struggles to be heard. The Localism Act makes it easier for councillors to be involved in planning discussions outside of the committee room and this is an opportunity to be welcomed. Nevertheless, removing decision making from the public arena and making planning simply a matter of compiling with policy and filling in a form to secure approval is a recipe for increased dissatisfaction with the process.

In short, more, rather than less, democratic accountability is needed that allows issues to debated openly and candidly.

Tony Hutchinson is development director, housing and consultancy at Capita

This article first appeared in Property Week magazine

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