There’s no doubt that the UK is currently in the midst of a housing crisis. For decades, this country has failed to build enough new homes, even as population and demographic changes have contributed to ever-increasing demand.
The consensus is that we need to build between 225,000 and 275,000 more homes each year to keep up with population growth and start to tackle years of under-supply. The UK has averaged closer to 160,000 homes per year since the 1970s.
During this time house prices have seen remarkable growth; today the average house costs almost eight times average earnings, an all-time record. More people are forced to rent long-term and getting onto the ladder in the first place is increasingly difficult.
A recent report by housing charity Shelter suggested that nearly eight out of 10 families across England are unable to afford newly built homes in their local area. Even in the affluent South East and London, most families cannot afford to buy an average new-build house, even with Help to Buy (84% of families and 81% of families respectively).
Shelter says housing developers are required to maximise returns on their substantial investments and so they cannot risk lowering the prices of the homes they build for sale. Therefore they only add to housing stock gradually, which keeps supply beneath demand and prices artificially high. As of July 2016 there were 684,000 homes with detailed planning permission granted on sites which had not yet been completed. Of these, building had started on just over half (349,000 homes).
That private sector companies have a duty to make profits and please shareholders shouldn’t come as any great surprise. Doubtless there are sites where developers have planning permission but have decided that the project will not make sufficient profit to be worthwhile at a given time. The Shelter report is correct to highlight the problem; after all, if we want and need more houses to be built then somebody needs to get on and build them.
But this argument doesn’t tell the whole story. For one thing, large scale housing developments take time to come to fruition. While a developer may have been given permission to build 5,000 homes on a given site, they are highly likely to adopt a phased approach to delivery in order to ensure that adequate infrastructure is in place to support the finished development. It’s a very obvious point, but houses do also take some time to build, particularly if we (quite rightly) aspire to deliver high quality, sustainable and architecturally appropriate developments.
Secondly, the planning process gives greater opportunities for consultation and feedback from local communities than ever before. The theory goes that giving the population of a neighbourhood a greater say over what happens in their area enhances democratic decision-making. But the corollary is that it provides more scope for local people to object to housing developments in their communities which can lead to a protracted planning process, raising costs for developers and local authorities and ultimately frustrating the ability of developers to get on with the task at hand.
Effective communications with the local community, key stakeholders, opinion formers and decision makers can make the difference between success and failure for a housing project. Taking the time to speak to local people and find out their concerns can provide valuable input and feedback for developers.
Quantum has been involved with numerous housing developments in Kent and the South East. In our experience, there is always likely to be a contingent of local people who are opposed to development, generally for any or all of the following reasons: increased traffic and air pollution, pressure on infrastructure and local services, loss of natural habitats (where the development is on a greenfield site or greenbelt land).
On the face of it, Nimbyism is perfectly understandable – most of us accept the need for new homes, we just generally don’t want them built next door. But if we accept that local people are likely to initially oppose local development, then it stands to reason that a comprehensive strategy to communicate and engage with them is necessary to share the positive aspects of the development and counterbalance dissenting opposition voices.
Engagement should be seen as a chance to really get to grips with the opinions, concerns and indeed areas of support offered by local communities and stakeholders, which can be fed into the planning process.
It is doubtful that every objector will be won over, but by making some accommodations and addressing the concerns of local people, developers have the opportunity to change people’s minds and stand the best chance of getting their plans approved.