Joanne Farrar

UK & Europe

Joanne, BA (Hons), MCD, MRTPI, is currently practice manager for the planning, economics and heritage team. She has over 22 years’ town planning experience in both the public and private sectors in the UK and overseas. She started her career with the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames in London before taking an 18 month sabbatical to work for Johannesburg City Council (through VSO) on the preparation and implementation of area action plans and a tourism strategy for Soweto. She joined Atkins in 2001 and has since helped to secure planning consents for major development projects on behalf of clients including the Homes & Communities Agency, Church Commissioners for England, Ministry of Defence and the City of London Corporation. She has recently been supporting a masterplan exercise to guide the development of a major site in Johannesburg.

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The ‘planning process’ is one area which frequently comes under attack in the national media with significant delays and a drop in the number of applications approved being reported. Personally I feel all this ‘passing the buck’ is becoming depressing and it’s time we recognise this is no one’s fault, it’s a challenging task we all face, and it’s about time we all pull together to find some real solutions.

Planning isn’t the biggest challenge I see in delivering the scale of housing required, I think the issue is four-fold: 

  • Local authority planning departments are chronically under-resourced which has an impact on determining the myriad conditions, including planning permission, which need to be met before any building works start.
  • The capacity of the housebuilding sector is constrained – the downturn in 2008 prompted about 250,000 people to leave the construction industry.  Now that demand has returned, there is a skills shortage, with bricklayers, carpenters and joiners in short supply. 
  • Small and medium-sized developers experience difficulty in accessing finance – not least because of the complexity of seeking funding – and they have declined in number.
  • The sector is now faced with new pressures from political uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote which will result in a further slowdown.

If you’ve read, and been tempted to believe, the articles recently that point fingers at planning, take a look at these figures. In 2015 planning permission was granted for 255,032 new homes in England, according to the Home Builders Federation (HBF). That’s 57 per cent more than a low point of 162,204 in 2009.  This is supported by figures published by the Government in March which show that the number of major applications being processed swiftly by local authorities is also at an all-time high, with a record 81 per cent decided within the required time. So, as far as planning permission goes, we’re actually on an upwards trend. 

For me, the more worrying gap is actually between the number of planning permissions granted and the number of homes actually built. In February 2015, the Local Government Association published figures that indicated there were 475,000 homes in England that had been given planning permission but had yet to be built.

So why do we have this gap? We’ve become increasingly reliant on private developers to deliver our houses. This poses a real challenge in attracting investment in areas where the market fails to provide adequate incentives to supply, and exposes the sector to land banking and release of sites and homes by housebuilders according to private, rather than national, interest. 

While the planning process can delay development, this isn’t always a negative thing. Taking our time to plan will ensure the effective and sustainable delivery of the right type of housing, and the creation of high-quality places that are well integrated with other economic, social and physical infrastructure. In our rush to build new homes, we can’t just plonk houses down without the other infrastructure – schools, transport, hospitals, parks, businesses – that people need to live.

We need to evolve and adapt to what people need today, but always with a long term plan for the future. This is what we need to solve the housing crisis – planning that is measured and considered, and a culture that supports development, instead of placing blame.

UK & Europe,