MHCLG musings, CaMKoX and land value

By Vivienne Shirley, Senior Consultant

Chelgate attended the latest annual planning update by Cambridge University Land Society, promising an afternoon of timely topics and high-profile speakers.

The event kicked off with a keynote by Simon Gallagher, Director of Planning at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). He noted that having published the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) last year, the focus has now turned to implementation – though he warned there will be yet more supplementary guidance on diversification, design and housing need assessments coming shortly. Already stretched and under-resourced councils may not be thrilled at the prospect of more change and bureaucracy.

He stressed the Ministry is keen to keep having discussions on where the NPPF is working well, and where it is not. It is also consulting on how to improve the community infrastructure levy (CIL) system, with amendments due to be brought forward shortly, and how to encourage ‘gentle densification’ through extending permitted development rights (PDR).

Simon conceded there is consensus across the country that planning decisions take far too long, with a lack of public trust in the system. MHCLG will release a green paper later this year focused on accelerating decision-making, following Rosewell’s recent report. MHCLG is also looking at how to quicken the S106 process, helping improve the often-fraught dynamic between local authorities and developers and ‘get stuff built’.

Next up was the CaMKoX Arc with Professor Tom Holbrook, 5th Studio, Alexander Jan from Arup Economics, Dr Helka Kalliomäki, and Robbie Owen of Pinsent Mason. They spoke about the challenges presented by such a major infrastructure project in a complex, multi-layered governance and policy environment, not helped by local resistance. Alexander suggested a top-down approach such as an Act of Parliament could be the way to go, as with the Olympics. Meanwhile, Robbie made the case for a National Policy Statement (NPS), an idea now with MHCLG for consideration, which could help to underpin and deliver the Arc. Professor Holbrook talked about the practical and design issues with deciding how best to accommodate 1m new homes and associated infrastructure, while Dr Kalliomäki drew on international comparisons. The overall message seemed to be that we shouldn’t expect any progress for a long time while these various issues are tackled.

Andy von Bradsky, who has recently taken on the newly-created role of Head of Architecture at MHCLG, then took to the stage. He stressed the government’s commitment to building better, as well as more, buildings, as attested by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which will try to tackle the challenge of poorly designed homes. He noted upcoming new planning practice guidance will include strengthened design direction, with garden communities and Healthy New Towns playing vital roles. The government will also promote community-led development and modern methods of construction (MMC), with hopefully a move towards a national policy for design in the future. However, as Roy Pinnock of Dentons pointed out later on, the tension between high levels of delivery and high-quality design will no doubt continue.

Stephen Ashworth, planning partner at Dentons, followed to talk about land value capture (LVC). He said we need to stop talking about value capture and start talking about ‘right pricing’, which can be helped through planning mechanisms and CIL. He stressed the only challenge is imagination – by coming up with clear and imaginative planning policies, we can clarify what costs developers are expected to pay for while making sure development remains viable. He warned that in some places, there is not enough land value to fund associated infrastructure, and it is important that government steps in where necessary to ensure there is good quality infrastructure across the UK.

The seminar finished with a lively debate on the need for PDR as a ‘shadow’ planning system in the absence of serious reform. Hard-hitting arguments such as the fact that only 30% of PD units meet national space standards just won out over the pro side, who pointed out 88,000 relatively affordable homes were created through PD in 2017.  After a swift vote, it was on to refreshments and further debates!