Opinion: Can developer groups help enable better delivery?

This article was published in Place Making Resource on the 23rd of September and can be found here (subscription required).

By Michael HardwareDirector of Planning and Property 

County-wide collaborations between players from housing and the public sector are the way ahead, argues Michael Hardware.

Several counties have seen the emergence of developer groups in recent years. These should not be confused with developer forums, which tend to focus on individual plan areas.  Developer groups cover a county, appealing to housebuilders, developers and their consultants operating there. They also work in partnership with local enterprise partnerships, county and district councils, as well as Homes England and the Environment Agency.

The Essex Developers Group (EDG) has been operating for four years and is a partnership between the industry, housing associations and local authorities. It works with the Essex Planning Officers Association to provide a forum for the industry and the councils to enable a smoother development process. Mark Curle, chair of EDG, explains how it works: “The EDG provides members with a platform to work with the government, Homes England and South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) to accelerate housing delivery, including the supply of much needed affordable homes. The group has also worked to encourage and support smaller housebuilders.

“EDG has excellent links and a history of positive working with Essex Planning Officers Association and Essex Housing Officers Group. It also forms part of a wider collaboration of developer groups, which currently exist in the SELEP area of Kent and East Sussex.

“The group works with key planning and housing officers across the county to promote joint ambition and collaboration, share best practice and ensure infrastructure is aligned with housing growth. EDG, as a result, has been able to speak with a much stronger voice directly with the government.”

Floating policy ideas

The groups benefit local planning authorities and county councils, providing a platform for engagement, floating policy ideas and receiving feedback. The Kent Developers Group (KDG) was established over a decade ago and is currently chaired by Brian Horton. He says: ”Local councils benefit from developers groups. KDG is a group of organisations actively involved with the delivery of quality sustainable development.”

County councils play a strategic role in planning and transport issues. Councillor Tony Ball is the cabinet member for economic development at Essex County Council and appreciates the role of the Essex Developers Group. He said: “Developer groups provide a useful forum for us to engage with the development industry, to help us achieve the ambitious government targets.

“The forums also provide us with feedback from the industry on proposals and policy amendments which will impact upon it.

“Any increased engagement between developers, planners and council officers and politicians is a benefit. Not only will it improve engagement, relationships and understanding, enabling the industry to run far more smoothly, it also benefits our communities.”

The government is looking at fundamental planning reforms. Developer groups will assist the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in implementing planning changes through county, district and borough levels, ensuring full understanding and helping to achieve the challenging housing delivery ambitions. Jonathan Buckwell chair of Developers East Sussex (DES), explains: “DES members have the opportunity to discuss strategic issues and engage face-to-face at a senior level with major public and private sector organisations such as the MHCLG, county and district councils, the Highways and Environment Agencies, SELEP and those private sector organisations involved in the development process.

“Regular meetings provide an excellent opportunity for networking and finding solutions to the strategic and operational problems faced by developers, responding to the changing legislative and policy landscape as a group, discussing issues on planning, the environment, sustainability and design, as well as learning from other developers’ experiences.”

At the same time, the government is also planning major local government reforms, which will completely change the local government landscape. The replacement of the existing counties and districts/boroughs with unitary authorities, combined authorities and elected mayors will fundamentally change local government – the biggest change in more than 100 years. There appears to be some synergy between the two sets of reforms, but perhaps undertaking both at the same time may not be ideal, and perhaps there has been some reconsideration of this – the white paper on local government reforms, which is expected to be published next month, will reveal all.

Developers groups have demonstrated their worth beyond doubt, and their roles can only increase with the forthcoming planning and local government reforms. So much so that there are new groups being planned for Surrey and for Hertfordshire.

Michael Hardware is director of planning and property at lobbyist Chelgate Local. He is also a serving county and district councillor.