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BBC Countryfile features Richborough

We were delighted to participate in the BBC's Countryfile programme Sunday 11 March which included a feature on land promotion activities.

The prologue included a question for promoters to answer...'are they targeting a loophole in the law for financial gain or helping out with the national housing shortage'? 

Part of our response included the provision of an interesting case study involving the promotion of farm land in Newbold-on Stour near Stratford-Upon-Avon.  Richard Spencer, a 3rd generation farmer, was struggling to make a living from his dairy farm and he was therefore unable to re-invest in machinery and buildings to drive efficiencies.  Richborough engaged with local stakeholders and secured unanimous approval at committee for an outline planning permission of up to 50 homes.  This was despite the site not being allocated in the adopted or emerging local plan.

The land was later sold to Lioncourt Homes which is an ambitious and growing regional housebuilder.  This positive outcome allowed Richard to maintain his family's interest in farming and to also deliver much needed new market and affordable homes along with parking for the church and land for the local school for the benefit of local people.  In many ways the project is the embodiment of localism and is testament to the relationship formed between the landowner, Richborough and the local community.

The programme reached out to a number of contributors such as The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).  There were accusations that land promoters target loopholes in legislation in order to bring residential planning permissions to bear.  Unfortunately the final edit of the programme didn't include a response to this particular accusation from us but of course land promoters and developers of all types do not need to search for loopholes.  Government policy in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF 2012) is fundamentally clear in terms of the obligations on Local Planning Authorities as far as its role in housing delivery is concerned and the consequences of a failure in their planning systems.  Without mechanisms to counter failing supply, the housing crisis would be significantly more acute.  The Government wishes to see 300,000 new homes built per annum because it recognises that demand far outstrips supply and also that there is a huge back log of new homes which weren't delivered in the last decade alone.  In the 2016/17 financial year, 217,350 new homes were completed, the first time the Government's self-imposed threshold has been met since before the financial crisis, but even this result falls short of new targets.

The BBC's Countryfile programme also included contributions that suggested that brownfield land should be prioritised for housing and that it negates the need for land promoters to bring forward greenfield sites.  We agree that brownfield land should be a priority but no one should underestimate just how difficult and costly remediating contamination from brownfield sites can be.  Indeed some brownfield sites aren’t located in sustainable locations with an underlying demand for new homes in the first instance.

A recent CPRE report concludes that 1 million homes could be delivered from brownfield land currently owned by Councils.  This assessment doesn't consider viability testing or lapse rates.  However, even if one accepted it would be possible to deliver 1 million new homes from Councils’ brownfield land, only a 3.3 year national supply of housing would be possible based on the Government’s new target of 300,000 per annum. 

Therefore, it is clear that brownfield land is only part of a wider solution required to meet the national target of 300,000 new homes per annum.  Bearing in mind that CPRE's estimation wouldn't even satisfy the backlog of new homes which weren't delivered in the last decade, it is more important than ever to turn to greenfield land as part of the immediate solution.

CPRE also suggested that land promoters target vulnerable councils which are unable to demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing land applying strong arm tactics during planning appeals.  This commentary doesn't consider the countless refusals by planning committees which fly in the face of recommendations for approval.  Residential planning applications are refused time and time again despite planning officers’ recommendations to approve them.  It is only right that applicants should engage their democratic right to appeal.  To infer that well healed promoters are somehow able to out manoeuvre and bully The Planning Inspectorate is frankly an insult to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.  The comments made by CPRE and by Countryfile presenters also ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of planning permissions that land promoters and housebuilders obtain are not through appeals.  Indeed research has shown that it is only approximately 5% of the total plots consented are through the appeals system.  Of the sites that Richborough expect to deliver this year over 90% are “plan-led”.

Tom Heap asked the question whether land promoters are the sort of entrepreneurs needed to tackle the housing crisis?

Of course we would answer with a resounding ‘yes’. 

Land promotion is not a new phenomenon, it’s a mature and professional sector of the development industry.  It should be pointed out that the individual businesses involved are burdened with the cost of promotion totally at their own risk and are only remunerated when they are successful.  Therefore, they cannot afford flights of fancy or to be involved with sites which aren’t logical in planning terms, sustainable or which aren’t in the main going to be supported by the planning profession or the planning system itself. 

The land promotion community delivers approximately 50% of all residential permissions alongside those delivered by housebuilders and others.  Land promoters represent an important component of the housing supply chain and deliver much needed planning permissions to housebuilders in a just in time method.  Housebuilders require immediate land with the benefit of a consent to supplement their own strategic land promotion activities.  This is a symbiotic relationship designed to deliver new homes in the fastest possible time.  In a rising market it also delivers profit which is necessary to provide the incentive to face the hurdles, complications and risks associated with seeking planning permission and building homes.  The land promotion and building industry is plagued with challenges at every turn and is beleaguered by accusations of bullying, land banking and profiteering at the expense of local communities.  None of the accusations bear out in the real world.

At the end of the day, the main focus shouldn’t be on who or how planning permission is delivered…it should be on making sure more homes are built and in the areas where people need to live…if only for the sake of creating new communities.