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Who is Building the Conservation Areas of the Future?

Anthony McNamee, Associate at Farrer & Co, and Hugh Petter, Director at Adam Architecture, investigate.

Farrer & Co. and Adam Architecture

In a recent report into placemaking, Adam Architecture and Farrer & Co outlined how the UK could adopt a different approach to community development, one that moves from a narrative of pure numbers and units to one of quality and community.

At its heart, the report is about educating landowners in the public sector (and others) on a higher quality approach to developing communities, that can still turn a profit in the current planning, financial and legal regimes. We set out to showcase and establish the foundations of some of the UK’s ‘best-in-class’ examples, where landowners had taken a patient approach to profit and in doing so have brought forward community developments that could be the conservation areas of the future. While its focus is very much on the present and what people can do now, we have a number of initial recommendations for Government at local and national level, that would help to encourage landowners to take a long-term approach and leave a positive legacy. These vary from empowering local planning authorities to the challenge of tax costs and how we can best navigate the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).

Facilitating engagement and financial possibilities

Local planning authorities need to be adequately resourced and empowered to go out and contact landowners to persuade and incentivise them to put forward sites or facilitate them putting sites forward together. Whilst this clearly does not need to go as far as nationalising the land promotion industry, to best streamline and empower this process, local authority planners need to be able to be planners in the fullest sense where possible.

On a separate note, new entrants and landowners trying to act independently should not be disadvantaged when trying to access publicly backed funding streams – such as those administered by Homes England. We would recommend establishing a fund to enable development (by way of grants or low-interest loans) which is of genuine high quality and helps meet the aspirations of the relevant Local Plan.

Tax reforms

The lag between when tax costs are incurred and when funds are received can affect project viability and incentivises a ‘quick buck’ approach. The tax system should be reformulated to incentivise an approach to land development that encourages a landowner to take a long-term view. For example, in some cases, there can be a deferral of capital gains tax (CGT) for commercial development. Such an approach would have merit if applied to high-quality community developments.

Planning reforms

Many have found their experience of the planning process long and expensive. Ultimately, it will be the land value which bears that cost, but there are several reforms that should be considered to improve and streamline the planning process.

For one, there needs to be a greater use of Local Development Orders or a quasi-zoning system for those with a proven and trusted track record in terms of delivering quality and affordable housing. While professionals have access to data and information, for the purposes of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA); for example, it was felt that systems could be put in place in each local authority area to provide baseline information available for the whole area. This would help lessen the numerous studies submitted with planning applications that needlessly replicate underlying investigations. However, implementing such a system is not to say there is no need for site-specific surveys, but a shared baseline (which importantly would already have been approved by the local authority) would help quality and speed up decision-making.

Furthermore, greater objectivity and specificity in planning policies is needed. Interviewees accepted that planning officers rightly are the guardians of planning policies, but when policies require reams of background paragraphs and aids to interpretation, it cannot be said that they are providing certainty. Another point of consideration is that greater certainty would also free planning officers from spending time on development management, allowing them to focus on development planning.

By adopting these recommendations and ensuring they are backed with adequate resources and supported by a shifted mentality, which respects planning as an essential function on a par with education when the public considers local authority purpose, the planning process could be improved considerably.

Infrastructure levy reforms

On-site and neighbouring infrastructure is often brought forward by a development. Applicants should be allowed to apply for access to CIL to fund a proportion of on-site infrastructure to ensure that local plan aspirations for residents are met, especially in areas where property values might not support the level of investment which a local plan aspires to.

Additionally, development may need some other piece of infrastructure to come forward (or at least be shovel-ready) before a decision can be made to make an application or commence development itself. Not all areas can generate the level of CIL needed to fund such infrastructure – and CIL is not universally adopted at present. It may be that Government should reconsider a national form of CIL in the way that the Mayor of London and the London Boroughs operate together (for example, 15% of CIL could go to a regional or national pot). This would be especially useful where necessary, enabling infrastructure such as a new bridge is not within the same local authority boundary as the proposed development.

Going forward

The above recommendations are in no way an exhaustive selection but can perhaps push the conversation on planning reform along. The upcoming Planning White Paper and subsequent Planning Bill are great opportunities for those who care to lobby Government to embrace a patient approach to creating communities. A new approach is needed, or in 20 years we may face a bleak future of soulless dormitory towns covering the UK’s countryside.

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors alone and do not represent the opinions of the publication. You can find a link to the Placemaking report, ‘A patient approach to creating communities’, here.

Contact Farrer & Co. and Adam Architecture

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