Amid falling application fee income and drooping housing trajectories, now is a good time for local government planners to move from adversarial to creative relationships with the private sector, particularly in housing growth areas.
Housing delivery over the past 15 years has been characterised by an increasingly confrontational approach between the public and private sectors. The market bubble over the past decade has encouraged central and local government to feel that it can demand more and more because it has been assumed that the private sector will always deliver.
Planners in local government have been seen merely as market regulators and the volume house builders have responded by operating a highly profitable short-term business model that assumed ever-increasing property values. As a result, planning at the front line has often been slow and adversarial and the output from this model, with some notable exceptions, has produced the poorest-quality housing in Europe. Learning from experiences in Europe could help raise the quality of housing.
Now the market bubble has burst, we have to come to terms with a different world. We must continue to strive for better housing design, not least because of the pressing need to respond to climate change. Communities will still need excellent physical and social infrastructure and the need for affordable housing is likely to increase over the next few years. So how is it possible to deliver such an ambitious agenda in this changed environment?
On major sites, the answer lies in building a more productive partnership between the public and private sectors. The public sector should move into a central role in land assembly and provision of strategic infrastructure. The market, once it recovers, should work within the financial and longer-term management framework that councils have set. The Homes and Communities Agency will have a key role in supporting this approach.
Planners are uniquely placed in local authorities to formulate such partnerships. They have a broad skills base and are used to bridging a wide range of environmental, social and economic objectives and working with communities.
But the dynamics of the new financial world demand awareness of alternative ways of delivering major housing schemes. A good start would be to look at northern European models, where local authorities are already expected to play a leading role and many examples of good practice exist.
There are four "p"s that make up good planning. We will still need well-written policies and efficient processes. We will need to retain our focus on the quality of the final product. Most importantly, we need to attract and develop creative people. Life as a local authority planner is becoming more challenging but also a lot more interesting.
Peter Studdert is director of joint planning for Cambridge's growth areas and is based at South Cambridgeshire District Council. The views expressed are his own.