The BPF Forums – An overview
The British Property Federation (BPF) has recently been looking more closely at the question of Devolution and the impact it could have within the Property Industry. To discuss local sentiment further, we recently joined them at a number of regional forums held in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle, alongside representatives from the Regeneration Investment Organisation (RIO), UK Trade and Investment, and councillors from neighbouring local authorities. Reflecting on the Manchester forum I thought I would provide a taste of the discussion had.
Devolution – It is clear that some city regions have made greater progress in developing ideas around the devolved packages that would benefit their area than others. There is also a continued sense of scepticism of fiscal and decision-making powers to regional level, perhaps partly due to a feeling that the debate is reminiscent of that which took place in 2004, and this only feeds a frustration that these repetitive discussions with Whitehall stifle progress. There are also clear issues of rivalry within and between regions that perhaps suppress the debate at a national level, and interest so far has centred on the Northern Powerhouse, to the exclusion, and (some suggest) detriment, of the Midlands.
Greater Manchester is of course well advanced and seen somewhat as the beacon for devolution amongst other UK regions. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Government sees Greater Manchester as a leading light. There’s a long history of cooperation through the AGMA group over many years. Will others be following the North West? It is clear that there have certainly been discussions around a combined authority in Merseyside and more recently in Cumbria/North Lancashire, while the central Lancashire authorities already work closely together and have a Joint Core Strategy.
Skills shortages – In each region, there was felt to be a fundamental lack of resource at all levels, particularly in skilled officers. In some regions, forum members were concerned that while the public sector stepping in to help struggling schemes can in many cases be beneficial, there were instances where the public sector had stayed involved for too long, stifling the progress of the scheme.
For us here in the North West I would agree with this sentiment. The lack of resources is hampering the property industry, with Local Authorities struggling to process planning applications and deliver Local Plans. There’s a back log in planning appeal processing and it can often take weeks for pre-application meetings. Government will be addressing this and the Planning Advisory Service is undertaking a body of work looking at fees and service levels – watch this space!
Infrastructure – Attendees agreed that this remains a challenge in all areas. In particular, it was felt the ongoing debate around HS2/HS3 is lengthy and unhelpful given the huge benefits it will deliver through regenerating local areas. It is an issue that the BPF could play a greater role in supporting, through lobbying for better infrastructure and a wider transport strategy for the UK.
In the North West connectivity affects all aspects of the property industry and there is not only concern about the timings of HS2 and what HS3 might bring, but wider concerns as to how the Lancashire and Cumbrian districts can benefit from essential links. The West Coast mainline is vital as a life-line for businesses and strong economic growth for our region, so I certainly look forward to working with the BPF to assist in driving these projects forwards.
Planning – In Manchester and Leeds, Neighbourhood Planning was identified as a key concern with so few Local Authorities having local plans in place. Clearly each authority must work quickly to progress a sound Local Plan. Although the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is progressing, it will take a while to come to fruition and there is concern it will not sufficiently cover the amount of housing needed by the region.
Reform of the planning system will be a continued feature of Government. The appointment of Greg Clark as the Minister of Communities and Local Government will reinforce the Localism agenda and Neighbourhood Planning is here to stay. We also expect to see a range of other planning reforms as part of the Conservative pledges to reduce bureaucracy.
The Manchester forum discussion certainly displayed our region’s nervousness about a specific planning class for PRS, as it was felt this might frighten potential investors by preventing fragmentation and sale. To be honest I don’t believe this is the way forward at all, but that any planning mechanisms should seek to preserve flexibility in the permission – something a use class doesn’t do – while still providing the certainty investors require to understand the financial commitment they are making.
Availability of land – The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) does not address the Green Belt issue. It was suggested in the BPF session that there is potentially a role for the BPF to be involved in the progression of this debate. It is early days for GMSF. An Options Paper is expected towards the end of the year and it remains to be seen whether it will tackle Green Belt land release. This is something of an elephant in the room for the GMSF policy makers, but it is clear that Greater Manchester has effectively failed to meet housing targets. Aligning economic growth with housing needs is clearly a fundamental matter and land releases around Greater Manchester might reduce pressures across North Cheshire.
The BPF is currently creating a programme of regional seminar events for July. For more information and to register, visit www.bpf.org.uk/events
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