Annual London Residential Breakfast
06 Jul 2017
This years’ annual London residential breakfast featured a pragmatic debate from a panel that was notable bereft of any of the big house builders, but featuring the big hitting names of Sir Edward Lister (chair of the HCA), Marc Vlessing (CEO of Pocket), Mary Parsons (executive director at Places for People) and Reza Merchant (CEO of The Collective). The result was that conversation focussed very much on the innovation being provided by SME developers; the question of what was actually meant by affordable homes and a frank critique of the planning process and its bias towards the big house builders.
Ironically, despite the fact the result of the election seems to have put the Housing White Paper on the backburner, both Sir Eddie and Marc Vlessing were firmly of the opinion that the Government’s weakened position and inability to impose its way could be a good thing for the industry. They argued that the need for collaboration and more conscientious decision making on housing issues will restrict its ability to come up with new initiatives and should mean more stability. According to Sir Eddie, any reforms could, instead, come through consultation with the National Planning Policy Framework.
At a wider political level Reza Merchant felt that the change in London Mayor had a greater impact on housing than the fall out from the Brexit vote has. Marc Vlessing also voiced his opinion that a mix of NIMBYism and the first past the post voting system is making housing suffer.
From a planning perspective, the message from the panel was clear; reform is needed because at the moment the entire process is geared towards the ‘big boys’, due of the expense and time involved in making an application.
Mary Parson pointed out that she sees a clear difference between London and the regions when it comes to the approach to planning, stating that outside of London, health and social care sits more closely aligned with housing on planning issues and with local plans. She was also forthright in her opinion that when you consider the level of crisis we have in housing, should mean that we don’t have the level of resistance to planning applications that is often seen.
According to Vlessing, one of the biggest problems is that there is no Germanic, prescriptive planning policy. He went on to describe the ‘theatre of planning’ and the fact that often the consents you receive depends on the performance you put on on the day.
On the role that SME developers can potentially play in the provision of housing, Sir Eddie stressed that it is still too much of a struggle to get small sites - delivering under 50 units - moving forward, stating that as an industry we need to get more SMEs off the ground. In Parson’s eyes, the need for SMEs on small sites is clear because the big development sites, she says, are missing a chunk of housing in the middle of the market whose income levels mean they don’t fit the social or affordable criteria, but who can’t afford the levels that the private tenure units are being sold at.
Part of the problem restricting more SME developers coming in to the market though, according to Reza Merchant, is that funders are resistant to new ideas and new players. Marc Vlessing though said entrepreneurial SMEs needed to be willing to lose a bit of profit on the early schemes in order push forward the long term goal and reach the levels that Merchant’s The Collective has. He urged these entrepreneurial developers to back a concept and stick with it in order to navigate planning, otherwise they will just become opportunistic who do a bit of housing one day, a hotel the next day and may a tennis court after that.