In Opinion

Director Jo Robison views on the need to continue to focus on addressing the national housing shortage, even in these unprecedented times, are reported in today’s Newcastle Journal:

“In the current climate it may seem flippant to refer to anything but the coronavirus emergency as a crisis. Whilst the coronavirus will go down in our history as perhaps the most significant crisis to define our generation, the UK continues to face a housing shortage that has been at crisis levels for some time.

It is well recognised within the industry that the construction economy cannot go on pause mode. There is real opportunity for the housing sector to secure good development and the public has a part to play, even during a period when then the majority of the country is on lockdown.

In 2017 the UK government identified that construction of new homes needed to be ramped up to 300,000 a year by 2025. However, the housing needs gap has continued to widen year on year with acute undersupply meaning that many millions live in housing poverty; pushed into debt because rent and mortgages are too expensive, homes are overcrowded, and adults live with parents significantly longer.

The National Housing Federation now estimates that 340,000 new homes per year will be necessary to address shortages. These are incredibly ambitious figures, especially when the most recent house building statistics are considered.

According to the National House Building Council, in 2019, 161,022 new homes were registered with the organisation. That figure represents a 13-year high in the number of new homes registered to be built, but still considerably below Government and NHF targets.

There are also some considerable regional disparities, which are significant issues for the North East. While London saw an increase in new homes registered 2018/19 from nearly 16,000 to almost 22,000, the North East saw a fall from 6,375 to 5,828.

It is inevitable that the coronavirus emergency will have an added impact on these figures, exacerbating the housing shortage. However, steps are being taken to mitigate some of the challenges created by the impact of the virus.

At the start of the emergency, the government was quick to confirm the continuation of the planning process. Local authorities, like the majority of organisations, are having to adapt dramatically and many have joined the movement in very positive ways including video conferencing on pre application meetings, screen sharing of ideas and taking more delegated planning decisions; Northumberland County Council have issued 100 planning decisions over the past few weeks.

As many of us have discovered, technology is key and perhaps the biggest challenge for the planning sector now is getting to grips with virtual planning committees. Many Local Planning Authorities are trialling the technology with Newcastle City Council testing remote meetings in mid-April and hopefully determining large applications at virtual planning committee in May.

This is a great example of how the planning system and local authorities are adapting to provide continuity, ensure no backlog of applications and maintain a supply of sites with planning permission that can be immediately built out in a post-COVID future, ensuring job creation and delivery of development as soon as lock down is lifted.

We understand that there will be concern among the general public that local authorities’ remote decision-making powers, combined with social distancing and the lockdown, will bar them from having a say on planning matters that will impact on their towns, villages and neighbourhoods.

Again, technology can play its part. Consultations are now taking place online, and this presents the public with their opportunity to contribute.

There is debate over whether e-consultations exclude parts of society, but the population is more technology-enabled than ever, especially in this period when communities are engaging more and more via technology with each other around the issues that matter to them.

Developers, local authorities and consultants like DPP also have the channels, with websites, emails and social media, to reach out and engage with a large section of the wider public so we can ensure the right to have a say and engage with planning committees, albeit in a different format to what we are all used to.

Quite understandably we are all currently focused on the here and now. However, when it comes to building enough new homes for our society, we also need to consider the future.

The processes may be changing but the outcomes have to be the same and the public, the development industry and local planning authorities can take this period of lockdown to play their part and contribute towards positively assisting the housing challenges facing this country.”

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Michelle Davies