OPINION: Planning’s alternative reality

If something desperately important – like providing sufficient homes, for instance – isn’t working, you change it, right? Not here, says Richard Digard, where Planning operates under a different reality

 (Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

THE other day I was talking to a friend of mine who also happens to be a professional landlord who’s deeply involved in the local letting scene, when he volunteered this observation. ‘You know all the talk about a housing crisis? Well, it’s wrong. We’ve actually got a housing emergency.’

The evidence was disturbing – landlords getting multiple direct approaches a week from people desperate for a home and trying to jump agents’ waiting lists; guest workers forced to leave the island if evicted; rents spiralling to match scarcity and demand.

There are two forces at work here: the States’ long-term reluctance to provide sufficient homes and the failure of the population and migration regime.

As we’ve seen from the latest population figures, it keeps out people we want and need, triggering the latest skills shortages, while letting in more than 500 people on a whim.

They’re mostly Covid refugees with a Guernsey connection – can’t deny a Guernsey person his or her birthright no matter how long ago they fled these shores, eh? – combined with the population regime’s unintended consequence of enabling people to migrate from open market multiple occupancy to local market solo.

A perfect storm aided and abetted by government incompetence and impotence, for all the talk of action – whichever day that might be.

Anyway, here’s a solution. A worked-up plan to create homes, strengthen the economy, protect and improve the environment, provide for a good quality of life and enhance what’s special about the island. Specifically, it aims to address the issue of affordable homes and demand driven by changes to the make-up of the island’s population, and the greatly increased levels of immigration since 2011.

It also aims to limit the spread of urban development into the surrounding countryside, encourages the better use of already-developed land, and enables the development of denser, more compact forms of development, which may also include taller buildings in Town.

It recognises that conflict will arise in pursuing these objectives and says quite clearly that public good will be the test, not vociferous Nimby-ism: ‘Where policy conflicts do arise, a reasoned judgement must be made as to whether the wider benefits of a proposal outweigh any policy considerations provided by the Island Plan.’

Housing emergency, you see. Eggs and omelettes. That sort of thing. Let’s get something moving and – because these are extraordinary times – waive our usual 10-year planning horizon and see what we can do in three.

Wow. Before you get too excited, however, this is Jersey’s response to its identical and equally pressing housing crisis/emergency. And it’s responding by doing things differently. That’s in total contrast to Guernsey’s, ‘we’ve always done it this way…’ approach.

Let me give you an example. Guernsey’s arguably well-out-of-date 2016 Island Development Plan (IDP) is based on even earlier information from pre-2010 and demands under GP11 that sites of 20-plus homes contribute 30% affordable homes. It’s been roundly criticised – admittedly by developers – but more importantly, hasn’t really worked. Hence the current housing crisis and focus on affordability.

Jersey and elsewhere, however, have worked out that too low a threshold and too high a tariff causes stalling of private-house building. Its 15% tariff is roughly in line with the rest of the UK now and I’m advised by a sector pro that 30% tariffs have long since been abandoned elsewhere.

The point here is not giving builders free rein to do what they want but assessing whether existing planning policies are producing the desired community results. And demonstrably they are not. Which is why Jersey is changing tack on this. And swiftly.

More importantly, getting a partnership approach working like this unlocks private capital and massively reduces the amount of taxpayer funds needed for emergency housing.

My understanding here is that a GP11 application for developers of a big site requires around £200,000 of valuations, consultant fees and financial modelling. The developer in addition has to pay more fees for the States’ own consultants to then check the application. If there is failure to agree, this can result in a planning appeal with an inspector, lawyers and further attendant delays and costs.

The important thing to note is that Jersey has worked out that 10 years between IDPs is too long and that three years in the current circumstances is more appropriate. As it was explained to that island’s States: ‘Normally, the Island Plan would provide a 10-year planning framework, but current circumstances make it difficult to plan for the medium- or long-term.

It is presently difficult to know, with any degree of certainty, what the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit will be for Jersey and to forecast what the longer-term housing requirement will be.

‘This is because the island’s population is significantly altered by levels of in-migration [sic] which is closely connected to the island’s economic performance. As a result, the new Island Plan will cover a shorter three-year plan period (2022-2025). In terms of housing supply, however, this plan takes a five-year view of supply – covering the period 2021-2025.’

I’ve no idea what the actual split should be between affordable and more expensive homes in private developments but it is fundamentally obvious these are not normal times and if something isn’t working it needs to be changed.

Here, however, the Development & Planning Authority announced that it would not review the IDP properly and definitely would not review GP11 until 2026 (giving it a lifespan of 10-plus years) because it’s ‘not a priority’. Wow again. Let’s keep on doing the same old things and hoping for a different outcome…

What this ultimately means is that by 2026 we could have all new house buyers living in Guernsey Housing Association properties that were built with States of Guernsey/taxpayer guaranteed loans or funds and built on land bought by taxpayers, because no other developers will easily volunteer to enter the existing restrictive GP11. In short, stopping much-needed private capital from building affordable homes.

It’s planning, Jim, just not as anyone else knows it.

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