Blog: 3 May 2022Levelling up through development means thinking larger than local

James Donagh

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James Donagh

Development Economics Director

Kings Hill office

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In the Financial Times this month, an article landed exposing a tension many of us within the development industry have been grappling with in recent months, especially as the industrial and logistics sector continues to boom.

The planning system has a huge part to play in securing the levelling up agenda.  Crucially, local plans must ensure a supply of land sufficient to accommodate all the new homes and business floorspace we need. There is a critical need for housing and employment land, a land supply crisis that must be comprehensively addressed.  However, silo thinking persists.  With the 300,000 homes per annum UK Government housing target still way off and the addition of a well-intentioned additional 35% uplift in need for the 20 largest cities across the country, the silo approach means that pressure on employment land continues to mount.

As a result, and as the article “Large cities warn housing target is unrealistic and puts growth at risk” (Report, April 22) points out, there is a risk of this becoming a debate about trading jobs for homes.

For the last 12 months I have been grappling with how we can best understand and illustrate this pressure. Sifting through planning policy documentation for some of the leading cities, my colleagues and I have sought commonalities in employment land need assessment and exemplars of employment land protection policy stances. And although we have found some good examples, the huge spectrum of response only stands to reinforce the challenge faced. Consistency in needs assessment for employment isn’t there and must urgently be improved. Protection of employment land as a result is patchy and often ineffective.

There is tunnel vision on land supply that means discussions always seem to focus on housing numbers, without a wider appreciation of the importance of balancing other land use needs. No more clearly demonstrated than at Local Plan Inquiries, where housing dominates the agenda, and employment is relegated to 1/5 or less of the total time spent.

Over the last 5-8 years the development industry has invested time and effort into developing and strengthening our understanding of housing need, to ensure we are delivering homes in the right places and tackling social inequality in living standards. But resolving social inequality is just as dependent upon economic prosperity.

So, what is the solution?

If we are to foster local job creation, and future economic growth across regions, we need an equivalent consideration of employment land — without the implication that solving the housing crisis and employment land requirements are incompatible. They need to work alongside each other, to make the levelling up agenda successful. It might even be more helpful to consider them both as “development land” in the round.

I also firmly believe, as do many within our sector, that we must be able to look at land supply across regions and local authority boundaries. Too much localism makes it incredibly difficult to see the bigger picture, to identify regional need and find sites for both housing and employment, that support growth and sustainable placemaking.

And finally, as so many of us planners have called for repeatedly, we need to reconsider attitudes and application of the greenbelt planning policy. The article features a number of local authorities frustrated by the loss of employment land, but also unwilling to consider options beyond their boundary or that break the sanctity of ‘greenbelt’. Tightly bounded cities, constrained by this ageing and often misunderstood planning policy allocation, are unable to squeeze everything in and hence the challenge of ‘housing versus jobs’ arises. This in turn fundamentally undermines our ability to consider the most sustainable land use, or the most economically advantageous for a city or region, to offer maximum impact to levelling-up.

Posted with the following keywords:
Levelling Up, Employment Land, Housing Need, Economic Growth