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We can't build more homes without investing in planners

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

Whisper it softly, but if the current mood at Manchester’s 2018 Housing conference continues to waft into the corridors of power, then the times very well may be a-changin’.

Stephen Kinsella, Homes England’s executive director of land, told a room full of housing professionals that the sector is facing a “demographic time bomb” and the current property market is “clearly not sustainable”. Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes called for a “wholesale reform of the regulatory framework” on housing. Meanwhile, this reporter has lost count of the number of consultants calling for a radical update on construction practices.

One of the more prominent concepts that has been circling in several sweltering rooms at this Chartered Institute of Housing event over the past two days, with the doors left wide open to generate a breeze, has been on the idea of ‘place making’.

Place-making is a buzzword in the world of housing and planning. It centres on the old-fashioned idea that if we are going to build thousands more houses over the coming years, then they had better be in places that people will want to live in: places routed in appealing communities.

Or in the words of Manchester City Council chief executive Joanne Roney: “We are not about buildings here [in Manchester]. We are about homes and people. Places are nothing without people.”

Place-making requires excellent planning that takes into consideration the myriad needs and requirements of a community. It requires a joined up and macro-view of an area and looks decades into the future to anticipate challenges and opportunities.

For example, the number of people living with dementia is expected to rise by one million in the next decade, so the need to design age-friendly homes and places will become essential.

“Poor housing costs the NHS £624m a year, but if we design homes where people fall less then we will save the NHS money,” Sarah Weir of the Design Council told the conference, citing a 2015 report from the Building Research Establishment.

Ms Weir added: “Health needs to be an intrinsic part of the [design process]. Design is not just about how places look, it’s how they’re managed right through to the future.”

Yet despite the uplifting speeches on the hopefulness of the future, the reality in the planning sector remains stark.

Kate Henderson, incoming chief executive of the National Housing Federation and outgoing chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, said planning is currently in a “bad place”.

“Officers are very demoralised. They’ve been delivering some pretty rubbish places that they’re not proud of for years, but that’s not because of planning - that’s because of a lack of planning,” Ms Henderson said.

Great place-making requires planners with great skills. Those people have historically been put off by the salaries offered by many local authorities. When asked by LGC what needed to change in the sector to change this, Ms Roney and Ms Henderson sounded the following important warnings.

Ms Roney said: “If there’s something I’m worried about in terms of the pace [of building] it’s the skills shortage. There is increasingly concern [in the sector] and we should all speak up louder about that.”

Ms Henderson agreed, saying: “Change starts with the leadership at the centre of government to recognising that if we’re going to deliver these houses we’re going to need strong partnerships and a clear direction of travel.”

England has a housing crisis. The word ‘crisis’ has been written on the boards here in Manchester and has been spoken about at almost every event. However, it hasn’t been the case that all sessions have sought to tackle the central problem.

“Radical lasting reform [in planning] is necessary if more homes are to be built,” said Sarah Weir.

Building the communities the government wants requires planners, but that particular piece of writing has yet to make it onto the boards.

by Robert Cusack, reporter.

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