In the third interview of our Southern Gateway series, Adam O’Brien, Managing Director of Metis Homes discusses the need to shake up the planning process, to ensure development can continue within the region.
“Can the house numbers be sustained under current market conditions to give 300,000 new homes in the south per year? The short answer to that is no, they cannot,” says Adam O’Brien, Managing Director of Metis Homes.
“That’s down to the planning system more than the market though, in my view. The problem is a combination of under-resourcing in local authorities, which is brought about by poor funding and lack of real incentive to start with, and equally no effective sanction if statutory time frames are not met.
“A planning application is submitted and if it is properly, professionally and thoroughly assembled (which is the developer’s responsibility), the local authority should accordingly determine it within 13 weeks. If they don’t, there is no real recourse apart from an appeals process, which itself is long winded and not conducive to delivering homes efficiently. That means planning processes can easily get delayed by several months, if not years, longer than they should be and that is a substantial problem.
“I would introduce a measure whereby if planning applications are not determined in the time that they should be, they are deemed approved unless the developer has not dealt with something adequately. I think that would help but again only if local authorities have enough resource to deal with applications effectively to begin with. The same should apply for discharging planning conditions, which is one of the key reasons why developments can’t start as quickly as developers would like, even though they already have planning permission.
“On the demand side, what kick-started the market in 2012/13 was the Help to Buy scheme. That’s been a very important stimulus to the market ever since. When times are tough, which they certainly are now given the political uncertainty, that scheme, or something like it, has got to stay in place.”
As well as rising construction costs, the availability of skilled workers is a key factor for the future of housebuilding, Adam believes: “This is already an issue but will, I am sure, become worse if we go out of Europe and there’s no robust policy for free movement. A lot of the construction workforce is not from Britain. We have already seen that dwindle to an extent, given the spectre of Brexit that has been hanging over us ever since the referendum. I only see that getting worse if we do indeed exit the EU in a disorderly fashion.
“Going forward, apprenticeships are vital – there needs to be more of this to encourage more youngsters to get into the industry. It is a key issue and something that needs to be nurtured and cultivated. We need bright young minds, that’s for sure.”
Knowing the community
Hampshire-based Metis Homes was created in 2008 and builds up to 75 bespoke homes each year. Key drivers of the business are a values-based approach and attention to quality over quantity, says Adam. Another core part of the company’s strategy is customer service and consulting with communities.
“There is no point in hiding behind a planning application. You need to give everyone in the local community and key local stakeholders a chance to talk to you about what you’re proposing in an open forum. More often than not you’ll learn valuable things.
“Various things come out of the communication process. You will find what that local community needs. Consulting at an early stage means one can weave such requirements into design and/or seek to apply the financial contributions, that every developer needs to make in any new development, to a particular local cause. It’s all about understanding what’s important to the local community and all of that comes up at consultation.”
Overall, the region has a bright future, Adam believes: “I think the south is trying to take full advantage of the assets that it has, and I come back to the fundamental point of the planning system needing to be streamlined to allow that to happen. I do think that the infrastructure is essentially there in the south and we are quite lucky to be where we are in this part of the country. There is a lot of potential.”