10 August 2015
Leading property professionals in Coventry & Warwickshire came together to discuss and debate the sub-regional economy and the factors affecting its growth. This report is a brief summary of the debate.
The politics of planning and the power of nimbies
The biggest single challenge facing the property sector in Coventry and Warwickshire remains the planning process. The process is perceived as expensive and time-consuming, presenting a significant commercial risk to developers.
The Government’s “more for less” agenda appears to be unhelpful in ensuring our local authorities have the right resources to deal with planning matters at the right level.
Local authorities are viewed as being imbued with a risk-averse culture that means planning officers are reluctant to make recommendations to planning committees with fully exploring every potential issue, despite their experience and expertise. They are, however, seen to be fair and knowledgeable, ultimately making sensible recommendations to the planning committees.
At the same time nimbies are getting better and better at deploying tactics that slow down if not block new developments; if the process is too slow developers pull out and look for easier sites. This attitude means that Coventry and Warwickshire is missing a number of economic growth opportunities from investors, local and international, who wish to do business here in the region.
Nimbies raise issues ranging from rare local wildlife to flood risks and developers are then forced to obtain a whole array of specialist reports, submitted as part of the planning application. This represents a commercial risk; developers commission the reports with no knowledge as to whether or not they are likely to get planning permission. Instead, planning officers should establish if there is any substance to the nimbies’ arguments before calling for specialist reports. If the nimbies case is believed to be weak planning permission could be granted subject to the outcome of such reports rather than demanding the reports as part of the submission. This pragmatic approach would greatly reduce the commercial risk at the same time as safe-guarding real local issues.
Compounding these challenges is the approach of councilors, who are perceived to make partial, highly politicized decisions. Without a good planning reason, councillors block applications that may be positive for the wider area but unpopular locally in the expectation they will be approved on appeal. Councillors are then able to say to their electorate they did all that was possible. For developers this means a long, drawn-out and expensive process. A stronger business voice in the planning process would help to tackle this issue, as would calling on politicians to explain and justify their decisions.
This approach has blocked developments in the greenfield. This may seem appropriate but there is little if any brownfield development space left within Coventry, which means greenfield developments are the only option for growth.
Local authority boundaries, which are essentially just lines on a map, are constricting growth.
Coventry, along with South Warwickshire, has developed almost every piece of brownfield space. To grow economically the city needs to expand beyond its boundary but it is being stopped from doing so by the planning decisions of neighbouring authorities. A more co-operative approach is needed, in which local authorities collaborate to economic benefit of all.
Closed for business?
Developers are looking for good development opportunities but some may be turning away from Coventry and Warwickshire, heading to parts of the country perceived to have a more positive attitude.
There is concern Coventry and Warwickshire is seen to be ‘closed for business’. Cuts mean there are fewer and fewer planning and conservation officers in post, making it harder for local authorities to respond positively and proactively. There is also a belief that the solution-oriented attitude found in places like Leicestershire is absent from Coventry and Warwickshire.
There is plenty of opportunity for developers in the Coventry and Warwickshire sub-region but it is not easy for them to access it, holding back the local economy.
A strategic vision
To support economic growth an ambitious, long-term strategic vision is needed; one that looks at least 15 years ahead, is unconstrained by artificial boundaries and views Coventry and Warwickshire in the broadest sense. The likely demand for housing and commercial development needs to be identified and transport links must be considered. For example it is necessary to rebalance the housing stock; 10% of homes in Coventry are detached compared to 43% in Nuneaton. This imbalance means people move out of Coventry to Solihull and villages like Balsall Common to get the aspirational housing they want.
In contrast, Rugby is seen to be aggressive in supporting development, allowing the town to expand towards the M6.
Facilitating investment in Coventry
As part of the long-term vision, property experts argue that Coventry City Council must adopt a new approach to its assets if it is to facilitate investment.
Following the Second World War Coventry City Council re-developed the city centre, selling 99-year leases to developers. Those leases are now not long enough to support investment. Naturally the City Council must extract ‘best value’ from these assets but its consequent reluctance to sell new long-term leases or the freeholds to key industrial estates and the areas surrounding the city centre means new development on the land is effectively blocked, hampering economic growth. The constraints of long leases running down on the industrial estates are the greatest peril. The estates of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are in desperate need of reinvestment but this is not possible where there is just 50-70 years left on the least. In tandem, JLR, The London Taxi Company etc are booming and there is a real shortage of good workshops and warehouses for suppliers.
Investment is needed to turn the city centre into an attractive night-time and weekend economy but with easier development opportunities elsewhere in Warwickshire and beyond a change in the near future is unlikely.
Preservation vs conservation
While property experts are concerned about buildings that arguably do not warrant the status of being listed, the real issue is the attitude of conservation officers. Buildings should be allowed to evolve with uses relevant to today rather than be preserved, their uses rigidly fixed at the time they were built.
Leamington town centre must react to the opportunity
Leamington has a tendency to resist its high student population, ignoring the benefits it brings. Funders, however, see the value of the student pound and want to invest in accommodation for students. Leamington should be more proactive in capitalising on the potential offered by the student population.
A scarcity of talent
As with other sectors in the region, property is facing a challenging skills shortage. There are not enough qualified architects and surveyors and building trades skills in demand. The scarcity of qualified and registered valuers is really beginning to show, particularly now the banks are willing to lend.
The rural economy
There are a number of issues that affect the rural economy in Warwickshire:
Diversity in property
There are few women in the property sector beyond areas such as legal and financial services. There is a view that women perceive property agency (buying and selling) to be male oriented.