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Will “all of life” communities make us happier and rebuild the UK economy?

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Construction contractors, engineers, architects and zero-carbon experts should be at the heart of the UK’s planning reform so that the Prime Minister’s good intentions don’t backfire. There is a call for all projects to embrace the lessons learned during the pandemic’s lockdown: the economy thrives when there’s a sense of community where we live, work, shop and play.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is determined to keep his shakeup of the UK’s planning reform intact, yet constituents are voting with their feet in some parts of the country, such as Chesham and Amersham.

The opening of more land to housebuilding in the South of England, for example, is seen by some as a free-for-all new build scheme that leaves little say from local communities on the impact of new housing estates, which on average include hundreds of homes.

The PM has responded to the by-election loss in Chesham and Amersham by claiming there was “misunderstanding” about the reforms, the Financial Times reported.

“What we want is sensible plans to allow development on brownfield sites. We’re not going to build on greenbelt sites, we’re not going to build all over the countryside,” said the Prime Minister.

According to the Financial Times, although the reforms are largely supported by Conservative MPs in the north and midlands of England, Johnson faces a mutiny from those in southern counties — including prominent figures such as his predecessor Theresa May.

“The rebellion, which is being organised by Theresa Villiers, the former environment secretary, is thought to include around 50 MPs. The planning rebels are not only unhappy about the prospect of more housebuilding but also the proposed use of a computer algorithm to decide how many homes should be absorbed by each area. Although ministers have since had the algorithm tweaked to deliver a higher proportion of the new homes in urban areas, it has failed to neutralise the rebellion,” the FT stated in a report.

Could newbuild targets backfire on SME builders?

When it comes to the UK’s zero-carbon environment targets, are SME builders prepared? And could going along with the reforms actually hurt them financially if not in line with environment targets?

More than 100 business leaders have warned Boris Johnson earlier this month in a letter issued by the UK Green Building Council that his plans to reform the planning system in England could risk opening up protected land for development and may leave the UK in breach of legally-binding environmental targets. 

The letter was sent on behalf of FTSE 100 bosses, academics and sustainability experts, who collectively expressed that the proposals did not go far enough to ensure environmental objectives would be met.

“Any land allocated for growth and development should be compatible with achieving the UK’s net zero target, and the ambition to restore nature in line with the objectives of the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Environment Bill. Embedding objectives for energy efficiency, zero-carbon energy, and climate resilience upfront makes good economic sense, with cost-savings gained by ensuring both buildings and places are designed to be energy efficient, zero-carbon
ready and climate resilient from the start,” said the letter.

SME builders: how will planning reform impact them?

Arguably, the current system has shown itself to be unfavourable to small businesses. The proportion of new home building they lead on dropping drastically from 40% 30 years ago to just 12% in 2020, according to a government press release.

Recent studies show smaller firms feel the complexities of the planning process and its associated risks, delays and costs are the key challenges they face in homebuilding.

The Housing Secretary issued a statement in August 2020 that said the “overhaul of the country’s outdated planning system” will aim to be a major boost to SME builders currently cut off by the planning process.

According to Housing Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, “the complex planning system has been a barrier to building the homes people need; it takes 7 years to agree local housing plans and 5 years just to get a spade in the ground.”

Could SME builders and the construction, architect and engineer contractors they hire become the instigators of change and take advantage of empty commercial property begging to be repurposed? With the work-from-home trend being embraced by companies large and small, would residential or community-based mixed-use properties be a better option than solely office or retail space?

Mixed-use with a community feel could feed local businesses of urban, suburb and parts of rural towns. Converting retail space into an engaging leisure offer is one option. Rebuilding it as an office or residential space (or both) is another, according to a report by the international estate agency, Savills.

“The most successful projects are likely to be those that emphasise social value, taking a whole-place perspective that includes social spaces, ‘blended living’ and offer convenience for people keen to minimise travel.


“Although this approach can be at odds with the notion of single property asset classes, the most exciting developments are appearing from those landlords who are willing to adapt their financial and asset models to mixed-use, while embracing long-term sustainable development, which can reap financial rewards too,” said the report.

The trend is taking off in other markets, including Australia, where mall owners including Vicinity and Scentre are converting shopping centres to incorporate offices, hotels, apartments, transport hubs and even childcare to create an ‘all of life’ destination.

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