Why development needs to focus more on dialogue

Alex Robinson, Director of Development, Strategic Land for Grosvenor Britain & Ireland shared an article with Estates Gazette discussing the need for transparency to drive the quality, quantity and pace of new development.

The planning white paper has given our industry a lot to think about, but not a lot of time to do so. The government’s ambitious timetable means that by the end of this parliament we are set to have seen a radical overhaul of the current system.

The government’s objectives are worthy – a more streamlined, transparent system that drives up the quality, quantity and pace of new development, supporting economic growth and tackling the housing crisis. However, these goals are also complex and potentially conflicting: quality and speed have not always been easy partners.

As the proposals are brought forward we need to make sure that these potential trade-offs are understood, and that the new system does not simply widen the gulf of mistrust and misunderstanding that already exists between the development sector and the public.

Building bridges

The white paper itself cites the issue of trust as a major impetus for reform, drawing on Grosvenor’s own research from 2019. The numbers aren’t good – just 2% of the public said they trusted developers when planning for large-scale development and only 7% trusted local authorities. With some commentators already calling the white paper a “developers’ charter”, we need to ensure that change addresses, not exacerbates, the problem.

But fighting the industry’s corner will be harder in a scenario where formal engagement is set to be diminished. The white paper’s emphasis on local plans and zoning shifts the burden of consultation onto councils, with outline permission conferred automatically for sites within growth areas where policy conditions are met.

It is difficult to see how the hyperlocal needs and character of different communities will be comprehensively captured through a rapid local plan process – targeted at just 30 months – especially given pressure on local authority resources. Yet it is the detail of individual sites that most people care about. Front-loading consultation into the local plan risks divorcing our sector from the local communities we are building for; the trade-off for an easier consent will be that it is harder to demonstrate the value of our work and that we are accountable.

Making the national local

A more streamlined planning system strengthens the case for a master developer model which can translate policy into success on the ground, overseeing promotion, design and delivery through a coordinated programme.

The most visible outcome of the model is in design. While the new regime will set design codes at a national and regional level, it is local interpretation that ensures communities establish distinct identities and a sense of place.

We have been using design codes on our master development sites for more than a decade – from Trumpington Meadows on the edge of Cambridge to Barton Park in Oxfordshire. They can create coherence without uniformity, setting out clear parameters that housebuilders can follow. Critically, though, they must be site-specific and they must be informed by local people.

Taking time to establish these site-specific design codes after local plan approval may not be strictly necessary under the planning reform, but it will remain a key differentiator of successful schemes. And yet there is precious little guidance or experience out there. Central government’s National Model Design Guide says almost nothing about community involvement in setting local design codes.

So we all have a lot to learn, and this principle of local interpretation doesn’t apply just to design, but to a range of complex success criteria: delivering social value; achieving net zero; supporting biodiversity; and fostering health and social mobility.

Our position is that while the statutory need for engagement might be set to change, exemplary development can only ever be achieved through dialogue. We still need honest conversation, where the trade-offs of development are openly debated and accounted for. It’s a model Grosvenor has enshrined in our new community charter, called Positive Space, and something we won’t change regardless of national policy.

This article was originally published for Estates Gazette.

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