Accelerated development: do Simplified Planning Zones work?

The Hillington Park SPZ has accelerated a number of developments, including a “motorbike village”.

by Donna Gardiner

A simplified planning zone (SPZ) is a designated area where the need to apply for planning permission for certain types of development is removed so long as the development complies with a range of pre-specified conditions.

Although the SPZ concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea has never really taken off, and there are very few SPZs in the UK.

However, in the last 12 months there have been some signs of renewed interest in the concept.  As part of the current review of the planning system, the Scottish Government has shown considerable enthusiasm for the potential of SPZs to address the housing crisis and support economic development.

In their most recent position statement, they state:

Zoning has potential to unlock significant areas for housing development, including by supporting alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build. This could also support wider objectives including business development and town centre renewal

Indeed, the Scottish Government recently committed £120,000 to help four local authorities develop pilot SPZs for housing development in Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire.

There are also plans underway for the creation of two new SPZs in Scotland.  In Aberdeenshire, councillors have agreed that planning officers should begin the statutory process for the creation of an SPZ for industrial and commercial activity in the south of Peterhead. The SPZ aims to strengthen the town’s position as a key strategic investment location, and complement work to regenerate the town centre.

At the other end of the country, in the Scottish Borders, a consultation has recently closed on the creation of an SPZ in Tweedbank – the new Central Borders Business Park.  The scheme aims to capitalise on the opportunities brought about by the Borders Railway, and is likely to receive additional funding as part of the recently agreed Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

While there is enthusiasm for the Tweedbank SPZ, East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullerton notes: “The question of the viability of this project has to be recorded. Enthusiasm is one thing, but evidence of it being viable is the key.”

Viability

So what is the evidence on the viability of SPZ’s?  In theory, SPZs can offer a number of benefits for both the developer and the planning authority, including:

  • removal of the ‘planning hurdle’ and associated fees
  • faster decision making and accelerated development
  • greater certainty for developers and stakeholders
  • simplified planning control
  • reduces the need for repetitive planning applications
  • saves time and costs both for organisations and the local planning authority
  • offers more flexibility than a masterplan
  • attracts investment
  • can help to promote the reuse of existing space

However, while there are equivalent mechanisms in other countries, there are currently only two other operational SPZs in Scotland – Hillington Industrial Estate and Renfrew High Street.  They are widely considered a success, with Scottish Planner concluding that:

Both projects are a good example of how planning professionals, working with commercial stakeholders, can cooperate successfully in finding new ways to encourage sustainable economic growth.

Case study: Glasgow City Council and Hillington

In 2014, the first SPZ in Scotland in 20 years – the Hillington Park SPZ – was established by a partnership between Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council.

The award-winning SPZ allows the landowner to increase space at the site by around 85,000 square metres, as long as proposals conform to the conditions set out in the SPZ scheme.

The SPZ is valid for 10 years.  So far, it has triggered around 20,000 square metres of development and attracted around £20 million pounds of investment.  Not only has it helped to promote the reuse of existing space, such as the obsolete Rolls Royce plant, it claims to have given the area a commercial advantage in attracting inward investment.

Jamie Cumming, the director of Hillington Park, said: “Our SPZ status means that new developments like the ‘motorbike village’ with Ducati Glasgow, Triumph Glasgow and West Coast Harley-Davidson as well as Lookers plc’s new Volvo and Jaguar showrooms and our own Evolution Court manufacturing and logistics development can be accelerated with an anticipated build time of just 10 months.”

Case study: Renfrew Town Centre

Building on the success of the SPZ at Hillington, in 2015 Renfrewshire council created the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ Scotland’s first SPZ focusing on town centres.  Renfrew is a “small, but vibrant” town centre. The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle.

According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Challenges

However, SPZs are not without their challenges.  These include the initial costs of establishing the SPZ, which can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the scheme.  There is also the need to ensure that the SPZ is ‘future-proofed’ – so that it is still relevant throughout the duration of its life (usually 10 years).  It is also important that those establishing an SPZ address the perception held by many that the relaxed planning rules associated with SPZs will result in poor design or compromise environmental impact.

Future directions

In addition to the pilot SPZs, the Scottish Government has commissioned Ryden (in association with Brodies) to undertake research to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present.  The research will inform the Government’s final proposals.

The research team at Idox will be following the revival of SPZs in Scotland with interest.

Can they fix it? Reactions to the white paper on housing

By James Carson

After a delay of several months, the government’s housing white paper was finally published last week.  Its title – “Fixing our broken housing market” – makes clear that England’s housing market requires radical reform. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid underlined this when presenting the paper to MPs:

“We have to build more, of the right homes in the right places, and we have to start right now.”

The key proposals

The white paper contains 29 policy proposals. These include:

  • developers will be forced to use-or-lose planning permission within two years
  • local authorities will be required to keep an up-to-date local plan to meet housing demand
  • an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities
  • developers will be encouraged to avoid “low-density” housing where land availability is short
  • the time allowed between planning permission and the start of building will be reduced from three to two years
  • incentives for build to let
  • the Green Belt will continue to be protected, and may only be built on “in exceptional circumstances”

In addition, the paper proposes the establishment of a £3bn fund to help smaller building firms challenge major developers, and a “lifetime ISA” to help first-time buyers save for a deposit. The white paper also confirmed government plans to ban letting agency fees for tenants.

The paper proposes placing a cap of £80,000 (£90,000 in London) on starter homes (new-build homes for first-time buyers between 23 and 40 years old and sold at least 20% below market value). And it signals that 10% of all new homes should be starter homes (the current requirement is 20%).

Reaction to the proposals: the politicians

The communities secretary described the white paper’s proposals as “bold” and “radical”, but some responses have suggested that the new strategy will fail to meet the challenge of England’s housing crisis.

Describing the plans as “feeble beyond belief”, Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey observed: “This white paper is not a plan to fix the housing crisis. And it will do nothing to reverse seven years of failure on housing we’ve seen since 2010. There are 200,000 fewer home-owners, homelessness has doubled, and affordable house-building has slumped to a 24-year low.”

The Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the policies were a “slap in the face for the millions of people in this country desperate for bold plans to reduce rents and make their housing affordable”.

On build to rent, Tom Copley, Labour’s London Assembly housing spokesperson welcomed the shift in focus from home ownership, but was concerned about the scope of the proposals:  “…whilst the promise of longer tenancies is welcome, its bearing will be miniscule unless it is extended to existing rental properties, where the vast majority of renters actually live.”

Reaction: architects, housing bodies and builders

Simon Henley, of architects Halebrown, welcomed the paper’s proposals to help smaller building firms challenge major developers – “More and smaller housebuilders will bring variety and inspiration.”  But he added that “reasonably priced land is vital to the equation for great homes.”

Alex Ely of the Mae architecture practice was disappointed with the continuing restrictions on building on the Green Belt, observing that “We know that just a 1km ring of Green Belt from inside the M25 would yield enough land for a generation of building at current rates.”

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing said the package of measures demonstrates a commitment to tackle the housing crisis. “However our concern is that much housing remains out of reach for a significant number of people and we would like to see the government back up the package of measures with additional funding and resource in the budget.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation welcomed plans to bring forward more developable land: “If we are to build more homes, we need more land coming through the system more quickly.”

Reaction: homeowners and renters

Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent argued that the white paper failed to offer renters anything of substance. “Renters on stagnant wages need homes that cost no more than a third of their income, not ones let at 80% of the market rent, with a sticker that says ‘affordable’.”

Meanwhile, Paula Higgins, chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, called for more action and fewer words. “It’s difficult to see how these measures will enable the government to meet its target of one million new homes by 2020.”

Reaction: the LGA and Shelter

Speaking for the Local Government Association (LGA), housing spokesman Councillor Martin Tett noted that the white paper contains signs that the government is listening to councils on how to boost housing supply and increase affordability. But he called for more support to enable local authorities to tackle the housing shortage: “…councils desperately need the powers and access to funding to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes. This means being able to borrow to invest in housing and to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from properties sold through Right to Buy to replace homes and reinvest in building more of the genuine affordable homes our communities desperately need.”

Writing on the organisation’s blog, Shelter’s Steve Akehurst described the white paper as a step, rather than a leap in the right direction:

“Overall, the shift in emphasis – towards tackling big developers and dysfunctions in the land market, towards making renting more stable, and delivering more affordable homes – is really welcome, and there are some good first steps to making them a reality. In reality more will be needed to deliver upon these lofty ambitions in full… But today is a good start.”

The next steps

The government is consulting on the planning proposals set out in the first two chapters of the white paper, with a closing date of 2 May 2017. After considering the responses, the government will decide on how to take its strategy forward.

As the paper concludes, millions of people who can’t afford to buy or rent already know that the housing market is broken. Fixing it will be a job not only for the government, but for local authorities, developers, housing associations and local communities.

Time will tell whether the proposals set out in the white paper are radical enough to help the homeowners and tenants of tomorrow.


You may also find these blog posts on housing of interest:

Hacking against homelessness: how technology is rising to the housing challenge

Startup Stock Photos

Our recent “Ideas in practice” briefing for our members highlighted the difficulties in calculating the numbers of homeless people. And, as we’ve previously reported, the official figures don’t reflect the full scale of the problem.

But there’s little doubt that homelessness continues to affect large numbers of people. Worldwide, more than 1.6 billion people are estimated to have inadequate shelter. And figures published last month suggest that in the UK homelessness is a long way from being beaten.

Local and central government, along with homelessness charities are working hard to tackle the problem, but new approaches are needed to prevent and address the issue. One of these is the idea of hackathons.

Applying technology to help the homeless

Hackathons are collaborative challenges where teams of skilled technology developers (or ‘hackers’) compete to solve a given problem or demonstrate innovative use of technology under a tight time constraint.

They originated in Silicon Valley, and have often been used by technology companies such as Google and Apple to develop commercial ideas. The “like” button on Facebook was one such idea to emerge from a hackathon in 2007.

However, social enterprises and charities have also been exploring the possibilities of hackathons, and some have specifically focused on homelessness. Recent examples emerging from the US include:

  • A 2014 hackathon where teams of digital developers and designers got together to brainstorm, prototype and pitch ideas on tackling homelessness in Seattle. The winning idea centred on a system to allow homeless people to digitise personal identity documents.
  • An app developed by coders in New York to help keep homeless people off the streets and give them the care that they need.
  • A weekend-long hackathon in Tampa, Florida, which developed a smartphone app to help the homeless population more easily find resources such as shelters and soup kitchens, and a web-based survey to help calculate the scale of homelessness in Tampa.

UK hackathons

The hackathon idea has also taken hold in the UK. In 2012, Westminster City Council brought together a group of digital developers and housing charities to apply their minds and skills to tackling homelessness.  The stakeholders set out their objectives, challenging the developers to build something useful and accessible, either for homeless people themselves, for the charities and local authorities supporting them, or for members of the public:

  • Homeless Link wanted to offer people a means to act when they see a rough sleeper, to prompt support services, and to inform people of what is offered to rough sleepers locally.
  • The Single Homeless Project (SHP) charity was looking for a way of enabling its clients to be inspired and motivated to use digital technology and to learn how to use it in a cost effective way.
  • Westminster City Council highlighted the need for rough sleepers to be shown they were valued members of the community.

Among the ideas to emerge from that first hackathon were:

  • an app allowing the public to submit information about people they see who are sleeping rough
  • an application connecting Homeless Link’s data with geo-location data to identify the nearest suitable service for a homeless person to contact
  • a personal organizer for homeless people to log their contact with government agencies and track their applications for benefits

The homelesshack website has continued to report on how these and other applications have been developed and updated.

In April this year, the Business Rocks festival in Manchester included a homelessness hackathon that challenged participants with the question: ‘How Can Tech Solve Global Homelessness?’ Contestants were asked to focus on mental health service solutions through social media, and were made aware of the everyday challenges and systematic needs of the homeless and most vulnerable, in the UK and across the world.

The winning idea was an app to encourage, support and help find work opportunities for homeless and vulnerably housed people. Other pitches included a website to connect homeless people with relevant support services, an app to facilitate crowdfunding for homeless support projects and a remote postal service for people with no fixed address.

And this coming weekend, teams of coders, designers and housing professionals will take part in a hackathon in Edinburgh. They aim to come up with creative solutions to support people facing homelessness or poor housing.

Making it happen?

As these examples demonstrate, there is no shortage of good ideas on how technology can be leveraged in the cause of addressing homelessness. It remains to be seen whether these imaginative and innovative solutions can be developed to tackle one of the world’s greatest social problems.


Further reading

Rebuilding a community without bringing down the house: an alternative to demolishing ‘sink estates’

In January, the prime minister outlined plans for a £140m development programme in England that he said would improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged people living in social housing estates with high levels of deprivation.

“A new Advisory Panel will help galvanise our efforts and their first job will be to build a list of post-war estates across the country that are ripe for re-development, and work with up to 100,000 residents to put together regeneration plans. For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again. For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links.”

The proposal received a mixed response. Some commentators observed that demolishing the worst “sink estates” built during the 1960s and 1970s would free up much-needed land for new homes. Elsewhere, the head of the ResPublica think tank welcomed the chance to replace ugly estates with more attractive environments

Others criticised David Cameron’s idea as a form of “social cleansing”, claiming it raised the spectres of privatisation and gentrification. And Councillor Richard Lewis, executive member for regeneration, transport and planning on Leeds City Council challenged the prime minister’s view that the problem of ‘sink estates’ could be resolved by demolition.

“Through careful management of our housing funds and rental income we have managed to make significant investment in council housing. “I simply don’t recognise the language of ‘sink’ estates when it comes to Leeds and I don’t think we should write off entire areas and the people that live in them.”

After the storm, a dramatic turnaround

A recent New York Times report echoed the view that renovation of deteriorating housing estates can be more effective than demolition. The article reported on a 1970s housing estate on Long Island that had gone into decline after years of neglect. Crime, drugs and vermin were just some of the problems associated with the crumbling properties of the estate. Things got a great deal worse when Hurricane Sandy stormed into the estate in 2012, flooding many of the apartments and cutting off power and fresh water supplies.

The obvious next step would have been demolition. But instead of being torn down, the estate has undergone a remarkable transformation that astonished the newspaper’s reporter:

“The place is almost unrecognisable. Apartments are occupied once again. Hallways, kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems are refurbished; lobbies opened up with big windows; a floodwall installed; the landscaping upgraded, with a broad promenade to the beach; and leaky facades clad with new, waterproof, energy-efficient panels. Energy bills have dropped 30 percent.”

The turnaround is thanks to a partnership between developers, government and the local community. The new owners renovated the estate at a cost of $60m, but avoided having to raise the rents of longstanding tenants through subsidies from the federal government. The improvements raised property values, enabling the developers to rent out vacant apartments at market rates.

Lessons from Long Island

As in London, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in New York City. And – also as in London – subsidised public housing has largely given way to private developments for the super-rich. The New York Times reporter described the changes in his own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, and other parts of New York that were once home to low- and moderate-income residents:

“Now the Village is like a gated playground for runaway wealth. Subsidised apartments all across town are converting to market-rate rentals and condos faster than City Hall can build affordable units or preserve old ones. The city Housing Authority is broke. Its ageing properties face $17 billion in capital repairs.”

Some key factors played a part in the transformation of the Long Island estate:

  • Private development was made possible through tax incentives and other publicly financed programmes
  • The developers consulted a sceptical local community, earning its trust and building consensus
  • On-site management teams maintained oversight of the renovation project
  • Design features to save energy, improve the neighbourhood and enhance quality of life were built into the renovation process

Final thoughts

The $60m price tag for renovating a single estate in New York City suggests that the £140m earmarked for regenerating England’s 100 worst “sink estates” won’t be nearly enough, and may even have been downgraded. A month after the prime minister’s announcement, it emerged that the money set aside for the project will only be available in loan form to private sector developers.

And a warning of how badly off course the prime minister’s plan could go came from The Independent, which highlighted London’s Heygate Estate:

“Formerly one of the largest social housing projects in Europe it was home to thousands, a large number of whom disagreed with its nefarious depiction as problematic sink estate. Widely praised for its green spaces and innovative architectural design, many argued in favour of its refurbishment, but it was nevertheless ‘decanted’ and finally demolished last year to make way for largely private apartments.”

Perhaps addressing the needs of declining housing estates requires a more constructive approach than bringing in the wrecking ball.


Further reading from our blog on housing and regeneration

Learning from “Alcatraz” – the regeneration of the Gorbals
Empty homes…Britain’s wasted resource
Improving the built environment: how to tackle vacant and derelict buildings

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.