DevAssist: National Property Development under a Labour government

Paul Addison, Managing Director of DevAssist, has written an article on national property development under a Labour government.

For 35 years, I have been involved in the development industry, and always at the front end. By that I mean acquiring the raw, and increasingly rare, commodity that is land, and by that, I mean land that can actually be developed.

It has been my role to forecast what is likely to gain some traction in the planning system, both in the short and long term. Predicting where development is going to take place is not quite the dark act people think it is. Nor does it involve envelopes filled with cash (although this is not strictly true. I will save that for another article best placed somewhere like Private Eye).

I have created those sites that increase the blood pressure of community groups that think we are concreting over the countryside. The public are quite ambivalent towards development, unless it’s in their community or worse, next door.

Despite construction being one of the largest employers in the country our fellow residents hate change with a passion that in my experience is demonic. The level of hatred towards change will bring the pitchforks out quicker than a protesting Frenchman.

My next prediction is that Labour will win the next election. Well, it’s just a hunch!! 

So, what would a Labour government mean for planning in England and Wales? Keir Starmer has for once stated his position on this. He has recently said that we will build 1,500,000 homes in his first five years. Oh no, you won’t! I am more likely to fall pregnant than we see that happen. I am not demeaning his enthusiasm but like every wannabe PM, or come to think of it any politician, they start with an overinflated opinion of their ability and then they realise they have none. We can’t build that number more for a multitude of reasons.

There are many barriers to development, the first of which is policy. So first you must find some land that either complies with local policies for development, or can comply within a reasonable period of time (in the development world reasonable can mean 20 years). Then despite it complying with those policies you must then run this proposal past the planning officers who about 99% of the time will argue that it doesn’t. It really is ‘the computer says no’.

After many months, sometimes years, you then submit an application that has to go before the locally-elected planning committee that were probably responsible for agreeing to the policies that you are again being judged by. They will say that you are concreting over the countryside and what an abhorrent and despicable person you are for profiteering at the expense of the many rare species that happen to live on this piece of land, and coincidentally every other site I have found. So, they refuse it and then you go off to the planning inspectorate where you have a 1-in-3 chance of having your appeal allowed. Despite many parties being in the control of government and desiring to build more houses this stat has not changed.

So, my next great prediction of what is likely to happen if Labour wins is nothing. Plans might be renamed, and some departments might also change their name but at the coal face – nada.

I have seen fluctuations in the provision of housing but nothing that even gets us close to what we need. Throughout my whole career we have bounced between 150,000 and 250,000 per year and in truth that is all the industry can provide.

Let me give you a comparison.

Let’s cure the NHS and come up with a system that snuffles up the backlog. The only way we can do that is by employing more doctors and nurses, and getting rid of the people that stop them from doing just that. Well, it’s the same in housebuilding. We just don’t have the people, whether they be the architects, ecology consultants, engineers, brick layers or carpenters. And Brexit didn’t help either.

Ask your business to suddenly double its output over a short period of time and see how quickly your hair looks like mine (I’m bald). The system can’t cope with more and would need investment over a longer period of time to do that, in fact longer than most parties remain in power.

Release the land bank I hear you say. Well, that’s another myth. Why would a developer invest money go through the awful hassle of getting planning permission and choose to sit on their hands and gamble on prices going up. Inflation is not a business model and developers do not choose to gamble on their being a positive economy over the 5 or 10 years.

They may have land caught in the system awaiting various approvals or legal agreements, or even funding, but they don’t sit on their hands out of choice. They would rather build out and put their profits back into the next project.

So more of the same I am afraid.

We will have the central government saying we must build more and the local government staying not here. Notwithstanding that we will still see green fields released for development and more angry locals shouting at people like me.


Written by Paul Addison, Managing Director of DevAssist


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