Spring Statement 2019 - to deliver Hammond’s plan we need more planners

15 Mar 2019

Ion Fletcher, BPF Director of Policy (Finance), provides our latest blog, following the Spring Statement delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer

One of the messages that we have consistently conveyed to the government is that long term real estate investors need certainty regarding the future tax and regulatory environment and that the government should stop constantly tweaking the tax rules, as it has been wont to do over the past decade (see my blog Hyperfiscalité à la Britannique).

I am therefore delighted that this year’s Spring Statement was – as Treasury officials have been at pains to point out recently – mostly not a fiscal event. I say mostly because the Written Ministerial Statement accompanying the Chancellor’s speech still managed to set out no fewer than 27 items relating to tax, though many of these represent either work that was already underway (Structures and Buildings Allowance, Digital Services Tax) or are relatively niche (“Consultation on the use of diesel by private pleasure craft”, anyone?).

Instead, this year’s Spring Statement was devoted to ‘slaying the twin demons’ of low productivity and low wages. To tackle these, the Chancellor reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF), a £37bn pot that will be directed at improving the nation’s physical and digital infrastructure. There was a hint of even more money being made available in the case of an EU exit deal, with the Chancellor prepared to release some of his £15bn ‘contingency fund’ if an orderly Brexit is achieved.

All hugely welcome stuff. Sadly, the parlous state of many local authority planning teams – winners of the ‘largest per-head % reduction in spending since 2010’ award (see here) – means that translating visions of upgraded infrastructure into bricks and tarmac reality often takes far longer than it should do. It’s all very well making money available for renewing town centres and enabling infrastructure, but if planning teams up and down the country are not well enough resourced to process these ambitious spending plans, the government’s aspirations will remain just that.

Staying with planning, the Chancellor confirmed a new Permitted Development Right (PDR) to allow upward extension of existing buildings. The property industry has supported some PDRs in the past, not least office to residential, and will continue to support sensible reform in this area.

However, we are concerned that allowing building up on top of existing property, and allowing properties to be demolished and rebuilt, may not lead to well-planned places. Similarly, a PDR that allows hot food take-aways to be turned in to homes may lead to poor-quality development. What we really need is for local authorities to engage more actively in planning for adaptation. This involves having an up to date, forward-looking local plan, which is only possible with a properly resourced planning team.

The government also announced the upcoming publication of a ‘Future of Mobility – Urban Strategy’ paper, which will set out how to “put the UK at the forefront of mobility…responding to…transport technology…self-driving vehicles”. Exciting! Transformational! Except that none of it will happen unless…you guessed it – more planning resource.

That is why, ahead of the next Spending Review, which the Chancellor announced today will take place before the Summer Recess, we will be advocating for an increased settlement for local authority planning teams. If we are to see the new infrastructure and real estate development that this country needs to adapt to changing social and economic pressures, and raise productivity, it is crucial that we have a well-resourced and responsive planning function. Let’s Get Britain Planning!