Employment Land Crisis
There is ongoing concern that the UK is facing and fuelling a significant shortage of employment land. There looks to be broad consensus that the challenges are complex, including the overwhelming focus on housing which permeates the whole system; rapidly changing occupier needs and therefore the suitability of existing sites; a lack of supporting infrastructure; and a range of supply side/delivery constraints including the intentions of landowners and viability. In summary, there are both issues in the planning and policy arena, and with delivery.
The focus on housing is a central topic of discussion. Whilst it has been noted that the revised National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) itself gives strong weight to supporting economic growth and does not propose a bias towards housing, it is accepted that in practice and through other policy and action there is a clear emphasis on housing; and, as a result, there are clear negative unintended consequences for the delivery of employment land. For example City Deals, Growth Deals and other key funding and delivery-focused activity have been heavily centred around housing with often a much lesser focus on employment sites and premises.
The need for active public sector delivery also features highly. Over the last 15–20 years, what was English Partnerships, with a clear remit to deliver both employment and housing sites, has been steadily changed as it became the Homes and Communities Agency and now Homes England, to focus purely on housing. Examples of major sites that have historically been brought forward are frequently those supported through the Regional Development Agency and English Partnerships era, suggesting the loss of a public sector delivery focus is a real area of concern. Delivery of employment land is now such a concern in some areas that it features highly in some Local Industrial Strategies as one of the major priority needs. This is welcomed.
The sophistication of the planning debate around housing is noted as being far greater and better resourced by both public and private sectors than for employment, illustrated by engagement in employment matters at Local Plan Examinations. As an example, see the much clearer and better understood process of how to justify exceptional circumstances for greenbelt release for housing in comparison to employment. As a result, it is much harder to secure release of sites for economic and employment development.
There is significant concern as to the impact of Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) on the supply of employment premises, particularly in respect of potential extensions of these rights. Whilst there are some examples of positive impact, where secondary stock has been taken out of the market and development viability has improved, there are clear fears that allowing the wholesale redevelopment of employment sites for housing is a step too far.
The need to improve linkages between Local Plans and economic development aspirations is also a point of discussion. The revised NPPF is more explicit of the need for effective cooperation with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), and Strategic Economic Plans (SEPs) have become more realistic (as opposed to aspirational lobbying documents) as LEPs have matured. It is anticipated that this will enable much better alignment than was evident a few years ago when SEPs were effectively bid documents without the level of evidential rigour required of the plan making process.
A number of potential solutions have been called for as part of the ongoing discussion: How can we help solve the UK’s looming lack of employment land crisis?
- For the government to recognise that there is a problem and for the pendulum to swing back to a much more balanced position that does not disadvantage employment development. This needs to include much stronger messaging in support of employment development.
- For a stronger public sector focus on the use of public land and delivery support to enable employment sites. For example, the inclusion of an employment brief for Homes England to ensure there are sites to accommodate the jobs for residents of new homes. The provision of supporting infrastructure also needs to form part of this consideration.
- To improve the quality and consistency of employment monitoring so there is improved evidence on which to inform planning policy and decision-making.
- To consider the introduction of a five-year employment land supply approach, similar to that for housing, to ensure a ready supply of deliverable sites and much clearer evidence of need that could support greenbelt release.
- That there is no further broadening of PDRs to support the protection of existing employment supply.
This post has been adapted from an article that HJA Director Stuart Hardisty authored in March 2019 in his role as Board Member of the Institute for Economic Development (IED) leading on employment land issues.