Ian George: How to ensure the “right to regenerate” proposals succeed

8 Mar

Cllr Ian George represents Coombe Hill Ward on Kingston-upon-Thames Council.

Robert Jenrick’s new ‘Right to Regenerate’ proposal aims to force the hand of public bodies who own much-needed unused and uncared for land, but who have no immediate plans to bring it back into use. People would have the right to purchase an empty property, unused garage, or parcel of land, and turn it into something positive for them and their community. Land would be sold by default, unless there is a ‘very compelling’ reason not to do so. The right seems to be aimed primarily at local residents who want to improve and regenerate their local area. This could mean Community Land Trusts, or simply a local resident who wants to redevelop and improve land adjoining their own property.

Empowering people to challenge the inefficient use of public sector land in their community certainly sounds positive. However, the new policy will not be successful unless it’s a simple process, limits risk for those seeking to take advantage of it, and doesn’t end up with strategic land being lost to investors who don’t actually develop and improve the land.

My initial concern is how a market price for the land will be arrived at. Land itself isn’t necessarily valuable, but becomes so once some sort of official guidance or planning approval has been granted.

As an individual, I could see this being a big obstacle to me proceeding. I could end up paying an inflated price for a plot of land that has taken into account the assumption that I could build to a certain density, only to be refused by the Council, who didn’t want to sell in the first place. Planning appeals are too slow, expensive, and unreliable, for all but the biggest developers.

Many Councils don’t have up to date Local Plans, and without some sort of outline approval being bought with the land, this might be enough to put off many local residents from taking the risk. Of course, it’s not just individuals and small local developers who need to be considered. If Councils end up being forced to sell land that becomes more valuable once planning approval has been received, then all council taxpayers end up losing out.

One way of proceeding could be for the purchaser to apply for planning approval prior to buying the land from the Council. For this to work, the prospective buyer would need some sort of guarantee that they would still have first refusal once planning approval has been gained.

Another way to remove some of the risk for a purchaser would be for them to buy and gain planning approval, then sell it on to a developer. This would need to be strictly controlled, otherwise long delays and even land-banking could occur.

Many councils around the country do own a lot of land that could be better used. Poor quality offices, unused buildings on the edges of sports grounds, and unused poor quality council estate garages come to mind. When I was the housing portfolio holder in Kingston upon Thames, we started redeveloping unused and outdated garages, with the agreement of the residents living on the estates. Many garages are too small, so are used for storage or left empty. Repurposing unused garages seems an obvious quick-win for councils.

The Lib Dems now run the Council and are starting to follow our lead. Yet not covering themselves in glory by the way they are going about it. Recently they rushed through planning approval for a nine-storey tower on the site of garages and a playground at the rear of a small Council owned estate. Little consultation was carried out, and the current residents will now face a future of car-parking mayhem and a far higher density of residents with reduced amenity and play space. Residents of Kingston upon Thames could reasonably conclude that council owned land gives no more protection from inappropriate development than it being owned and developed by some seemingly ‘greedy developers’.

News of yet another planning application in my borough is often greeted with dread and concern. Generally, local residents are well aware of the need for more housing, especially affordable housing. However, residents have rightfully become fed up with planning applications that are out of keeping with the area, and that use the type of imposed density targets that are more in keeping with inner-London boroughs than the green suburb that we all enjoy. I do wonder whether Right to Regenerate will work well here, and also every other city, town, or village in the country.

I certainly support the desired outcomes of an improved environment and more good quality housing. I’d love it to be a catalyst for change that will encourage individuals, small developers, and Community Land Trusts to make that a reality.

I can foresee some of the smaller sites in residential areas being developed by local residents through these new proposals. However, unless it’s made simple it will end up being the usual developers who take advantage, whether by buying the land and planning approval from the purchaser, or dealing with the Council direct. I suppose this will still have the desired effect of providing much needed housing, but developers will need to be prevented from land-banking the sites once ownership has switched.

This policy will not be seen as an improvement by those who live in the communities where these developments take place, unless they deliver good quality (and good looking) homes, open space, and the required infrastructure that goes along with it. Much of this will depend on the will and skill of local Councillors in producing and enforcing good quality Local Plans.

It may turn out that not as many individuals, small developers, and Community Land Trusts take advantage of the Right to Regenerate proposals, as had been hoped for. However, if it has the effect of giving some of the less enlightened councils and public bodies a wake-up call so that they plan ahead and proactively deal with their own disused land, then that’s surely a good thing.