There are a new of challenges developers face when looking to unlock land for development – and CLS Risk Solutions recently gathered some of the leading names in the industry to discuss how we can overcome these challenges through great planning, innovative solutions and collaboration.

One of those experts was David Morris, Planning and Operations Director at Catesby Estates, and CLS Risk Solution’s BMD Michael Grimwood spoke exclusively with David after the event…

MG: Catesby Estates are a strategic land promotion business based in the Midlands – tell us a little about the company and the work you do…

DM: As land promoters we work with landowners to bring land to the market with planning consent for housing, in order to deliver much needed high quality new homes.

Established over 20 years ago the business has six in-house specialist teams focused on land, planning, technical, design, public consultation and finance.  The business was purchased in 2015 by Urban&Civic plc, the leading Master Developer of large-scale strategic sites (3,000 homes plus) whilst our focus remains on delivering from 45 up to 3,000 new homes.

At no cost to the landowner we use our in-house expertise and financial resources to fund the promotion of the land through the planning process.  Once planning permission has been achieved the site is then sold for the highest possible return, therefore maximising the value of the land for the landowner.

What are the key things you’re looking for when you’re looking to work with landowners?

It’s very much about working in partnership and our landowners range from private individuals and family business owners to landed estates and trusts.  The UK planning system for residential developments can be complex and risky, requiring patience, an eye for detail and significant financial backing. We take on the risk and financial investment and look to maximise the residential development potential of the land. Landowners select us as their land promotion partner due to our established reputation, financial backing and track record in successfully delivering planning consents.

What makes a site attractive to work with?

It is never too early to start thinking about whether your land has development potential, and putting together a strategy for your land.  A site which is well situated in relation to existing development and established local facilities is key.  Our Technical Team carry out initial desktop studies taking into account possible issues such as access, transport, drainage and environmental implications all of which will be fed into the decision process of whether a site has residential development potential or not.

You have a first class reputation for bringing sites forward through the planning system, but obviously there’s a lot of talk about potential changes at present to planning regulations. Firstly, from your side, what are the big challenges you usually come across?

Part of the challenges we experience is the public perception of what the planning system can and can’t do. Objectors often raise issues that are not planning matters per se,  and are often issues that relate to a lack of investment in infrastructure from successive central Governments.

Churchill Home Insurance found that with an average of 2.2 objections to every application, and 870,000 planning application submitted since the start of 2017, this equates to 80 objections every hour over the past three years.

However, even assuming there are elements of double counting, this still means over 95% of the population don’t object to development.  Evidence from the Home Builders Federation (2015) found the huge positive impact the housing industry has on the economy;

• Supports 600,000 jobs;

• Contributes £19.2bn a year to the UK economy (compare to £8.5bn from farming for instance);

• Spends £5.5bn with suppliers, 90% of which stays in the UK;

• Generates £1.4bn per year in tax revenues;

• Provides 32,000 affordable homes per year, worth £2.3bn, built or financed by private housing building with a further £1bn paid to local authorities as a contribution for affordable housing.

One of my frustrations as a Town Planner working in this industry is the slow pace of investment in infrastructure, after the cheque has been signed by the developer.

I am always reminded of one particular meeting with a Parish Council whose first question after my presentation was “there are two housing sites in the town being built, the developers promised us money for our community hall, and we haven’t seen it. We don’t trust you or your industry”.

When I pointed out to them that the monies had been paid to the District Council some 2 years previously, they simply didn’t believe me. However, a couple of days later, I did receive a very polite phone call from the Parish Clerk stating that yes indeed the six figure sum had been received by the council and yes, the District council had sat on it for two years and not told the Parish. They were particularly grateful to me for pointing it out and we were successful in obtaining planning permission for our scheme.

And what changes would you make to the planning process – and why?

To  help support the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes by the mid-2020s, and to help stimulate the housing sector to enable the UK to accelerate on the road to recovery as it emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown I think the following changes need to be made:

  •  Ensure that central planning departments up and down the country are adequately resourced, and that monies generated from processing planning applications are ring fenced for planning departments;
  • Ensure that Local Planning Authorities  stick to a fixed timetable for local plan preparation and adoption to support the Government’s proposed target of having up-to-date plans in place by the end of 2023;
  • Revise Footnote 37 of NPPF to ensure that all LPAs undertake an objective review of their local plan at least every 5 years;
  • Supercharge incentives for local authorities to deliver the housing required so that all residents, existing and new, can benefit from better infrastructure and services;
  • Allocations in local plans should be viewed as deemed approvals and should only be required to obtain further consent for design and layout to ensure the proposals meet the objectives of the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission and current Design Guidance. These consents could be approved by the professional Officers and should not need to go in front of a planning committee;
  • Local plans should include ‘Reserve Sites’ (capable of delivering a meaningful proportion of the required planned need) as a matter of course which would be called upon if any Allocated Site failed to deliver or wider housing delivery targets were not being met.

For landowners interested in unlocking the true value of their site, and those who might be keen to speak to you – how does your business model and the partnership work?

Obtaining planning permission can be expensive, risky and challenging and requires patience and expertise, which is where Catesby Estates are able to assist.  At no cost to the landowner we use our in-house expertise and financial resources to fund the promotion of the land through the planning process.

Once planning permission has been achieved the site is then sold for the highest possible return, therefore maximising the value of the land.

We work in partnership with the landowner during the whole process and our return is based on a pre-agreed split of the sale proceeds.  We only get paid once the land is sold to a housebuilder, therefore our interests are very much aligned with that of the landowner.

Community engagement must be incredibly important in the work you do – how do you approach this to have such a great success percentage with your planning applications?

Local stakeholders play a significant role in the planning process and we recognise the importance of community engagement.  Our in-house expertise in marketing and communications means we start building relationships early on in the site promotion process.  We believe the key to our success is our ‘working together’ philosophy.  We are committed to delivering sensitively designed housing schemes tailored to fit the character of the local area and surrounding landscape.

We go that extra mile to engage and consult with stakeholders at every stage of the process, and this can involve meetings, workshops, events, exhibitions and increasingly online methods including webinars, meetings and surveys with residents and local groups, acknowledging the significant role they play within the planning process.

A big focus for you is helping to deliver affordable housing through the plans you put forward – on average what % of homes you help bring to market are affordable?  

We are passionate about helping solve the UK’s housing crisis, and giving young people the opportunity to take their first steps on the housing ladder.  We work with LPA’s to help deliver policy compliant levels of affordable housing and the average level of affordable housing across our sites currently stands at 34%. No Catesby site has provided less than the policy requirement for affordable housing.

Covid-19 has obviously brought around some big challenges, but also opportunities too. In terms of your business – how heavily has it impacted you and how have you reacted to the pandemic?

Our successful track record coupled  the backing of our parent company Urban&Civic  plc, which has a strong balance sheet and a high level of undrawn facilities, the bulk of which are Government backed, means we are in a stronger position than most.

Our priority has always been the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees, landowners, consultants and the wider general public.  We implemented a number of protocols across the business to safeguard our employees and landowners along with ensuring continuity of business operations including flexible working practices and the use of video conferencing facilities for meetings. 

We adapted well to our remote working practices with planning applications still being submitted and heard at planning committees and team meetings taking place as usual.  So, it was very much business as normal but with remote working protocols in place.  We also came together as a team to support each other with online coffee breaks, lunches and even cocktail and bingo hour!

What positive outcomes do you think it could have in the long-term for the built environment?

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are being urged to take urgent action to stimulate the housing sector to enable the UK to accelerate on the road to recovery as it emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown. The desire for well designed, good quality homes with access to public open space and within walking distance of local facilities such as schools and shops will be a priority. As consultation moves to a more ‘virtual’ platform I do hope that a younger, more diverse audience will start to engage with us in the industry and get involved in helping to solve the housing crisis.   

As a business we are determined to come through this period even stronger and well placed to bring land to the market for development to help lead Britain’s economic recovery.

Tell us a little about some of the developments and projects you’re currently working on and those you’re marketing for development?

The last few months have been extremely busy for us with four resolutions to grant being achieved, totalling151 acres, 1,154 homes and an average of 36% affordable housing across our sites at Boxford, Kenilworth, Hellingly and Crowborough.

Not to mention the provision of land for a new community building, new primary school, allotments, equipped areas of play, country park extension and substantial highways, footpaths and cycleway enhancements.

This has been a real team effort from across all the specialist teams within the Catesby business, and in addition we have submitted four other outline applications during remote working which are currently awaiting determination, highlighting how well as a team and business we have adapted during these extraordinary times. 

You can find out more about CLS Risk Solutions here: http://www.clsrs.co.uk/

And you can find out more about Catesby Estates Plc here: https://www.catesbyestates.co.uk/