Where next for development?

Should the green belt be revised, garden centres should look to exploit development potential -- Malcolm Scott explains how.

Housing: greater number of new homes needed to meet rapidly increasing levels of demand - image: HW
Housing: greater number of new homes needed to meet rapidly increasing levels of demand - image: HW

Sometimes events are so dramatic that they make us look beyond our own industry and day-to-day concerns. The pictures of the migrants queuing to get into the UK and Europe is one. Another, the unexpected election of a politician — Jeremy Corbyn — who appears to say what he actually believes.

The migrants are already arriving and they, together with Corbyn’s proposed policies and the Government’s chance to positively react to them, will change the UK and in particular the planning of its scarcest resource, land.

You undoubtedly will know that we have a housing problem in the UK. What many do not know is that it is fast becoming a crisis. Those with longer memories will recall when the Toxteth riots brought home to the then Conservative Government the disparity between life with a job and a decent home and life in Toxteth without what the rest of us take for granted.

The result then was a dramatic intervention by Michael Heseltine and the creation of relaxed planning zones to encourage development and investment in rebuilding the stricken parts of Liverpool.

Today the Government states that 220,000 additional households will be formed each year up to 2022 and that we are only building, as of the 12-month period ending September 2014, 117,070 new dwellings (House of Commons Research Briefing, 2 June 2015). The Homebuilders Federation shows, in fact, that the shortfall in housing supply is so great that actually we need to build 320,000 new homes annually to make up for that growing deficit (Estates Gazette, May 2014). Even this figure is probably too low.

More dwellings required

Migration to the UK in 2014 indicates a figure of some 330,000 and the year before that 236,000. Assuming a net migration of 265,000 for the next 10 years and on the basis of three migrants per house, this could add another 100,000 dwellings a year to that figure — in other words, 420,000 homes required each year (Estates Gazette, September 2015), when we are actually building 117,000 homes.

The generally accepted view for the deficit is because insufficient land is available to housebuilders at a low enough price to enable them to build houses that people can afford.

Most of the land that is in the right location for new housing — where people actually want to live and can obtain jobs — is in the green belt, and mostly in the southern part of England.

Most thinking planners and people involved in the housebuilding industry know that we have to revise the green belt, but politically this is currently unacceptable unless we have a dramatic event like Toxteth and this becomes the trigger that enables the Government to get to grips with reordering the green belt.

You may ask what has this got to do with garden centres? Many of them are located in the green belt. If green belt boundaries are redrawn they may find themselves no longer in areas of "no growth" but zoned for development. First they may find that, far from being isolated in countryside, new homes, and customers, grow up around them.

Many garden centre owners will have suffered the frustrations of trying to develop their business within a very restrictive set of planning rules operating in the green belt. These not only restrict the development of new buildings but also limit the range of uses that a modern garden centre needs to incorporate if it is to fully function all year round. A change in planning policy could allow development.

If we move to a situation where some green belts are in part rezoned, then those garden centres found within any new settlement could have potential for much more enhanced development use and ultimately value. This could lead to two developments. First, an intensification in the retailing value of the site, and second, on larger sites, the potential development of new housing.

The original garden centre of 30 years ago, which was in effect a retail nursery, has — where the opportunity and retail desire exists — developed into a "green shopping centre". These garden centres have added all-year-round ranges of goods and concessions, and
followed the trend of major shopping centres by developing into leisure with the addition of large, attractive restaurants as well as fresh-food offers.

The new Rosebourne Garden Centre chain is said to be "more food than garden centre" (Horticulture Week, 19 June). But there is more that could be done. Many garden centres occupy large sites at low density. They have made a considerable investment, often in car parking and infrastructure provision, and these assets could and should be used much more efficiently to create more jobs, increase the local economy and better use our land resources.

Future garden centres: redeveloped sales areas

Relaxed planning approach

There would need to be a relaxation by planners in the use to which some of the retail space can be put to drive up values and allow for the higher cost of building. There is no reason why some garden centres could not become significant retail nodes within new housing developments, in effect part of the neighbourhood or district centre, and be allowed to add on wider retail uses and enhance their leisure role by incorporating gyms and family leisure centres within their sites.

Many are already incorporating children’s soft play provision next to their restaurants so the movement towards a mixed-use development has partly begun.

The pressure for garden centres to change is not just a material one — to cash in on the housing shortage. There is a new generation of new households that outside of work now want fun — to eat out, meet friends at a bar/café, go to the cinema, weekend breaks, communicate on the internet. Gardening does not figure. As James Wong said (GCU, May 2015): "The gardening media is fixated on the ‘how-to approach’, assuming everyone is desperately keen on getting involved. My mates in the pub need to know why they should even bother [with gardening] in the first place."

If there was new profitable funding for garden centres through mixed-use development then high-grade, colourful, attractive and fun centres could be developed — with a gym, coffee bar, music, plants and home and garden decoration. The new centres could appeal to a new generation and housing developed for sale or rent could be a year-round profit stream, like concessions.

Garden centres in the right locations could in future be redeveloped into tighter, higher-density developments with surplus land available for sustainable housing. There has been much discussion about how to encourage people to occupy accommodation over shops in town centres and indeed to occupy some unlettable town centre shops by redefining the extent of town centre shopping areas. But there are a lot of problems associated with living over shops, not least the noise and disruption caused by antisocial behaviour, particularly at night.

This would not be a problem on garden centres. It is perfectly possible that housing could be integrated into them, both on surplus land or by redeveloping those garden centres that have inefficient and low-density developments by rebuilding the sales area integrating housing above or adjacent to it.

Much will depend on the Government being creative and positive about the housing crisis. Allowing development in the right (sustainable) location in redefined green belts would be a good start.

Malcolm Scott is managing director at Malcolm Scott Consultants

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