Why we need to think big when it comes to delivering homes for the Midlands

With the Letwin Review squarely focused on large strategic development sites that will contribute significant numbers to the housing crisis, build-out rates have never been more under scrutiny. IM Land’s Strategic Land Director Jonathan Dyke discusses why the so-called ‘master developers’ will help drive major housing delivery.

There’s no doubt, the pace at which properties are delivered needs to be addressed if we’re to hit the annual target of 300,000 new homes each year. In his interim letter, Sir Oliver Letwin MP asks some pertinent questions that will form the next part of his investigation into the gap between completions and permissions.

I’m paraphrasing, but the first asks whether ‘packaging up’ up large sites to bring together a variety of housebuilders and house types could impact build out rates. For me, the simple answer is ‘yes’. The more in-depth argument is one that centres on the notion that the housing crisis doesn’t solely rest on the shoulders of major housebuilders.

The focus on large sites is right. While thousands of smaller sites will contribute to the numbers, they won’t be catalysts for transport and community infrastructure that time and time again communities call for. They won’t deliver the well-planned and modern communities that the larger sites will.

But the ambition and opportunity that comes with delivering big numbers on big sites is exactly why the Government needs to embrace the concept of ‘master developers’. Heading up the land promotions division of IM Propertues, I constantly challenge my team to fulfil the role of bringing together lots of parties that will deliver holistic, high quality communities.

The ‘master developer’ is industry shorthand for the central organisations that drive delivery of large development sites. Rather than indiscriminately selling off parcels of land for the highest price, they carefully package development areas up and bring them forward together as high-quality, well-planned communities. In doing so, they can tackle large and complex sites and expedite delivery and reduce overreliance on one brand to deliver at an unachievable pace.

Key to this is de-risking sites for housebuilders, clearing the way for speedy delivery. The master developer can invest upfront in offsite infrastructure and on-site spine roads, landscaping and high quality public realm as part of a cohesive masterplan following a comprehensive Design Guide. They can work with authorities to come up with pragmatic ways of delivering schools, village halls and local centres. They can bring forward mixed use schemes that leverage commercial development to provide sustainable communities that reduce car dependent commuting patterns.

These are perceived as barriers and are outlined in Sir Letwin’s letter, for housebuilders they’re obstacles to overcome before even putting a spade in the ground. For smart local authorities, they’re opportunities to get so much more out of development in their area if they work with master developers. Not just numbers, but quality. Crucially, at a pace that doesn’t leave their 5-year housing supplies open to challenge.

It also means delivery isn’t constrained to one housebuilder. At Blythe Valley Park in Solihull, we’ve agreed a deal with Bloor Homes to deliver 170 homes, of 750 consented last year. They’ll deliver a mix of 1,2,3 and 4-bed homes and public space with work starting in Autumn. But we’ve also just brought Crest Nicholson on board, who’ll build a further 125 contemporary homes, including affordable properties and apartments. It’s their fifth development since the launch of their Midlands’ division last November. Both are readying to submit reserved matters applications, both are eager to get on site.

There’s benefits to all parties to embrace this model. It’s down to the promoter to make sure large site delivery doesn’t result in a community of conflicting styles, while it’s to the benefit of housebuilders to bring a mix of housing stock and tenures to get people through the door. It also enables us to bring on board smaller housebuilders, who would never be able to deliver a site on this scale, as well as innovative housing models and property disruptors.

Let’s not forget, to communities, it is not about new housing numbers numbers. At Blythe Valley Park we’ve been able to deliver a new independent coffee shop – complementing a strong amenity offer with a Virgin Active Health Club and nursery – while getting to work on 122 acres of parkland that will be publicly accessible. We have also secured the nursery on site for another 20 years, as it is essential building block to what will be a sustainable community. These are real amenities set alongside places to work that deliver actual communities.

At Blythe Valley Park, we undertook a series of workshops with key stakeholders and made it our mission to keep the local community engaged throughout the planning process – this ultimately paid dividends as we went to planning committee in November and signed the S106 in the following March, a very short timeframe of only four months on a complex mixed use scheme of 750 units plus £1m sq. ft. of commercial space. The pre-commencement conditions were kicked off immediately and the first reserved matters application has been validated and we are hopeful it will be approved in 13 weeks due to the detailed Design Guide that has already been approved.

These large sites take time and dedication to bring to fruition. But much of this is up front to set the framework and benchmark quality. Once this in place, things can move at a much quicker pace that a traditional development site in hands of just one housebuilder.

Stalled sites and unachieved ambitions are not helpful for anyone, either the industry who wants to deliver or the local authorities who have lofty targets against which they’ll be challenged. Embracing large sites and the role of this central master developer role will deliver on several fronts – numbers, pace and quality.

In the meantime, we will keep doing our bit to underpin housing growth, working with responsible housebuilders that buy into our vision for the communities we bring forward.