In their efforts to be selected as the country’s next Prime Minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are both throwing out policy soundbites designed to secure the votes of the Conservative membership. On the future of planning, ‘brownfield brownfield brownfield’ says Rishi, whilst Liz has swiftly dropped her 2019 call for 1 million homes to be built on the Green Belt.
The immediate battleground is housing, but a requirement of our planning system is to promote a sustainable pattern of development that meets all the development needs of an area, aligning growth and infrastructure and improving the environment. According to current Government policy that is.
Enter left life sciences, a sector known for evolving clusters, both within cities and within specific areas of cities. Clusters grow out of leading universities and other institutions which attract top researchers and research programmes, a continuing stream of talent and a skilled workforce, rooted in a vibrant place where people want to live.
Successful clusters continue to attract established players and new start-ups, both vying for high-quality laboratory space. To sustain growth, new space is required. Oxford and Cambridge both have extremely successful life sciences clusters, with substantial current demands for more, and more specialist space, which would bring in jobs and opportunities. Yet Bidwells are reporting an extreme lack of supply.
The problem lies at least in part in the planning system. Oxford and Cambridge are both nestled in the Green Belt, a planning designation that requires “exceptional circumstances” to justify release for development through a local plan, else “very special circumstances” for development within it, save in limited circumstances. Constraints may also be placed on land that is released for development, in terms of limiting impacts on the adjacent Green Belt.
The Green Belt has become a political hot potato in recent years. Inviting a fresh look at the Green Belt role will not help secure a candidate the right to inhabit the Downing Street flat and enjoy its ‘gold’ wallpaper. It is left to local authorities to make what can be unpopular decisions about whether local needs justify Green Belt release or development, decisions which themselves drive local elections. Refusals of planning applications may follow, blame can then be directed to the Government’s Planning Inspectorate if permission is granted.
The underlying factors here are complex, solutions are equally so. Whoever wins the leadership contest will be focused on the path to the next general election, so short-term major reform to the planning system is unlikely. However, fundamental is a clear Government strategy for supporting the life sciences sector to underpin decision making and help create the space it needs. There is much to keep Liz or Rishi busy here in the next two years - and to distract them from the wallpaper.
A zero availability rate is a rare occurrence in any property market, but this is the challenge facing the 46 companies seeking laboratory floorspace in Cambridge today.