There seem to be two sides to developers and their accomplices. On the one hand there are the promises of a bright future backed up by statistics and mocked-up images. On the other, the pages of the Ashbourne News Telegraph feature stories of planning permissions having to be repeatedly amended, commitments to footpaths being delayed for years and new housing estates left unfinished to the dismay of residents. Of course, development companies are made up of lots of probably well-meaning people like you and me so how can it go so wrong repeatedly? And is this just a localised problem?
Property development, I think, used to be called Building or Construction until a new group of chinless new-monied folk started doing it who had never built anything in their life. All of a sudden there was another class of developer who took away the veneer of a trade and showed it as purely an investment project. Whether large or small, new or old, they are businesses and therefore their priority is to make money for their shareholders/themselves but there is more. They also have to consider the limitations of their own finances. They can’t build everywhere and so they need to look for the easiest ways to make money – and that’s by buying land cheaply, where planning permission will be easy to achieve and where the houses will be easy to sell. You can forget any of the weasel words about commitment to Ashbourne, having an affinity with the town or any social aspirations. Any executive would be strung up by their shareholders if they let such sentiment influence the investment strategy.
Of course there is also competition. Other developers with exactly the same ambitions are eyeing the same geography. They will be looking at Ashbourne as an attractive place to build houses and shops with the appeal of an affluent population, beautiful scenery, an attractive town centre, a central location, good schools, and plenty of family activities. The developers are surveying land all the time and they will also get approached by landowners looking to sell – way more opportunities than they can handle so they will use some strict criteria to filter out the ones which they assess as unrealisable. The rest may be investigated a little further using a wide range of consultants. The smart landowners will use their own consultants to carry out some of the preliminary work so that they can improve their bargaining permission with the developers.
Then there is a big waiting game. The developers don’t have all the resources to build everywhere. They need to have a steady flow of building for their teams to work on. In a perfect world one development ends just as another one starts. They will therefore have to plan ahead by buying sites, going through planning processes and assessing markets well in advance – years in many cases. As they finish one site they may negotiate options with adjacent land and build in access points, drainage and power supply designs ready for something that may not take place for ten years. In Ashbourne most of the sites being reviewed at the moment will have been in the planning for many years.
They will wait until the time is right to strike. This could be a real upturn in the local demand for housing or a slightly open door in the planning process. The lapsing of the Derbyshire Dales Local Plan was an example of what the developers had been waiting for. The need for a new Local Plan demanded a public consultation and “public” means visible and open to everyone … including the developers. With a commercial framework they are not going to waste precious resources battering their shoulder against a firmly locked planning door.
The lobbying begins. As the NIMBYs will make their case so will the developers. Not always directly. They will use agents or the landowners to make their cases for them. Remember, to this point they have not bought the land. Understandably, they don’t want to make the financial commitment until they know exactly what they are going to build and they are confident they can sell it. The first planning applications are a great big foot in the door and we’ve now learnt the hard way that they are barely worth the paper they are written on. What follows is a whole series of adjustments and modifications which are geared around getting the final permission but giving as little away as possible in the process.
Finally we end up with an approved planning application spelling out in detail exactly what the builders will build. And so they build to the plan and we all live happily ever after…
Well not exactly. The building starts and the developers try and sell what they are building. If they discover they can’t sell what they have built the fun and games begins. Builders as businesses can’t just let an investment in land go to waste. They have to turn it into something they can sell somehow. If the development turns out to be not what people want the developers will begin lobbying for an amendment to the planning application. That big foot in the door keeps wriggling. If it is a retail site they will try and drum up some local support amongst local shoppers. Adverts and letters to the editor will start appearing completely coincidentally. Does any of this sound spookily familiar?
When the development is complete and everything is sold, the next challenge is to get out as quickly as possible. All the equipment and labour needs to be released to move onto the next project. There is a very limited budget to hang around and anything which is optional is always going to be ignored for as long as possible or renegotiated to something cheaper or easier. The builder needs the council or a commercial management business to adopt their work with the associated ongoing maintenance cost.
There is no room for emotion in business and barely room for morality. To pretend there is anything more is disingenuous and to expect anything more is naive. A builder is only doing their job if they seek loopholes in the planning system and they would be negligent if they didn’t keep their eyes peeled. Those affected by Willow Meadow Farm, Leys Farm, Hillside Farm, Old Derby Road, Sainsbury’s expansion, the Airfield and Waterside Park mustn’t be apathetic or leave it to others. The strategy should be to feed the circling developers only the opportunities which meet our requirements and to demand our elected representatives enforce our decisions and the law.