I will have spent most of January in New Zealand and Australia by the time this article goes to print so it is written in advance at the turn of the year with no knowledge of how crops have fared in Kent during the first month of 2015.
All one can say is that the rainfall total for 2014 was in excess of 30 inches making it a very wet year and ground conditions do reflect that. The warm temperatures during the autumn have mitigated the effects but we await the balancing nature of the weather during the spring.

It seems appropriate to turn to other subjects and as I mentioned land use in an earlier month it seems relevant to return to the subject. For those of us in the South East with urban fringe land, the other great opportunity is residential development although that is tinged with all of the down side that goes with urban boundaries for farming.

If you follow the commentators in the national papers or non governmental organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust, it would seem all one has to do is ask for an allocation or put in a planning application and housing follows irrespective of what the local planning authority or local residents think or want. Strangely enough it is not quite like that in the real world.

The starting point is the under delivery of new housing by all governments for more than 20 years with a current need for 200,000 units a year and an actual figure which has recently been below 100,000 and may achieve 150,000 this year. The need is a function of demographics, higher population figures made up by increased longevity and migration as well as life style changes leading to more single person households. Those reasons are unlikely to change as life expectancy continues to increase and divorce rates also climb.

While we remain in the European Union, European migration cannot be constrained, especially if the UK economy is growing relative to the rest of Europe. Without doubt the coalition has set out to make the UK attractive to inward investment with a competitive business tax environment. We certainly need growth to tackle the deficit and without the strictures of the euro we are well placed to achieve it, certainly in comparison to the rest of Europe.

A further factor is that migration is beginning to affect the national birth rate and we should expect indigenous population growth going forward. So the demand is unlikely to shrink and the government has set out to achieve the requisite housing delivery both for economic and social reasons. It should be noted that the opposition recognise the need to deliver as well although they may differ on how to achieve it.

The second element is delivery and a first step was to ensure local planning authorities recognised the required numbers in their local development plans and provided for delivery of those numbers. If they did not then the plans were found unsound by the independent planning inspectorate.

In the absence of a plan then the national planning policy framework introduced the presumption in favour of sustainable development where there was no adequate five year housing supply. This was intended as an incentive to get plans in place and the whole system geared to alleviate the housing shortage.

This is where local communities feel vulnerable to speculative planning applications but in reality it is not national government but rather local politicians that are failing them. The local plan process is simple and by and large development plan officers are competent but they are at the behest of local politicians whose sole aim is to get re-elected.

That requires votes from local residents whose position is “not in my back yard” and if you do then you will not get my vote. In many cases entirely logical planning options are simply too difficult to deliver politically and entirely unsuitable options are chosen for political expediency. Even where there are local plans in place they are under pressure to have housing provision elements reviewed to reflect the changing housing targets. So the 20 year plans are nothing of the sort especially where local authorities have opted for the minimum provision rather than building in an element of leeway for changing circumstances.

This does mean there is a once in a generation opportunity for landowners to promote land for development. Where there is no current local plan, an inadequate five year housing supply and political opposition then it may well be by speculative planning application with a cost in excess of £150,000 for the required set of documents and the almost inevitable appeal on refusal or non determination costing another £150,000.

Where there is local political support and a viable local plan review process then it can be through submission to the various stages from strategic housing land availability assessment to adopted plan and hopefully a successful allocation. There are no guarantees to this process either and the costs are increasing as local authorities require more information to be supplied by the landowner to underpin any proposed allocation. In summary it is still a lottery and the costs of a ticket are not for the faint hearted.

One final thought on the housing delivery side: all of the figures in the long term plans are based on predicted annual requirements. But it is a fact that housing completions always fall away in a recession. So the reality is that we need to be building in the region of 50% more than target in periods of growth to counterbalance the inevitable shortfall in periods of recession. As one gets older, experience suggests that recession inevitably follows a period of growth however long the growth period may be.