The UK housing crisis, and lack of available homes, is universally acknowledged as a major issue and is prevalent in Bristol, as with the country as a whole.
As a local SME (small and medium enterprise) developer, we at Autograph Homes are acutely aware of the role that companies like ours have to play in developing small inner city sites to help meet housing the need, alongside the major developments in and around our towns and cities.
SME developers have the flexibility and the desire to build on brownfield sites, to redevelop derelict buildings and to maximise the potential of property which may no longer be viable for commercial use.
I believe SMEs hold the key to unlocking those inner city sites which would make such a difference to the availability of urban property for those struggling to find a suitable home.
Yet, Government statistics show that the number of firms building fewer than 100 units fell drastically in the 25 years leading up to 2015.
It has made a concerted effort to promote the development of brownfield sites through vacant building credits, as well as setting up the Housing Growth Partnership in a bid to support the SME building sector.
Indeed, Autograph Homes recently received investment of £2.8 million from the partnership to support our two ongoing developments in Hambrook, Winterbourne and Cheltenham Road.
Figures from the Federation of Master Builders‘ (FMB) House Builders’ Survey 2017 were released last month. The figures suggest that a shortage of available small sites, combined with a lack of finance, top the list of barriers facing SME house builders as they aim to increase the number of new homes.
A shortage of skilled workers, Brexit and the potential end of free movement and a problematic planning system were also cited as hampering the development in cities like Bristol.
In my opinion, it is not the shortage of available sites which is the problem. Look around Bristol and you will see an abundance of available land which is ripe for development, although acquiring it is extremely competitive.
The shortage of skilled labour is an issue. In terms of finance, we are fortunate to have director-level experience and expertise, as well as the backing of a large group of companies, making us more capable of successfully applying for funding than the average SME builder.
The biggest stumbling block which we face is uncertainty with the planning process, which can be extremely time-consuming and expensive.
The complications and costs associated with the planning process is less of an issue for large developers, who can more easily absorb these factors into their businesses.
For an SME developer, having to spend tens of thousands of pounds on planning decisions, which may take many weeks or months to resolve, or even be unsuccessful, becomes a major issue.
It is important that local authorities are adequately staffed so that they can process applications in a timely fashion, given the importance of addressing the housing crisis and the knock-on effect that increased small site development can have on society and the local economy.
The planning process itself could be adapted to better suit the situations of companies like ourselves. For example, much of the supporting documentation you need to provide – expensive to produce – is rarely essential before approval and could therefore be left as a condition to be resolved after permission is granted.
The housing crisis is real and SME developers like Autograph Homes can play a valuable part in combatting it. It is vital that we all embrace a culture of maximising our city’s potential to provide homes for the next generation of young professionals and their families.
Simon Taylor is the managing director of Autograph Homes.