Housing acceleration hinges on cooperation and ‘hard’ numbers
Publication, Area and Property Development
Today, virtually all government layers have programmes for housing acceleration. For instance, the national government and the various ‘housing deal regions’ have set up “acceleration round tables” (in Dutch: “Versnellingstafels”), which are intended to help local governments and market players get a better grip on the housing production. In Deventer, they have already gained experience with this, yielding results that everyone is happy with. What it comes down to? Joint insight into up-to-date hard figures and into each other’s procedures. ROmagazine was curious about how Deventer manages to get a grip on the construction flow and met with some of the partners in the Platform ‘Wonen Deventer’, including alderman Rob de Geest and VanWonen Director André ten Vergert.
Hard and soft planning capacity; they are rather elastic concepts. In an earlier article (‘Zachte plancapaciteit blijkt boterzacht’ [‘Soft planning capacity turns out to be flimsy’], ROm September 2020), we observed that the figures used by many municipalities are somewhat questionable. Which begs the question: how realistic are the housing acceleration agreements that have recently been made in various regions in consultation with the national and provincial governments?
“Soft” planning capacity usually has a high level of uncertainty. Often there is nothing more yet than an area concept plan, or the planning procedures are still ongoing. But even with so-called “hard plans”, when the planning procedure has been completed and the building permit has been granted, there is still no guarantee that construction will actually start. ‘All kinds of things still need to happen at that point. A housing developer is dependent on what the agreements with the builder are. But even with developers who are also builders, there may be holdups. Soil remediation work may still be ongoing or additional research may be needed. The business case may be under pressure due to market conditions,’ says Martin Bosch. He is owner-director at Woningmakers, an initiative that supports municipalities and regions in accelerating housing construction, and knows from experience how complicated the process, from plan to execution, is. ‘I have worked for the municipality in Alkmaar and have experienced that the different municipal departments are by no means all on the same page when it comes to choices and prioritisation. Housing, spatial planning, and permit granting; they often have different interests. And the opinions in the average municipal council also tend to differ.’
'Municipal policymakers often base their plans on an ideal world'
André ten Vergert, director of VanWonen, knows all about it. Area developer VanWonen has many projects all over the country. ‘First of all, there are the people of the municipal’s policy departments of housing and spatial planning. The plans they lay down are often based on an ideal world, and you can’t be against it for the most part. Because who doesn’t want affordable housing in a sustainable environment? I have seen quite a few of these area concept plans and know them inside out. Next, in the phase of the policy implementation, is the land development. That means that for the business case, you have to work with people from the municipal department that handles the acquisition, sale and development of land. They have a completely different agenda and are mainly focused on securing the land development. This is all very understandable, but if you have to finance all kinds of ambitions from that while the bulk of the homes have to be affordable, then we have a problem with the business case.’
Positive fundamental attitude
According to Ten Vergert, the government and the market often have different expectations about the state of the housing production, especially when it comes to the exact numbers. ‘While if you want to accelerate, it is very important to make sure you bring the right figures to the round table and can agree on that’, he says. That’s why VanWonen is pleased to participate in the ‘Platform Wonen Deventer in de IJsselstad’. The area developer has several housing projects in Deventer. In that platform, the municipality, housing developers, housing associations, banks and real estate agents work together on the housing task. The idea behind it is that none of these parties can tackle the substantial task alone, also in the case of Deventer.
‘Deventer has a fairly accurate understanding of the housing production’
The municipality has calculated that around 11,000 new homes are needed to realise its ambitions and accommodate the expected population growth. The existing planning capacity – hard and soft – amounts to just under 7,500 at present. ‘Of these, 1,902 are as hard as can be, with an irrevocable zoning plan, 1,023 are reasonably hard with planning at an advanced stage, and 4,555 are in the early stages of planning, but with a positive fundamental attitude of the municipality.’ Alderman Rob de Geest, who has housing and redevelopment in his portfolio, mentions the figures with emphasis. ‘In Deventer, the municipality, housing associations and developers have actually put a lot of energy into joint planning and good cooperation. As a result, Deventer has a fairly accurate insight into the housing production. We are well aware of the planning, the nature of the homes, and know where in the planning we still need to step up efforts. There is always room for discussions about that within the Platform Wonen Deventer, and we do discuss it.’
Up-to-date, reliable data
Up-to-date and reliable figures are a necessary basis if you really want to get a better grip on the housing production. So the key is to have that data, starting with area developments and building projects that are in preparation. Getting that data from developers, housing associations and builders is an important part in the support Woningmakers provides to a municipality or region in the acceleration of housing construction. Bosch: ‘We first have a conversation about the municipality’s housing task in general: what is their opinion on it, do they think it will succeed.’ You then quickly get to the issues that are causing delays and how the market party is trying to deal with that. We draw up a short report of such a meeting; an A4 page at most. They can edit that if they want to, but when we receive the report back, a staple goes through it.’
'Once we have spoken to all the market parties involved and to the key figures in the municipality, we bring them together for an initial meeting to discuss the state of affairs, where the problems are, what can be done about them and, above all, whether we can agree on a prioritisation. The reports from the meetings are useful to fall back on and to get things clear.’ Basically, the round of talks and the first meeting serve to get a picture of the actual state of the construction plans in the municipality, Bosch explains. ‘From this snapshot we start analysing where the bottlenecks are that are causing the delay.’
Bosch’s colleague Hrvoja Malbasic shows on a large screen how the software programme Domiporta, developed by Woningmakers, can be used to see at a glance which housing projects are being carried out in the municipality and in which locations, for how many houses and which categories, which phase they are in and when the handover is expected. Each participating party receives a unique login code with which they can enter the data into the system and access it. This data serves as the basis for the quarterly construction council meeting.
'Traffic light colours as indicators'
The colours of a traffic light – green, yellow, red – are used to indicate whether construction projects are on schedule, are experiencing some delay, or a lot of delay. ‘This is useful to get a quick overview of the number of houses and the categories expected to be completed on time, and of where additional attention is needed,’ Malbasic points out.
‘I think the great advantage of Domiporta is that it is not so much the numbers of the government, but of both the market and the government. That’s how they become our numbers,’ says Ten Vergert. Alderman De Geest also regards this as the great strength of the programme. ‘Within Platform Wonen Deventer it was decided to let the members of the platform moderate this process themselves. This greatly increases the joint commitment to the ambition. And both the municipality of Deventer and the developing parties are reaping the benefits. The methodology of traffic lights for the ten most important issues quickly shows where the bottlenecks are and who is responsible for the solution.’
He emphasises once again how important it is that the government and the market have round table meetings. ‘Actual realisation requires two parties: the municipality, in cooperation with the developing party for the planning title to be able to build, and the developer for the construction based on that title. One cannot do without the other.’
'Openness is necessary and is in the interest of all'
Not that it was smooth sailing all the way, getting all parties involved. Market parties in particular have to overcome some resistance to give others, especially their competitors, insight into the planning and construction flow. This openness is necessary and is in the interest of all, says Ten Vergert. ‘I think it took us over a year before everyone was willing to share the current planning on a quarterly basis and update it in the system. It helps and it is good to whip up each other a bit, to keep us all on our toes. As a market, we complain a lot about what is going wrong and could be done better in the government, but among ourselves not everything goes the way we’d like it to go either.’
Visible trends, targeted interventions
Everyone in the Deventer construction council recognises that it is in the common interest to have a good understanding of the joint planning, of each other’s processes and where the bottlenecks are. And they are very clear about whether it actually helps. ‘At some point, the conversation is no longer just about individual projects, but about the trends that emerge from the data’, says Ten Vergert. ‘For instance, in the last meeting, just before the summer holidays, we found out that after 2027 there are no ground-oriented houses in the plans at all. That’s when the alarm bells started ringing at the municipality, because the very ambition is to make Deventer attractive to middle- and higher-income groups. Many of them don’t want to live in an apartment.’
That’s true, confirms alderman De Geest. ‘The developers indicate that it is advisable to simultaneously develop multiple residential environments - from highly urban, to suburban to village-like - as this allows for a better response to different market conditions. From the joint planning exercise, it emerges that the ground-oriented suburban environment will eventually dry up. It is therefore only sensible that the municipality draws up an area concept plan for urban expansion. And that’s happening now.’
Insight into each other’s processes
Another recent example he mentions is that, due to the increased construction costs, developers were no longer able to realise the agreed-upon owner-occupied homes in the affordable housing programme . ‘As a result of signals about this from Platform Wonen Deventer, the municipality’s target group regulation, which regulates the prices for owner-occupied homes in the affordable housing programme, was adjusted to the current market conditions.’ There usually are no easy and quick solutions, says De Geest.
‘Houses, as part of a city or village, are built to last, so careful planning is required. Apart from that, many challenges are involved in a planning process, both for the municipality and the developer. What is important here is insight into each other’s processes. That way you get a better understanding of the interests that need to be taken into account.’ According to the director of VanWonen, the Deventer working method can serve as an example for other regions.
‘I should add that the consultation on housing plans and the construction flow between local governments and market players is also well organised in other cities in Overijssel’, he says. ‘The province of Overijssel plays a stimulating and supportive role in this, for example with the Zwols Concilium and the construction council in the cities of Twente. Not everything goes well in this province, but in my experience, the degree of organisation is better than on average.’