The demand for compulsory purchase experts post COVID-19
If you’ve not paid much interest to the field of compulsory purchase (‘CP’), I’d say that’s understandable. But whether you’re a developer, a public sector officer involved in the property sector, an infrastructure promoter, a student studying estate management or a surveyor practising in a sector that has suddenly gone eerily quiet, now might be a very good time to take a keener interest than you might ever have imagined doing previously.
Us CP practitioners know we’re not considered to be the coolest kids in town. None of us (as far as I know!) grew up with a dream of promoting compulsory purchase orders or negotiating compensation claims (I still intend to be a sports journalist, when I grow up!).
But we’re all in it because it’s interesting, no two days or cases are the same, we’re helping to facilitate positive change to the built environment (and/or helping those who are displaced by it to find a way of carrying on with their lives), and we thrive on a diet of challenging negotiations, tackling complex legal issues, working as part of multi-disciplinary teams, and achieving results.
And as UK plc strives to rebound from the COVID crisis, I firmly believe ours are about to become one of the most sought-after skill-sets in the market.
The importance of compulsory purchase powers
It’s clear to me that CP powers are going to be one of the most important facilitatory tools available to public sector agencies and infrastructure promoters as we reshape our high streets and city centres, deliver the road and transport infrastructure necessary to level-up the economy, increase reliance on connectivity and 5G, strive to generate more renewable energy and deliver homes to meet changing market demand.
So many of the housing, regeneration, energy and infrastructure projects that helped UK plc recover from the Global Financial Crisis would never have happened if it were not for CP powers. As a starter for ten, think the Olympics, Crossrail, Hinkley Point and tens of major city centre retail and mixed-use developments.
But this time around, with the CP process having recently been streamlined as part of Government’s ‘clearer, fairer, faster’ reform agenda, I firmly believe the use of CP powers are going to be required more than ever if we intend to emerge from the current crisis in stronger shape than when it arrived.
Evidence of a growing demand
As an indication of the level of interest being shown by public sector agencies, we at Gateley Hamer ran a series of webinars last week, providing an overview of each stage of the CPO promotion process for our public sector clients.
Despite providing relatively short notice we were delighted that representatives of 30-odd Local Authorities tuned in every day, together with colleagues from Homes England, Highways England and various Combined Authorities. And not only were people tuning in, but they were really engaged too; far more questions were submitted over the week than are ever usually asked at in-person events, and it was clear from the insightful nature of many of the questions that they were being asked by people gearing-up to promote CPOs in the short-term.
Not just that, but from the results of various polls that we ran during the events, it’s evident that those tuning in are not just focussed on CPOs for town centres, but also housing, transport and energy too.
Furthermore, a number of our private sector clients who heard about the webinars via social media have been in touch to ask for ‘on-demand’ links; an indication perhaps of an increased realisation of how, through partnering with Local Authorities, CP powers might unlock schemes that will deliver social, economic or environmental benefits that are suddenly more needed than ever.
Where will the growth in compulsory purchase powers come from?
In short, CP powers can help to facilitate all kinds of schemes, but I expect particular reliance on CP powers to unlock the following types of projects over the next 5-10 years:
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the decline of traditional retail and the mid-tier restaurant market is being decimated. Added to that, as a cycling and e-scooter revolution seems likely, together with a need for greater use of outside space for eating, drinking, queuing and socially-distanced pedestrian movements, the street-scape will need a total re-think in many towns and cities.
Whilst some changes will be possible without the use of CP powers, particularly as permitted development rights seem set to be further relaxed, in order for any coherent long-term regenerative strategies to be implemented it will be necessary for Councils to adopt an interventionalist approach to amalgamating the fragmented ownership of high streets, and I’ve no doubt we’ll see a huge increase in the use of CP powers for that purpose.
Of course, funding will be a challenge, and it’ll likely take more than what’s on offer through the Future High Street Fund and the Towns Fund to deliver the interventions that many towns and cities will need, so public-private partnerships will be essential to achieve effective changes in many locations.
High Speed 2 was given the final green light to proceed earlier this year, and Crossrail 2 moved a step closer to becoming a reality too. And whilst airport expansion may now seem further away than ever, it’s safe to say that with capacity on the public transport network set to be squeezed further as a result of social-distancing requirements, there’ll be an even greater need for major aspirational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail to become a reality, alongside increasing capacity on national and local road networks, complementing under-pressure and capacity-constrained local rail services through expanding and developing light (and very light) rail networks, delivering dedicated cycleways and, potentially, edge-of-town park-and-cycle/e-scooter sites.
Whether these projects are promoted as CPOs, Development Consent Orders (DCO), Transport and Works Act Orders or even hybrid bills, the availability of CP powers will be essential for them to become reality.
Just last week the UK’s first DCO was granted for a solar park – the 350MW Cleve Hill scheme in Kent, which our team was delighted to have supported. That’s set to be the first of a number of such large-scale solar schemes to be promoted this decade, alongside many smaller solar schemes. At the same time – whilst there were a few setbacks and delays last week – it’s clear that we’ll see further growth in off-shore wind generation, and a renewed focus on on-shore wind too. Who knows, maybe tidal lagoons will finally get off the ground too, but in any event, it's clear that the 2020s will see a boom in the number of large-scale energy generation projects being promoted, and the vast majority of those will rely on compulsory acquisition powers being available, not only to secure the necessary land but to provide the Grid connections too.
CPOs for housing renewal projects are nothing new, but I believe we’re finally set to see a step-change in the use of CP powers to facilitate the delivery of new housing developments. Partly as Local Authorities once-again look to become developers in their own right, and partly because there finally seems to be a ground-swell of opinion that will build to deliver a game-changing moment when the DCO regime expands to enable housing-led schemes to be promoted as nationally significant infrastructure projects.
I’ve been championing such a move for years, but as it becomes clear that the need for workers to be based full-time in offices is a falsehood, and more people look for homes that offer outdoor space in communities designed for modern living, the need to deliver new garden towns and villages will become ever-greater, in parallel with the realisation that the Local Plan process and the Town and Country Planning Act do not provide a desirable consenting regime for the size and number of such schemes that the country will require.
In my view, DCOs will emerge as the consenting process of choice for these projects, not least due to the ability to include compulsory acquisition powers, but also because of the relative programme certainty that they offer, and the fact that they take the decision-making away from the local arena.
In truth, this article barely scratches the surface in terms of discussing how CP powers will be relied upon as we start to focus on rebuilding the economy. But even from this summary, it’s evident that the demand for compulsory purchase professionals is set to boom and so, even if it might not be what you dreamed of, now just might be the time to think about a career in a field that I can tell you from experience is challenging, interesting and rewarding in equal measure.
Please do get in touch if this article has sparked your interest in learning more. I’m always happy to discuss specific issues or projects or provide guidance on how to kick-start your career in the CP sector.