The Housing White Paper: what the government should do

There will be much to welcome in this month’s Housing White Paper. We expect a big emphasis on brownfield development and more support to enable local authority planning departments to do their job. Best of all, the White Paper looks set to address the main cause of the housing shortage: not planning or a lack of land, but the system’s over-dependence on a dozen big companies to deliver the new homes the country needs.

For too long the state’s responsibility for decent housing has been outsourced to private developers who have neither the will nor capacity to build on the scale needed. Now at last Ministers seem willing to tackle this market failure, for instance by helping small builders and promoting custom build and ‘modern methods of construction’. Slow build-out rates and landbanking by developers may also be tackled. There could even be more money for social housing and greater scope for councils to build homes again.

But we will not see a return to the scale of pre-1979 public house building. This is a pity because short of a Harold Macmillan-style building programme, there will be no quick increase in output. The Government is therefore stuck with a policy of setting housing targets[1] and making more land available in the hope that developers increase their output. This approach has failed for years and it will continue to fail.

Not only does the policy not deliver more houses; unachievable targets make planning a battlefield, rather than a way of improving the country for everyone’s benefit.

Most people now accept that we need to build more homes. Too many people live in insecure, over-expensive accommodation: something must be done. Most would also agree this will involve some new housing on greenfield land.

So Ministers have a chance in the White Paper to build a broad national consensus in support of more and better house building. But they will get things badly wrong if it does not address concerns about how the current system is failing. Inflated targets, particularly in ‘high demand’ areas, have made planning toxic.

Under the current system, councils are encouraged or even forced to set unachievably high housing targets and to demonstrate that they have a five year supply of land to meet them.

Everyone knows what happens next. The targets are missed because developers do not use the planning permissions they have; the local authority has to release more land; developers cherry pick the best sites, often in the Green Belt or other countryside, but build so slowly that the local authority is unable to demonstrate that it has a five year land supply; finally, predatory firms like Gladman start putting in speculative applications in the countryside on the grounds that the council does not have a valid plan in place.

This is happening across England. Countless villages and small towns face multiple applications for new estates on their edge; many face a doubling in size within a few years. And there are a growing number of proposals to build in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belt. But still too few homes, particularly affordable homes, are built across the country as a whole.

The overall result of the way we do local planning is that too few homes are built; too much countryside is lost; and too much energy is spent arguing about numbers rather than working out how and where to build the high quality homes the country needs. CPRE would certainly much rather be talking about how to get good quality developments that meet need and improve places, rather than fighting endless battles arising from the fact that no one who engages closely with the planning system trusts it.

The White Paper offers the Government a chance to reset planning politics, to get more homes built while fulfilling its manifesto commitments to protect the countryside. To do so it must carry people with it and work with local communities rather than imposing solutions on them. It is much easier to get houses built if they are supported locally.

Housing targets should be based on realistic population projections and the number of homes that actually can be built. Local plans should also include support for necessary infrastructure, an emphasis on good design, and support for the homes that are needed most: genuinely affordable homes, including social housing.

Previous governments of all parties have both built houses and safeguarded the countryside. The Housing White Paper gives Ministers the chance to ensure that this will also be their legacy.

[1] Although the Government claims to have officially abolished ‘top down’ housing targets, local authorities are required to plan for large numbers of new homes, and these are enforced by the Planning Inspectorate.

8 Responses to “The Housing White Paper: what the government should do”

  1. 1 Simon Smith January 16, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    Sack incompetent Carnet then raise interest rates, reverse QE, stop Funding for lending, Term Funding scheme. Each site of 20 houses or more should be given to several companies and must be built on within months of planning permission being granted.

  2. 3 Ros January 25, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    Well said. The countryside is disappearing fast.

  3. 4 Steve Bridger (@stevebridger) February 2, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    Superb post, Shaun. You’ve nailed it, as always. My feeling (from talking to a couple) is that many Tory MPs representing rural constituencies would privately not disagree with this analysis. Successive govts have over-sold an aspiration, from which it difficult for them to draw back.

    • 5 sspiers February 2, 2017 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks, Steve, that’s very kind. I hope Ministers decide to work with rural communities. And if I don’t, I hope the Conservative MPs who privately agree with CPRE’s analysis speak out!

  4. 6 LH February 9, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    You are quite right, Shaun. The local Planning authorities’ housing targets in the SE are impossibly huge, if we wish to defend the countryside. The local council I serve on has already had its total of houses up to 2026 more than doubled(from 300 pa to 650) up to 2033 and is being guided by the officers to comply, although a neighbouring council has refused the increased number. Why is no one talking about the Brexit bonus? In two years, if not before, the population estimates will/must start shrinking. As usual the data that LAs are working with will be out of date. When I first began on the LA I recall we were informed that 95% of our new housing stock would need to be one bed dwellings, as the census revealed high divorce rates and youngsters leaving home. This was at a time when 30 year olds were having to go back to live with parents because they could afford neither to rent nor to buy. The numbers were/ are decided by computer modelling!

  5. 7 Ann Gawthorpe March 30, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Every member of parliament should be made to sit down and read this succint analysis of everything that is wrong at the moment.

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