The challenge of meeting housing targets

Last Friday I made a fascinating visit to King’s Lynn, hosted by the local MP, Sir Henry Bellingham. We visited some sites and I was able to discuss the challenge of getting more houses in the right place with council officers and the council’s cabinet member for development.

The visit was encouraging in many ways. It was good to see a bit of King’s Lynn, a very attractive, historic town. It was good to see a highly engaged local MP in action (it was an added bonus that Sir Henry had clearly digested several of CPRE’s publications on housing and planning). And it was good to get a better understanding of the issues faced by a local authority. All planning is local. There has to be national policy, but every place faces different challenges.

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council clearly accepts that it must plan for more housing and work to ensure its delivery. But it will struggle to oversee as much house building as the Government wants. What follows are six points I picked up from the visit. They represent my own views and they are not necessarily shared by Henry Bellingham or the local authority.

  1. If numbers were the all, the council could probably meet its housing targets without too much difficulty. But doing so would require much more greenfield than brownfield development. Demand might be met (demand for second homes and retirement homes in rural and coastal villages or towns like Downham Market and Hunstanton) but need would not be (particularly the need for affordable homes in King’s Lynn).

    We need to get more houses built, but setting rigid targets has damaging consequences. We will see in the forthcoming consultation on setting housing targets whether the Government recognises this.

  2. With proper consultation it is possible to get to support, or at least acquiescence in large scale development. The North Runcton and West Winch Neighbourhood Plan proposes 1600 new homes, a big urban extension of King’s Lynn to be built over 25 years. Subject to referendum, I think it will be the largest housing allocation in any neighbourhood plan so far. As far as I could tell, most of the homes will be built on greenfield land. Getting the local community to support (or not oppose) development on this scale has taken a good deal of listening and consultation, led at the beginning by the Prince’s Foundation.
  3. But even with support from local communities and a good deal of activity by a local authority that is actively promoting development, much of it on its own land, it is far from clear that targets will be met. Around a dozen national house builders dominate the market. They are reluctant to increase supply drastically and they will go to the places where demand is strongest and they can make the most money.

    It was explained to me that the house builders work on the basis of 20% profit margins (that is why they are a pretty good bet for investors). Land goes at around £2500 per square foot in King’s Lynn compared with £5000 per square foot in Cambridge. So while one might assume that a house builder would profit from cheaper land, in fact they make more money in the more expensive, higher demand areas.

    In a fragile market, where housing is increasingly unaffordable to average earners, it is not clear that demand will be strong enough throughout the twenty year plan period for the council to meet its targets, however much it wants to. I looked at one extremely attractive site in West Lynn where a planning proposal had fallen through for reasons that were unclear. I expect the site will be developed eventually, but probably not in time to satisfy any ‘delivery test’ on local authorities. Pity councils where demand and the appetite of house builders to build is even lower than in King’s Lynn.

  4. Of course, one way to meet the housing numbers would be for the council itself to build houses. It is working actively with private developers to build homes, but these are largely private homes. The affordability target in King’s Lynn is only 15% and the new definition of ‘affordable’ is used, meaning that many of these houses will be unaffordable to many. When the country consistently built over 200,000 new homes a year, local authorities built at least 100,000 of them. No one can say how we will get back to building 200,000+ homes a year while council house building is so insignificant – but everyone keeps hoping.
  5. The relentless focus on delivery in the Housing White Paper will undermine efforts to redevelop brownfield sites. Attention and investment will be diverted to easier, more obviously viable sites. Permission-in-principle for brownfield sites will make no difference if they are deemed too costly to develop. Brownfield registers may show lots of potential, but if the sites cannot certainly be developed within five years, they will do nothing to stop greenfield development.

    That was a depressing insight.

  6. The theme of my visit was building houses. The local authority, the local MP and CPRE Norfolk are all supportive of house building, provided it is done well. But what is the vision for the county? The country’s population is growing and the country as a whole must help accommodate that growth. But does that mean that rural, agricultural counties like Norfolk will inevitably become significantly more built-up, less rural, more suburban in feel? That would surely be a pity.

    Fortunately, CPRE Norfolk has developed a vision for the county which it will be launching this summer. I am sure it will not be a vision for stasis, but I am equally sure that the branch will want to maintain what makes the county special – and that it will gain a good deal of support for that.

2 Responses to “The challenge of meeting housing targets”

  1. 1 andrew needham March 30, 2017 at 9:25 am

    ”Land goes at around £2500 per square foot in King’s Lynn compared with £5000 per square foot in Cambridge.”
    This needs some explanation.

    • 2 sspiers March 30, 2017 at 9:36 am

      Andrew, I was quoting figures I was given on the visit and I haven’t checked them. The basic point was that was made to me, and which I am passing on because I think it’s interesting is that developers make more money from high cost (and high demand) sites than from those where the land is cheaper (because the demand is lower). If this is wrong, I hope someone will correct me.

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