The rash of housing announcements this week suggest that the government machine is gearing up for the eagerly-awaited White Paper. Some reports – like today’s article in the FT – suggest there’s a struggle going on over the strategic direction of the White Paper. This is unsurprising: everyone accepts that resolving England’s chronic housing shortage will require the grasping of some pretty tough nettles, so some debate over the strategy is entirely appropriate.
Broadly, it’s really positive that DCLG want to push through more housebuilding – and that Ministers seem to recognise that the existing system can’t do it with a just a few more tweaks and prods. One barrier is certainly local resistance to housebuilding – and in some cases this will need a firm hand from government to overcome. At a minimum, local plans should reflect their Objectively Assessed Need for new homes.
But turning around the woeful state of housebuilding in England won’t be achieved by imposing local targets on local councils alone.
The Labour government tried this by using Regional Spatial Strategies to impose housing targets on outraged (and usually Conservative) councils in the noughties. The result of that struggle was the worst of both worlds: housebuilding stayed stubbornly low, while local communities resented unattractive and unsustainable development being imposed on them. In the end, the entire regional planning system was abolished by the new government in 2010.
We have to learn the obvious lesson from this sorry debacle: in the absence of real reform to the delivery system, imposing planning targets enrages local people and councils, and doesn’t even build more homes. All it does is make it easier for speculative developers to secure planning permissions for the sort of schemes that they want to build – which are those that deliver the highest short term financial returns, not the best results for the community. And as developers know that their bottom lines are not helped by building too many homes, too fast, just giving them more permissions doesn’t even get many more homes built: that’s why planning permissions are currently running at around twice the rate of actual completions.
What’s needed, and needed desperately, is some real government leadership in getting actual sites into the hands of organisations ready and willing to design beautiful homes in attractive places, with plenty of affordable homes and all the necessary infrastructure. That means concentrating efforts on the land market, and on actual delivery – not beating up cash-strapped local councils and forcing them to hand out permissions for substandard schemes.
The White Paper represents a massive opportunity to finally learn the lessons of decades of failure – and to revive the successful models of the past, which built far more homes far more effectively. The Edwardian Garden Cities, the post-war New Towns, even the Olympic Village in London, showed that we know how to do it: concerted government action to bring land into unified, well-planned development, at low enough prices to make high quality development viable.
The Secretary of State’s determination to build more is undoubted, and just what is needed. Most encouragingly, he recognises that a few more tweaks to our broken housebuilding system will not cut it: bold change is needed. I just hope he ignores the siren voices of those who tell ministers that it can be done simply by imposing obligations on local government. We need real leadership.
Happily, there is a way through the politics and the policy of this. Reforming the delivery of housing – not just the number of planning permissions – offers the chance to start building really attractive and affordable places again. This would not only broaden the base of housing supply, boosting numbers and improving the system’s resilience to the inevitable ups and downs of the market. It would create huge opportunities for the SMEs, self-builders and off-site construction techniques that everyone wants to encourage. And by targeting quality rather than short term developer margins it would start to overcome the opposition to new housing that has become so entrenched in some parts of society.