Viability - winning here

Viability - winning here

Last week the government (finally) published the updated National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). For us, the big test for this updated document was whether it closed the viability loophole.

The result – success. As Rose has explained already on this blog the new and improved viability system meets our tests of being:

  • fair;
  • limited;
  • transparent

While there is no doubt that the planning system in England still has some way to go before we can be sure that large numbers of genuinely affordable, well designed and popular homes are getting built quickly the viability changes are a major improvement. These changes are also particularly welcomed at Shelter as they mark the culmination of a year of tireless campaigning.

The updated NPPF also shows that the government is taking seriously the issue of how land markets impact on housing delivery. This is something that we, and others, have been looking at for some time now and it is fantastic to see some recognition and some action.

There is also an important point to pull out of these changes relating to the value of cross-party campaigning and how when those working in housing pull together – as they have here – then success can be delivered.

Closing the loophole – the key moments

Last year we published our Slipping through the loophole report, which lifted the lid on the extent to which viability assessments were leading to a loss of affordable homes.

For those working in and around housing the fact that viability had become a problem wasn’t news. However, Shelter’s report was the first to contextualise the scale of that problem, showing that more than 2,500 homes had been lost in just one year in just 11 local authorities.

This research also shattered any remnants of the idea that viability was a ‘London issue’. We found homes being lost in Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. We also saw examples in areas like Bristol, where despite fighting a good fight and doing all they reasonably could the council was still seeing developers reducing affordable housing numbers on viability grounds.

In March we then followed up on Slipping through the loophole with a report on viability issues in rural areas done in partnership with the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). This added further weight to the argument that viability claims were a problem everywhere.

The results of this work: events at party conference where viability was raised time and again, media interest in a minute part of the planning system, more and more focus on the system in the Houses of Parliament.

Why do we mention all this? Because pushing viability into the mainstream of the housing debate and knocking out the standard misconceptions about it has been a huge task.

While we’d love to claim all the credit for it as well it would certainly be a bit unfair. As we’ve already mentioned getting to this point has required cross-party support in parliament and collaboration with other organisations from around the housing world.

Thanks to all

While it isn’t possible to thank everyone who has been involved in our campaigning work and in making this change a reality, we wanted to take the opportunity to provide a few special thanks.

Both CPRE and the Greater London Authority (GLA) have been invaluable allies in pursuing this change. The joint working that we and CPRE have done has – we hope – demonstrated just how important this issue is for rural communities. Meanwhile the GLA and the Mayor of London proved through their Supplementary Planning Guidance on Affordable Housing that a better way was possible, and their advice and support in our campaigning has been of huge benefit.

The number of MPs and members of the House of Lords that have been involved has also been hugely welcome to us, especially in demonstrating cross-party support. MPs like Kevin Hollinrake, Alex Chalk, Kerry McCarthy, Clive Betts, Wera Hobhouse and many others in the alongside numerous Lords including Lord Judd, Lord Horam, Lord Best and Baroness Pinnock. All of these – and so many more – have played a vital role in creating this opportunity to get more affordable homes built.

Local authorities and councillors have, of course, also had a massive role to play. Councillor Paul Smith from Bristol has in particular contributed to Shelter’s understanding of how viability works in practice. The Local Government Association has also advocated for a long time for this change.

We’ve particularly appreciated the advice and support of the House Builders Association and Create Streets in promoting understanding of how closing the viability loophole will level the playing field for small and medium-sized (SME) developers.

We  also want to add a special thanks to the civil servants who have been subjected to our lobbying over the past year. Often it is easy to forget the people who sit down and write documents like the NPPF but without their hard work and the willingness to work constructively with stakeholders, successes like this wouldn’t be possible.

Finally, we need to thank all the Shelter supporters who have engaged with, and participated in, our viability work. As always, they were absolutely integral to helping drive forward our campaign and deliver such an important change.

Of course, there is still more work to be done to get the genuinely affordable homes we need built. The improvements to viability, for example, still need to be implemented by councils. However, this week has most certainly seen a step forwards and a victory for affordable housing campaigning.

For more information on the detail of the new NPPF read our blog.