What the government should do with the housing white paper

Newly built homesThis post is by Shaun Spiers, chief executive of CPRE. It first appeared on CPRE’s blog.

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, it 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 the 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.

Targets have failed to deliver more homes
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 (the government has officially abolished ‘top down’ housing targets but local authorities are required to plan for large numbers of new homes, enforced by the Planning Inspectorate) 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.

Opportunity for consensus on better building
In the white paper, ministers have a chance to build a broad national consensus in support of more and better house building. But it 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. 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.

Too few affordable homes
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.

Reset planning politics
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.

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