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Monday21 August 2017

The white paper that wasn’t worth the wait

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The housing white paper promises much but does little to tackle the real issues we’re facing, finds Julia Park

Julia Park, head of research at Levitt Bernstein

The long-awaited housing white paper begins well. The government has grasped the fact that there is a housing crisis, that the problem is one of affordability as well as undersupply, and that you can’t solve one without tackling the other. It recognises that home ownership is not the only answer, that private renting is here to stay and that we need more homes of all tenures. In the first couple of pages, the prime minister talks about “a comprehensive approach that tackles failure at every point in the system”, and the secretary of state promises “radical, lasting reform that will get more homes built right now and for many years to come”.

The general direction of travel is good and there are some welcome initiatives. Reducing the maximum period between obtaining planning permission and starting on site from three years to two, is helpful, as is a new requirement to provide progress reports on build-out rates. The reduced quota for starter homes (down from 20% of all new homes, to part of a 10% quota for “affordable home ownership products”) is a welcome climb-down. The support for SMEs, custom build and off-site manufacture is serious, and backed up by funding, albeit that it’s not new money. In a number of areas, things feel better than they did nine months ago when the Housing & Planning Bill was forced through parliament.

But the problem with a big build up is that you risk disappointing people. There’s a lot of telling us what we already know (repeating back most of the things we’ve been telling them for the last five years) and too many of the proposals sound better than they are. What was reported as a commitment to introduce guaranteed three-year tenancies for private renters turns out to be an undertaking to discuss the idea with landlords. We learn that discounted starter homes will be reserved for lower earners – only to discover that the income cap is £80,000 (or £90,000 in London). At more than three times the average national household income that must have astonished most would-be buyers. Many others will be wondering what Theresa May’s pledge “to make Britain a country that works for everyone” (repeated in the white paper) actually means.

Local authorities must be disappointed too. Though leaked soundbites promised to “empower” them, the measures announced amount to little more than forcing them to carry out “realistic needs assessments” - something we all imagined was happening already. And despite many calls to lift the borrowing cap to allow local authorities to build again (still the only way we’re likely to get close to building the number of homes we need) fiscal help amounts to permission to increase planning fees by up to 20%. Quizzed by MPs on the issue of raising the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), Javid said only: “If they need money they can come and talk to me.”

There is nothing on making viability appraisals transparent, tackling foreign investors or imposing penalties for landbanking. The only mention of social renters is a reminder of the number of people who have been helped by Right to Buy. During the questions that followed the announcement, Javid confirmed there is no prospect of reconsidering the enforced sale of high-value council housing, noting that local authorities currently only get one third of the proceeds and government the rest.

The swipe at space standards is predictable. History tells us that housing crises are cyclical events and that the knee-jerk response of most governments has been to get rid of standards – starting with space standards. The irony is that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. We already have enough homes for every household in England and enough bedrooms to have one each. The awkward bit is that nearly all of us live in the “wrong home” (a phenomenon that incidentally makes assessing “real housing need” a rather academic exercise). It’s not getting any better. Under-occupancy (defined as having two or more bedrooms more than you need) has doubled in the last 10 years, and overcrowding is also rising fast.

One of the reasons for our high levels of under-occupancy is the fact that we build a lot of small bedrooms and not enough storage. Families find they need at least one spare bedroom to make up for the lack of storage. This, and more, formed part of the balanced and informed debate that took place during the 2012-15 Housing Standards Review. Despite being a deregulatory exercise, it led to the introduction of the Nationally Described Space Standard; a move considered necessary by 80% of those who responded to the consultation. Increasing the supply of well-designed one- and two-bedroom homes with sensibly distributed space and plenty of storage is critical to incentivising downsizing. Using land and existing housing stock more efficiently will be an essential factor in solving both the housing crisis and the crisis in social care – new homes alone simply won’t be enough.

The schizophrenic approach to localism is another part of the problem. It can’t be easy when your Tory colleagues are obsessed with protecting the green belt and your voters are the very people who object to new development. It must be awkward when Neighbourhood Plans come up with the “wrong answer” and difficult when you don’t really know what good design looks like because so much of the housing we build today hasn’t really been designed at all.

And that’s arguably the greatest concern. Overall it’s difficult to see how these measures will lead to well-planned, good quality, sustainable development. For all the talk of building “the right homes in the right places”, the pressure to grant permission for any new development anywhere that people are prepared to accept it, is likely to be huge. New housing has to be supported by schools, hospitals, community facilities and shops if it’s going to produce the sort of places that allow mixed communities to thrive. This is even more important in higher-density development on brownfield land because urban areas are already the most stretched. The next million homes we build need to be good, need to last and need to be designed by architects. If it just amounts to panic building we’ll face a worse problem in 50 years’ time. This is a start but there is a very long way to go.

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Readers' comments (8)

  • The problem with the London centric, liberal left, is their grasp of “reality” is almost totally limited to that of the bubble they appear to live in. Being surrounded by like-minded people tends to prevent the possibility there is a reality outside that bubble. The only “solution” is the creation of a socialist utopia that depends entirely on an endless supply of money funded from taxing the “underserving” despicable rich until they bleed to death.

    Another being the punitive and in many cases spiteful “demand” to “tackle” free trade or their abundant enthusiasm for “imposing penalties” on all entrepreneurial endeavour. (Immigrants are welcome to build houses but foreign investment to pay for them isn’t.) Having the temerity to take a “swipe” at the obvious limitations of overly prescriptive space standards is yet another example of the type of obnoxious intolerance the political left love to indulge in.

    The White Paper may not be everything wanted by the myopic political left but I would rather listen to the more reasoned response of Shelter’s Roger Harding on last night’s Newsnight who’s analysis of the housing crisis could not be faulted.

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  • The main issue is the planning system taking too long and choking supply. Poor service from the LPA's, too many pre-commencement conditions, drawn out S106 negotiations with poor performing legal officers, and for the more out of town developments a myriad of ecology windows that can stop commencement for up to 8 months. All of this prevents a speedy start on site. The remaining issues raised are side issues in my opinion.

    Planning fees should be drastically increased (always thought they were too cheap anyway) to give LPA's the right resource. It's an added cost that will come off the land price so developers won't be impacted or complain. Maybe all schemes over 50 units also need to be under a Planning Performance Agreement (for another cost) so speed things up from both ends. Quicker planning means quicker build period and shorter borrowing period so landowners will easily recoup any drop in land price, as the savings get passed down to the land owner.


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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    I have the advantage of living on a housing estate designed in the 1960s to Parker Morris standards. There is an amazing amount of storage, all built in - eleminating the need to buy cupboards and wardrobes - and the original fitted kitchen (with lots of cupboards) is still in good nick. Those who think it's clever to knock "The Sixties" need to think harder. Thanks to Julia Park for saving me the trouble of wading through the White Paper. First the Tories created the housing crisis by introducing Right to Buy (and the neoliberal Blairite Labour governments did nothing to fix it) and now they are confessing what some of us have known all along: that it was a terrible mistake that led to real human suffering. And how do the Tories propose to solve the problem? By doing a little hand-wringing, and not much real help for the main players: the local authorities, which the Tories are determined to eliminate completely by cutting off 100% of the goverment grant in the eventuality, God forbid, that they win the next General Election. Instead (you trendy putter-downers of the Sixties) take a look at how Labour's housing policy is shaping up under the political guidance of Jeremy Corbyn and the excellent detailed work by Shadow Housing Minister John Healey and his team. Architects should get involved in this and help to shape it.

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  • You are wrong - for politicians just numbers are the point

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    I suspect say that from a position of totally not knowing anything about it, and not even wanting to know. Get up and get active!

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  • Mike Hounslow, "too many pre-commencement conditions, drawn out S106 negotiations with poor performing legal officer" is being a tad disingenuous. There is often fault on both sides, with S106s often neither adhered to or enforced.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    S106 should be abolished. It's basically a green light for authorities and developers to barter on the give-away of things that ought to be 100% public.

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  • It is quite simple really.
    While majority of the voters are homeowners government has no real incentive to do anything about bringing house prices down.

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