The housing white paper promises much but does little to tackle the real issues we’re facing, finds Julia Park
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.
Julia Park is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein
For more on the debate on space standards visit http://housingspacestandards.co.uk/