Hugh Petter's thoughts on Housing White Paper 2017

'Fixing our broken housing market’, DCLG’s Housing White Paper, has been published. Hugh Petter reviews whether it will address the current housing crisis.

Some good ideas but is it enough?

We have waited a long time for the Housing White Paper to appear and, whilst it does contain some good ideas, I do not think it looks hard enough into the underlying issues that are the cause of the housing crisis we currently have in the UK.

The lamentable quality of much new development means that it is often, at the most basic level, not popular. In turn this makes weak local authorities nervous about identifying sites, especially larger sites. The significant number of authorities who do not have a current local plan and/or a five year land supply illustrates this core problem. Whilst the Housing White Paper says that the Government will require local authorities to remedy this situation, it does not say how? Any remedy will take years to work its way through the system, so this is by no means a quick fix.

Some local authorities have strong political leadership and high quality officers. Others are severely hampered by weak members and low-grade officers who frustrate development by their inability to engage positively with developers and to plan at a strategic level. Additional funding may help this position, but it is only part of the answer.

A five year land supply is not long enough. Clearing planning conditions and agreeing S106 terms can take years. Any housing site rarely sells more than 100 homes per year, and many considerably less.

That rate of sale is determined by the market, both in terms of the supply of components and labour, and local purchasers. Within five years therefore, it is only possible to build out more small housing estates that rely upon existing town centres for their services and infrastructure. This does not create good new sustainable urban places where it is possible to have a low carbon lifestyle. Local authorities need to plan long term both for the expansion of existing settlements, and for the creation of new settlements. Once long term strategic plans are in place, they can then be delivered in 5 year chunks, with each phase of development contributing positively to a longer term vision, so helping with the delivery of the necessary infrastructure and services for low carbon lifestyles.

The Government is keen to accelerate delivery. Because of the typical rates of sale mentioned above, the HCAs fixation with pushing for rapid delivery on sites is misplaced. The Government should focus instead upon a sustainable rate of delivery, and to accelerate the overall pace across the country by opening up more sites for development. We can only hope that Homes England reviews their approach in this light.

One of the biggest impediments to development is the planning system which remains a complete muddle. The extraordinary complex, expensive and protracted process of securing a planning consent is one of the key reasons why more development in the UK is produced by the PLC housebuilders now than at any time in the past because they have the resources to drive schemes through this labyrinthine process.

More funding for SME developers will help this situation a bit, but the whole process needs radical simplification to accelerate and de-risk the process if the supply chain is to be strengthened and diversified as the Government desires.

The suggestion in the White Paper that planning consents should be withdrawn if they are not built out within a defined timeframe is bizarre. The rate of delivery will be controlled of course by the market. The threat of withdrawal of consent will only act as a further disincentive to housebuilders from bringing forward land, especially in areas where the market is relatively weak.

The ongoing fixation with building low energy homes in isolation is disappointing. You can live in a zero carbon home, but if you have to use your car to go about your everyday life, your lifestyle is anything but zero carbon! The point above about long term strategic planning is relevant in this context, making new places that are sustainable because they enable people to live low carbon lifestyles.

The encouragement of pre-fab housing may help to create more homes quickly, but unless the places that these development create are properly designed, they will simply be more low grade dormitory housing estates of the kind that similar initiatives have produced in the past.

We can only hope that the feedback that comes from this consultation will help to join at least some of the dots that this White Paper identifies and so begins to make a difference to the current crisis.

Link to the full White Paper

Hugh Petter, Director, ADAM Architecture
8th February 2017