I have been reflecting on whether the Government’s latest housing proposals will achieve Sajid Javid’s ambitions for “radical, lasting reform” and create a “new, positive, mindset to house building”.
Inevitably, some commentators have been critical and dismissive of the White Paper. It is true that it uses some of the same language as the 2007 Planning White Paper. It is also clear that there is no quick fix to the housing crisis.
However there is some hope that the Government’s approach to addressing the “whole house building process” will deliver solutions over time. The White Paper helps to demonstrate that the Government understands what is required in each of its four steps of this process, and that collective minds should be focused on achieving results.
I have the following observations on some of the proposals:
- Engaging local communities – the White Paper encourages local communities to decide where developments should go through the local plan process. Local people generally get involved at the planning application stage, so there need to be innovative solutions to encourage engagement in local plans. We need to find ways of getting younger generations and the silent majority more involved at the plan making stage, which would act as a counter balance to those who are more interested in protecting their areas than meeting growth needs.
- Maximising the use of suitable land – it is right that we should be seeking to maximise the use of land and to build at higher densities, particularly if our major cities are not going to be able to expand outwards. The difference between “maximise” and “optimise” may be subtle, but there will be plenty of debate if the NPPF states that the use of suitable land should be maximised and that the potential of sites to accommodate development should be optimised.
- Encouraging more Build to Rent – the explicit support for expanding BTR has been welcomed, particularly to promote affordable private rental homes instead of other tenures of affordable housing. The critical factor will be whether there is sufficient clarity to level the playing field so that providers can buy land and accelerate the delivery of new homes. Introducing land use zoning would have been a radical solution to provide more help to the sector.
- Sharpening local authority tools – alongside plans to free up the use of completion notices, two year planning permissions could threaten development. There will be an additional burden of proof to show that this shorter timescale will hinder viability and deliverability. Two years is a short time to do detailed design, discharge conditions, raise finance, do land deals, select contractors and respond to market conditions. Some funders may baulk at meeting high costs of securing a planning permission that only last two years.
- Backing local authorities to build – it is helpful that there is positive encouragement and tools in place for local authorities to build homes. However, local authorities shouldn’t see it as their role to build only when the market isn’t coming forward with enough homes. Strong local leadership is needed to produce ambitious long term visions to overcome the complicated challenges of developing public sector land.
- Boosting local authority resources – the White Paper acknowledges the perennial problem of the need for skills and capacity in planning authorities. Given that housing has risen up the political agenda, more should be done to boost the income of planning departments. It would be worth identifying wider funding to recruit, train and retain talent to deliver ambitious plans for housing growth and to overcome the challenges of red tape.
Let’s hope that we can look back in a few years and finally be able to say that this White Paper helped to make a big difference.