Quote of the Day:

“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go

“I’m filling the cracks that ran through the door
And kept my mind from wandering
Where it will go

“And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong
I’m right”

            Lennon-McCartney

After a number of false starts and, allegedly, Number 10 insisting on taking control of the document themselves, it’s all about housing today. At least it is providing a welcome diversion for the government from BREXIT and the NHS so they have really gone to town on pushing the White Paper up the news agenda.

There was some confusion earlier on when Donald Trump appeared to take over the DCLG twitter account, putting out a tweet about ‘fatcat developers’ being forced to implement planning consents. Initially, we also weren’t sure who had actually written or put out the paper given the Sajid Javid’s Special Advisers spent the entire morning just tweeting references to speculative press articles, which led some to question whether the Ministerial team had actually read it or were just waiting for Number 10 to show them a copy of the rewrite.

In the Foreword by Theresa Maybe, the innovative and radical insight was made that we need to build more homes – I’m glad we’ve waited so many months for that. Mrs Maybe also said we need more land, so we just need to wait for the announcement that new land is being produced as we speak. Hot on the heels of this unique approach was the revelation that we need to implement consents and diversify the market.  Sajid Javid then went on to talk about the need for lasting reform, which is why they are introducing yet more change.

And so to the substance… The big headline is the shift away from home-ownership being the be-all and end-all to an equal focus on renters and build to rent. This is a welcome move from the government and marks the success of the long-term lobbying campaign by the property industry. It is also a significant break from the Cameron/Osborne era and we may be able to expect the Budget to reflect this in March.

The Paper pushed the regional devolution agenda as key to addressing local housing shortfalls and dynamics. This is a positive move for those areas going down the devolution route but more problematic for those not on that railroad yet. It also, conveniently, helps the government devolve any blame for non-delivery whilst still being able to claim credit for success (or perhaps I’m being too cynical).

There is actually much that will be welcomed in the paper, if not quite a few details which need to be ironed out and a few aspects which seem unrealistic. However, never let that get in the way of a sarcastic canter through policy:

The People Are Revolting!

The paper identifies that over 40% of local authorities do not have an up to date local plan. This is not news, but the Paper does also focus on the fact that the prime reason for this is the way in which local politicians respond to local attitudes towards housing – not that the Paper mentions the word NIMBY or the BANANA phenomenon, but, reading between the lines, that is what it means.

The Fatcats Are Getting Fatter

Landbanking rears its head again as a cause for concern. Despite successive governments having failed to find genuine evidence of landbanking, it is still regarded as one of the primary reasons for development being slow. And this government is going to stop it… Just so long as they don’t launch yet another enquiry into landbanking, throwing academics rather than solutions at the problem has never really seemed to work long-term. In this instance it is really more focused on ensuring developers implement permissions more quickly and therefore land use is made more efficient, so it is a mild accusation at this stage.

It’s Just Not Fair…

Too few firms, building too many of the homes means competition and diversification of construction methods just isn’t happening. Everyone has known this for years, no one has succeeded in doing anything about it so good luck with that one.

Local Authorities Aren’t Cutting It

Local authorities come in for criticism regarding their approach to consenting schemes, assessing land supply, interpreting the planning system, working with developers and other local authorities – and a whole host of other things really.

And This Is What We’re Going To Do About It…

So, some interesting measures being proposed:

  • A new standard methodology will be produced to calculate ‘objectively assessed need’ which means local authorities can no longer use their own approach and effectively abdicate responsibility for housing numbers.
  • Increasing transparency around land ownership – apparently this will put communities back in control and reduce speculative development. Personally, I have no idea how it will achieve this, but that’s what it says in the Paper…
  • Local authorities will be enabled to take action against developers who secure permission but don’t use it. In part, this will come from the introduction of higher fees and capacity funding from the government to develop planning departments and plan making. The Paper also makes it clear that Government will intervene if plans are not up to date or housing numbers are not being delivered. Plans are to be reviewed at least once every five years – which will have some planning officers weeping into their wilted sandwiches as they celebrate getting a Plan to issues and options stage after four years…
  • The development of a planning framework more supportive of higher levels of development with a quicker determination process, tackling delays caused by planning conditions and an improved approach to developer contributions. At the same time as making it easier for local communities to get involved and shape plans for their area and have a say in the design of new housing. Of course, that works!
  • Enabling local authorities to take into account the track record of delivery of an applicant  when determining whether to grant consent. Possibly controversial, but an understandable measure and one which is probably unofficially used anyway.
  • Introduction of local accountable New Town Development Corporations – although refreshingly this government doesn’t seem to think that New Towns will save us and solve all of our problems.
  • Amendments to the NPPF to give local authorities the opportunity to have their housing land supply agreed on an annual basis and fixed for a one-year period. Added to this, holding up the recent test case, NPs will not be deemed out of date unless there is a significant lack of land supply. This is a significant shift and could have a huge impact on development proposals and long-term plans in some areas which choose the annual rather than the five year route.
  • Diversification of the market:
    • Encouraging smaller builders through better access to loan finance.
    • Supporting housing associations to build through additional funding and clarity on future rent levels in return for them building significantly more affordable homes.
    • Exploring options for local authorities to build again (whisper it, could this be the return of some form of state-funded building programmes??!).
    • Boost BTR through a clear long-term framework in return for support to build more homes across tenures.
    • Make it easier to self-build.
    • Encourage higher densities in urban locations and review space standards.
    • Amending the NPPF to give stronger support for sites providing affordable homes to local people.

In return for all of the marvellous things which the government is intending to do, Government expects developers to build more homes, engage with communities and promote the benefits of development. As the MD of a company which specialises in helping developers engage with communities to promote the benefits of development this is all, of course, rather wonderful. However, it still doesn’t answer the question of how you square the circle when a community is utterly hostile (despite all of those benefits being promoted) and the decision-makers want to stay elected. Answers on a postcard if anyone has a solution to that conundrum please.

On the other hand, in return for all of the wonderful things which will be delivered to communities through more simplistic plan-making, the government “asks communities to accept that more housing is needed if future generations are to have the homes they need at a price they can afford.” So, that’s that then, problem solved…

Local authorities also get a heap of obligations placed on them, not least the need to produce a Statement of Common Ground with neighbouring authorities, enforcing the duty to co-operate. Not only that, but there is going to be a system of Strategic Plans which set out priorities for areas crossing local authority boundaries as well as Spatial Development Strategies to cover the new combined authorities. All that sounds dangerously like regional planning to me, next we will be having the return of Regional Offices…

The Paper also expects infrastructure providers to step up to the plate to ensure that development is not delayed. This is to be achieved, at least in part, through the improved approach to developer contributions, whatever that actually means.

Basically, we all need to sing in harmony and work together – which really reflects the general global trend at the moment, everyone working in collaboration and understanding. Still, it’s good to have a vision of peace.

The Greenbelt

Possibly in the face of a Tory Shires revolt, the greenbelt remains sacrosanct – except for when it isn’t. As per usual, no clarification is given on the fact that there is much brownfield land within the greenbelt so the mistaken and deliberate confusion over this by opponents to general or specific development will be able to continue unfettered.

There is to be a strengthened presumption in the NPPF that brownfield land is suitable for development, unless there are clear reasons to the contrary (again, no mention of all that brownfield land which is in the greenbelt and how that contradiction is dealt with).

The Rest

In recognition that all of this takes time to achieve, the Government has announced that it will help people now through a range of measures aimed at reducing costs for renters and owners. Measures include:

  • Making renting fairer by improving tenancy terms.
  • Cracking down on empty homes and supporting areas affected by second-homes.
  • Helping the most vulnerable.
  • Supporting households at risk of homelessness.
  • Introducing Lifetime ISAs
  • Relaxing funding to provide a range of homes including those for affordable rents

Obviously, Government doesn’t want BREXIT to influence everything. However, the White Paper highlights the skills shortage and the need to grow the construction workforce. This situation can only get worse if free movement of labour is restricted post-BREXIT and a mass exodus of East European workers takes place. Under these circumstances, the existing construction industry would pretty much stop let alone future growth.

Government is keen to hold everyone involved to account, which is fine in principle but less easy in practice. This will be something to watch in terms of how it actually plays out, whether there is a truly objective measurement and how easy it is to challenge it with independent assessments.

All the rest involves the use of windfall sites, release of public sector land, encouraging estate regeneration etc etc. All the usual which comes in every housing policy.

For more information, my team will be doing a very worthy and informative blog which will be less sarcastic and flippant than mine…