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The Housing White Paper[i] – a commentary

I know the formula that “fixes our broken housing market”: it is ….. wc(C3IR2)

C3 is three lots of courage. Courage is going to be needed by LPA officers, members and their constituents to bring forward local plans that meets objectively assessed need for development, particularly housing.  Even after carefully assessing what can be brought forward on brownfield sites, greenfield sites are inevitably going to be needed, and they might include land that is now in the Green Belt. The White Paper is clear that in the past “public attitudes” have too often driven the decision-takers’ response and they must no longer “duck difficult decisions” in plan-making and decision-taking.  Bringing forward a local plan quickly, taking a risk with a proportionate evidence base that does not cover every conceivable angle, will at least initially take courage – if you take a “chance” and get it wrong you may be told to “go back to the Old Kent Road”.

Courage is also going to be needed by the Secretary of State and his inspectors. While the White Paper sets out his current thinking and seeks answers to questions put in consultation, he too is not going to be able to “duck difficult decisions”.  In appeal decisions, examination reports and considering the new annual 5 year supply statements, inspectors and the Secretary of State will need to have the courage to do the right thing.

Courage is inevitably needed by investors; the White Paper demands a lot of them. Institutional investors are now asked to invest (and take the lead?) in the ‘housing for rent’ sector; landowners and promoters must risk costs and profits now and not postpone investment decisions in the hope of a more favourable return from the “land bank”. Banks must lend to builders, local authorities, housing associations and the individual purchaser.

“Faint heart never won fair lady” as the Lord Chancellor intoned in Iolanthe (before going on to sing, somewhat unfortunately in the present context, “up in the air, sky high, sky high” – but I’ll gloss over that!). 

‘I’ is for integrity – the judgment of planning professionals is going to come under intense scrutiny.  Have the LPA’s advisors “told them straight”? Is the development industry being honest and robust when it says ‘site A’ is deliverable and will contribute ‘x’ units to the 5 year supply? Even if the Secretary of State succeeds in taking the conflict out of establishing Objectively Assessed Need with a robust new methodology that leaves little or no wriggle room, there is so much more that the profession needs to be objective and honest about.

Next comes a double-dose of R: realism and resources. Realism needs to infuse the thoughts and actions of developers, landowners, LPA and the community alike. The plan-led system is not well served by a plan that ‘fails’ 12 months after it is adopted because it does not contain enough allocated sites to survive the odd ‘blip’ down the track.  But neither it is well served by objections that simply extend the independent examination of plans by months or years.  The proposed change to the test of soundness that a submitted plan must be “an” appropriate strategy not “the most” appropriate is going to take some getting used to.  If a site is not in the submitted plan, it is going to be much more difficult than it is even now to persuade an inspector to add it post submission. Landowners will also have to understand and accept that if their land is put forward for development, it must not be withdrawn again if the ‘price’ turns out to be ‘not quite right’.

It is also time for a dose of realism with regard to the Green Belt.  To some local people it has become something of a shibboleth.  It should not come as a shock that a ‘ring fence’ set up many decades ago has served its purpose and we are now firmly in the realm of “exceptional circumstances” if we are to meet the current and future need for housing.  The White Paper sails as close to the wind as the Secretary of State dares – but it comes as no surprise that an ‘impish’ Speaker, having been rebuked (kindly) by the Secretary of State for ‘knocking him off the front pages’ and the early morning news bulletins, should call the MP for Sutton Coldfield to ask the first question in the House following the oral statement on the White Paper, nor that the MP in question ‘had another go’ at the recent loss of 6,000 houses worth of Green Belt in his constituency.  If MPs and Councillors can’t be realistic, what hope is there for those who look to them for leadership?  We all laughed at Jim Hacker’s immortal line “but Humphrey, I am their leader … I must follow them” – but it is not really funny any more; the housing crisis is too serious for that.

The second ‘R’ is for Resources.  The Secretary of State must not fall into the trap (that I constantly do at home) of making extravagant promises that cannot be delivered. Council planning departments need to be properly resourced.  The tax-payer and the private sector are apparently to be asked to make substantial investments of time and money. House-builders are going to be required to take on apprentices, be more transparent, share large plots with small and medium sized builders and accept affordable housing and infrastructure costs that appear to them to be sub-optimal.

Finally, wise counsel (wc) – and the pun is obviously intended – is the going to be the force-multiplier.  Delivering housing should not be a zero-sum game. 

With apologies to Rowan Atkinson: “We must ask ourselves crucial questions. Where are we? How did we get here? Why did we come? Where do we want to go? How do we want to get to where we want to go? How far do we have to go before we get to where we want to be? How would we know where we were when we got there? HAVE WE GOT A MAP? Why did we leave places to get to where we are? Where were we before that we had to leave to get to where we before we knew we’re going to go to where we want to be? Where would we end up if we had the choice? Where would we end up if we didn’t have the choice? What would we choose given the choice? Do we have that choice to choose? Or indeed can we be choosy about the choosings?”

There is only one choosing – it’s wc(C3IR2).

Hugh Richards is a planning barrister at No5 Barristers’ Chambers.

[i] A ‘bullet point’ summary of the measures in the White Paper by the same author also appears on this website