Dear Secretary of State for Housing, A plea for a coherent housing policy to improve housing delivery

Tue, 06 Aug 2019

Robert Jenrick, the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government will today complete his first week in office. His initial pronouncements about increasing housing delivery appear very encouraging. Added to which, his new boss Boris Johnson, seems keen to do things differently. And well he might, as the Conservative Party’s track record on housing delivery, first as the main party in a coalition, and then on its own, has been very poor.

That is not to say that the Conservative Party, has not done some positive things to improve the delivery of new homes. It plainly has. Five things immediately spring to mind: 

(i) Help to Buy: Top of the list is this scheme, which Government statistics suggest 420,000 completions have been achieved under this scheme since from inception in April 2013 to 2018. This is presently a driving force in the house building industry. And whilst it plainly does benefit house builders, the main beneficiaries have been the 365,400 first time buyers who have been helped onto the property ladder through this scheme. It has helped to save first-time buyers without access to family money from near- extinction.

 (ii) The Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development: introduced in 2012 by Eric Pickles, as Secretary of State in 2012, this is the centrepiece of the National Planning Policy Framework. It introduced the excellent and innovative idea of sustainable development being a flexible concept, which varies according to the circumstances in which each planning application is determined. Most especially, it suggests that planning permission for new housing should ordinarily be granted if a local council does not have an up-to-date development plan, or is unable to demonstrate a five year supply of housing land. This instruction was explored in detail by the Supreme Court in Suffolk Coastal v Hopkins Homes: Richborough Estates v Cheshire East [2017] UKSC 2017: the Supreme Court Justices observing that the message on improving housing delivery was “unmistakeable”

(iii) “Significantly Boost the Supply of Homes”: this little phrase also appeared in the NPPF in 2012 and is priceless as a clear message of intent. More recently the Government has said it wants to reach a target of 300,000 new homes a year. We are still a long way from that, but housing completions have recently risen to over 200,000, a level not previously seen since 2007-8.

(iv) Homes England: created under Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State in 2018, as the successor to the Homes and Communities Agency, Homes England has quickly grown to nearly 1,000 employees in a very short space of time. It has a clear instruction to assist in bringing forward sites to delivery new homes as quickly as possible. It also has some money to spend on infrastructure.

(v) Rosewell Planning Inquiries: last year the Government asked Bridget Rosewell to look into the way in which planning inquiries could be conducted more quickly, with most taking up to a year to be heard. Since housing makes up over 80% of planning appeals, this was having a negative effect on the speed of the delivery of new homes. Planning appeals delivered permission for 30,000 new homes last year, of which 20,000 were secured through just 300 public inquiries. The Planning Inspectorate have wasted no time in introduced the new Rosewell style of inquiry with immediate effect, and now planning inquiries are being heard within just 16 weeks. 

11 THINGS THAT NEED TO HAPPEN

BUT, AND IT IS A BIG BUT, the Conservative Party are on course to have presided over the worst decade of housebuilding since the Second World War. Back in 2013, Nick Boles MP the Planning Minister of the time accepted the country is in a housing crisis, observing the average age of a first time buyer had crept up to nearly 40 in some parts of the country. And in the last 12 months things have got very significantly and progressively worse, as local councils look to collapse housing targets across the country. So what needs to happen? Well, the new Minister will not short of people giving him advice. But one wonders how many of the people offering that advice are present on the front line. What is offered below are eleven brief observations from a humble foot solider living in the trenches of the housing warfare that is playing out across England right now.

1. The Government Need to Wake Up: Whilst not wishing to sound too much like Malcolm Tucker from “The Thick of It”, the Government seem blissfully unaware of the scale of the housing crisis. It does not seem to have a proper handle on it. Because if it did it did, the Government would surely do far more to solve it. Its target of delivering 300,000 homes a year is positive. But its aim to only reach that target in the middle of the next decade, looks decidedly glacial in its pace. The new Secretary of State however, does appear to get the message. At the last Conservative Party conference, he said if the party does not revive homeownership it will “lose the next election, and we’ll deserve to it”. He is right. He has also been in charge of the Oxford to Cambridge Growth Arc, which seeks to deliver 1million new homes in the area by 2050: surely one of the most positive housing initiatives of all time. He appears to be the right person for the job.

2. Stop Listening Only to Your Own Party: One could be forgiven for thinking that for the last decade the Government’s policy stance on housing has been about the Conservative Party only listening to itself. Many of the members of the Conservative Party are local councillors, who spend most of their time seeking to oppose new housing development in their area up and down the country. These councillors seem to have set the agenda for national politicians who have tolerated councils setting very low housing requirements in local plans, or too often seeking to avoid having an up-to-date local plan at all. Yet by allowing this to happen for 10 years, the Government have run headlong into a national housing crisis, which has left many young people completely disillusioned. It was all very different under Mrs Thatcher. She had no time for the old guard. She was all about the future. Under her leadership, there was a presumption in favour of development. I remember seeing a cartoon from the 1980’s of a farmer showing a young couple a sign on his farm gate: it read something like “Green Belt, except for Conservative Homes Owners”. Most importantly, she reached out to working class mostly non-Conservative voters by introducing “Right to Buy”, allowing them to buy their own council house. Tony Blair applied the same logic in reaching out to the middle class by insisting New Labour abolished “Clause 4” in respect of nationalisation. The lesson from both of these, the most successful Prime Ministers of the modern era, is that you win elections by listening not so much to your own people, as the people who do not currently vote for you. And by being brave and innovative, even if it upsets some in your own party.

3. Set the Right Housing Targets: The single biggest problem behind the Conservative’s wasted decade of under-delivery has been the utter debacle over setting the right housing requirements. Keen to win electoral support in 2010, the Conservative Party sought to abolish Regional Strategies. These strategies set housing requirements based on objective evidence deliberated over in examinations-in-public presided over by an expert panel of inspectors. Yet because they were deemed undemocratic, many local Conservative councillors hated them. But in the same way that UK monetary policy is no longer set by politicians (having been passed to the independent Bank of England instead) the same should happen with housing requirements. The decision to abolish Regional Strategies was a huge mistake, and has caused UK housing delivery to drift around aimlessly for years. Boris Johnson himself, as Mayor of London, suggested the need for the Government to revert back to Regional Strategies. The 300,000 target a year is far too low, as it fails to take proper account of the huge housing back-log which has led to average house prices being 8 times average income. But it is a start. What is really needed is a national planning strategy integrated with regional planning strategies. Steve Quartermain, the Chief Planner at the MHCLG, has advocated the benefit of a national strategy. 

4. Require Every Council to Meet its Housing Need: Local council’s routinely plan not to meet the housing needs of their own area. Absurd as that sounds, the NPPF allows this to happen. The NPPF presently permits Council’s not to meet their housing needs if there are planning constraints in their area such as Green Belt, Areas of Natural Beauty, National Parks or other designations in their area (paragraph 11(b)). But that means large parts of the country are not meeting their needs. And without Regional Strategies there is no way of re-balancing that in areas without such constraints. That is hopeless. And makes the Government’s claims that it wants to address the housing crisis look, at best, naïve. You get the housing crisis you plan for. And with paragraph 11(b) of the NPPF we are presently planning to make the housing crisis worse. The only thing that exists to try and address this ‘planning to fail’ approach is the Duty to Cooperate. But that is simply a duty to talk: it comes nowhere close to being even the start of a co-ordinated Regional Strategy. The Duty to Cooperate has not substance. And as Chris Shepley, a previous Chief Planning Inspector observed (after leaving office) it is the most dismal of inventions. He was absolutely correct.

5. Urgently Revise Housing Targets in the North: Last year, the Government introduced the Standard Method for setting local authority housing targets. That was a positive step forward, after all of the wrangling which has taken place over setting an objective assessment of need, which left many local authorities uncertain about what target to set (after Regional Strategies were abolished). But the formula which is presently adopted under the Standard Method is hopeless unambitious. It does not even add up to 300,000 dwellings a year. More significantly, whilst seeking to increase numbers in the South, the Standard Method has seen numbers collapse in the North. Leeds, and now Bradford, have moved very quickly to use it in order to abandon recently adopted local plans, with Leeds deleting 20,000 new houses from its plan already. Most of these houses were on greenfield sites. Leeds already fails to deliver any net affordable housing, once Right to Buy losses are taken into account. With most new house now being focused on urban sites, which deliver little or no affordable housing, affordable housing deliver will collapse in Leeds. It is the same in many other areas. The answer is simple: the formula in the Standard Method should be urgently changed to set higher housing targets, and in the North of England it should be tied to affordable housing delivery targets.

6. Quash the Rebellion over Housing Targets in the South: Bad as it is in the North, the real crisis in housing delivery which is now unfolding in the South. Whilst the Standard Method is showing higher housing targets in the South (albeit unconvincingly capped below housing need), some southern councils are moving quickly to evade this. This evasion is fast becoming a stampede, with various tactics being employed: for example, South Oxfordshire Council have this month failed to adopt their plan despite £490m of growth funding on offer to the county if it does; Wokingham Council are presently consulting all local residents on whether they agree with the Council that the Standard Method should be ignored in their area; and Reigate and Banstead Council have conducted a self-serving review of its out-of-date core strategy, concluding there is no need to address the higher housing requirements of the Standard Method, without any independent assessment of that review. Ministers need to stamp down on this immediately, as it will completely undermine even the 300,000 target. A failure to respond quickly speaks volumes about whether the Government really is committed to housing delivery. Ministers need to sort this out now, as it is rather more pressing than issuing press releases of visits to building sites.

7. Insist on Development Plans which are Resilient with Reserve Sites: Local authorities and residents routinely blame the development industry for failures in housing delivery. Yet, bringing forward new sites for housing is a highly complex and risky process, due to all manner of planning and land ownership constraints and delays. All of this could be avoided by requiring all local authorities to plan for 120% or 130% of housing need and embrace the concept of reserve sites. If housing delivery progresses according to plan then all well and good and these sites will not be needed in the present plan period. But when delays occur, as they plainly do, then what is the harm in having a series of reserve sites to ensure delivery is not hampered? When a recession hits, the received wisdom is that housing targets simply cannot be met. But that is not inevitable. Making a local plan more resilient to downturns by having more sites immediately available would significantly lessen the risk of under-delivery.

9. Maintain ‘Help to Buy’: The Government’s Help to Buy scheme is driving the purchase of new homes right now. House builders are building a lot more smaller homes and their target audience is first time buyers. This is helping to keep the dream of home ownership alive despite cripplingly high house prices. It would make no sense at all to remove this policy, especially given so much new housing is taking the form of high rise private rented sector flats, which offer no prospect of home ownership, affordable housing or family friendly housing.

8. Delivery a lot more Affordable Housing: Phil Barnes, the Planning Director of Barratt/ David Wilson, the UK’s largest housebuilder described the focus on urban sites as political cowardness. He is right. The favouring of brownfield sites and private rented schemes is much easier to sell politically. But it is not what the country really needs. PRS and other urban schemes often deliver very little, if any, affordable housing or family friendly housing. Yet that is easily achieved by conventional house building on greenfield land, where most sites can deliver a policy compliant level (between 25% or 50% affordable housing). Only 11% of the country is built on. So, contrary to popular belief, we are not short on land to build the houses that are desperately needed. By all means allow these urban developments and private rented sector towers. There is plainly a market for it. But do not allow it to happen to the exclusion of delivering family friendly conventional homes, with gardens, play areas and parks. That is what most people aspire to. Mrs Thatcher at least knew that. The Government is spending a lot of money on affordable housing sites right now. But in truth, the market could probably deliver most of the affordable housing we need, with no cost to the public pursue.

10. Invest a Great Deal More in Infrastructure: As others have recently observed, the Government seems very keen to invest in high profile infrastructure projects. That is very positive, as the country desperately needs major infrastructure. But a great deal more needs to be invested in lots of less glamorous projects which are needed to free up housing sites. Projects such as countless road junction improvements, dual carriageways, bypasses and new railway stations. This is where Government should be spending its money, rather than funding affordable housing which the market can deliver. Mrs Thatcher, at least, know that.

11. Recognise some Green Belt land is needed for housing: It is no good saying the Government will protect the Green Belt as it is. If housing targets are to be met it is also simply not credible. Saying we will protect the Green Belt, as Conservative Ministers are keen to do is hopeless. It is a very definition of listening too much to your own party (see above). By all means aim to deliver 1million new homes in the Oxford to Cambridge Arc away from the Green Belt: that is very commendable. But it will not solve the housing crisis in London, Oxford, Cambridge or anywhere. For example, Bromley Council in London has recently adopted a local plan with an annual housing target of just 641 dwellings a year. This despite the true need under the uncapped Standard Method being over 2,000 dwellings a year. The target in the emerging New London Plan for Bromley is 1,424 dwellings a year. Bromley Council, which has hardly any land allocated for new housing in its new plan, says it cannot reach 1,400 a year without needing to build on Green Belt land. So it plainly needs to do so, if its to come anywhere close to delivering the housing its own residents needs. And it has no shortage of space to do so: over 50% of Bromley is Green Belt, which in common with much of London is now nearly 20 miles wide, despite the fact at its inception the Government of the day said the London Green Belt should only be 5 miles wide. The Leader of the House of Common, Jacob Rees Mogg, has very recently supported the idea that Green Belt policy needing to be reviewed. He is right. It is in desperate need of review. The real issue for the Secretary of State is whether he is brave enough to see the political benefits of delivering more homes in the areas where it is most needed. 

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