Following several rumours and proposed dates, it’s fair to say that anticipation surrounding the government’s housing white paper is ramping up.
Reports last week suggested that the government is serious about committing to some real reforms, it’s just a question of whether they’re the right ones.
Building on some parts of the green belt could certainly be a good start. After all, it’s not all rolling hills and nature preserves: there are many parcels of ugly scrubland crying out to be built on. And we know that by building on just one per cent of the green belt, we could deliver 1m new homes.
But the government needs to be careful to do this right. Just deregulating the planning system and placing new targets on councils, without the necessary reforms to ensure more and better development actually happens, could just lead to poor quality homes, and more opposition in the long term.
For example, simply tearing up green belt restrictions risks triggering a frenzy of speculative land trading, which would make a few landowners and traders lots of money, but wouldn’t deliver the attractive, affordable and well-planned homes we so desperately need.
Indeed, a purely deregulatory approach could exacerbate the problems we already face, if new homes are also made smaller, as has also been rumoured.
Despite some of the positive signals, the government still seems to be shying away from confronting the real villain here: our broken land market.
It’s barely discussed, but the astronomical cost of land is among the most important reasons why we can’t build enough homes. A piece of land can increase in value 300 times over once it’s been granted planning permission. This enormous cost in turn makes it harder to build affordable, high-quality homes with the roads, schools and general infrastructure that communities need.
This problem is baked into the DNA of our speculative housebuilding system, which has been failing to deliver the homes people need for decades.
The way land is organised is also vital. The government needs to look at getting sites into the hands of organisations that are ready and willing to invest in the long term and build the homes communities actually need. Setting up powerful new development corporations, for example, would be a good step towards making this a reality.
These principles should be applied to public land as well. Currently, local authorities are encouraged to sell at the highest price for a short-term gain. They should be incentivised to look at long-term projects instead.
A civic model of housebuilding ensures that land is brought forward at a lower cost which allows for genuinely affordable, high quality homes to be built to meet the needs of communities (hence “civic”). It is something we have done very successfully in the past, from the Victorian philanthropists’ model villages and the Edwardian garden cities to the post-war new towns. Even today, there are examples of genuinely affordable, beautiful and popular homes being built which are knitted into the fabric of a community.
Not only does this solve an economic problem for the government, but it could solve a political one, saving them the confrontation they are currently facing: ensuring that the new homes are built well, are attractive to local communities and are planned with communities that are actually listened to in the planning process.
This new civic model is a viable alternative to our current system. And, importantly, it works in the long term and would build support for new homes, rather than laying the foundations for continued opposition.