Tuesday 7 February 2017 8:42 pm

Government has the skeleton of a plan to fix UK housing: Now it needs the drive to actually do it

Alex Morton is director at Field Consulting.

The government’s Housing White Paper, released yesterday, was an attempt to get England to the 250,000 new homes a year required to reach housing need. It went in many good directions and created a skeleton of a system that could meet need – but in places it did not go far enough, and perhaps pulled its punches.

On planning, for example, the policy to actually require the delivery of homes in each council area is an excellent one (and long overdue). But there are no real sanctions, and would the government really be happy if, by 2020, councils only delivered 65 per cent of the local housing need in their area? Across the whole of England that would mean around 160,000 homes a year were built – well short of the 250,000 target and coming after decades of undersupply.

This is not to say that the White Paper is all bland. The large developers are unlikely to be happy with moves that force transparency about the speed of build on sites and that allow the seizure of land where a site stalls. But as communities secretary Sajid Javid’s reception in the Commons yesterday showed, these measures are popular with the Tory backbenches. Councillors and MPs have grown frustrated with the gap between the granting of planning permissions and new homes being delivered. Indeed, it is quite possible that, if the sector plays this wrong, the next round of measures will be even more punitive.

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In other areas, there was sometimes a gap between goal and policy. On build-to-rent, for example, it is unclear whether the government’s proposed measures will be enough to really drive the sector.

While May’s team want to support ownership, they also think they simply need to help renters struggling now. But this message didn’t quite land. At times, the rhetoric was in danger of going too far towards favouring renting despite the government (and this White Paper) in policy terms backing shared ownership, for example, as well as renting for those who cannot own.

The Tory backbenches showed a muted response to the shift to support renting as they couldn’t quite see what the aim was. Labour asked why, if renting is now a major goal, we didn’t just build a million council homes – difficult ground to be on. If you really want to encourage emerging sectors like build-to-rent, you need to protect them with a stronger political narrative and stronger policy as well as set out their limits.

On the issue of pushing the Tory party to become more pro-development, particularly on the Greenbelt, the government has (sadly) on balance tightened the policy to placate MPs. However, deep down, intelligent people in government know that the policy will have to change – and thinking from all sides needs to take place now.

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Building on patches of scrubby wasteland that are called Greenbelt because they happened to be on the wrong side of a bureaucrat’s pen one day is not radical, it is common sense – but the gains from doing so need to be made more tangible if it is going to get widespread support and overcome the Tory atavistic love of England’s rolling fields (even if the reality of the Greenbelt is quite different).

On infrastructure and design, there were good ideas packed into the White Paper, but I suspect they weren’t quite strong or fleshed out enough to increase backing for new homes in many Tory areas – the devil will be in the detail of how this goes forward.

Overall this was a positive White Paper – intelligent in many ways, although occasionally lacking in the vision of how it all hung together. But this White Paper was mostly about setting a direction of travel and it could be that it will deliver the change we need. It is now up to the sector to respond intelligently and sensitively – housing and planning has never been more high profile – and for the government to implement the measures in a way that links everything together and delivers the homes Britain needs.

The system is broken. The question is whether this White Paper was the last gasp before truly radical reform, or if we can make the current housing and planning system deliver.