Housing White Paper – the Enemy Within? 

I’ve been struggling to find inspiration in 2017 but…anticipation builds in the run-up to the DCLG’s forthcoming White Paper on reform to the housing market and planning regimes?  Feels like déjà vu or déjà vécu.  Various governments have been trying to find the policy lever or levers that increase housing supply for more than a decade and, with the possible exception of the desperate subsidies to prevent a national housing market recession in 2008-2010, there hasn’t really been an effective policy mechanism to promote housing supply in that time.

Whilst the planning system has been a convenient scapegoat, I’ve mentioned quite a lot of times the visceral hostility that new housing developments tend to receive.  The Conservative Party seems to suffer from a collective disassociative identity disorder in this respect.  It was nicely illustrated in a piece in the FT a few weeks ago.

Sajid Javid is facing opposition to reforms to the housing market from MPs, including some senior ministers, because of fears there will be a “huge backlash in Middle England”. The communities secretary will publish a housing white paper later this month to try to accelerate homebuilding figures despite misgivings from Theresa May about a potential rebellion by Tory MPs over the issue. Despite positive housebuilding data, Mr Javid has warned that current levels of construction are “nowhere near good enough” after the failure of successive governments to take action. “I’m not talking about small tweaks, building 1,000 homes here or there,” he said recently. “I’m talking about major, long-lasting reform.” The most contentious issue is a plan to force councils to increase the number of homes in the local plans that they are required to produce. The prime minister still remembers, according to people familiar with the debate, the reaction from the shires when the coalition sought to overhaul the planning system five years ago through changes to the national planning policy framework (NPPF). “You have to remember that Theresa May is MP for quite a leafy home counties seat where people are probably not very gung-ho about new homes being built,” said one official, while a senior Tory MP said: “It’s not just May who has issues with this, other senior ministers are very concerned. They just can’t speak out because they are ministers.”

It often boils down to the fact that most homeowners have little to gain and usually something to lose from new development.

I’m organising a panel discussion for students here in a few weeks on the constraints to new housing supply looking at the capacity of the housing industry, the structure of the house building sector, the situation on land supply and the role of the planning system among other things.  This is all fairly well trodden ground and the DCLG Select Committee are currently inquiring into the capacity of the housebuilding sector.  It’s interesting – if you’re interested in this stuff.

Whilst Gavin Barwell has been announcing the bucolic sounding garden towns and villages programme, a planner that I know well has been “amazed” (not in a good way) about the latest proposed planning ‘reform’ from the same Gavin Barwell.  It seems likely to result in a reduction in the supply of housing land with planning permission.  The aggressive litigious response (their letter can be found here.) by a consortium of land owners, promoters and house builders to Barwell’s Written Ministerial Statement on Neighbourhood Planning and Housing Land Supply on 12th December 2016 illustrates how bad they think the proposed changes are – it seems to effectively reduce a local authority’s requirement to have a five year housing land supply to a three year housing land supply.

Like the Conservative Party’s rather schizophrenic attitude to new development, the whole debate sounds dated and topical at the same time.  But – the housing supply show must go on.

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