If you missed Kit Malthouse's interview in the Times, earlier this month, I recommend tracking it down (or clicking the link at the bottom of this post - if you are feeling lazy).
In it, the Housing Minister discusses his intention to increase housing delivery in the UK - a challenge he describes as "an urgent moral mission". Most eye-catchingly, he states that “If we want to achieve 300,000 homes a year, we need to have one million homes in production and four to five million in planning.”.
Whilst the Housing Minister's intentions are clear (and remarkably consistent with his many predecessors), it is less clear precisely how these numbers are to be achieved.
The current Conservative government has consulted on a large number of planning reforms. They have, however, been much slower to get the changes onto the statute book. We are still waiting for a number of promised regulations, including those that would allow for the introduction of Starter Homes on a wide-scale.
The changes that have been introduced so far, most notably the Revised NPPF, contain a number of mixed messages or, even worse, omissions. For example; championing large increases in housing numbers whilst, simultaneously, strengthening greenbelt protections and neighbourhood planning; or failing to set out clearly how the new housing delivery test would actually work.
It also doesn't help when the Secretary of State refuses large-scale residential consents, which would otherwise be approved, such as the Thornsett tower development in Purley* or a new housing estate in Kensington & Chelsea.
Whilst it is hard to argue with the government's aspirations, it is difficult to see how these housing targets will be reached without:
- A willingness to move away from localism and towards a more directed approach. Local politics too often lines up against large-scale housing delivery, particularly in the south-east (which houses the highest level of demand), and being able to look at these decisions from a more strategic (dare I say... regional) perspective may help address this issue.
- The government subsidising social housing delivery. All of the rhetoric about greedy developers not wanting to deliver affordable housing completely overlooks the fact that they are the ONLY ones who are required to do so. Over recent years central government has cut public subsidy for affordable housing to the bone, and the cap on local authority borrowing prevented councils from raising finance for development schemes on the open market. The combination of which has led to a massive drop in local authority development projects - particularly residential ones. If we are to have a hope of getting up to 300,000 homes a year this has to change.
- A willingness to invest in the support network and infrastructure necessary to deliver such an ambitious building programme. I don't just mean physical infrastructure, such as transport, education, utilities etc. but also funding further education colleges (we need more builders, carpenters and skilled engineers); giving more money to local authorities - so they can recruit and resource their planning departments properly and not have to sacrifice their policy teams in favour of development control (or vice versa); investing in and subsidising alternative or innovative methods of construction and generally smoothing away the stumbling blocks that delay starts on site.
As admirable as the sentiment is, I am not sure that asking the sector to 'Keep Calm and Carry on Building' will be enough....
* a decision which is now under judicial review: https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1522806/developer-launches-legal-challenge-against-brokenshires-south-london-tower-refusal
It is a challenge he calls “an urgent moral mission”, which means he is happy to mix his metaphors .... to send the message that now is the time to get building. Credit is cheap, demand is “fundamentally” strong, progress is being made in the off-site manufacture of housing, and, vitally, the drive has Treasury backing. A note of caution accompanies these statements, however. “The financial crash wiped out capacity in the construction industry,” he says. The recent rebound in housebuilding may represent “the largest expansion since the war, but we will have to take a step of the same size again to meet targets”. He continues: “If we want to achieve 300,000 homes a year, we need to have one million homes in production and four to five million in planning.”