1. Governance
February 8, 2017

“We need politicians to be really honest with people”: on the gaps in the housing white paper

By Claire Porter

This was not a housing white paper that would see the chancellor in a hard hat being gleefully greeted by a happy major house builder.

The narrative is markedly different to that of previous governments, and lays responsibility for the housing crisis in a multitude of directions – rather than at the feet of the planning system. House builders, as well as both central and local government, are expected to take responsibility for a crisis where we need to build a quarter of a million homes a year to try to catch up.

There is a lot to be pleasantly surprised with in this approach, and much of it sets a bold direction. The support for SME builders is very much welcome – the sector has been dominated by a small group of national builders who often prioritise very large scale developments for too long – as is the two year time limit on builders to develop land for which they have planning permission.

Giving councils the power to reclaim land that isn’t built on may actually be the kick the housing sector needs to start delivering at scale.

However – and there has to be a however, because if solving the housing crisis was as simple as fixing a couple of incentives and a few bits of legislation, this would have either been fixed yonks ago – clearly, there’s a much bigger problem to be solved.

It seems to be this – there’s a distinct lack of real leadership from both central and local government. The fact that neither party will even open a discussion regarding the greenbelt shows the level of reluctance. According to Lord Matthew Taylor and Policy Exchange, only 12.2 per cent of land outside of London is developed – even taking into account farmland and a desire to protect a huge proportion of greenbelt, there is an awful lot of land there up for debate. 

Allowing everyone to have a decent quality home will lower demand, and therefore house prices. We know this, it’s basic economics – and yet barely anyone in either local or central government will openly say it.

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We need politicians to be really honest with people who are lucky enough to own their own home, and to tell people that they may well have to take a financial hit to allow struggling families and young people to live in a decent home. It’s not going to be popular, but it’s a level of realism that we are going to have to live with.

We also need to be better at acknowledging that building more homes is not just a case of quickly building some blocks of flats – there’s a whole host of infrastructure and quality related issues to deal with. Building more homes near transport hubs sounds perfectly logical, but as anyone who travels on the Northern Line on the London Underground will tell you, infrastructure has to keep up. This is going to involve huge investment from central government, as well as long term planning across multiple councils.

Which brings us to the next issue – how are local authority planners are going to have the capacity to deal with these extra powers over house building? Planning departments have been decimated in recent years. The problem with building housing is that it’s pretty permanent – you can’t decide you don’t like it in five years and start again.

So we need to create places with proper infrastructure, green spaces, decent space standards, good design, access to transport and culture – the things that make life worth living. This takes time, and highly skilled planners.

Not only would this create the homes that we need, it would also go a long way to tackling the opposition and fear of development that is causing the shortage in the first place.

There is obviously a natural conflict for local politicians between those who oppose development and those who need it, and often those who shout the loudest get listened to the most. But we can’t go on ignoring the millions of people who are currently shut of the housing market.

It is time for politicians to step up, take the flack, and build the homes that we need.

Claire Porter is head of external affairs, and Adam Lent director, of the New Local Government Network.

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