The housing white paper - not much stick and even less carrot!
The housing market in England is broken. This seems to have become a universal truth and, as such, it’s hard to deny. A harder proposition is to fix the blame for the failure and to fix the problem, whoever or whatever is to blame. The latest in a long line of potential fixers is the newish Communities Secretary, Sajid Javed. In February he released the long-awaited and long-overdue Housing White Paper – but is it a cure for what ails us or just another sticking plaster slapped onto the wound that never heals?
Never one to miss the chance of a football analogy in an article on planning, I’m writing only hours after the unbelievable sacking of Claudio Ranieri, the original Tinkerman, and here, in government, we have yet another tinkerman, pressing all the buttons in no particular order, in the hope that, by chance, he gets the combination right. Sajid should know that it was only when Claudio stopped tinkering that he found the answer, if only for one season – but what an answer it was.
So, what’s in the White Paper that might give us hope or lead to more despair?
Fundamental to SJ’s strategy seems to be a welcome departure from the Thatcherite ideal which, to many observers, broke the housing market in the first place – the ideas that 1) every Englishman/woman should own their own castle, and 2) the country’s prosperity went hand-in-hand with universal home-ownership. Much of the thrust in the White Paper is aimed at making it easier to instead develop purpose-built schemes for the private rental market. Affordable privately-rented homes, rather than home-ownership, is to be made easier, though this will be part of a long-term strategy change rather than a quick fix. In fact, the whole White Paper is very much a statement of intent rather than an action plan for producing the vast number of new homes that the country needs – leading to much criticism, in the press and online, that SJ has already missed an opportunity to shift the market into the higher gear that is needed.
A private rental strategy that provides young couples and families with a place on the housing ladder has got to be better than one in which rented accommodation is actually more expensive than a crippling mortgage. Truly affordable housing for rent, allowing time for all the other lifetime commitments – saving for a deposit, pensions, etc - must better than one false promise of home ownership for all. On the continent, that far-off place to which we no longer belong, most families don’t even think of home ownership until they are in their forties, simply because the private-rented market is affordable and it works. It is to be hoped that SJ has it in mind to use the German or Dutch system as a model and to aim for one like it. Let’s not call it Council Housing this time, but those decades up to Thatcher’s cut-price dismantling of the public rented housing market were perhaps not so bad after all.
Councils no longer build housing, so there is a certain irony in the conclusion reached in the White Paper that blame for the underperformance of the housing market rests with local planning authorities. This is apparent in the “housing delivery test”, to be applied as the means by which LPAs are held accountable for the delivery of new homes, or, more particularly, a failure to deliver. The Local Plan, as ever, is the tool used for establishing a level of assessed housing need, and, if the delivery rate falls below par (25% in 2018, 45% in 2019, 65% in 2020) then, to misappropriate Russell Crowe’s words in Gladiator, the government will “unleash hell”. In this context, hell will appear in the form of uncontrolled but “sustainable” (Hurrah) development in unprepared, but still not Green Belt, locations.
The five-year land supply, for so long a pipe dream for many planning authorities, may, thankfully, have had its day, with the option to agree land supplies on an annual basis. A more hand-to-mouth approach may help, but, when the simplest housing application can take a year or more to resolve, it is not the only answer.
The big stick approach implicit in the White Paper – “deliver housing where you want it or it will go where it’s not wanted” – cannot surely be the answer; nor can it be right that local authorities, no longer building houses, and local planning authorities, facilitating but not delivering housing, should be made the scapegoat for the broken system. There was a sense, a hope even, that the White Paper would also apply the big stick to the housebuilding industry, in the hope that those whose role is actually delivering new homes would implement the permissions that they have, but this hasn’t’ really happened. The hint that councils might use compulsory purchase powers to bring forward stalled developments is not, in this decade of austerity and local government cost-cutting, going to open that particular floodgate, nor is the threat of “completion notices”, stipulating completion in two years of commencement. This big stick is pretty limp and there is a distinct lack of carrot.
New housing, for purchase or for rent, is only going to come forward when those in need of it can afford to buy or rent it. The sort of threats contained in the White Paper is not going to force housebuilders to implement consents when purchasers simply cannot afford their product. That the definition of a starter home in Greater London is one costing up to £450,000 surely tells the government where the housing problem starts and ends. Having to borrow way beyond your means to get on the housing ladder is what got us all into the mess that we’ve been in since before 2008.
The White Paper does away with the legal requirement that new developments must include 20% starter homes, though it will surely come as a relief to most young families that starter homes should only be available to people with incomes below £80,000 – on which planet? – an income which thankfully just allows MPs to qualify. Backtracking from the commitment to starter homes, only on the table since 2014, has been justified on the grounds that such a commitment would adversely impact on the delivery of other affordable homes. When most LPAs are seeking 40% affordable housing from major schemes, having half of that as heavily discounted starter homes for first-time buyers seemed, to me at least, like a sound idea, with the other half given over to rental or shared-ownership schemes of all shapes and sizes, but apparently it’s not. The government has given up on it before even giving it a chance. For those who aspire to home ownership, giving them access to such houses was surely an idea worth pursuing. Ministers have apparently “listened to concerns” as to the wisdom of their starter homes initiative and, as a result of these “concerns”, given it the elbow. Hopefully, those whose views so swayed the government were concerned at the 20% threshold and not at the concept of a threshold, per se, allowing that the initiative is merely down and not out.
As ever with a government exercise in tinkering, the White Paper promises so much more than it delivers. Maybe expectations were too high. It actually says more about the way in which the housing crisis has been mismanaged by previous governments, of all hues, than it does about how the current government intends to turn things about. Recognising that home ownership is not the be-all-and-end-all of life is a good start, as is a commitment to affordable, good-quality rented housing rather than buy-to-rent slums, but these are ideas and not answers. Much of the press response to the White Paper has been negative – a damp squib, a missed opportunity, etc. When the only organisation that sees the White Paper as a success is CPRE, then we know that we’re still in deep trouble.