The housing white paper: a review
Most planners must have had a personal wish list for the long-awaited housing white paper. My list, published in January, featured six priorities: better larger-than local planning, less green belt, up-to-date plans for all areas, a radically simplified method to measure housing need, more small sites and more social rented housing. The white paper, now out, acknowledges all these concerns. But on the big issues it does not propose to do very much.
In relation to the green belt there is little to report. The white paper maintains or strengthens the existing wholesale protection. Across the country there are creative proposals afoot for strategic remodelling of green belts – so we loosen the stranglehold on development, without giving way to urban sprawl. It turns out that these initiatives will remain piecemeal, without support or guidance from central government.
As regards larger than local planning, the white paper’s proposals are modest. The Secretary of State will be able to direct a ‘Statement of Common Ground’ between authorities, setting out how they will deal with cross-boundary housing needs. This seems merely a re-branding of the memorandums of understanding that many authorities already produce – and in effect are obliged to produce, in order to fulfil the duty to co-operate. Additionally, the Secretary of State will be able to mandate joint plans where he sees fit. Depending how it is used in practice, this could make a real difference in some places. But it is management by exception, not the comprehensive reform many of us were hoping for.
Moving on to better news, the government will mandate that plans must be reviewed every five years. This is a good measure. If it is enforced promptly and vigorously, it should get rid of the planning vacuum that still covers a huge proportion of the country. It is also good to know that a revised Framework will include a presumption in favour of residential development on small sites. This should help speed up delivery, and help small settlements remain sustainable as the population ages.
The redesign of the Starter Homes scheme is another good idea, albeit all it does is remove the worst features of the earlier proposal. Thus, there will no longer be a requirement that 20 per cent of dwellings in eligible schemes should be Starter Homes. This would have displaced most of the developer contributions for traditional affordable housing – which, unlike Starter Homes, helps poor people who otherwise could not afford decent housing.
Also welcome is the news on measuring housing need – a part of the planning system that is both drily technical and critically important. A standardised method will be introduced, which of course is desperately needed. Authorities will be able to depart from that standard method for good reason. As regards the actual method, the government has not endorsed the proposals of the Local Plans Expert Group (LPEG), but instead will consult on alternative options. In designing these options the government will need to pay close attention to the current consultation on proposed new methods for these projections.
Related to housing need is the issue of five-year land supply. The white paper has good proposals for streamlining what is now a painfully dysfunctional process. But on the other hand it introduces a new ‘housing delivery test’, which may prove just as difficult and expensive. At least the specialist skills acquired by barristers and consultants in the endless five year land supply cases of recent years won’t go to waste.
Finally, as regards tenure, the white paper is positive about private renting – a shift away from the previous government’s focus on owner-occupation. But it is much less interested in the social rented sector. This is unfortunate, because social renting is the main source of genuine affordable housing - which means rents low enough for households on the lowest incomes. A step change in this social rented supply would of course help the people in the very worst housing. It would also uplift overall housing delivery, improving the overall balance of demand and supply – as many people would shift from market to public housing, freeing capacity in the market sector.
But the white paper does not offer any new money for affordable housing. The modest increase in the Affordable Homes Programme to £7.1 billion over five years, mentioned repeatedly in the paper, was already announced in the Autumn Statement. The only new announcement is that the programme, which was previously restricted to shared ownership, in future will also be available for social rented homes.
A serious increase in the socially rented stock would need new funding on a different scale, both to create new stock and to replace homes sold under Right to Buy. Options include lifting bars on council borrowing, allowing 100 per cent recycling of Right to Buy receipts, redirecting housing benefit paid to private landlords, and more effective capture of development gains – including through public sector land assembly on the original new town model. The white paper does not consider such options. Lack of decent housing for the poorest people is the worst part of the housing crisis, and the government is doing little about it.
This article first appeared in the February issue of The Planner.