First, do no harm – An assessment of the Housing and Planning White Paper

Anthony Mason gives an initial assessment of the white paper on housing and planning in England

First impressions are not always very reliable.  When Sajid Javid replaced Greg Clark as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government following the post-vote governmental putsch last year (sorry, change of Prime Minister following the referendum), local government figures were very wary.  Clark had, and still has, a reputation for understanding local government and can connect the local to the national in discussions around the cabinet table in a way that few of his colleagues are able to. Javid, however, was an unknown quantity – said to feel that the DCLG role was a demotion and giving every indication that he was unexcited by the move.

Yet, for those of us specifically interested in housing policy, Clark – alongside his spiky and confrontational housing minister, Brandon Lewis, presided over some rotten housing policies, as I suggested in this place last year.  Indeed, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 will, I suspect, go down in legislative history as the Dangerous Dogs Act of housing policy in England.  Gratifyingly, a number of the craziest measures enabled by that Act have proved so difficult to implement that the “new” government has simply shunted them into a siding and (we hope) left them there to rot.

And now comes the first comprehensive white paper on housing policy in England for almost a generation. Bearing the less than poetic title-as-ambition of Fixing our broken housing market.  Javid and his refreshingly rounded housing minister Gavin Barwell, set out in 104 pages and many supporting papers their ambitions to do just that.  To their great credit, Javid and Barwell have spent many weeks on careful consultation with local government, sector interests, and Number 10 before getting this far; delaying the publication of the white paper somewhat while doing so.  They have even persuaded the PM to pen a lengthy introduction to the paper – presumably in the hope of corralling rural Conservative NIMBYs into line.

The white paper sets out many proposals and poses 38 carefully framed policy questions for response (by 2nd May 2017, if you’d like to contribute).  But in quick summary, it:

  • Acknowledges that England needs around 250,000 new homes each year going forward. This was expressed as “between 225,000 and 275,000 homes” – and is up from the oft-quoted 200,000 previously accepted (but never consistently realised)
  • Proposes that each local authority will have to draw up and regularly review an “honest assessment” of local housing need – methodology to follow.
  • Says that developers could be forced to build within two years of planning consent, or see that consent lapse. At the moment, permission usually lapses after three years.  The paper also proposes new compulsory purchase powers for councils where sites lie undeveloped – details to follow.
  • Suggests an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities, with £7.1bn of (already announced) funding. It drops the “old” government’s fixation with starter homes in favour of a more balanced approach.
  • Encourages building rates at higher density – including of higher buildings – to make best use of land (and to avoid having to give a view on releasing green belt).
  • Dodges the question of future housing association and council rent levels after George Osborne’s compulsory rent reductions “We will provide clarity over future rent levels. In return, we expect them to build significantly more affordable homes over the current parliament.” Is what ministers promise.
  • Says that smaller building firms will be given assistance to expand, including support for off-site construction (where components are fabricated off-site and factory-assembled). It also encourages “build to let” where private companies build large-volume rental flats for tenants.
  • Continues a focus on leaseholds, proposing what it calls “an end to leasehold abuse” where home buyers are locked into leases with spiralling ground rents.

Most of us acknowledge the general need for new homes while protesting loudly if those homes are to be built near to us – and for years, housing policy in England has tried not to upset voters and yet deliver new homes.  And the white paper has had to throw titbits in all directions to keep sector interests at bay.  Local authorities are both excoriated for planning failures and mildly encouraged to build new homes.  Those who worship at the altar of home ownership will be pleased that there is a threat to close a loophole that has allowed councils building homes through wholly-owned companies to avoid the right to buy.  Those who see renting as the most realistic way forward will be pleased that much of the white paper acknowledges this reality and makes gentle proposals for longer tenancies.  Big developers are both criticised for not building out sites as well as encouraged by some anti-planner language.

But ministers have failed to resolve some longstanding conundrums – and a couple of new ones – in their paper:

  • Successive governments have tried to combine bottom-up and top-down policies on housing which appear to conflict in their efforts to encourage and coerce. For example, communities and parishes have been given more control over developments and yet principal councils are still required to provide new homes.  Housing associations should develop more and yet have no control over the rents they can charge for these new homes.
  • Government has long had an intellectual tendency to support developers over planners – even though planning consents have been running ahead of homes built for some time. This white paper at last begins to recognise that not all is well, with our developers while avoiding the obvious response: councils’ potential contribution to building at scale.
  • There is a cherished belief that brownfield sites can provide the majority of our new homes, but these sites no longer match need. Not surprisingly, they are disproportionately in cities, but not all housing need is city-based.  The white paper avoids the question of building on the green belt, even though, in our own city, we’ve faced a highly charged debate about this topic.
  • A further concern is around labour and skills. We’ve long worried that not enough UK youngsters express any desire to work in the building industry.  This is now compounded by fears of the actual or apparent impact of Brexit on the non-UK workforce.

The fundamental question that the paper avoids is whether any combination of our present arrangements for building can ever deliver the amount of housing we need; as the answer to that question may be too hot to handle.  It’s old evidence now, but the Calcutt review of the housebuilding industry commissioned a decade ago set out a straightforward graphic showing who has built what in the UK in the years since the Second World War (see figure one on page 10).

untitledThis evidence was summarised in a beautifully simple graphic (above) by the University of Sheffield School of Architecture.  It evidences that the three decade long gap in our housing provision is simply because we’ve stopped building council houses.  The answer to the fundamental question would seem to be to let councils (and housing associations) build again at some scale in order to supplement the relatively fixed-but-declining contribution of private developers.

The title to this post is a common misquotation of the Hippocratic Oath.  It suggests that a first duty for medics is not to do harm “Primum non nocere” – and the new white paper seems to pass that test, at least.  If a second duty is “then to do good” – then I’m not yet convinced that the paper will achieve that in any significant way.

Anthony Mason



Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team.



What legacy will the rush to build houses leave for the next generation?

Ian Briggs

Many rural and semi-rural localities are struggling to cope with the increasing number of applications for potential new housing developments, a proportion of which seem to defy logic and sound planning sense when matched against local knowledge and established patterns of socialisation. On one hand it makes sense to seek stimulation to a fragile and unpredictable economy through relaxing planning mechanisms and encouraging developers to build and meet the known housing gap. But on the other hand some decisions to allow the building of new homes on land and in localities that is less than ideal will certainly bring further complex problems to address in the future.

Although the rate of new build properties between 2009 and 2010 was at the lowest for half a century, the pace has increased markedly since 2012 with some localities reporting initial approaches for development increasing in some rural localities to a rate of more than one a month. Inevitably it is the localities that are offering the highest return for developers that are attracting the most attention. Building houses quickly, and then selling them quickly is a certain way of both stimulating the economy as well as offering good news for some existing home owners and those new to the market, plus those who have to move for employment reasons. The free availability of data that points to ‘post code’ areas that attract the swiftest sales and not always the highest transaction price is encouraging landowners and developers to seek approvals in places that might not always be the most logical and appropriate to build in but offer the greatest and swiftest return on investment by the builder and landowner.

As planning authorities are slowly getting to grips with the requirement to identify land appropriate for development under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and putting forward their proposals to the Planning Inspectorate for approval, the gap remains open for developers to seek approvals in places where despite local opposition developers are likely to gain approval for development. The trickle of disapproving comments from government suggesting that local councils are slow to respond ring a little hollow when the practical difficulties of securing a workable plan to identify priority localities is explored in detail. Even for relatively small councils, especially in rural areas, the cost and time needed to openly consult with local communities in identifying local priorities for the release of land for development is debilitating, time consuming and in all cases very expensive at a time when money is tight.

Whilst this search for an agreeable and workable plan is going on many local authorities are struggling to cope with the massive increase in proposals currently being presented, in the case of one council alone Planning Committees have had to be scheduled weekly rather than monthly to cope with the volume of applications. On top of this is the reluctance to dismiss applications that might be less than ideal when faced with mounting legal bills to defend against appeals is emptying budgets at an alarming rate.

Few could deny the need for a faster pace in development, indeed many communities are willing to absorb a managed level of new housing to keep villages and small towns sustainable but the longer term implications of some ‘on stream’ developments are concerning.

A development that brings 85 new houses into an established rural or semi-rural community might at one level be seen as no big issue, especially with some urban and semi urban localities facing development proposals that bring in new estates with hundreds of new houses, but 85 new dwellings can be an increase of up to 25% of the local housing numbers and the potential impact this can bring with it is hard to forecast accurately. Some studies suggest that in rural areas new inward migrants from urban areas can take over ten years to be fully integrated into community life and in other cases there is a suggestion that new migrants into rural settings fail to see existing community facilities as being appropriate for their needs and bring demands for new community facilities that are attached exclusively to their new development properties. Additional new facilities in new development areas can be often sought that are only within the scope of the new development and not orientated towards wider integration into existing communities. “This is our play area and not yours” syndrome!

This is further complicated by the tendency for new housing developments in rural and semi-rural areas to perform the function of being dormitories for larger neighbouring urban centres increasing pressures on roads and public transport. Acting as dormitories they are bringing with them different social and economic patterns that are in direct contrast to established patterns of life within rural localities. Many planners together with developers make the assumption that local community assets are sustained by increased development but some evidence suggests the opposite is true. Longer travelling times to work and schools restrict the access to many local social activities – again, a study of one locality that is expanding rapidly demonstrates that younger people see activities and social assets such as youth and sports clubs are easier accessed closer to the place of education than the place of residence. Socialisation patterns for longer distance commuters suggest that a greater benefit can be seen in accessing facilities close to the place of work as being better and more convenient than accessing sports and social activities close to home – destroying the argument that rapid increases in housing development make local assets and facilities more sustainable.

This can be addressed to some extent by taking a more sympathetic and systematic approach to the ‘housing mix’ in new developments. Recently we have seen some moderately large scale development that is aimed solely at the commuter where there is a high level of standardisation in the housing mix with little or nothing to attract the actively retired or the home based worker, despite evidence that many local people are actively seeking to downsize or shift their economic patterns yet wish to stay firmly within a community that they feel very much part of. On top of this the ONS data now suggests that over 13million people who are in employment are homeworkers and of these 65% are male, challenging the stereotype that homeworkers are women and second wage earners. That some developers are lacking in imagination to offer development plans that have a housing mix that fits with local economic patterns and needs is a matter of some concern that will take some time to work through and new policies and planning practices will have to be developed that cope with having the wrong sort of housing in the wrong place. These are very difficult issues to construct effective challenges by local communities to planning applications coming forward as they are ‘in the future issues’ and often contradict data that is presented by applicants to support their applications at a time when planners and councillors on planning committees are rushed off their feet under the incessant onslaught of applications.

As landscape and visual appearance issues become weaker in challenging planning applications in rural areas, trying to determine negative social impact is also problematic. There might be a clever sleight of hand here that is very much to the advantage of developers – to determine negative social impact prior to development is a bit like trying to guess exactly what type of people will migrate into newly developed areas. However it seems that some evidence exists that challenges claims for positive social impact of new development could be correspondingly weak as well.

All this means that studies of newly developed areas in rural communities is likely to become a hot topic for research and understanding in years to come, the intended benefits of development will undoubtedly have short and medium term economic benefits to the wider economy but we might be storing up even larger and more expensive demands upon the public purse in years to come when we face the challenge of some of the social and environmental challenges that emerge downstream of new house building currently taking place.

This is less of ‘not in my backyard’ as many communities welcome new development – as long as it is well managed, sympathetic to local conditions and affords mechanisms for sound and proper integration into well-established communities and not something that grafts urban living onto rural lifestyles – it is more a call to think about the longer term implications for development in rural communities. If we don’t we could face years of putting right some of the decisions taking place now.

briggsIan Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.