Sound and fury won’t get homes built
9 August 2021, Paul Finch
The political battle over how to build enough homes in the UK is hotting up. Familiar half-truths are being trotted out, including the suggestion that housebuilders (obviously evil since they are private sector and therefore try to make profits) are ‘hoarding’ land. In general this is untrue; of course you can find individual examples where it has happened, but this rarely involves serious housebuilders. That is not how they make money.
As usual, permitted development rights are getting a thorough kicking, especially from planners, who see such rights as an attack on their authority – so it is described as an attack on local ‘communities’. It seems odd to object to the re-use, recycling and upgrading of redundant commercial premises when the housing shortage is so acute. It is even odder to hear people with little time for office development suddenly becoming sentimental about how important it is. Many of these exemplars of cognitive dissonance also welcome home-working and the reduced requirement (as they see it) for all those office developments.
The introduction of minimum space and light standards is a welcome government move to combat the very reasonable criticism of some as-of-right conversions: that they were creating the equivalent of rabbit hutches. It is a pity that minimum standards are not being introduced universally as national policy, unless you think that people in different parts of the country (particularly poorer ethnic minorities) should not be provided with the same protections.
For anyone with a genuine interest in these matters, the best recent publication which reviews the state we’re in is Broken Homes, by Peter Bill and Jackie Sadek (Matador, £20). Peter is a former editor of Building and Estates Gazette, but before entering journalism worked for a major housebuilder as a quantity surveyor for a decade. He knows what he is talking about. Jackie is a former head of regeneration at CBRE and is currently working on a significant housing and community development in Bedfordshire. Doing not just preaching.
Their book is subtitled ‘Britain’s Housing Crisis: Faults, Factoids and Fixes’. Refreshingly, it begins with a proposition about how decent housing development could take place, what it would look like and how the finance would work. There are useful tables and graphs throughout the book which reinforce the points being made. These points include: building more homes will not bring down prices; the shortage is the fault neither of housebuilders or planners; improving the planning system will make little difference; government should increase space standards and lower density requirements; a mass building programme is required which will deliver homes rented at 50 per cent of market value in perpetuity; and there should be a cap on increases in land values in respect of farmland and brownfield sites sold for housing.
This is fighting stuff, but the evidence in favour of such policies is spelled out, along with multiple interviews with key housing players, both builders and politicians.
I have been re-reading Broken Homes (in which I make a very brief appearance) in view of the apparent backtracking taking place in respect of the government’s proposed shake-up of our planning regime, announced in 2020. This regime, for multiple reasons, has seen a huge shortfall in housing delivery during a period of increasing population (two million additional souls in London in the last 25 years, for example). That is why permitted development rights have been introduced – not to change planning, but to bypass it in certain circumstances.
The alleged consequences of the proposed policy, that is to say the Conservative defeat in the recent Amersham by-election, has triggered some resistance to PDR development, but is more about the basic strategy Robert Jenrick is now trying to protect: obliging local planning authorities to identify areas where housing and other development should not be contentious and indeed encouraged; where a hybrid approach is needed; and where heritage protection should predominate.
This sounds like good old-fashioned planning, based on predict-and-provide principles and interested in the best use of land. Planners like it. Needless to say it has prompted a torrent of abuse from unelected and unaccountable minority groups who want the opportunity to oppose anything on their patch at any stage in the planning process, and if that fails, move on to judicial review. Delay, delay, delay. If the government tries to appease these lobby groups, it will fail. Grievance politics is never sated. Ministers should stick to their guns, take unreasonable risk out of the housing delivery system and let housebuilders get on with it.
However, as the book makes clear, the housebuilding sector is in no position to build out the required public housing programme government desired. It is this fantasy which lies at the heart of the housing ‘crisis’, which might better be termed a scandal. Can something be a crisis for 40 years?