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A first look at the housing white paper

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What to make of the housing white paper? asks The Planner's features editor Simon Wicks.

It’s been a long wait, It’s 104 pages. It’s accompanied by a slew of consultation results that provide the supporting framework for the white paper’s proposals. There’s a lot to read.

The title is an unabashed promise: Fixing our Broken Housing Market - here it is, the document that will finally sort out housing in England. There’s no ambiguity here. It’s the big fix.

Does it live up to expectations? Can it, even? In a word - unlikely.

The white paper acknowledges the need for 250,000 new homes a year in England and offers four steps to tackling the housing crisis: Planning for the right homes in the right places; Building homes faster; Diversifying the market; Helping people now.

In doing so it appears to promise the world - proclaiming that it spells out a long-term strategy while dealing also with the short-term requirements of people in housing need. That’s quite a juggling trick and surely requires radical solutions. What are they?

To be honest, it’s hard to see. There are plenty of refinements to the system, many of them perfectly fine. There are promises to speed things up and clarify processes, to support new and existing players. Planners will welcome the promise of more resources and greater powers to enforce the build-out of permissions; developers might appreciate the promised review of developer contributions; communities are likely to - well, I suppose they won’t be unhappy that they’ll be given more say over things like design quality but the chances are they probably don’t want more houses in the first place, not in any numbers anyway.

There’s plenty of carrot and stick - the government spelling out its support for the various parties involved in housing delivery and what it expects in return. There are some interesting tweaks, too: an emphasis on transparency in land ownership; support for institutional investor in the build-to-rent market; improvements to the rental system that will benefit renters; an acknowledgement of need for a greater variety of housing in the market, with a  greater variety of builders, too.

There are restatements of existing stances around green belt, brownfield, densification. There’s continued support, too, for the much-criticised Starter Homes and Help to Buy policies of the previous administration. With regard to the former, the White Paper spells out a cap of £80,000 on household income to qualify for a Starter Home. Poverty campaigners might choke on their lunchtime sandwich at that one.

If there’s any shift in philosophy - aside from accepting that the planning system needs more support - it appears to be an acceptance that no matter what policies you introduce, there’s no short-term fix to the decline in home ownership, and that the sheer number of renters is a reality that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Could the government do more? Well, yes - but ‘more’ in this context might be a little too radical for a Conservative regime, because it would likely involve things like freeing up local authorities to build social housing on a large scale, and substantial reform to the land market. These are the real obstacles to housebuilding and skirting around them does nobody any favours.

At first glance, there are plenty of nice-to-haves in this White Paper that, collectively, might add up to something substantial. But, in all honesty,  genuinely “fixing” our “broken” housing market probably requires more robust tools than these. I stand to be corrected, of course.

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