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10/02/2017

Housing white paper: Encouraging, but more clarity is needed

Words:
Spectacles

A welcome publication but too light on detail to be satisfying? Justin Cove of Nexus Planning offers his view on the housing white paper.

After much speculation and several publication dates pushed back, the housing white paper has thankfully been delivered. As widely predicted, the ongoing housing crisis dominated proceedings, with brownfield development and provisions for Starter Homes taking precedence. Whilst the sentiment was certainly encouraging, Sajid Javid’s landmark policy announcement has been viewed by many in the industry as being fairly light on detail, with many calling on the government to provide greater clarity. 

Despite these criticisms, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was quite right to place brownfield development at the forefront of the battle against the housing crisis. To this end, the white paper proposed a number of incentives to release brownfield land for development, boost housing in urban areas and better utilise space when development is undertaken.

Although a welcome development, it must be highlighted that the incentives described look remarkably similar to measures that already exist under the current system. A good example of this is the provision to release employment land for housing if proved to be vacant, unused or unviable for a five-year period. As many local authorities already have procedures of this type in place, it is perhaps a struggle to view this as an entirely new policy. As a result, it is unclear how much practical difference this will make to the current state of affairs.

"Despite the intentions of the document, it is still not apparent whether green belt development will become any easier in the future"

In a similar vein, the white paper also touched upon brownfield development in green belt areas. While this also represents a topic in urgent need of addressing, the white paper is similarly unclear. The tone is undoubtedly heartening, but it remains uncertain whether building homes in these areas will actually be promoted further. The NPPF already allows for ‘partial or complete redevelopment’ of brownfield land in the green belt after a development’s potential impact to the green belt is thoroughly assessed. Whilst the white paper adds to this by outlining a ‘substantial harm’ test, ambiguity remains as the term ‘substantial harm’ remains undefined. Despite the intentions of the document, it is still not apparent whether green belt development will become any easier in the future.

This being said, it would not be fair to state that the housing white paper was entirely unproductive. Repayment periods on Starter Homes will increase from five to fifteen years and a mortgage will also be required. This welcome change should mean that Starter Homes are used to sustain an increase in home ownership rather than just providing short-term investment opportunities.

Although certainly positive, these actions as they relate to Starter Homes also have significant limitations. The requirement for purchasers of Starter Homes to have a combined household income under £80,000 (£90,000 for London) is a case in point. Though the intention behind this condition is sound, it means Starter Homes in higher value areas will remain largely out of reach. It now falls to the government to adequately utilise the private rented sector and social housing to plug this ever-expanding gap.

Whilst those expecting a document full of era-defining housebuilding policy will no doubt have been left disappointed, the more pressing concern on the minds of many planning professionals seems to be the lack of clarity included in the white paper. While it remains to be seen how the industry reacts to these policies in the long term, some further guidance from the government would certainly be welcome.

Justin Cove is associate director at Nexus Planning

Image | Shutterstock

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