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05/04/2017

Legal landscape: It's time to be frank about addressing the UK's housing shortage

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The recent housing white paper promised to ‘Fix our broken housing market’. It doesn’t even come close, says Ian Graves

The UK housing sector is once again in the spotlight following the release of the government’s long-awaited white paper, Fixing Our Broken Housing Market. While it correctly identifies many of the issues facing the housing market – the main one being the chronic undersupply of housing stock in many parts of the country – the solutions on offer don’t match the scale of the problem.

The stated aim of the white paper is “to boost housing supply and… create a more efficient housing market”. But there is a tension at its heart between this goal and the aspiration to strengthen and expand neighbourhood planning. For many in the planning system, neighbourhood plans often seem designed to stifle development – the opposite of what the government wants to achieve. The white paper attempts to square this circle by claiming that neighbourhood planning actually boosts housing supply. It states that, where neighbourhood plans contain a target figure for new housing, this is typically 10 per cent greater than the number planned for by the local authority in its local plan.

The source of that figure isn’t cited. In correspondence ahead of a judicial review last December, lawyers acting for a large number of housebuilders attacked it as “completely fallacious” – suggesting that the relevant study is small-scale, out-of-date and based on poor quality information. Whatever your view, it’s clear that a lot is riding on the government being right on this point and it seems surprising that the neighbourhood planning system is being expanded without much hard evidence that it will support the government’s aims.

“What is most striking is the poverty of bold, ambitious thinking on the scale necessary to tackle what is approaching a national crisis in housing supply”

The white paper pledges to retain “existing strong protection for the green belt” and states that these boundaries should be amended only in “exceptional circumstances”. This avoids a much-needed debate about the nature and purpose of the green belt.

Many people wrongly equate “green belt” with the open countryside. Much green belt is unattractive and could be released for housing development without the loss of environmentally valuable land. By definition, many locations within the green belt are sustainable, being on the edge of large conurbations, often where the demand for housing is greatest. Strategically releasing suitable sites in the green belt could reduce demand for development in the countryside by avoiding the need to leap green belt restrictions. Failure to grapple with this issue is a missed opportunity.

So too is the failure to expand the role of the public sector in housebuilding. Data suggests that the only times in recent history when housebuilding exceeded or even approached targets set by the government was when councils played a full part in expanding supply. While there is a suggestion that local authorities and housing associations will be allowed to build more homes, this seems unlikely to form a major part of the government’s strategy.

Developers will welcome plans to limit local authorities’ power to impose pre-commencement conditions, part of the upcoming Neighbourhood Planning Bill, and proposals to streamline the processing of planning applications. They will be less pleased by the political rhetoric suggesting that land-banking and profiteering by “greedy” housebuilders is a key cause of the housing crisis, which seems rooted in a misunderstanding of how the sector works. Local authorities will be relieved to see proposals to increase fees for those performing well, which should help to support under-resourced planning departments.

But what is most striking overall is the poverty of bold, ambitious thinking on the scale necessary to tackle what is approaching a national crisis in housing supply. After months of delays, leaks and spin, many reading the white paper will find themselves echoing shadow housing secretary John Healey’s response to Sajid Javid in the House of Commons. 

“Is that it?”

Ian Graves is a legal director in the planning team at Shakespeare Martineau

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