The Housing White Paper – not worth the wait?

9 February, 2017

With the accusation of ‘seven years of failure’ having been aimed at the Conservative Government by Labour, a high degree of anticipation and pressure falls on the ink that wets the pages of the Housing White Paper released on 7 February 2017.  Communities secretary, Sajid Javid believes that the ‘housing market in this country is broken’, and with at least 250,000 new homes needed each year to keep pace with demand, how does the new publication tackle this deficit as well as the other shortfalls of current policy?

‘The root cause is simple – for far too long, we have not built enough houses’, was the statement that came from the Communities Secretary at lunchtime on the 7th February, announcing the measures to alleviate this crisis. These include the following:

1. Forcing councils to produce up-to–date plans for housing demand and provisions for the standardisation of housing requirements

The Housing White Paper describes and identifies the need for ‘transparency’ and a ‘standard methodology’ in the current approach to recognising housing requirements.  In response to this, the Government will consult on options for introducing a standardised approach, with the aim to publish this consultation at the earliest opportunity this year.  Plans should be ‘easier to produce’ states the White Paper, which aims to do this by removing the expectation that every authority should be covered by a local plan, and ‘when necessary, intervene to ensure that plans are put in place’.

The Government will also introduce penalties on local authorities who fail to meet a new housing delivery test, which will be based on an area’s local plan or household projections. If housing delivery falls below a certain level on an annual basis then the presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply automatically.

 

2. A possible reduction to the time period between the grant of planning permission and the start of building from three to two years

Measures to speed up the build-out rates of  developers are a key focus of the White Paper. One proposition from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is the shortening of timescales for developers to implement a permission from three to two years.  DCLG will consult on this idea and also whether it should not apply where a shorter timescale could hinder the viability or deliverability of a scheme.

Furthermore, information could be required about the timing and pace of new housing, and for the larger developers the potential need to provide information on build out rates to increase transparency between developers and local authorities. An applicant’s track record could become a consideration when determining a planning application for large scale development.

 

3. The use of funding to aid smaller building firms to challenge major developers and target areas with high housing needs

The £2.3bn Housing infrastructure Fund will be targeted at the areas of greatest housing need with bids opening in 2017.  Bids from across local authority boundaries that unlock the most homes in the areas of greatest housing need are likely to be awarded the necessary funding.  A £3bn Home Building Fund launched in 2016 will be driven into aiding the declining small and medium sized building sector with the government deeming this sector to have a ‘potential for growth’.

 

4. Maintaining policy on Green Belt development by only allowing building in ‘exceptional circumstances’

‘The Government wants to retain a high bar to ensure the Green Belt remains protected’, states the White Paper, demonstrating the ever-present commitment to 1950’s Green Belt policy.  Proposals are in the pipeline however, to amend the NPPF so that where land is removed from the Green Belt, this loss should be off-set by compensatory improvements to the environment and remaining Green Belt Land. A failure to announce the release of certain parts of the Green Belt for development has disappointed the housebuilding industry. Many believe there are large parts of the Green Belt that are not worthy of being protected just for the sake of it.

 

5. Encouraging building density on developed land where land availability is short

‘Not all development makes good use of land’, and the White Paper highlights the need to amend policy to avoid building homes at low densities.  The Government tentatively propose that minimum density standards may be helpful in ‘driving the right levels of ambition’ in developers.  Furthermore, the White Paper highlights the need to bring brownfield land back into use and aim to do so through amending the NPPF so that the presumption is that brownfield land is suitable for housing unless there are ‘clear and specific reasons to the contrary’.

 

6. The potential for a CIL shake-up

Recommendations made in the CIL review by Liz Peace and accompanying team is to be examined by the Government which aims to provide a response at the Autumn Budget 2017.  The report concluded that CIL was not achieving the original objectives of ‘providing a faster, fairer and more transparent way of collecting contributions’.   The report proposes a new ‘hybrid system’ which requires that developments make moderate payments via a Local Infrastructure Tariff (LIT) towards the cumulative infrastructure needs of an area, and in addition larger developments will still require Section 106 agreements.

 

Where does this leave us?

It would seem that this latest attempt to appease the weaknesses in the current housing market raises more questions than provide answers. Finding ways to increase the resources of local authority planning departments will be welcome. However, the White Paper does not go far enough in announcing measures that will increase the number of permissions granted and homes built. Given the hype surrounding its release and the expectation of radical reforms, one cannot help but feel let down overall.

Nonetheless, in a society where the Government can do much to antagonise the general populous is it really that surprising that the Government has not been bolder?  ‘Despite the interesting points on housing need and supply’, said Jason Towell, Head of Development at Cripps LLP, ‘I am afraid it is nowhere near bold enough, and mainly a re-hash of previous policy and announcement.  It is not enough to mend the ‘Broken Housing Market’.