At last, the much-hyped Housing White Paper has been released. Before the White Paper was unveiled on Tuesday 7th, the Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid had been building up expectations by indicating that a ‘radical’ change was coming. The question is: did he deliver?
There were certainly measures in the Paper that will benefit both developers and local government. Significantly, the introduction of a standardised approach to assessing housing need will clarify a complex process. Currently, many Local Plans are held up (often for years) by debates between councillors, their electorates and housebuilders about what their ‘objectively assessed housing need’ should be. A new, uniform approach would cut out potential for debate over methodology, and allow developers and local councils to move on to actually delivering on housing targets.
For local authorities, the move to reduce the time period between approval being granted and construction starting from three to two years, and the promise to increase planning fees, will no doubt be welcome. Measures to remove limitations on city-centre building and continue protecting the green belt will reassure authorities at threat of ‘development creep’ from neighbouring towns and cities. Less welcome for local government will be the new requirement for councils to produce ‘up-to-date, sufficiently ambitious’ plans detailing their housing needs and to be reviewed every five years.
For developers, the continued protection of the green belt will be seen as a failure by the Government. The chief executive of the housebuilder Inland Homes, Stephen Wicks, bemoaned the failure to relax rules on green belt development, saying:
“brownfield in itself can’t possibly sustain the long-term housing requirements of the UK,” he said. “It can go an awful long way but there needs to be a relaxation of some green belt to enable us to deliver the numbers that we are required to do.”
On the other hand, housebuilders will be pleased by the promised action on streamlining the planning system, such as tackling the delays caused by planning conditions and by implementing a ‘strategic approach’ to the management of protected species (such as the much-maligned great crested newt).
The reaction from MPs has been mixed. In responding to Mr Javid’s statement, Labour’s John Healey was clearly not satisfied, asking “is that it?” As an Opposition front bencher, Mr Healey’s comments were to be expected. Less predictable were the comments from Conservative MP Grant Shapps, who said “housing ministers over the years have come out with documents or bills, and the truth is none of them are going to make much difference…I don’t suppose this will make that much difference either.”
Reaction from think tanks was also muted. “Government must go further to tackle the housing crisis,” was the IPPR’s verdict. The Adam Smith institute described the reveal as “a welcome step in the right direction,” but one that might well be remembered as a “missed opportunity.”
On balance, the White Paper does make some sensible changes which will improve a complicated and delay-prone system. However, it seems that the White Paper we got was not the one we were promised. The Government’s pledge to build 1 million new homes by 2020 is already looking optimistic.