Fixing the housing market?
The government’s long awaited housing white paper was published yesterday, preceded by months of speculation and sector commentators feeding off crumbs from the table of tight-lipped ministers. At the risk of making an over-generalisation, there seems to be cautious welcome from some quarters, but frustration from many that the document doesn’t go far enough.
A difficult task
In fairness to the government, the housing issue and the sectors it affects mean that any policy announcement or set of initiatives will be met with some scepticism. It is a long-term issue for policy makers who have a short time in which to make a difference (an election cycle). Building more homes is a challenge fraught with difficulty, which governments of all political persuasions have struggled to meet.
Each housing minister (and there have been many in the past decade) faces a similar set of problems: how to meet housing needs; address concerns about development from voters; and drag up the delivery rate of the construction sector. It is not an easy task. Previous experience (the debate over NPPF) and rumours in the press suggest that more radical proposals may have been tempered by feedback from Number 10, itself concerned about the reaction of back bench Conservative MPs.
However, there are some headlines from the white paper which the property and housing sectors should consider.
The first is the move of housing policy away from ownership. The last government’s focus was almost exclusively on that most British of desires, to own the roof above one’s head. Under Theresa May, this is not the only game in town. Funding for affordable housing has already been flexed to include rented products and now the much debated Starter Homes policy has been significantly weakened (no longer a mandatory 20% of new development schemes). Indeed, there was little mention of the Right to Buy for housing association tenants.
This is a move to support struggling families (the ‘just about managing’) which have been the mantra of the Prime Minister and her team. Backed up by measures to make renting more secure (long term tenancies, clamping down on rogue landlords) and introducing institutional investors to PRS development, this represents a significant shift in tone.
Second, is the focus on planning. Most people in the sector will sigh at the prospect of wholesale reform but there will be no surprise that protection of the Green Belt remains in force. This remains a totemic issue for the Conservative Party so ministers and special advisers have been at pains to point out their focus on brownfield development. For the pro-development lobby, incentives for local authorities to set out sound Local Plans have ratcheted up somewhat. There will be a standard methodology for assessing housing needs to avoid under-provision, and a housing delivery test for councils. Where local authorities don’t deliver on their numbers they will be penalised, or even opened up to development according to NPPF rules.
Power and responsibility
Third is accountability – nestled away in the paper are statements that the government will expect the industry to be more accountable for its own delivery, with better statistics and even the possibility of requiring the big housebuilders to publish aggregate information on build-out rates. Likewise, housing associations will be expected to demonstrate efficiency improvements. Exactly what form this all takes is to be decided. But it points to the government getting ready to hold developers to account over their commitments to build.
Most controversial is the possibility of a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to perceived land banking, which finally appears in public policy: encouraging ‘more active use of compulsory purchase orders’ on stalled sites. The industry will fight this, explaining it belies the complexity of schemes and puts off investment. The same principle may apply to proposals to limit planning permissions to two years, rather than three.
Getting on with the job
Although there are a series of caveats to these measures and questions about whether councils have the resources to implement them, several policies appear similar to the Labour Party’s recent election campaigns. The reason for this is that the government recognises the political importance of voters in many parts of the housing market – not just those wishing to own.
In this uncertain post-referendum environment ministers will be looking for partners to get on with building so they can meet their targets. Irrespective of the debate about the white paper, this is one of the biggest opportunities open to the property sector. Those who show the willing to get on with the job will be able to help inform decisions in the future.