My hopes for the housing white paper

Tony Ward

February 6, 2017

Tony Ward is chief executive of Clayton Euro Risk

The government is due to publish its housing white paper this week. Given the desperate need for more housing in the UK, it can’t come soon enough.

I’m not clear how radical these proposals will be but Sajid Javid, the cabinet minister responsible for housing, has hinted that the government’s plans will be ‘radical’.

Our great housing problem

I guess this must be the case as Theresa May has set the target of building 200,000 homes per year to reach one million by 2020.

This seems an impossible dream given figures from the National House Building Council (NHBC) that some 150,000 new homes were registered to be built last year – 2% fewer than in 2015. It added that the number of new homes completed last year increased by just 1% on 2015.  All rather disappointing.

So what’s to be done? Last week I focused on the importance of encouraging the retention of key workers in the construction sector and the need for government–backed initiatives to support apprentices entering the trade. This week my focus has shifted to the politically-sensitive issue of the space on which we might wish to build.

A few days ago, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders called for a ‘critical reassessment’ of green belt land to help solve Britain’s housing shortage. Legal & General chief executive Nigel Wilson said that if 1% of green belt land was released for building, it would be enough for up to one million new homes.

“The green belt has doubled in size in the last 20 years; it is 4 million acres now,” Mr Wilson told the BBC. “We’ve got to have a much greater critical assessment on what is and what isn’t green belt.”

Wilson continued: “Nobody wants to build on the Chilterns, or the Malverns or the beautiful parts of Britain, but there are many areas designated as green belt which are really brownfield sites and we absolutely have to build on more brownfield sites.

I think there was a great obsession in the UK with house price inflation; the way you get house price inflation is denying supply and that is what has happened for 30 years…We have to reverse that going forward, as we go from Nimbyism – not in my back yard – to Pimbyism – please in my back yard.”

L&Q housing association, which builds thousands of affordable homes for purchase and rent, chimed in, too. It said that Britain faces a clear choice: build on ‘greenfield’ or continue with the shortage.

David Montague, L&Q’s chief executive, commented: “The key thing is that we need an adult conversation about where we’re going to build these homes. The alternative is that we just deal with the consequences of not building enough homes and that means more people in temporary accommodation, more people living on the streets, more people not able to afford to buy a home of their own. It means rising waiting lists for rising housing benefit bills.”

It has been suggested that the government’s white paper will propose a relaxation of planning rules while local authorities may be allowed to build more homes for rent as well as purchase.

We’ll see, but the government will meet some tough opposition on the way.

Green belt land surrounds towns and cities where people want to live, so is highly prized by developers. Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said that unravelling the green belt risked losing precious countryside.

“There is enough brownfield land to build over a million homes. We don’t need to be building on the green belt to solve the housing crisis,” he said. CPRE figures reveal that 360,000 houses have been proposed for green belt land in England – up from 81,000 in 2012 – as local authorities come under pressure from government to hit the one million homes target.

This is controversial and emotional stuff, but it’s a big issue that must be thrown into the melting pot along with accelerating construction, freeing up pipelines and everything else when considering housing needs.

The National Housing Federation’s analysis of the most recent British Attitudes Survey found that support for new homes has almost doubled from 29% in 2010 to 57%.

There is, it appears, increasing awareness of the severity of the housing shortage. The public wants and would support a degree of change.

I’m expecting big things from this housing white paper. More-of-the-same polices and ideas are not going to solve this national problem. Let’s hope the government doesn’t disappoint.

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