During his second Housing White Paper (HWP) roadshow in Birmingham yesterday, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell MP declared himself as “a man in need of allies”. After a short introduction and the floor instantly being opened for questions which, unlike many events, were not supplied in advance, I’m sure he managed to secure some.
A room full of consultants, property developers, agents, housing associations, council officers, CPRE representatives and barristers, the questions ranged from the Green Belt, to the difficulty in translating national housebuilding initiatives to a local level, to issues with landlord/tenant agreements and the funding of affordable housing. One interesting omission to the discussion was the issue of landbanking –also noticed by Gavin Barwell who stated it had been the main topic at the London event the day before. Is the ‘landbanking myth’ a regional issue? Are there not as many stalled sites in the Midlands? Or is it because there are good working relationships between developers and the LPAs that they work with, so they simply don’t need to worry? My feeling is a mixture of both.
The issue of Green Belt was raised and disappointingly, despite realising (unlike many politicians), that Green Belt is not an environmental policy, there is clearly no appetite for a significant review. It was really frustrating to hear that a plethora of poor quality Green Belt sites are being cast aside as they are apparently ‘not in places people want to build anyway’. An unsatisfactory response to leaving poor quality sites to rot simply because they have a mythical ‘Green Belt’ status. I also have to disagree with his interpretation of the ‘tightening up’ of exceptional circumstances in the Housing White Paper and the need to have fully examined all other reasonable options before turning to the Green Belt (which the HWP defines as ‘exceptional circumstances’). This is certainly stronger than the current NPPF, which allows for an element of planning judgement.
It also became clear that the Government remains committed to a home ownership agenda, with Gavin Barwell citing the role of government as facilitating people to buy their own homes, as surveys were still showing this as an aspiration. The aim of the HWP is to provide a long-term solution to sort supply and allow more people to own their own home. Two things spring to mind: firstly, if this is a long-term solution, who are they surveying? People in their late 20s/30s/40s who don’t currently own a home? What about the teenagers / those in their early 20s who are also part of this long-term solution? I think it is naïve to consider that this home ownership aspiration will continue in the same way. I also agree with those in the room who felt that the HWP fails to grapple with PRS and support this as a vital component of housing supply.
Another vital part of this supply is the SME, a topic that was also well discussed at the event, yet side stepped from SMEs to site size. When Barwell was questioned on what to do in LPAs where small brownfield sites were few and far between, he responded with ‘sub-divide large sites’. Firstly, it is not within the council’s gift to determine who buys a site and how a landowner should divide it up. Secondly, as is the case on many occasions, the preference locally is for five sites of 10 dwellings, rather than one site of 50 dwellings. The latter would mitigate its impact and make appropriate infrastructure contributions. The former…..nothing. Same number of dwellings – totally different infrastructure delivery. Parcelling larger sites off runs the risk of a similar type of approach; plus, a disjointed approach to delivery and dis-harmony in design (seen by Gavin Barwell as crucial to securing local support). If he wants to see this in practice (albeit at a much larger scale), he should drive around Dickens Heath where, despite the best attempts by the Council, you can easily tell where one developer stops and the next one starts.
If we are looking at a long-term solution to effective planning and delivery, we need to think about the following:
- The Housing White Paper is not a long-term solution. The Redfern Review, quite rightly in my opinion, suggested the creation of a Housing Commission. This would ensure a targeted long-term, cross-party approach to housing delivery. The problem with policy is that without cross-party support it can never be considered long-term, as it will always be subject to the four-year election cycle. The Shadow Housing Minister has already been quoted as saying that the HWP is “feeble beyond belief” – no support from the opposition there. So all we know is that this is the current Government aim until 2020 (three years is not long-term).
- How do we translate national housing supply initiatives down to a local level, by which I mean how do we turn the tide of locally elected members being willing to campaign at the drop of a hat against development? According to Gavin Barwell, attitudes are changing although he acknowledges that there is still work to be done. I would suggest that he, or his office, need to run similar such events for local members to ensure that the message is really hitting home. I am not sure how many other members besides the Leader of Walsall MBC were in the room today, I would suggest not many. Whilst there were a fair few planning officers there, we know how easily members can disregard the opinions of their officers.
- Finally, if he acknowledges the need for certainty to create stability in the market and he wants his allies, then how does this reconcile with the introduction of new “policy” on a whim through Written Ministerial Statements (such as that issued in December 2016)? This creates uncertainty and financial instability – which slows supply and does nothing to assist in “fixing the broken housing market”.
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