30 April 2021

Government must own its housing failure

The Government needs to start moving on planning reform because with every passing month, more businesses are harmed by planning inefficiencies and the Government keeps breaking its policy promises to ensure best practice is achieved.

To their credit, Boris Johnson’s Government has drastically changed the planning debate with its ‘Planning for the Future’ whitepaper; which won’t necessarily reverse the existing dominance of the volume sector but may alleviate some of the barriers for small and medium sized house builders (SMEs), provide greater access to win work and improve the bureaucracy of the planning process.

However, earlier today, I spoke to a National Federation of Builders (NFB) member who two years ago decided to be a new entrant in the house building sector and start building their own homes.

After a first success, they recently bought a site with existing planning for two homes but amended it to add garages. This straightforward request saw planners request unnecessary advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who took 16 weeks to say they had no issues (something the builder already established) and so far, 17 weeks for Highways England to give their second written take, after already being overruled by planners, due to the plan meeting local policy.

In the meantime, this builder has had 8 members of staff doing nothing for two weeks, as the company was unsure whether to take on other work, and has now cancelled site machinery, due to not actually being able to get on site. The builders exact words were, “the business is running on fumes. Do planners not understand the impact?”

The truth is, no, they do not. Too often, planning treats all builders the same, whether building two or two hundred homes. Is this any way to treat levelling up SMEs, who train 7 in 10 construction apprentices, make up 90% of the training capacity, are the predominant rural employers and keep money local?

While planning departments certainly need more funding, this is not a funding issue, it is a competency one from planners and consultees. Might I reinforce, this site already had planning for just two homes, it was just being amended to add two garages.

Sadly, the builder did not want to give their name, for fear of attracting the wrong sort of attention from their local planning authority (LPA) and this is a line I hear over and over again; which is why the HBA often writes to councils about general local planning issues, not specific issues a builder may have.

Much of industry is therefore pinning their hopes on planning reform fixing these ridiculous processes but the truth is, there is little evidence to show the Governments bite, matches it bark.

The recent Housing Delivery Test (HDT) examples this perfectly; save the 43 who are planning for 200% of their need.

Setting targets against a five year land supply, almost a third of local authorities are not meeting their minimum requirements. Eighteen must add 20% to their five year land supplies and 55 face a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which does not actually mean a sustainable development is granted planning.

So the fair question to ask, is what is the point in the HDT and its penalties, if LPAs can just flaunt it? The worst five performing councils are delivering 29%, 34% and 36% (three councils) of their need, so what is the Government going to do about it? So far, the answer is nothing and the Government rolled back on recent proposed calculations to ensure those councils felt greater pressure.

This is either because they are afraid the consequences require some local authorities to reallocate some greenbelt, which they and all parties view as political suicide. That they want to keep up the charade of not getting involved in (failing) local housing politics. Or, because they hope planning reform will actually begin solving the housing crisis by ensuring homes can be built, new entrants can enter the market and planning isn’t a quagmire of bureaucracy, ambitious, I know.

Industry and particularly SMEs are giving this new government the benefit of the doubt and praying that the answer is reform because although the Government triumphantly tell us they’ve increased housebuilding to its highest levels for 30 years, they’re yet to show their teeth and own their failure which has allowed the housing crisis to worsen in almost a third of England’s communities.

Rico Wojtulewicz

Head of Housing and Planning Policy