20 June 2019

We are not building the right homes in the right places

Words by Rico Wojtulewicz:

"Planning and placemaking remain major barriers to solving the housing crisis. With councils under pressure, why do they keep building the wrong homes in the wrong places?

Since 2012, the Government has made positive changes to planning through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which handed local authorities greater powers to shape their local communities.

However, with the housing crisis worsening, the Government recognised that incentives were not working and opted, instead, for a more assertive approach.

The stick worked and output increased to almost 223,000 a year, but increased delivery has not lead to building the right homes in the right places.

A debate by Anne Marie Morris MP on housebuilding targets highlighted this fact by identifying that local planning is driven more by meeting a set of numbers, than fulfilling local needs.

While Morris proposed a community’s ‘right of appeal’ to ensure that supply matched local housing need, Housing Minister Kit Malthouse MP explained how recent changes to the NPPF meant councils had plenty of powers to ensure that the right homes were built in the right places.

The simple truth remains that local planning has become a numbers game. A ‘community right of appeal’ would fail to guarantee that the right homes were built in the right places and would instead add another layer of bureaucracy that local authorities and housebuilders cannot bear.

Councils already have the power to plan their communities more efficiently, but they are under-resourced and struggle to ensure they can provide infrastructure, land and expertise to meet their local housing need.

A simple starting point would be to improve the robustness of local housing needs assessments to reflect actual community need. This would help drive through less controversial and more robust local plan site allocations, with streamlined planning permissions when actual needs are being met.

Local authorities should do more to make sure they are exhausting all their land opportunities, instead of chasing numbers on large sites without first making sure the right infrastructure is in place. They should seek to work with the housebuilding industry, rather than against it.

Yet this is not happening and how we house our ageing population is a strong example that it is not.

In 1987, three years before the Town and Country Planning Act took placemaking control away from builders and gave it to councils, we built more than 26,000 bungalows. In 2016/17, we only built 2,000 of them.

The Government is absolutely right to tell councils to better plan their communities, but it is wrong in thinking it has reformed planning and placemaking.

Its primary goal must be to help councils deliver a culture of change. This may require extra finance, teaching them how to better engage with their local housebuilders or offering targeted funding, but it absolutely requires bringing the entire industry together.

As an immediate strategy, the Government should to go back to publishing the type of homes that are being built, both nationally and locally. Engaged communities and councils need to be able to see how many bungalows, two, three and four bedroom properties are being built. This would help those who feel under-represented to be represented and inspire councils to focus on need.

Councils need to ask themselves whether they are engaged enough to know what their communities need. Social housing waiting lists are extremely long and the Government has rightly unlocked funding for council housing, but are they getting built?

What about the rest of the market? Why are self and custom build registers not delivering? Why do so many neighbourhood plans not allocate housing sites or extra housing? Why are planning applications not streamlined when they meet housing need?

Changes to how and why we finance infrastructure, bring back empty homes, make sure affordable homes are truly affordable, and solve climate change will be needed, but unless we first reform placemaking and planning, the housing crisis will continue.

Malthouse often encourages developers not to become “the Kodak of the housebuilding industry”. I would encourage him to stop the NPPF and local plans from indulging in their own Kodak moment."