As the Conservative leadership election draws closer to the final two, solving the housing crisis has grown in popularity as a talking point. Yet where candidates are getting some elements correct and reinforcing existing proposals, they should be challenged for putting votes before the national interest.
The welcomed support of local design codes will deliver much needed certainty to the planning process but the understanding of placemaking appears to be absent. Penny Mordaunt is correct to take a more nuanced line and ‘champion a brownfield building boom’ to ‘build up not out’, rather than simply ‘brownfield first’ but the brownfield obsession creates a new problem, namely where do the jobs, amenities, services go now that we’ve used the land they’re typically built on?
Building on brownfield rich Bradford also doesn’t help in brownfield limited Barnstaple.
Once we build out brownfield, creating higher populations in the process and removing the land that non-housing needs are used for, people will be required to travel further to newly built infrastructure outside their communities, on green sites. This means infrastructure still doesn’t deliver properly and any greenfield loss is short term, perhaps limited to one political cycle. Handy that.
And this short termism is extending to other parts of the debate, such as the criticism of central housing targets. Central targets and their toothless penalties for not meeting them exist because councils weren’t building enough and were allocating impossible to deliver sites. Since their introduction, housing numbers have increased considerably, something this Government constantly champion as their success, planners have been able to justify their position against party political planning decisions and smaller sites within communities have been given a greater mechanism.
Removing central targets and the Housing Delivery Test (the policy that identified which councils face penalties) simply removes the accountability that councils have in meeting housing demand and robust land allocations. How else can we ensure that the most unaffordable areas, such as the South East and London where more than forty percent of councils are not meeting their minimum housing targets, actually build enough homes?
An alternative of incentivising development has been proposed but historically this has failed. The ‘New Homes Bonus’, a grant given when councils build more homes is one such example and councils barely discussed it. When one HBA member proposed a site hoarding identifying that their development would increase funding from central government because of this bonus, his council asked them to drop the idea.
Not even the incentive of ‘building beautiful’ works, as Price Charles found out in Kent, where his proposal of a new Poundbury styled development was roundly opposed by locals. Small builders have been making this point since the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’ was launched, as they already built beautiful, yet only deliver nine percent of market share.
Others continue to criticise land banking, ignoring that this land is a pipeline and based on allocations that councils make. And to date, politicians have completely disregarded that councils are some of the biggest landowners in England and have great access to lending yet build very few of their own homes. Are they not the true landbankers?
So far, no candidate, apart from Sajid Javid, has shown they understand the housing crisis, what land banking is, or recognised the planning process’s role in supply and the cost of living crisis. When Robert Jenrick was housing secretary the uncomfortable conversations about solving this desperate situation were being had but since his ambition got him sacked, the opposition, Government and now Conservative candidates for PM continue to prove that winning votes is much more important than solving a national crisis of war time proportion.
We should therefore expect the housing crisis and cost of living crisis which accompanies it to endure.
Head of housing and planning policy