‘Britain’s Housebuilding Scandal’ - A disturbing return to the blame culture for a lack of housing delivery?

Elle Cass, Technical Director, Planning and SLR's recently appointed Built Environment Planning Lead discusses her thoughts on the Government's approach to managing the current housing crisis.

I have listened to recent rhetoric in the media and from politicians with increasing concern that we are seeing a return to a blame culture for the failure to keep pace with housing need. Last night’s Despatches documentary included comments from Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, which levelled the blame for the current housing crisis squarely on the shoulders of the national housebuilding industry, with seemly no account taken of either wider macro-economic issues or indeed the particular process which the industry is required to go through to be legally entitled to make a start on site.

Javid indicated in the programme that the Government is prepared to use “carrots and sticks” to “disrupt” Britain’s housebuilding industry and break the “stranglehold” of the big developers, to encourage smaller developers and the faster building of more new homes.  This was countered by Andrew Whitaker, the Head of Planning for the Home Builders Federation (HBF), who highlighted that “the housebuilding industry is increasing production and makes money by selling houses – there’s no reason we’d delay or artificially reduce the amount of houses we sell.” Having advised on planning matters pertaining to housing delivery for over 20 years, this feels like déjà vu to me!

Over 10 years have passed since Kate Barker was tasked with conducting a review of issues underlying the lack of supply and responsiveness in the UK housing market. My frustration in this current debate is that Barker identified fundamental changes which would aid the supply of housing.  She effectively debunked the oversimplification of this problem by dispelling the ‘land banking’ myth. However, our politicians appear to be now returning to this distraction which is disappointing for the industry and the public.

I would like to see positive policy from Central Government and hope that this will emerge through the Autumn Statement and subsequent Housing White Paper. I consider that the language of using ‘carrots and sticks’ to ‘disrupt’ Britain’s housebuilding industry and break the ‘stranglehold’ of the big developers is derisive and unhelpful.

In challenging the ‘stranglehold’ assertion, Whitaker has rightly pointed out that it is not in the housebuilding industry’s interests to hold back land. Moreover, strategic land promoted by the large housebuilders must not be confused with sites with planning permission, and sites with planning permission should not be confused with planning permissions which are implementable (because pre-commencement conditions have been discharged). These nuances of housing delivery seem to be absent in the recent debate.

In addition, as we have emerged from recession, many areas of the UK are seeing huge levels of new housing development, comparative to recent times.  This is despite a significantly constricted sector. It is fundamental to recognise that the global financial crisis resulted in large numbers of small and medium sized housebuilders going to the wall.  This is a reality clearly not caused by national housebuilders. This will however take time to rebalance, particularly as many workers left this sector through necessity, which has led to a significant skills shortage.  This shortage is compounded by the fact that during the recession the housebuilding industry was not an attractive sector for youngsters to train in.  All of these issues will and are having an effect on delivery.

Add to this uncertainties created by Brexit, volatility in the markets and cost of living uncertainty, the industry would be foolhardy not to take a measured approach to ramping up delivery, even if the workforce, skills and number of developers were there to achieve this.  Notwithstanding this, we have seen significant investment in modular development by both the traditional national players and new entrants to the market like L&G.  These investments show a commitment by the industry to find innovative ways to speed up delivery and essentially circumnavigate the skills shortage in traditional building methods. Furthermore, they demonstrate recognition by the industry that it needs to deliver greater levels of lower cost housing which is not inferior in quality.

I consider that the ‘call to arms’ from the Government should be less about ‘carrots and sticks’ or ‘blame and accusation’ and more about addressing the gaps in skills, supporting new innovation, and working in positive collaboration with the housebuilding industry to remove barriers to reaching an implementable and deliverable planning position.

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Key Contacts:

Elle Cass