‘Britain’s Housebuilding Scandal’ - A disturbing return to the blame culture for a lack of housing delivery?
Posted: November 08, 2016 /
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.