A planner's view of how we solve the housing crisis
The white paper opens up much-needed debate on housing and planning in England, but does it go far enough? Trudi Elliott, CEO of the Royal Town Planning Institute, thinks more must be done to bring about the changes we need to solve the housing crisis.
We have come a long way from the pre-election work all of us interested in solving the housing crisis did through the homes for Britain campaign, aimed at raising the issue up the political agenda. The everyday experience of large sections of the electorate and their families has played into the political focus on the issue. For planners the recently published housing White Paper is perhaps to be welcomed most for establishing a better debate on housing and planning in England, for the language and for acknowledging at last the issues in housing are wide-ranging and complex.
As its title Fixing our Broken Housing Market suggests, there is now a much stronger recognition under Theresa May’s Government that we have to tackle the housing crisis on multiple levels and with multiple policy tools.
To accompany publication of the White Paper, RTPI published Better Planning: Housing Affordability – which explores how, in England in particular, we have previously adopted the wrong approach to improving housing affordability, basing assumptions on an incorrect diagnosis of what the problems are. Our paper sets out a better approach.
There are many reasons why we are not delivering enough houses. Under successive governments in England, pursuing "planning reform" as the “silver bullet” solution to housing affordability (on the basis that planning is the primary problem) has overlooked the range of other factors involved, and therefore the full range of solutions that can be brought to bear on the problem. In particular, this approach has ignored the positive role that planning can play as a part of the solution.
The RTPI paper sets out the basis for a better approach to housing affordability, based on:
• an acknowledgement of the multifaceted nature of the problems in housing, which successive governments' policies have often neglected;
• a recognition of the positive role that planning can play in delivering better housing affordability; and
• a call to rethink how we develop policy, in ways which are less theoretical and more grounded in practice, based on what actually works locally.
The RTPI’s response to the White Paper supported the Government’s new approach, embracing a wider range of housing tenures, joining-up development with infrastructure, transparency over land ownership and in identifying more resources for local authority planning departments (all of which the RTPI been campaigning strongly for). We noted, however, that the White Paper made no mention of mechanisms to capture rising private land values to better benefit communities (notwithstanding the hints the Minister has made about setting up Development Corporations, which would be able to access land at existing use value using the New Towns legislation). The time has come for this issue to be addressed if we are serious about marrying demand with delivery.
We are also pleased that some of the ideas we set out in our campaign – “6 ways to solve the housing crisis” and some of the suggestions we made through consultation responses are supported by measures in the Housing White Paper. For example, many of our suggestions regarding proposals around affordable housing and Starter Homes seem to have been acknowledged, in an apparent rolling back of the policy. Age caps will now be more flexible and the compulsory requirement for Starter Homes across all sites has been removed, in recognition of the potential impact that prioritising one product will have over other affordable housing requirements.
For the RTPI, more resources in planning will be critical to enable planners to better support increased delivery. Having raised our concern about the impact of poor resourcing in planning departments, we were pleased to see that planning fees are to be increased by 20 per cent. Whilst the jury is out on the relationship between income and performance, with skills and capacity being of equal concern, the additional income should be a welcome boost for local authorities - at least in the short term.
Housing Delivery Test and Duty to Cooperate
The White Paper commits to hold local authorities and developers to account for housing delivery. RTPI’s response to the consultation on this was to argue for realism about how much responsibility can really fall at the door of local authorities for sites they do not own.
RTPI suggested that there is a requirement placed on authorities to have a buffer of reserve sites as a way to address housing under-delivery; this has been taken forward as one of three different sanctions, depending on the severity of the shortfall, to incentivise delivery. Housing need does not respect Local Authority boundaries, so introducing a requirement for local authorities to produce a statement of common ground, as a push towards more cooperation, is also a theme we have continually put forward, as per the recommendations that we make in our policy paper on strategic planning.
Transparency of small site and brownfield data
RTPI was pleased to see that small windfall site allocations have been left to local discretion, and that - as we urged - proposals for local authorities to maintain a small sites register have not been taken forward. However, we are still waiting for clarity on some areas of planning practice which affect housing; such as on brownfield registers and Permission in Principle (regulations on the latter are expected in the autumn).
The RTPI has always supported the re-use of previously developed land, but it is important that these sites are actually in the right places. We are pleased that the Government has acknowledged concerns that access to employment and public transport are crucial factors to consider when bringing forward brownfield sites and new settlements, and that the Government has also adopted this phrasing in the White Paper. Beyond these statements, however, we would like this to be made clear in national guidance.
Politically, as the pre white paper debate demonstrated, the most challenging issue is the green belt. In addressing the issue of green belts and greenfield housing, our paper on where should we build more homes? suggests that after 60 years, it is time to consider whether there should be an additional social purpose for green belts. Green belts can do more than only limiting outward urban sprawl. Boundaries may need to change, again we argue there is a need for green belts to be reviewed across local authority boundaries. We recommended in response to the changes to National Planning policy consultation that local reviews of strategic planning tools such as green belts are not necessarily the best way to address housing challenges.
But is there really a plan to solve the housing crisis yet?
Before the Public accounts committee, the Permanent Secretary of CLG Melanie Dawes showed remarkable honesty about the gap between scale of the housing challenge and the policies to meet it. On being asked by the Chair when demand (289000 pa) and supply target (189000 pa) would meet? She said “It will continue as it has done for decades, I agree, and that will show itself primarily in affordability and in some places in homelessness. I am simply being honest with you. For something on this scale and of this magnitude, we do not have some neat line that tells us when those paths will cross.
This, the Chair of the PAC concluded, meant there was (as yet) no plan to solve the problem. So, whilst the Housing White Paper heralds a better debate on planning and housing for which we are all very grateful, it’s hard to see how it will result in significant systemic changes in the housing market along the lines of ideas we have suggested in our #16ways campaign.
Many barriers remain – barriers that RTPI in collaboration with CIH will continue to call attention to and offer solutions to. Let’s hope all departments of government are listening.
Trudi Elliott is CEO of RTPI.