Theresa May announces it in her introduction, Sajid Javid proclaims it loudly; it’s even in the title of the paper itself. I remember my first day as a trainee solicitor, when the partner told me: "Sam, don’t tell me the problems. Tell me the practical, achievable solutions." Frankly, the supposed radical white paper is stating the obvious and I am struggling to see where the tangible measures are to fix the problem. Mr Javid helpfully says the solution is “building more houses in the places that people want to live”.
I suppose at least he has identified the issue that Britain needs more houses built, but simply identifying the problem doesn’t solve it. As I see it, the three key issues that need to be tackled are as follows.
The government is encouraging more building on brownfield sites
First, the green belt is revered in this country and a policy contrary to this does not go down well with voters. In fact, large tranches of the electorate in key battleground constituencies will fight tooth and nail against new homes being built on this sacrosanct land.
However, new homes can only be built if we can find more land, and simply saying the brownfield sites can be used does not deal with the problem. A blanket rule on building on the green belt is a major obstacle to creating a functioning housing strategy. There needs to be some flexibility and relaxation of rules when some of it’s not even very green. I would suggest an overarching review of the green belt to identify what land must be preserved and what land can be built on immediately. I question whether there is the political stomach for this fight, but it needs to be done.
- 50% of property professionals expect PD to be more popular in 2017
- Private sector housebuilding slowdown 'worrying'
- Gaining planning permission 'doesn't necessarily make the project feasible'
The housing white paper aims to support more SME developers
Second, there needs to be a bigger push to get SME housebuilders building. I read a statistic that 60% of new homes are built by just 10 companies, which has led to too much power in the hands of large corporations who are motivated by the bottom line not necessarily by building houses quickly. This has led to accusations of land banking, meaning less new homes being built. We know SME housebuilders do not have this luxury. They are driven by having to build out as quickly as possible due to cost pressures and are often building locally to where they live and working in tandem with the local communities. We need to get more SME builders building and it was at least pleasing to see this recognised in the white paper with the £3bn fund to provide loans to small housebuilders.
However, this fund isn’t particularly new and the target is just £25,000 this parliament. Finally, we need a planning system fit for purpose. The fundamental problem is that at the moment it’s blighted by a lack of funds, local decision-making and the effects of Nimbys, meaning housebuilders are delayed in getting planning permission and therefore new homes are not being built.
The white paper talks about councils having an up-to date housing plan, but in order to do so, the government needs to ensure that local planning teams are adequately staffed and resourced. At a time when the government coffers are looking a little threadbare, the chances appear slim.
So, all in all, I was underwhelmed. Hard choices have to be made and difficult political decisions made, but simply pointing out the problems isn’t going to fix our broken housing market.