Coupled with this, high profile initiatives such as Help to Buy would provide first time buyers with support to own their own home. The previous Government was so convinced by the need to build more homes they even risked alienating the core Conservative vote by introducing the National Planning Policy Framework which critics believed would make building on the green belt easier.
The launch of the Government’s much anticipated Housing White Paper confirmed that Theresa May also sees housing as a key policy area. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, made clear in his party conference speech last year his ambition to get on with the task of building homes rather than just continuing the debate, in a barbed reference to the work of his predecessors.
So, what changes in approach can we expect as a result of the White Paper? Well there are some familiar themes. Measures are going to be introduced to reduce land banking by developers (developments must commence within two years of receiving consent rather than three) and the Lifetime ISA to help first time buyers save for a deposit also stays in place. But whilst some of the White Paper covers familiar areas, as we have come to expect from the May Government, there are marked differences from the previous regime. The White Paper makes clear that in order to reach the Government’s target of one million new homes by 2020 there needs to be a big increase in building – from the current annual rate of 190,000 to 275,000.
The announcement also sees Councils playing a key role in delivering this increased target. Local authorities already have to produce a local plan setting out exactly where housing growth will be delivered in their authority area but many councils have dragged their heels on this – issuing a local policy document setting out which local neighbourhoods are going to face tens of thousands of homes on their doorstep is rarely going to be popular with residents or councillors! To counteract this the White Paper makes clear that where local authorities are making insufficient progress on their plans, the Government will actively intervene. However, in addition to this emphasis on discipline, Councils will be encouraged to speed up housing delivery in the form of central funding and increased planning fees should they be able to demonstrate they will invest the new funds in their planning departments.
There has been some media comment that the White Paper would see May depart from Margaret Thatcher’s home ownership aspiration in favour of promoting more mixed tenureship of new homes. In reality, it’s not a change in policy – Conservatives still strongly support home ownership which is why they want to build more houses as well as keeping policies such as the Lifetime ISA for first time buyers. What it does acknowledge though is that it is becoming harder for lower income families to get on the housing ladder and therefore you can’t solve the housing crisis unless you build more houses that are affordable and available for rent. Theresa May sees this as a crucial issue that needs to be tackled in order to reduce barriers to aspiration and opportunity. Building more houses, the Government would argue, is about more than just helping the economy. The White Paper also contains a set of measures to protect those living within the rented sector, such as steps to promote longer tenancies in new rental homes and measures to control the quality of landlords.
Other measures have been announced to help build homes more quickly. A £3 billion fund has been launched to encourage more innovative construction. Quite controversially, developers will be expected to produce higher density housing where land is high demand. Whilst this may sound like a practical step, reducing the density of a proposed scheme is one of the most common requests made by local objectors to a planning application, risking the planning process becoming even tougher and more uncertain for applicants.
To reassure local communities, the White Paper makes clear that the green belt will continue to be protected with building only being permitted in exceptional circumstances. In addition, the Government is also going to give similar protection to ancient woodland. This is likely to go down well with the Conservative heartlands and has already received support from the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
As with all Government announcements, the devil will be in the detail. Housing is a sensitive political topic. Furthermore, it relies upon a planning system that can be uncertain, unpredictable and increasingly in the spotlight. To achieve the Government’s own housing targets the conflicting interests of house builders, local authorities and local communities will need to be finely balanced. Previous housing initiatives such as the right to buy council homes have delivered their objective. Only time will tell whether or not this White Paper will achieve its object or fail where many others have done before.
For more details, please contact Bell Pottinger Political on UKPolitics@bellpottinger.com or 020 3772 2500