UK government housing plan ‘alarming’ – and falls short of decisive action

By Professor Gavin Parker, Professor of Planning Studies

Housing has been a key political issue for longer than I can remember, but that may not be saying that much.

The much anticipated English housing White Paper released on Tuesday reflects a clear shift in policy orientation but still reflects much of the same lever pulling and button pressing as seen over the past six years and more.

There are some changes that will alarm some people in the professions and out in the country but it also falls short of the decisive action that many had hoped for, despite the claims in the paper about it reflecting a radical agenda.

Greenbelt – the sacred cow of the planning system is pretty much left with its only “in exceptional circumstances” protection but some adjustments are included i.e. around existing settlements and where infrastructure is present.

Counterproductive measures

The biggest shift in tone from the Government has been to recognise that developers and landowners also need to sharpen up their acts. However, the means to actualise this are unlikely to be effective. The issue of mothballing sites is being targeted by reducing the time allowed between planning permission and the start of building from three to two years – a measure that may be counterproductive.

A significant part of the paper discusses how local authorities will even more clearly plan for their local housing needs and in future use a standardised methodology. They also need to have an up-to-date Plan, yet it is difficult to see how this is a change. There are further powers promised for government to ‘intervene’ where local authorities are deemed to be failing in this. It also speaks of areas not necessarily being ‘covered by a single plan’ in the future, all of which may be a recipe for fragmentation and confusion.

A change in focus is evident to enabling “a wider range of affordable housing”. The preoccupation in home ownership is still evident with starter homes, aimed at “households that need them most”, but most notably there is a shift in emphasis to recognise that those renting deserve more than they currently get – so specific measures to improve the sector are welcome. There appears to be a welcome to building by local authorities directly too.

A fund to encourage more diversity in the building industry is supposed to help smaller building firms challenge the major developers, including support for off-site construction. Sounds laudable but let’s see.

Overall, much ink will be spilled over this latest attempt by the Government to shift the dial on housing, but I’m not sure about how much action it will ultimately generate, nor how much (affordable) housing this will actually deliver.

Professor Gavin Parker’s User Experience of Neighbourhood Planning report has been used by Government to influence how local communities can have a say on planning in their area.