It’s no secret that getting houses built is high on the political and social agenda in the UK. The shortage of housing means that there are constant debates about how we can build enough homes, where we can build them and how quickly they can be completed. It’s a big issue for many of our clients and so we invited planning journalist Ben Kochan to give us some insights into the challenges facing a government under pressure to solve the housing conundrum. The planning system is generally blamed for the housing shortage, but that doesn’t seem to be the end of the story. Unblocking the next link in the supply chain - getting the construction underway in a timely fashion - is now the next challenge occupying the government. What makes it more tricky is that it’s not in their direct control.
Figures from the Local Government Association show that government planning reforms may have freed the planning blockage, as planning approvals have exceeded pre-recession levels. In 2014-15, Local Authorities approved planning applications for 212,468 homes – up from 187,605 in 2007-08. There are now a record 475,647 homes in England with planning permission. These remarkable figures have yet to be turned into a similar increase in starts on site – and that is a cause of great frustration to policymakers.
Peter Box, the LGA’s housing spokesman called for Local Councils to have the power to force developers to build homes more quickly. This forthright approach was not, however, shared by the Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis. He was presented with these figures at a session of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. One of the MPs on the Committee took up an LGA suggestion that Councils should have the power to charge developers full council tax for every un-built home from the date on which the original planning permission expires. This would be similar to the council tax levied on empty homes – but it would be on empty sites.
Although this idea did not meet with the Minister’s approval, he was clearly unhappy that on larger sites, the average start rate was only 48 homes a year. He would like it raised to 200. He also wanted the build time cut from an average 20 weeks per home, to three or four weeks. Brandon Lewis singled out Didcot’s success at getting 400 homes on site per year. The Oxfordshire market town achieved this by having several different developers contributing, he said, which may give some hint of the direction the government is traveling.
Creating competition between developers might be the answer, but when many of the large sites are in single ownership this may be difficult. Breaking up the large publicly owned sites into smaller parcels could be practical, if they are viable for the house-builders – and they get over fears about saturating the market. Build time could be addressed by offsite manufacturing – but how that could be imposed on house-builders is another issue. As a government, you can manage the public sector, but if you rely on the private sector for delivery, you have few tools to control it.
Ben Kochan: Ben is a regular contributor to Planning Magazine and Placemaking Resource and has recently edited books on Migration in London and the Private Rented Sector.