All white now?

Musings on the Housing White Paper from our Editorial Director Rupert Bates… February 7, 2017 / Isla MacFarlane
All white now?
Rupert Bates

Rupert Bates

It’s okay for you digital lot with your 24 hour clocks to work around, your breaking news, your Twitter feeds, your Facebook updates.

As I hastily wrote my column this morning for the latest issue of Show House the rest of the magazine is tucked up in bed – the perils of print publication deadlines.

So apart from my musings, the next edition of Show House to land at your doors is white paper free – so to speak.

I had a cunning plan to pretend that my February print column had missed the boat too, but showing remarkable insight and prescience was going to list the key announcements I was ‘expecting’ from the paper. The alternative was to do what I did when realising I had failed to write an essay on nihilism at university and hand in blank sheets of white paper.

The government teased with the prospect of a white paper late last year; then promised it in January. It was coming out next week, then, cross our hearts hope to die, the week after.

Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, presumably had permission to publish, but couldn’t press the print button due to onerous pre-commencement conditions.

When Prime Minister Theresa May met Donald Trump, they were rumoured to have discussed the white paper. But there was some confusion until Mrs May explained to the US President that the White Paper was a document on housing policy, not foreign policy.

Of course there have been leaks – not ideal when talking about houses. Simon Ricketts of planning law firm Town Legal tweeted that ‘modern white papers are first published as a multi-part series in the Telegraph.’

The Telegraph is the local paper for the rural county of Nimbyshire and a front page article, several days before the white paper was published, screamed ‘Get building or lose planning.’ The piece went on to quote unnamed ‘sources’ – I’m guessing HP or Tomato – saying planning permission can be maintained simply by ‘digging a trench.’

Apart from the fact that pre-commencement conditions thwart even a spade in the ground, does the government really believe that volume housebuilders such as Redrow Homes – and chairman Steve Morgan dug many a trench in his younger days getting his business out of the ground – instruct site managers to ‘dig a trench and walk away until prices rise and local communities are begging us to build’?

I have no idea how you could enforce it and you wouldn’t want an even greater percentage of permissioned plots to fall into the big boys’ laps. But perhaps we need some form of fit and proper test of land ownership when planning permission is applied for – professional builders, large or small, with a business plan and cash requirements that need timely delivery and sales rates, rather than an Arthur Daley spiv chancer sitting on a car yard with planning potential.

While always a print junkie at heart, social media is a good room to enter when looking for instant response and a few chuckles. Housing commentator Henry Pryor, never knowingly under-cynical, summed up his thoughts with a plate of fudge.

Deja vu meets Groundhog Day dressed in Emperor’s clothes is another neat summary. I am amazed a well-known furniture polisher has not yet offered to sponsor government housing initiatives, such are the pledges.

Get the words broken and fix in there – check. Radical blueprint – check. Make sure local councils feel relevant and powerful, but be firm with planning departments by nudging them in the stomach with a plastic sword – check. Help SMEs without understanding what help they really need – check. Hint that the Green Belt might be unbuckled, but remember you are a Tory and row back – check. Don’t forget young people, oh and old people too – check. And finally photo-call on building site with hard hat (in this case Berkeley) – check.

To be fair to Javid he said it himself. “It is right to be sceptical. We’ve heard it all before from successive governments.”

“Walk down your local high street today and there’s one sight you’re almost certain to see. Young people, faces pressed against the estate agent’s window, trying and failing to find a home they can afford.”

A throwaway tug at parents’ heartstrings line, but confirmation the government is out of touch. I think you’ll find most young faces these days are pressed against their iPhone screen Mr Javid. And invariably it is not houses they are looking at.

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