Industry underwhelmed by Housing White Paper

February 8, 2017 / Isla MacFarlane
Industry underwhelmed by Housing White Paper

According to some, the 104-page Housing White Paper catalogues the housebuilding industry’s maladies without offering any relief.

“The measures announced so far in Theresa May’s long-promised housing white paper are feeble beyond belief,” said Labour MP John Healey. “Ministers should be setting out clear plans to deal with these problems, but all Theresa May’s Ministers have delivered so far is hot air.”

Teasing out the details from the rhetoric was a struggle for many. Jonathan Manns, head of regeneration and director of planning at Colliers International said, “Regrettably, we see weakness in areas where it really matters. Despite demanding that Local Authorities don’t duck difficult questions, the government has ruled out any consideration of the way in which we could reform the green belt to secure better outcomes for our built and natural environment.

“There’s no National Spatial Plan to balance economic growth or tangible indication of exactly how Local Authorities will be resourced to deliver their newfound responsibilities.”

While some details were vague, others gave call for concern. John Elliott, Managing Director of Millwood Designer Homes, is worried about the announcement to allow councils to issue completion notices demanding builders start building within two years rather than three.

“This is fraught with danger and will suppress housebuilding rather than ensure the government’s housebuilding targets are achieved,” Elliot said. “Once planning has been granted on a site, it can take 18 to 24 months before the planning conditions are satisfied, and to ask housebuilders to spend huge sums to secure planning over sometimes several years for councils to then decide the development is not valid on the new timetable, is unacceptable.”

Local authorities will be disappointed that there is no immediate prospect of the relaxation of the Housing Revenue Account debt cap, which has prevented councils from delivering significant numbers of new affordable housing.

Jean Liggett, CEO of Properties of the World, opined that the government’s approach is to pass the buck to councils. “As it is right now, due to austerity for a number of years, councils have had to cut back on key services,” he said. “That has meant that planning departments are under-staffed and the many of the experts working in them have moved on to other jobs. Where is the money? Maybe Theresa May expects them to be alchemists.”

Toby Greville, Director of Residential Development at Colliers International criticised the appeal levy. “Developers are used to lodging planning applications with the knowledge that their application will be refused on political grounds, only to win their case after a costly and timely appeal,” he said. “It’s rarely in the developers’ interests to land bank and the consequence is too many decent projects are left unbuilt.

“Sadly, the Housing White Paper’s answer to this is to seek to deter ‘unnecessary appeals’ by imposing an appeal levy. Many more applications are passed on appeal than are refused; clear evidence that the fault lies with the local authority’s planning committee. The White Paper offers no solutions to this.”

While measures to improve the lot of long-term renters’ was largely welcome, there was a sense that the government had given up on home ownership. The Homeowner’s Alliance noted that the Housing White Paper was a disappointing read for aspiring first-time buyers, with no new incentives or extra funding to fix the home ownership crisis.

“The government should not give up on homeownership and the security and stability that comes with it,” said HomeOwners Alliance chief executive Paula Higgins. “Recent research from the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 86% of people want to own their own home, while our own findings have found that there is a homeownership gap of five million people.

“Finding a long-term solution to making housing more affordable and getting people firmly on the property ladder so they can have a home of their own is ultimately what is better for society.”

Meanwhile, one of the industry’s biggest challenges – its chronic labour shortage – was conspicuously absent from the document. “What is the government doing to set up colleges, and apprentice programmes to train them?” asked Liggett.

“Although there is mention of the need to address the skills shortage in construction, what does this mean in reality?” asked Gavin White, product manager, Marley Eternit. “As a manufacturer, we’re playing our part by offering training for roofers and development of easy-to-fit products, which not only help better use limited labour on site, but also play their part in speeding up construction.  But, what’s needed to truly address this issue is industry-wide collaboration to encourage more apprentices into the construction sector.”

Meanwhile, the Home Builder’s Federation said that the government’s pledge to loan £3 billion to SMEs is outdated. It said that the government can only see SMEs delivering an extra 25,000 homes out of the 900,000 the UK needs to build over the next three years. In addition, the continued focus on policies aimed more at stoking demand, rather than helping build new homes, shows that the government has not learned from its past mistakes.

Rico Wojtulewicz, policy advisor for the HBA, said, “If briefings are to be believed, the Housing White Paper is an inadequate proposal that misunderstands the market, does not stimulate competition, and continues to focus on demand and volume over placemaking.”

Richard Beresford, chief executive of the NFB, said, “When Theresa May took office, she pledged to deliver an economy that works for everyone. If people can’t afford the most basic requirement such as a roof over their head, then the White Paper has failed.”

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