New NPPF but no green paper

Originally published on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Pick your moment: the appointment of a new housing minister only two weeks ago; the non-appearance of advance trails in the Sunday papers; or the failure of housing secretary James Brokenshire to rise to Labour’s bait in the Commons on Monday.

They were all strong signals that the social housing green paper, first promised early this year, then in the Spring and then before the recess, would fail to make its appearance by the time MPs went on their summer break on Tuesday.

Challenged over the decision by the BBC’s Mark Easton, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said that: ‘Providing high quality and well managed social housing is a top priority for this government. Shortly we will publish a Green Paper that sets out a new deal for social housing tenants.’

‘Shortly’ in this context might mean over the recess or (more likely) when MPs return in September (though there is some speculation that tensions over Brexit could see this delayed until October).

Either way, social housing seems to be just as much of a ‘top priority’ as it was when Kit Malthouse became the third different housing minister this year, leaving none of the politicians in place who personally assured tenants that they were ‘listening’ to their concerns.

Everyone who works in housing (or anywhere else) know that stuff happens and announcements can get delayed – a national strategy on rough sleeping was also promised in July but has so far failed to appear.

However, there was a stronger than usual commitment to getting the green paper out before the recess.

Six weeks ago, on the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, James Brokenshire (who was only in the job for six weeks at the time) made a statement to MPs about the government’s response in which he committed to ‘bringing forward legislation to reform the system of fire safety and give residents a stronger voice’.

Action included the consultation on the ban on combustible cladding materials published a week later but he went on:

‘It is essential that people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are not only safe but they feel the state understands their lives and works for them.

‘There is no question that their faith in this has been shaken. Which is why – as well as strengthening building and fire safety – we’ll be publishing a social housing green paper by recess.

‘I am confident that these measures will help us rebuild public trust and deliver the meaningful, lasting change that’s needed.’

What can have happened to delay something he considered so essential to restoring Grenfell survivors’ faith in the system and rebuilding public trust?

One candidate is the appointment of Malthouse, who would have been expected to put his name to something he’d had no hand in producing within two weeks of taking the job.

But I was always intrigued to see how the government would reconcile support for social housing in the green paper with the relentless hostility it has displayed to the tenure since 2010 – perhaps this took longer to finesse than ministers thought?

Things have of course begun to change under Theresa May. Her funding pledge during last year’s election campaign may have been relatively small by comparison with previous cuts, and it turned out not to be new money, but it was still an important signal.

That also applies to the one housing announcement promised before the recess that was delivered on time: publication of the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

I’ll leave discussion of the substance of the new NPPF and Housing Delivery Test and their impact on new development for another time and concentrate here on the definition of affordable housing in the glossary.

The good news is that the government has restored the explicit mention of social renting that was removed from the draft version published in March.

The original version of the NPPF published in 2012 defined affordable housing as:

‘social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing, provided to eligible households whose needs are not met by the market’.

It also stated explicitly that:

‘Homes that do not meet the above definition of affordable housing, such as “low cost market” housing, may not be considered as affordable housing for planning purposes.’

The draft of the new NPPF published in March not only deleted any reference to social renting, it also changed the definition of affordable housing to ‘housing for sale or rent, for those whose needs are not met by the market’ that falls into one of four categories.

The first, ‘affordable housing for rent’, had to meet three conditions. The first was that ‘the rent is set in accordance with government policy, or is at least 20% below local market rents’ – a definition that could include social renting but most people would take to mean affordable rent.

The second was that the landlord is a registered provider, except where it is part of a Build to Rent scheme (in which case the oxymoronic Affordable Private Rent would be the norm) and the third was that there should be provision for the homes to remain affordable or for the subsidy to be recycled.

The other three categories were starter homes, discounted market sale housing and ‘other affordable routes to home ownership’ (which could mean shared ownership, equity loans, other low-cost homes to buy, rent to buy etc).

At first glance this seemed to put all of the Conservatives’ pre-2016 priorities – an obsession with home ownership, the manifesto pledge on (non) starter homes and defining ‘affordable’ against the market rather than earnings – straight into the NPPF.

The final version has a few minor changes to the rest of the definition, such as making clear that other low-cost homes to buy have to be at least 20% below the market price, and a significant addition to the paragraph on affordable housing for rent.

This rent is now:

‘set in accordance with the Government’s rent policy for Social Rent or Affordable Rent, or is at least 20% below local market rents’.

The practical effects of this change remain to be seen and will depend on how local authorities, developers and potentially planning inspectors respond.

On the one hand, the explicit reference to social rent should free local authorities to include it in their planning policies and this seems to demonstrate the government’s commitment to housing of all tenures.

And reform of the viability rules elsewhere in the new NPPF should also make it significantly harder for developers to find ways of cutting their affordable housing contributions.

On the other, there is no clear distinction between social and (un)affordable rent and the lack of reference to ‘eligible households’ in the new version could also make it more difficult to get the most affordable homes built, including social rent.

Meanwhile several other important additions to the draft make it into the final version unchanged.

Starter homes and affordable private rent are now official options and the definition of affordable housing has been widened to include all kinds of low cost market housing that were explicitly excluded from the 2012 definition.

It’s not hard to guess which kind of affordable housing developers will prefer if they are given the choice.

And, for all the government’s warm words about social housing and promises about the green paper, it’s not hard to see what the real ‘top priority’ continues to be.

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