Red tape and rabbit hutches

Originally posted on May 8 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New rules making it easier to convert offices into residential property have generated more than 30,000 new homes in the last two years – but at what cost?

A report published last week that deserves more attention took a detailed look at what has happened in five areas of England since the system was deregulated in 2013.

The study for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also compares the experiences of Glasgow and Rotterdam, which have also seen office to residential conversions without the same deregulation.

The English reforms extended the system of permitted development, allowing developers to apply for prior approval rather than planning permission and making it much easier for them to push office to residential conversions through the system.

This is not a total free-for-all – some local authorities have successfully applied for exemptions for some areas and it is still possible to apply for new ones – but it is a significant relaxation that is meant to deliver more homes.

When former communities secretary Eric Pickles first introduced the new system he said that:

‘By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump start housing supply.’

The scheme was first introduced for three years from May 2013, then made permanent from April 2016.

At first glance the results seem to bear out Pickles’s hopes and look impressive in terms the contribution to the government’s plans to move towards 300,000 net additional dwellings a year.

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Steps in the right direction that don’t go far enough

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on March 5.

Theresa May is a politician with a gift for saying the right things but somehow in the wrong way.

I’m thinking here not just of the obvious examples such as the ‘nothing had changed during the election campaign’ and the collapsing lettering of ‘Building a Britain that Works for Everyone’ during her Conservative conference speech last year. She does it even when she is most in control of what she is saying.

She did it in her first speech as prime minister when she dedicated herself to tackling ‘burning injustices’ but only succeeded in drawing attention to the fact they were the legacy of the previous six years of Conservative rule.

She did it on Friday when her big speech on Brexit rightly pointed out that ‘we can’t have everything’ only to prompt a German journalist to ask ‘is it all worth it?’.

And she did it again in her speech on Monday launching the new version of the National Planning Policy Framework.

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A look ahead to the Budget part one: the land question

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on November 13.

More than ever before, this year’s Budget looks like a watershed moment for housing.

Philip Hammond is under mounting pressure from all sides to do something big and bold and break with the failed policies of the past.

The calls for something radical are coming from more than just the usual suspects and are for more than just a cheque with lots of zeros.

Conservative MPs know that they cling to power (just) thanks to the votes of elderly home owners. Brexit may dominate everything but many of them realise that beneath the surface housing is one of the key issues poisoning their relationship with the under-45s.

They understand that cynical policies like Help to Buy are no longer enough, that the party is running out of time and that it has to look at policies that were previously unthinkable.

Yet conventional wisdom says that we’ve heard all this before, that Hammond’s caution and the Treasury’s orthodoxy will turn thinking that was big and bold into outcomes that are tame and timid on November 22.

After the announcements in the last few weeks of an extra £10bn for Help to Buy, another £2bn for social housing and the u-turn on the LHA cap for social and supported housing, how much is left for the chancellor to say (or spend)?

However, another view says that the housing question has such serious social, economic and political implications that the answers cannot be put off any longer. See this blog by Toby Lloyd for a good round-up of some possibilities.

In a series of columns ahead of the Budget, I’ll be looking at some of the crucial questions concerning investment, tax and welfare and, to kick things off, land. Will the Budget be big and bold – or tame and timid?

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Simple ‘solutions’ plague our thinking about housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 29. 

‘What makes the housing crisis so maddening is that there is a simple solution: Britain needs to get building.’

So ran a tweet a couple of weeks ago from The Economist about an article on How to Solve Britain’s Crisis. Unleash the market, build on the green belt and, hey presto, the housing crisis is over.

In fairness, the article’s proposition was a bit more complicated than the tweet implied – it also proposed reform of stamp duty and council tax – but it is still an illustration of the way that ‘simple solutions’ plague our thinking about housing.

What I mean by that is that there may well be good arguments that can be made for building on the green belt, or rent control, or building a million council houses, or prefabrication or any of the other quick fixes that are routinely trotted out.

It’s certainly hard to see a solution that does not involve more homes, better conditions for private renters, a greater role for local authorities and innovations in construction.

However, it’s quite different when one of them is proposed as the solution. Usually this is by one of the ‘unleash the market’ brigade who believe that the housing crisis is all down to planning.

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Happy birthday MK

Originally posted on January 25 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Even if 50 is the new 40 (I rationalised that one long ago) this week’s anniversary of the birth of Milton Keynes is a significant moment in the history of housing – and what was once its future.

MK, as locals call it, has come a long way since it was designated a new town in January 1967 with a brief to become a city. The population is now 250,000 and rising and it has even imported its own football team.In much of the birthday coverage this week it’s called “Britain’s last new town”, probably because it was the biggest and the last to be finished.

In fact, it was the first of the third wave of post-War new towns to be designated: Peterborough celebrates its 50th birthday in July, with Northampton, Warrington, an expanded Telford, and Central Lancashire to follow over the next three years.

But in a week when Theresa May’s cabinet met in Warrington for the launch of her industrial strategy, it’s worth asking why no more have followed. After all, one of the key problems that all three waves of the new towns programme were partly designed to address – how to cope with population overspill from London and other major cities – has not gone away.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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Planting seeds

Originally published on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Two major housing announcements before most people have gone back to work sets some sort of record even by recent standards.

Late on Monday the government confirmed the go-ahead for the first of “thousands” of Starter Homes to be sold at a 20% discount to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40. And on Monday morning, the government named 17 sites for new garden villages and garden towns. If only it were as easy to build homes as it is to put out press releases on a bank holiday.

I’ll come back to Starter Homes soon. But first off, those 17 garden towns and villages. As far as it goes, the idea is a welcome acknowledgement of the need for radical action to build more new homes.

But the emphasis on them being “locally led” only underlines the desperate need for national leadership if the response to the housing crisis is to go beyond leaving it to the market with a few extra bits tacked on around the edges.

As it is, Monday’s first government announcement of the year is eerily reminiscent of the “radical new policy shift” promised by David Cameron 12 months ago: initiatives that are promising in themselves and get media coverage but do not go remotely far enough to make any real difference.

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