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by Ian Anderson
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It sometimes feels like ‘Housing, Housing, Housing’ is the political mantra of the twenty-tens, as ‘Education, Education, Education’ was the soundbite for New Labour two decades earlier. That’s why I question the credibility of Labour’s Green Paper, conveniently published just ahead of the local elections and filled with critical rhetoric.
There’s no denying we have seen plenty of new initiatives in recent years from the Government to ‘tackle our nation’s housing crisis’. But I am still not certain if housing is the overriding political priority because Theresa May is ideologically wedded to tackling the crisis or because it focuses the shift away from Brexit. A new announcement arrives almost fortnightly yet solutions seems harder to come by.
This last week brought another contribution to the housing affordability debate in the form of the Labour Party’s Housing Green Paper. Sadly, Labour’s contribution to the debate falls far short of what is required to give the housing sector what it needs. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the market-driven approach of the Government, when what the sector needs cooperation and collaboration between the public and private sectors.
The profits claw-back proposal reveals the disdain for the private sector in the housing market. And yet the Green Paper actually acknowledges in 206 of all 326 local authorities in England not a single new social rented home was built last year. In fact, between them councils and housing associations built just 17,000 homes that would meet Labour’s affordable housing standard. There was plenty more to rail against, including with the proposed revolution in which landowners are stripped of their property, albeit for (paltry) remuneration. The idea that the English Sovereign Land Trust is going to come along and CPO swathes of land in this way is incredible. Although I would agree that, in the case of brownfield, land values are a real challenge for improving housing delivery numbers.
Viewing ‘viability assessments’ as a loophole is an area in which the Labour Party needs to proceed with extreme caution. The demands on developers from high land values, from Section 106 agreements, and CIL demands make viability assessments critical. Although there are large sums of money involved in developments, there are high risks and high costs. There is a real misunderstanding about how profitable developments actually are in the short-term. By removing the viability assessment, we could increase the number of sites with planning permission that are not progressed, already a bugbear of politicians and local communities.
The Green Paper wasn’t helped by naïve statements which highlight a fundamental lack of understanding about the housing market, like “we will build homes that are more affordable than the private sector.” And in any case, ‘affordable’ is very prescriptive, being one-third of a household’s income after tax. If there is going to be a presumption of no development without affordable housing, I fear we are heading towards a deepening of the housing crisis not the light at the end of the tunnel. The suggestion that cash-strapped local councils should be the driving force for this new affordable housing revolution, when they have had their planning budgets and skills decimated, is unrealistic.
Overall the document feels very one-sided, a raft of supply-side solutions. It makes assumptions on demand, in particular, that tenants want council or housing association properties. And I can’t be the only one who disliked the implied threats that housebuilding targets could be linked to investment priorities and to the planning rules.
Turning £10,000/hectare farmland into development has not been the problem. The problem has been political – avoiding decisions on the Green Belt, local plans, and focusing on brownfield sites in which we turn £800,000 land into £1 million land and find that after development costs, there’s no money for anything else.
The aspirations of the Green Paper are laudable – building more homes, improving living standards, enabling mixed communities, providing stability and security in the housing market, delivering value for public money, creating jobs and local growth. All of this would be popular with the electorate and the stated target of building 100,000 new affordable homes per year is a headline grabber. But scratch beneath the surface and how you achieve these ambitions feels as if it is an ode to the late-1970s.
For me, what we need is more obtainable housing, not just affordable housing. This means more affordable, we also need more mixed tenure, more build to rent – you name it, build more of it.