The Government's February White Paper - Missed Opportunities

Earlier this month the Government published a wide ranging white paper (Fixing our broken housing market, February 2017) in an attempt to address the ‘broken’ housing market and its growing lack of supply. The paper praises existing schemes to help people get on the housing ladder, however admits that construction of new homes is still far behind the necessary target, recently increased to 275,000.

The principal focus of the paper is to bring sites to development more quickly. The Government wants to encourage Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to make more use of compulsory purchase powers on stalled developments, and to consider the likelihood of a development completing when assessing planning applications. LPAs may also be able to reduce the time limit to implement a planning permission from three years to two, and, if a major developer is involved, assess their track record of completing schemes promptly.

Other proposals include encouraging LPAs to increase housing density where viable, reducing the affordable housing requirement on new developments from 20% to 10%, and automatically approving sustainable schemes when LPAs are not meeting their new homes targets.

These are largely welcome measures, but the white paper has been widely denounced for not going far enough. For instance, critics have argued that local governments should be better incentivised by increasing how much they benefit from increased council tax revenue.

However the lack of development land persists. One solution to this is to build on the green belt, but the white paper states that it must be used as a last resort. This protected land covers 12.7% of England; more than the UK’s parks, allotments, golf courses, gardens and concrete combined. By one estimate there is enough green belt in Greater London to build 1.6m houses at average density; enough to cover London’s requirements for the next 30 years. Even releasing small parts of this, much of which is not the green rolling hills depicted by the NIMBYs, could make a significant difference.

Pressure for new homes will continue, and is not purely down to a lack of building. The UK population has grown by 11% in the past 20 years- twice the EU average- and people are marrying later and divorcing more readily meaning that one in ten of us now live alone. Many argue that a more favourable option would be brownfield sites, but while preferable to green belt, brownfield would provide less than half of the requirement up to 2030 for London alone. The gap between what is being built and what needs to be is widening, and experts agree that while not the entire solution, more development land must be released. Perhaps it’s time to loosen the belt?