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Government’s Housing Bill comes under fire

Homes under construction
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Architects, social housing groups and planners have criticised the government’s latest housing legislation

Described by Architects for Social Housing as ‘one of the most dangerous and far reaching pieces of legislation proposed for this country in a long time’, the new Housing and Planning Bill has not gone down well with architects. 

The bill, which was debated long into the night while protests raged outside earlier this week, is set to receive its third and final reading in the House of Commons on 12 September. 

But what does it mean for architects and what are the implications on housing supply? 

Most contorversially the legislation will allow all housing association tenants to buy their homes at a discount. Known as right-to-buy, the scheme will be partly funded by forcing councils to sell their most valuable housing stock. Sally Lewis of Stitch claims the highly contentious move ’represents the demise of social housing’ (see comments below). 

The legislation also looks set to scrap affordable homes, requiring local authorities to build starter homes for first-time buyers instead. 

This new category of starter homes will be restricted to first-time buyers under 40 and will be sold at a discount of 20 per cent of market price – less than £250,000 or £450,000 for London. 

The move has already been criticised by Shelter, which said that the homes will not help the majority of people on average wages. Research which it carried out in August found that these homes will be unaffordable for families with average earnings in more than half of the country’s local authorities. 

Planning will be impacted when the legislation comes into force. 

The biggest change – planning permission in principle – could see outline planning automatically granted for housing sites on brownfield land. 

This has been criticised for putting an end to the current zonal planning system which has been in force in the UK since the 1960s and many believe it will give developers the opportunity to accumulate land value without building out schemes. 

While architect Russell Curtis of RCKa warned architects that planning in principle could ’risk marginalising them further from the delivery process’.

An amendment added to the bill just before Christmas will also give the secretary of state the power to transfer the processing of planning applications from local authorities to a third party. 

It will also allow the secretary of state to direct the planning inspector not to step in on planning applications in a move which will mark the end of independent examinations of plans by an inspector. 

Local councils who fail to draw up their own local plans by 2017 will have that power taken away from them. The secretary of state will be given the power to write local plans where a local authority is ‘failing or omitting’ to do the work themselves. 

Housing Bill 2016 for LM

Housing Bill 2016 for LM

Comments

Anthony Thistleton-Smith, partner at Waugh Thistleton Architects

‘The principle issues throttling housing supply are land banking and an inadequately funded planning system, neither of which have been addressed in this legislation.

‘The idea that increasing demand will increase supply is at odds with the evidence to date - we have unprecedented demand and less new housing than ever. The small number of players in the market has allowed them to suppress supply and keep prices spiralling up.

‘If the recent LGA report is to be believed, there are almost half a million units which have consent and are not yet built, the planning system is clearly not the principle problem. There are many issues with the planning process, not least the chronic underfunding of local authority departments that is hampering their effectiveness. This legislation removes further power from these departments to strategically plan and control development with a likely increase in their workload.

It’s ironic a government trumpeting on about localism introduces legislation depriving local democracy

‘It is ironic that a government that has been trumpeting localism introduces powerful legislation that deprives local democracy of a say in developing out sites. By introducing “planning permission in principle” (PPIP) the government is delivering the opportunity to developers to accumulate ever more value with no obligation to actually build out their schemes.

‘We would like to see the introduction of a statutory tool that would obligate developers with planning permission to construct their schemes in a timely fashion. As well as delivering the much needed supply of new homes this would reduce the trading of consents which delays construction and progressively withdraws essential value.

‘While it is good to see that the statutory right to buy has been removed, the ‘voluntary’ basis and the focus on home ownership over rent in new developments will deplete the supply of affordable housing and ransom future generations who can not afford to buy a home to a bleak future of uncontrolled private rents.’

Fiona Scott, director at Gort Scott Architects

‘There seems to have been very little public debate or national media coverage of the housing bill, which is hugely disappointing given how important it is.

‘The bill is predicated on the ideal of home ownership, which, in London, is increasingly out of the question for people on low or even average incomes regardless of this bill. The starter homes concept (homes to buy, capped at just under £500,000, funded by the sale of higher value council land) robs the genuinely needy by reducing the stock of council homes, to help out the relatively affluent middle classes, with a large public subsidy that will reap massive private rewards when the property is sold at market value later on down the line. And what happens when there is no more public land to sell?

None of the measures seem to fundamentally change the game

‘While I agree that helping the construction industry build more by encouraging smaller contractors into the field is a good start, none of the measures seem to fundamentally change the game in terms of unlocking the kind of housing numbers needed, especially in London, where there are thousands of units with planning consent that go unbuilt every year. Why not look closer at the German model, where a closer state control of land and property prices takes out the heat and speculation? With more certainty over land values, and with lower land values, developers are encouraged to build (and build well) for their profit, rather than waiting for values to rise. And affordability is genuinely addressed.

‘With the presumption in favour of planning consent on brownfield land, there are so many issues concerning quality, that I don’t even know where to start.’

Ben Derbyshire, chair of the Housing Forum

’Whilst housing supply and planning approval numbers have both increased its a long road back to a balanced market which will need all sectors of the industry to play their part. So we have some concerns about demand side policies which rob social housing Peter to pay home owning Paul as a balanced housing market for all needs affordable homes to rent. The boost to private house building on the supply side should now be accompanied with measures to devolve tax and spend powers to local authorities, ensure quality, and embrace modern techniques and manufacture.

These demand side policies rob social housing Peter to pay home-owning Paul

’We believe strongly that Government should be pulling all the levers available to them, supporting all forms of housing provision if it is to have any chance of success. Both Local Authorities and the Housing Association movement have a crucial contribution to this endeavour and we hope that more can be done to put in place structures that will bolster their delivery of social, affordable, build-to-rent and shared ownership homes especially. For those who will not have the opportunity of a new home, we should also be doing a great deal more to prioritise keeping older homes warm and in good repair

’Meanwhile, whilst we applaud work in the recent past to rationalise and simplify standards and regulation for housing, much in line with advice offered by The Housing Forum to the Red Tape Challenge, we feel now is the time to do more to bolster quality. Government should move to support and encourage quality initiatives stemming from industry, such as Building for Life 12, as well as our own Home Performance Label. Such initiatives, implemented widely, would not only re-assure consumers that quality is being maintained whilst production is increasing, but improving the reputation of the product will ease the approvals process.’

Alex Ely, principal, Mae

’The Housing and Planning Bill is a radical recasting of the definition of affordable housing and of our system of democratic accountability in planning. With starter homes effectively replacing the provision of new affordable or social rent homes we will see increasing inequality in housing with those who can’t afford a starter home having nowhere to turn. Meanwhile it is unclear what problem the Bill’s proposal to allow alternative providers to assess planning applications and for certain sites to have permission in principle is trying to solve. As well as removing a level of public scrutiny and accountability it ignores the fact that we are not short of permitted homes we are short of homes under construction. 

The bill seems wrong on so many fronts

’Starter Homes for families earning average wages will be unaffordable in over half of local authorities across the country whilst families on the National Living Wage will only be able to afford a Starter Home in two percent of local authorities. The starter homes initiative will do little to solve affordability. It seems pernicious that the Chancellor can insist on austerity and the need to live within our nation’s means at the same time as incentivising people to buy a home that costs in excess of 10x their salary, (though of course they will benefit from a tax payer funded windfall when they can sell at full market value in five years time). On the other hand the forcing of local authorities to sell stock to cover the discount that housing associations have to offer through the extended right to buy will devastate social housing twice over. The functioning of our cities will be severely tested. 

’The Bill seems wrong on so many fronts it is hard to understand who gains.’

Sally Lewis, director, Stitch

’The Housing Bill represents the demise of social housing, and this is plain sad. I have been so proud to be working in housing in the UK (as opposed to South Africa where welfare is barely recognisable). Here, good social housing provision has been firmly on the agenda up to now, and our work in estate regeneration, with developers and housing associations, has made a tangible difference to the lives of many people living in poor conditions. Thankfully we are now working with a number of local authorities who are actively planning to build their own housing using council land assets. Perhaps this shift towards council led development is a ray of hope.’

Russell Curtis, director, RCKa

This is an insidious bill that signals an all-out assault on low-cost housing and does nothing to address the root causes of the current crisis. The pathological obsession with increasing home ownership is inexplicable and wrong-headed.

This is an insidious bill that signals an all-out assault on low-cost housing

Whilst it’s true that planning remains a major barrier to housing delivery in London (particularly on the smaller brownfield sites that the Government seems keen to unlock) the remedy is clearly increased funding to provide capable, progressive and well-resourced planning departments empowered to enable new homes where they are desperately needed. The Housing Bill provides none of these things, instead offering a crude - and dangerous - workaround. Architects in particular must be wary of the concept of ’planning in principle’ which risks marginalising them further from the delivery process.

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