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Both quality and quantity should be hallmarks of housing policy

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: There is much to welcome in the government’s new housing strategy

Despite inevitable rumblings about being too little too late, the government’s various initiatives to unblock the housing market are welcome. For a variety of reasons, housing supply has been in medium-term decline – a trend that began before the financial crisis of 2008 and its subsequent impact on the mortgage market.

The last government embarked on a foolhardy programme called Kickstart. It had the same aspirations as the policies announced this week, but was doomed to failure. It appeared to be designed to give large amounts of taxpayer money to truly dreadful projects that failed to start during the boom and were certainly not of sufficient quality to benefit from public funding.

That programme was born out desperation and imposed on the Homes and Communities Agency. The mantra was ‘never mind the quality, look at the headline numbers’. This is always a bad idea when it comes to housing development, not least because it posits a false opposite, which is to say that numbers cannot be accompanied by quality.

If the coalition can get both quality and quantity right, it will be taking a massive step forward, philosophically. That is why it is reluctant to start predicting or imposing numbers, which it rightly points out had little effect when regional targets were all the rage.

The good news about current attitudes is that they are based on carrot rather than stick, on nudge rather than diktat, and on demand as well as supply. First-time buyers will get a boost from arrangements to slash the giant mortgage deposits currently required, lenders will have some risk underwritten by government (actually, the default rate on UK mortgages is extremely low) and housebuilders will get access to public land ready for construction. Council tenants will also have a new chance of buying at a discount, and the affordable market should get a boost because councils can use the revenue raised, indeed must use the revenue raised, to build replacement homes to rent. What’s not to like?

Of course there are reservations. This column has argued strongly in favour of an additional source of housing supply, which would be available were as-of-right planning to be applied to offices converted for residential use. This idea has been out to consultation and a government decision is awaited. As with any radical policy, there are some risks but I firmly believe that the reward is worth it and that the government should stick to its guns. It is a rational response to current conditions; it is reversible and it responds to markets, not dogma.

As to this week’s proposals, the only concern is whether they will do enough to get the market moving, especially in the short term. Still, even if they result in a series of small improvements, in aggregate that may start to look quite large. It would be sensible to tackle the problem from both ends, rather than penalising the house-building industry. Ken Livingstone did that in London and the result was few homes of all varieties being built. In reality, his plans offered all stick and very little carrot.

In the rush for numbers, the overarching concern is that design and place-making standards will be diluted or abandoned. The government should take a leaf out of Boris Johnson’s book and adopt the ‘Parker Morris plus 10 per cent’ proposition that the mayor is pushing in the capital. If it is good enough for London, it should be good enough for everywhere else.

The assertion, made by people who should know better, that ‘if rubbish sells, it’s OK to build rubbish’, is unacceptable. Happily, the National Planning Policy Framework states that schemes of obviously poor design should be refused planning permission. That is a pretty strong nudge to housebuilders to avoid providing homes where the cat dies on the first swing in the smallest bedroom.

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