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Lack of political will is holding back housebuilding

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A real housing policy has to cover land, design, delivery and finance, writes Paul Finch

We cannot build the homes we need by adopting policies that tax housebuilders, penalise existing owners through class-envy levies, and pretend the problem is absence of sites, or a planning system that enabled plentiful supply until the 1980s.

By drawing on successful strategies from our recent past, any political party or coalition could begin the task of addressing a shortage that will only become more pronounced (as a result of immigration, demographics and household formation) over the next few decades. I offer the following not as yet another ersatz silver bullet, but as a series of proposals that could help – provided we have the political will.

Let’s start with land. In respect of London there is no shortage of sites, but too many are locked, frequently as the result of public ownerships where there is no incentive to make the land available. We should reintroduce ‘vesting’, where public assets are transferred to a delivery body which will make better and more immediate use of them. The London Docklands Development Corporation showed how to do it.

Where there really is a land problem, for example in many of our smaller historic cities, we should adopt the Urbed proposition that won the Wolfson Prize last year, that is to say deploy ‘smart green belt’ strategies, connecting new communities to the relevant city via public transport, with homes built to decent densities. No sprawl. Ditto places like Ebbsfleet, but not ‘garden cities’ where infrastructure is nonexistent.

In both cases, there will need to be strong planning leadership, and in the case of London an effective delivery vehicle. My favourite model is the Olympic Delivery Authority, which of course created the biggest housing scheme seen in London for years, the Olympic Village.

A Housing Delivery Authority should comprise the sort of people who created the village and Olympic Park. They should be heavily bonused for delivering the necessary numbers of homes. Land vested in the HDA could be subject to the authority’s planning powers.

On the private side, we should continue with as-of-right conversions because they are producing numbers in places that might otherwise be devoid of new supply, and the process means delivery can take place quickly. More importantly, we should stop beating up housebuilders with endless levies and taxes, which discourage supply and get in the way of delivery. Free them from burdens for a trial period.

The private market, however, cannot produce the huge increase in homes we require, therefore more help should be given to housing associations as well as to the new HDA (which in London would have democratic influence via the GLA and ultimately Parliament).

On finance, incentives should be provided to institutions prepared to supply mortgage finance to people who can afford to buy (given a reasonable market not stricken by abjectly low delivery figures), while continuing to back private rented sector development.

These institutions might funnel mortgage finance through local authorities – as used to happen in London – to help younger people get on the housing ladder. (Why do some people want to kick the ladder away?) The institutions might also be incentivised to fund HDA projects, as recommended in the RIBA’s good investigation into housing finance.

There is no shortage of land, no shortage of finance, no lack of capacity (housing only takes up 11 per cent of total construction output) and most certainly no lack of demand. What we lack is political will – and the will to say that not only do we need more homes, we need better homes too. That, of course, is where architecture comes in.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    Brandon Lewis, the Minister of State for Housing and Planning, wrote to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, on 27 January, responding to the London Plan. The minister acknowledges the mayor's commitment to address the increase in London’s population. But noting the GLA's obligation to work closely with local authorities outside London he warns against the expectation that they may help to meet London’s unmet housing need. Stressing that the government has no intention of “raising the South East Plan from the dead,” he goes further, to suggest that protection afforded to the green belt may impact on authorities' ability to meet their own housing need, never mind London's. Meanwhile in a January survey of MPs commissioned by Homes for Britain, Ipsos Mori found that two thirds agree that there is a housing crisis and 86% disagree that there is nothing more that the government could do to solve it. How would Lewis respond to this survey, one might ask?
    Ben Derbyshire
    Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP
    Chair The Housing Forum

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